April 19, 2012

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I blew through Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in virtually one sitting.  This is the book on which the movie Blade Runner is loosely based.  I was surprised to see how different they were.  The main character's name is Rick Deckard.  He "retires" humanoid robots.  That's about where the similarities end.  They kept some of the characters' names the same in the movie, and Deckard does have a test that he administers to determine if someone is an android.  They aren't called replicants in the book, and they aren't on a quest to find their maker, like they are in the movie.  The term "blade runner" only exists in the film.  When Deckard goes after the androids, he is referred to as a bounty hunter.

Both book and film deal with the subject of what makes us human, but they do it in different ways.  The book really hits home the fact that humans have the ability to feel empathy, and androids do not.  Animals, real and artificial, play a large part in the novel.  Animals are a luxury because most of them died after the world war which made a large part of the earth uninhabitable and caused people to emigrate to off-world colonies.  Nonetheless, everyone feels they must have an animal to look after, even if it is an android animal.  It is mentioned that any time an android has tried to keep an animal as a pet, it has died, because the androids don't bother to care for them.  There is even a scene in which a human who is with three androids finds a spider and gets very excited about having this living thing around.  The androids take the spider and, wondering if it could still walk with fewer legs, proceed to cut the legs off of the spider with scissors.  The human gets very upset, but the androids don't understand what the problem is.  The androids don't even really care what happens to other androids, and yet Deckard comes to realize that he needs to find a new job when he starts developing empathy for his targets.

The androids don't come off very well in the book.  I felt more for Rutger Hauer's character at the end of Blade Runner than I did for any of the androids in the novel.  His Roy Baty is nothing like that of the book.  None of the androids in the book come close to any kind of "tears in the rain" speech, nor do they seem capable of it.  The replicants of the film are much more complex emotionally. 

The author Roger Zelazny wrote the introduction to the edition I have of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and I'd like to quote him here:

"His management of a story takes you from here to there in a God-knows-how, seemingly haphazard fashion, which, upon reflection, follows a logical line of development- but only on reflection.  While you are trapped within the spell of its telling, you are in no better position than one of its invariably overwhelmed characters when it comes to seeing what will happen next."

Zelazny ends the introduction with this:

"...that which is left of a Philip Dick story when the details have been forgotten is a thing which comes to me at odd times and offers me a feeling or a thought; therefore, a thing which leaves me richer for having known it."

April 1, 2012

Fragile Things

I like short stories.  I know a lot of people who like to read, and most of them stick with novels and don't give much thought to short stories.  I think people are missing out if they don't give this literary form a chance.  All of us have had to read short stories in school- Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "The Lady, or the Tiger?" by Frank R. Stockton, various tales by Edgar Allen Poe or Guy de Maupassant, or the majority of stories starring Sherlock Holmes.  I like all of these, but they were written a long time ago, and there is still good short fiction being written today.  One of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, writes a fair amount of short stories.  I just finished reading his second collection of short stories and poems, Fragile Things

I had read his first short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors, a while ago.  It's great, and it contains one of the best short stories I've read, "The Wedding Present," hidden in the introduction to the book.  It's his twist on a Picture of Dorian Gray-type theme.  So, I read Fragile Things, and the book turns out to have another of my all-time favorite short stories, "A Study in Emerald."  You may notice the title resembles that of a Sherlock Holmes story, and yet it is set in the world of H.P. Lovecraft.  "A Study in Emerald" is available to read on Neil Gaiman's website here. The book also has a fantastic poem, "The Day the Saucers Came," which you can see the author reading below:

Hearing Gaiman read his poem is a real treat.  For those who liked his novel American Gods, there is a novella featuring Shadow, the main character, called "The Monarch of the Glen." It was outstanding, and just like American Gods, it left me wanting more stories about Shadow.  I also liked how it revisited two characters from an earlier story in Fragile Things.  Reading the book was worth it for this story alone.

A few other notable stories include "October in the Chair," in which the months of the year sit around entertaining themselves by telling tales, "Closing Time," about four boys and an abandoned playhouse (which made me want to sleep with the lights on that night), and "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," in which the girls at the party are not what they seem. 

Gaiman's introductions are interesting reading- not just because he hides short stories there.  He takes each story or poem and explains why it was written or the inspiration behind it.  In the blurb on "The Monarch of the Glen," he talks about an unfinished novella which returns to the world of Neverwhere, "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back."  He says he will finish it one day.  Sadly, Fragile Things was published in 2006, and "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back" still has not seen the light of day. 

As with any collection, there are hits and misses, but Fragile Things was enjoyable reading.  There were only a couple of things I didn't like that much, and it comes down to one's personal taste, anyway.  It's safe to say that anything Neil Gaiman creates will be well-written and imaginative.
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