World War Terminus has been and gone, leaving an Earth where radioactive dust keeps the few survivors who haven't emigrated inside for parts of the day; an Earth where real animals are now status symbols; an Earth where renegade androids are 'retired' by bounty hunters.
In the first chapter we meet Rick Deckard, one of these bounty hunters, as he argues with his wife before work about which setting to put their mood organs on. He then tends to his electric sheep and dreams of owning a real animal. Immediately, we are introduced to one of the main themes of this novel: that of reality. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick explores thoroughly the concept of reality - by showing us androids who could almost pass for human if not for a lack of empathy; and a whole business set-up to provide for electric animals; and the theory of Mercerism.
I was struck by the bleak tone, and the fact that Mercerism - a pseudo-religion - is one of the few aspects of life to give people hope, since this could be said to be a false hope. At one point Deckard thinks the following: "This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die. Eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another, finally the name 'Mozart' will vanish, the dust will have won" and this idea that the world is gradually crumbling shows us why people cling to Mercerism, and the status of owning animals as a way to make it through each day.
I have to confess that I was somewhat reluctant to pick up both my first SF Masterwork and my first Philip K. Dick novel, I don't quite know why. Perhaps because the story is so well-known thanks to Bladerunner; perhaps because I have always been reluctant to pick up the classics of the genre, out of a fear that they would be extremely dry and unreadable. I'm happy to report that the reverse is true - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was extremely readable, at times very tense and atmospheric. There was a particular scene later in the book where an android coldly mutilates a spider and observes its ability to run that made me literally shudder. I was surprised that this novel still has such power and intensity after such a long while of being published.
I really enjoyed the absurd humour that provided such a difference in tone to the bleak hopelessness that prevails throughout most of the rest of the novel. The fact that Isidore was unable to tell the difference between a real cat and an electric animal made me squirm a little with discomfort, but I also appreciated the dark humour. The whole presence of the electric animals was amusing, and yet somehow sad and desolate.
PKD's writing is compulsive and spare, but at times it does meander into somewhat melancholic psychedelia, where PKD becomes more rambling and less punchy. There were a couple of passages that I felt could have been removed entirely to make the novel read better.
Altogether, though, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a science fiction triumph, and certainly deserves its place in the Masterworks list. It can be read on so many different levels - purely as a psychological thriller or as a social commentary about what defines a human being. It is definitely worth multiple reads to fully enjoy the experience. Recommended.