05 November 2017

Electric Sheep

In the third grade, I loved the concept behind Fritz Leiber’s Gather Darkness, my first adult novel, the one I remember. It hooked me on science fiction.

Why this on a mystery site? Partly because it’s about story telling and because many mystery writers and readers find they enjoy sci-fi too.

As mentioned before, only hard science fiction appeals to me. Here the adjective ‘hard’ serves to modify ‘science’ as much as it does science fiction.

Much as mystery writing has its rules about fairness to the reader, a major rule in real SF is that the science must be either real or at least plausible within a given universe. For the most part, that rules out magic and monsters.

As opposed to sci-fi, many stories are termed science fantasy or, in the case of Star Wars, ‘space opera’. They can entertain, but they aren’t sci-fi in the purest, purist sense.

The main point of true science fiction isn’t about blobs and alien abductions of busty beauties. It’s about society, it’s about us, about the condition of humankind. Look for a message, and you’ll probably find one.

The Ship Who Sang
Anne McCaffrey

But wait, you say. What about Anne McCaffrey? She writes about dragons and… and… dragony stuff, yet you have a soft spot for her?

It’s not the dragons. Anne McCaffrey is a force of fantasy, if not nature. I think I’ve seen a movie based on one of her dragony books, I’ve not read them. Instead, I go back to one of her earliest published works when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, The Ship Who Sang.

What beautiful names for a sailboat, I thought, Helva, The Ship Who Sang. What a beautiful story.

It’s a stunning novella, awkward according to some critics (and re-edited in response), but made even the more poignant. If Helva doesn’t make you tear up, you missed the ship. McCaffrey herself said it’s her favorite and understandably so. I’ve read a lot since, but I’ve never forgotten that story.

Stand on Zanzibar
John Brunner

As a country kid, I consumed science fiction in a vacuum, not knowing how highly regarded John Brunner was among his peers. I knew only that I admired his works.

The most visionary writers can predict the future. Brunner’s novels read so much like tomorrow’s newspaper, a casual reader might not recognize them as science fiction.

Brunner predicted computer viruses (Shockwave Rider), disastrous climate change (The Sheep Look Up), and a need to deal with overpopulation (Stand on Zanzibar). Along with his novel about urban eco-planning (The Squares of the City), his stories are usually uplifting, the excepting being The Sheep Look Up.

Except for thrillers, science fiction deals with topics crime writing can’t handle. One commonality is that both can make you think.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K Dick

I absorbed Golden Age short stories in pulp magazines. You’d recognize most of the authors and one of my favorites was Philip K Dick. Not only did he publish more than one-hundred twenty shorts, but he went on to write forty-four novels.

You’ve seen television shows and movies such as The Man in the High Castle (2015), Total Recall (1990, 2012), Minority Report (2002), A Scanner Darkly (2006), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and today’s topic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1982, 2017), aka Blade Runner.

I mention this because Blade Runner 2049 is still in theatres. The first one (1982) was excellent, and please, watch it before watching its sequel.

A number of actors appear in both. The pixels of one original actress, Sean Young, appear in a remarkable blending of actresses, one old, one young.

Man in the High Castle
Speaking of actresses, one compelling scene contains a sort of birth of an android. It’s so delicate, I couldn’t help but wonder if its Dutch actress had dance training.

A handful of ‘easter eggs’ hark back to the original film and at least one to Dick’s story title. An aging Edward James Olmos drops an origami sheep on a table.

So what’s the message in Blade Runner? Like the original, it’s about humanity. At the end of the 1982 and the 2017 films, the question becomes: Who’s human? Who’s humane?

The answer isn’t homo sapiens.


  1. To Brunner and Dick you might also add Stanislaw Lem. I always like his rather realistic and shabby space crafts ( shades of the Communist regime) as well as his great stories

  2. Oh, yes, Janice - Lem is great! And I love the original Russian film "Solaris" (although Lem didn't... but Lem thought Solaris was unfilmable as he envisioned it).

    And Cordwainer Smith's "Instrumentality of Mankind" series, where animals are bred to humanoid status, but always inferior, always killable. ("Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" and "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" will both break your heart.)

    I came late to the Philip Dick parade - I read my first one in 1967's "Dangerous Visions" collection, "Faith of our Fathers", and it blew my mind.

  3. Janice, I watched some of the old Soviet films, both dark SF and at least one religious (yes, religious!) drama.

    Cordwainer Smith is also excellent. You didn't come late to Philip K Dick. (1) He was in his prime then and (2) one has no control when they learn about something, so it's the arrival that's important.

    I nearly mentioned Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. For some reason, people don't think of it as sci-fi, but it pretty much defines the genre.

  4. Leigh, enjoyed your post today and liked the way you ended it. I used to read McCaffrey and probably read most of her dragon series. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of science fiction over the years and marvel at the foresight of some. Is it coincidence or some other force at play? Who knows?

  5. Love SF. THE FOUNDATION Trilogy by Isaac Asimov is tops. So many good writers.

  6. Hi Vicki! I think I saw at least one of McCaffrey's novels on the screen. She's very talented. One editor said her words flowed with confidence. Let me know if you pick up The Ship Who Sang.

    O'Neil, as a teenager, I received The Foundation Trilogy as part of a mail-order book club. I think I still have it. The Golden Age authors still amaze me.

  7. When I was a teenager, I read all the Ray Bradbury I could get my hands on. Mind you, that was in the dark ages where we didn't have Amazon, or a bookstore on every corner and we only had what the librarian bought. And I read LOR and the Hobbit So, when I was 17 years old and went to visit my oldest sister for a couple of weeks one summer vacation, I noticed that her husband had a room lined with sci-fi and fantasy. We instantly bonded. And that's how I ended up drawing the illustrations for the original Dungeons and Dragons. My brother-in-law was Gary Gygax.

  8. Wow, Keenan. Talk about street creds! That's really amazing. I hope you have a dragon mounted somewhere!


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