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The Reading Project
Laura Brown, vice provost for undergraduate education

Laura Brown, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education

In the tenth year of Cornell's New Student Reading Project, this year's incoming undergraduate class and the Cornell community will read Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  -- the basis for Ridley Scott's 1982 film "Blade Runner" and an influential work of post-apocalyptic fiction.  The greater Ithaca community will also participate, with support from the Tompkins County Public Library, a reading project partner.

Philip K. Dick is probably the single most important figure in the ongoing revaluation of science fiction. He is widely studied by Anglo-American literary critics, most recently in a book that describes him as “the canonical writer of the digital age” (2009, Lejla Kucukalic).  Dick, who died in 1982, has attracted international scholarly interest from literary and cultural critics including critical theorist Fredric Jameson -- who has called Dick "the Shakespeare of science fiction" and featured Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in his seminal 1971 study "Postmodernism."

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where nuclear war has poisoned most of the earth’s surface and caused the mass extinction of animal species. Humans have emigrated to Mars, where androids serve as their slaves. Androids who escape to earth are hunted down and eliminated as renegades. The novel’s protagonist, an android bounty hunter, must pursue, identify, and eliminate a group of recently-escaped androids.  His engagement with these beings, as well as with certain biological and robotic pets, raises doubts about the distinction between androids and humans and about the nature of the relationship between humans and animals.  It also generates a range of engaging topics for discussion and exploration, including technology, artificial intelligence, the environment, the future, the human, the real (as opposed to the artificial), the idea of design or creation, the status of art and the ineluctable force of entropy.

About 50 fiction titles -- recommended by faculty, staff and several student groups, including Meinig Scholars, resident advisers and Orientation leaders -- were considered for the 2010 project. Other books shortlisted for this year were "Timbuktu" by Paul Auster; "Little Black Book of Stories" by A.S. Byatt; and "Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. '44.

On August 22 during freshman orientation, students will attend one of six “Android Lectures” given by faculty from all over campus.  Speakers include Jeff Hancock from the Department of Communication and the faculty of Computing and Information Science, Alan Hedge from the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Hod Lipson from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Shawkat Toorawa from the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Thomas Whitlow from the Department of Horticulture, and Gretchen Schoeffler from the School of Veterinary Medicine.  Late Monday afternoon, approximately 250 groups of about 15 first year students discuss the text in classrooms around campus.

The New Student Reading Project provides an important rite of passage for incoming students and a shared focus for the renewal of each academic year.  During the academic year, lectures, panel discussions, films and other events will relate to the reading project to encourage discussion of the issues raised by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  Welcome to the discussion.

Laura Brown, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education