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Owl be back

This week's radio review.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Radio 4 Extra

 A brilliant reading of Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (21-26 January, 12.30am), which inspired Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, communicated without a single flaw the electronic slum of Dick’s world.

The actor Kerry Shale narrated alone with none of the unconscious burlesque that often spoils things involving several characters but just one actor. Set in a retrograde near-future (1992 to the novel’s 1968) in which man has been confirmed, via nuclear war, to be the spoiler of the earth, the story’s hero, Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, seeks out advance- model androids to “retire” and mourns – endlessly – the extinction of various animal species.

Not until George Saunders’s short story collection Civil War Land in Bad Decline (1996) – in which humans grow infected tails and claws, and suffer joystick burns on their thumbs baiting animatronic bears after murdering truck-loads of racoons with tyre irons –was a writer bettered for anticipating an appalling future in which we might be left with nothing but remorse and autumn leaves on a wet roof.

In Dick’s novel, foxes and badgers are already completely gone. Deckard recalls the days when people did nothing but sit about reading animal obituaries. There are “no live racoons anywhere” and only a few forests left where once in a while a bird might be found. When Deckard visits the HQ of a corporation that manufactures artificial animals, their prize specimen is an owl, presented “sitting on a branching dead tree”. Those who’ve seen the movie (which was nominated for eight Baftas 30 years ago this month; other nominees that year included Hi-de-Hi! and Danger Mouse) will perhaps remember this particular image more than any other: the animal photographed in extreme close-up looking kind of post-human, eyes part-brown, partgold, remote and accepting.

Scott shot that owl with the same amazed reverence he shot the 23-year-old actress Sean Young in the film, rather like Josef von Sternberg did Marlene Dietrich – with superhuman shoulder pads and skin like Colorado Yule marble. Still, the movie has no sorrow. It’s a demoralised film, not a sad one. The book has so much sorrow my face was tortured into shapes listening.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez