It’s funny how things come together, sometimes. Vangelis’ Blade Runner Blues, from the eponymous soundtrack, came on in the pub a few days ago; not two hours earlier, I’d just finished Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream… are two very different pieces of work, and I encountered them under similarly different circumstances. If I have one complaint about my parents, it’s the way they failed to impart as much of their enormous fund of cultural knowledge to me as they might have.

Whether either of them had seen Blade Runner independently of me, I don’t know,1 but my mum had certainly read a fair amount of Philip K. Dick. To be fair, she didn’t exactly fail me on this score: some years back, she bought a copy of The Man in the High Castle for herself,2 and subsequently got me to read it,3 and she got the family a collection of his short stories from a charity shop. Still, she could have got me reading his books younger, and exposed me to more of them.

Quite why she didn’t, I don’t really know. If I were to venture a guess, it would probably be along the lines of her not having had similar input, and not wanting to push her taste on me. Human beings are made, not born, and this explicit concern—that we would grow up to be independent entities, with our own likes and dislikes—was always, I suspect, at the back of her mind (except, of course, when it was at the front). Personally, I wouldn’t have minded her pushing a bit more stuff on me, although on reflection, I might have complained at the time. I am—to great extent because of her influence—a doggedly individual person. More knowledge would have given me more tools, not a stronger cage.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I had a lot of problems with school, especially the more systematised elements. However, I also had some great and inspiring teachers, and some pivotal experiences; to these, I may in time return. More to the current point, though, is the fact that it was in school that I saw Blade Runner for the first time.

I couldn’t say why it took so long, but it was probably down to the fact that we didn’t have a television for much of my life. When we did eventually get one—ostensibly for my dad’s work—we didn’t get an aerial or TV license for some years. My childhood experiences of television were limited to six months of Canadian television when I was five, and the occasional Sunday afternoon at my grandparents’.

Despite a minor lapse on the part of my English teacher—showing us the original theatrical release, complete with dodgy voiceover and tacked-on happy ending, rather than the far superior Director’s Cut—the film definitely had an effect on me. Stories of spaceships became stories of cities; heroes became more troubled, motivations more complex. I can’t really disentangle the various influences on me at that point, especially given that I was fifteen and my life was changing fairly drastically in any number of ways, but it certainly marked some kind of turning point.

It was two years before I saw it again, and this time, the effect was seismic. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that it altered my fictional reality forever. It wasn’t just a film: it was a gateway, a nexus from which myriad worlds unfolded. ‘Crime fiction’, or detective stories, had long been a staple of my reading, but Blade Runner drove me back to Hammett and Chandler, to rediscover the roots of noir. A subtle shift of emphasis took place in my SF reading, too, eventually leading back to—you guessed it—Philip K. Dick.

I was, of course, aware that Do Androids Dream… was the basis of Blade Runner. A friend had read it, or at least started to, back when we’d seen Blade Runner for the first time in that darkened classroom. I also knew that the film and the book were quite different creatures; a documentary I’d seen made that much clear. However, I was old enough to differentiate between the two, to read the book on its own merits, and crucially I already possessed a certain familiarity with Dick’s work.

Re-reading Do Androids Dream… a few days ago lent me a certain perspective, heretofore missing. The book seemed shorter, easier, more comprehensible. Was it that I was older, better equipped to deal with its themes and preoccupations, or that the book became less opaque with a second reading? Probably both.

I also knew Dick’s work better: years of wrestling4 with a desire to purchase more of his novels led, fortuitously, to finding a recent anthology of five novels: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Martian Time-Slip, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik and A Scanner Darkly, all for the very reasonable price of £12.99; far better than the £7.99 per book that’s now the standard paperback price.

Dick had, as one can see simply by scanning a bibliography of his work, a flair for titles, but that was hardly his only talent. If Blade Runner emphasises the noirish elements—the rainy city, the moral uncertainty, the doomed love interest—then Do Androids Dream… is a story of paranoia, identity crisis, existential angst.

The characters are wracked by doubt: how can they define themselves in a half-abandoned world where simulacra walk the streets, almost indistinguishable from human beings? The androids’ flaw is that they are not flawed: their perfection is impersonal, lacking empathy. Human beings, inherently damaged and self-destructive, must band together to survive. And yet, the humans in the story are all hopelessly alienated from one another, held together only by the relics of the past, by social conventions that are all but meaningless in this broken and empty world.

Dick is a giant of modern literature: his stories encapsulate and define the terrors of our age. He is an electric Kafka, searching for answers to the biggest of questions in a world that seems, for all the power of technology (and perhaps, because of it), more and more disconnected.

1. I do know that they saw Star Wars together in the cinema when it came out… but that’s another story.

2. This is how I know she’d read his stuff before: she bought the book because she wanted to re-read it.

3. Quite how she accomplished this, I don’t recall; possibly there were threats of violence involved. Or possibly not.

4. Wrestling because books cost money, of which I have little, and because he wrote so many books. How was I to choose? Where should I start?