Man In the High Castle
By Philip K Dick
Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
By Philip K. Dick
With the success of his recent novel Chronic City Jonathan Lethem seems everywhere these days. A huge influence on Lethem was novelist Philip K. Dick. Lethem edited Library of America’s Dick reissues which became the best selling titles in the popular imprint . It is a good time to find out what the fuss is all about and check out where Lethem got a lot of his inspiration. I want to talk about audio versions of two of Philip K. Dick’s most well known novels Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The latter being the basis for the film Blade Runner.
Man in the High Castle is set in a speculative future where the Axis powers have won World War II and the USA has been divvied up by her enemies. Japan occupies the West coast and Germany occupies the East. Set within the occupied Pacific states, the novel presents a cross section of the post war population: a high level Japanese bureaucrat with a taste for American antiques; an antique dealer who tries hard to please his Japanese rulers; a working class counterfeiter of said antiques; and the counterfeiter’s ex-wife who lives off the grid in the small rocky mountains towns. Through hints from a metafictional novel within the novel and use the Chinese I Ching oracle all the characters have slow revelations about not only the veracity of the antiques, but reality itself. By the end some characters can’t deny there must be another world where the Allies have won the war. It’s a complex book that will have you thinking until your brain sprouts new wrinkles.
It is also a short book and Dick packs far too much conceptual content inside such a meager page count (or disc count as the case may be). I’ve only listed about half the characters and ignored a number of subplots. None of the characters are really developed fully, and subtle philosophically ideas fly at you like tennis balls shot from a machine. It’s hard to keep up.
If ever there was a book that did not lend itself to audio version said book is Man in the High Castle. The reader Tom Weiner does his best, but really the material he has to work with is raw. Especially awkward is his rendition of Robert Childan, the conflicted antique dealer, who is constantly second guessing the social implications of his every action in the stilted phrasing of someone thinking to himself in a second language. Credit to Weiner to for capturing Childan’s false consciousness though.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a seemingly more straight forward affair. Weary, working class bounty hunter Rick Deckard must “retire” six Nexus One androids. He must do this because his electric sheep has ceased to function. He needs a load of cash to buy a real life animal to cure his wife’s depression and restore their place in the social hierarchy of their run down apartment complex. What we get is a hardboiled detective story that also causes us to question the role of television and religion in our lives, not to mention what we are willing to sacrifice or deny to remain happy, to ensure those we love remain happy.
What makes a good spouse? What makes a good lover? Deckard himself might be an android. God might be an android. If yourself and God and the lead character in the book you’re reading all androids what’s the difference between an android and a human? What separates us from animals? What separates us from God? What separates us from… each other. This is a profound novel. It contains the best pitch for owning a pet goat I’ve ever heard.
Despite that characterization the plot is straight forward. Deckard goes after his androids one by one. Its a harrowing adventure that makes him question himself in very literal ways. The reader is forced to ask themselves the same questions. Having a single narrator lets us identify with Deckard more and it lets Dick flesh out the character far more than any of the cast of Man in High Castle. There is a moment in most Dick novels when reality falls apart. By making Deckard so real (forgive the pun), when this moment hits it is all the more effective. Similar moments in High Castle fall flat.
The book’s emotional resonance is helped by a tremendous reading by Scott Brick. Brick is kind of the Matt Damon of American audiobook readers. He nails the haggard, arguably misguided, Deckard perfectly. Brick’s Deckard is far more fragile than the Marlboro man portrayed by Harrison Ford in Ridley Scott’s film. Also spot on is Brick’s interpretation of the “special” J.R. Isidore, a man so lonely he’ll let himself he used by heartless robots just for a wee bit of friendship, or something like friendship. Brick has narrated hundreds of novels and when asked what his favorite was he responded Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
It is strange a book as disjointed and uneven as Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award in 1963. Even then an alternative history novel in which Nazis win WWII was old hat. It was Dick’s epistemological acid hit that blew readers minds. Written four years later, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a far better read. I often wondered if Do Androids Dream was so popular because of its association with Blade Runner. Now I know it is one of Philip K. Dick’s best books. I highly recommend it in print form and CD read by Scott Brick. Man is High Castle is intellectually stimulating enough to check out, but I only recommend the CD version owned by the library to hardcore Dick fans.
[Editor's note: since the release of the film Blade Runner most editions of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? have been published using both titles printer on the cover, as does the version reviewed by Bryan. Searching the library catalog for either Blade Runner or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? will retrieve the audio book.]