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This review is from: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Paperback)
Other SF writers have ideas; Philip K. Dick had visions. In fact, all of his visions may be said to be part of a single Uber-vision, a life-long attempt to construct a picture of the world and to ask meaningful questions about it. Most of his SF novels were different "takes" on this vision and explorations of those questions. To say, as so many people have done (including Dick himself), that his themes are "what is reality" and "what is human", is to touch only on the surface of the problems he was grappling with. It is necessary to understand how thoroughly Dick lived with his vision of life to know what his explorations meant, especially if one wishes to grasp their emotional center.
Take this novel for instance (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). One could read it as if it were an ordinary SF novel and be fascinated by its "ideas", such as androids with false memories or the economy of real-animal trade in a post-apocalyptic setting -- in the same way that some fans of the "Star Trek" shows are interested in the structure of the Federation, the nature of the Borg, etc. But Dick's ideas are nothing more than access points to his larger vision, and the novel has some interesting little conduits that can take you there.
One thing of note (that few notice) is the idea of the "Penfield mood organ" which triggers an argument between Deckard and his wife in the opening chapter. Apparently one selects a desired emotional state and "dials in" settings to send one's brain the electrical signals that create that emotion, such as "pleased acknowledgment of husband's superior wisdom in all matters". The gadget is obviously named after Wilder Penfield, 20th century pioneer in brain mapping research. (A variant of this idea was used later in another of Dick's robot-or-man novels, the neglected We Can Build You.) Significantly, the device "frames" the novel, referenced again during the last scene. Such a device is the least outlandish piece of "science fiction" that the novel contains, since it is based on real science. And that fact roots the other speculations of the novel, however wild, in a very real and pressing contemporary question: if our moods and attitudes can be manipulated via electrical currents, then... what are we?
Another fascinating aspect of the story is the quasi-religious figure named Mercer. Mercer speaks at times with words like those of Christ, at other times with Zen riddles and self-contradiction. He offers empathy without salvation, salvation without truth, a truth through lies. When he is exposed as a fraud (when the set for the Mercer films is "subjected to rigorous laboratory scrutiny"), he admits it but insists that it does not detract from his validity. Mercerism is the only hint of transcendence offered by the novel, which raises the question: if such transcendence is exposed as fraudulent, then... what can be our transcendence?
The devastation that Deckard experiences in the end is a reflection of Dick's own emotional response to the conundrums of life as he saw it. That's because his vision was never an abstract or academic construct, an intellectual game without consequences -- it was always a life-or-death matter for him. And so it is for us, because Dick's true theme is neither ontology nor human identity, but the value of our existence, our origin and our fate, our relationships to one another and to God.