Along with having one of the most unique titles in science fiction’s history, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of the genre’s significant novels. Though written in Dick’s quirky hand, it nevertheless digs at the meaning of existence and sentience in a world where AI is so similar to human intelligence as to seemingly render the difference moot. The subject material potentially deep, it’s no surprise subsequent writers have picked up on the premise, developing it in new directions. One such novel is 2016’s The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese (St. Martin’s Press). Just not sure whether the development is a progression or regression…
Private investigator Blake Fowler and his eccentric partner Erasmus Keane have just been called to the research firm Esper for assistance with a most bizarre case. A sheep, one of a very large breed and of special biological significance, has been stolen. Uncertain where to kick off the investigation, the pair start by interviewing employees who had access to the animal. In the process of questioning the people, they are interrupted by one of the world’s most famous soap opera stars, Priya, who claims her teddy bear is trying to kill her. It being post-collapse Los Angeles, Fowler and Keane blink, but agree to take on her case as well. Developments quick in coming in the sheep case, the pair soon realize they are working on one and the same problem; indeed something is lurking beneath the leary gaze of sheep.
Nothing breakthrough, The Big Sheep implements a standard array of sf tropes in a private eye story. Cloning (Dolly, get it?), identity rights, post-ap hijinks, technology that plays with biology and sentience, and a few other common genre ideas string along Fowler and Keane’s quest to find the stolen sheep and get to the bottom of the murderous teddy bear.
Playing fast and loose with perception, memory, sentience, and other aspects of consciousness, the main thrust of The Big Sheep remains humor. Fowler and Keane’s investigation runs the typical gamut of quirky characters and unexplainable situations, action scenes and plot surprises, and the setting, with its aircars and fragmented LA, is realized just enough to support them. But overall the absurdism, wordplay, and situational comedy are the motor driving the novel. Humor being one of the more fickle things in this world, the reader’s enjoyment of The Big Sheep therefore hinges on whether they consider Kroese funny. With the variety, it’s at least likely most will find something to laugh at, just perhaps not the whole.
In the end, The Big Sheep is a light-hearted romp through PKD land. Kroese never intending his novel to be a serious take on the legacy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it’s ideologically empty. The reader is instead presented a straight-forward, private eye tale that spirals slowly away from reality in comedic fashion. Prose and plotting not always delivered consistently (there are some rather unlikely moments—the “hostage” scene immediately coming to mind), but given the mode, can be forgiven, any slack picked up by pace and steady story movement.