By Deren Kudeki

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a novel by Philip K. Dick written in 1968 set in a post-apocalyptic world. The dystopic setting doesn't serve as a warning, but rather as an opportunity to explore what it means to be human.

About the Author


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Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928 and lived there until his parents divorced when he was five. He moved to Berkeley, California with his mother, where he spent the rest of his childhood. Dick was an avid reader from a young age and quickly picked up an appreciation for the science-fiction writing as a modern, speculative fantasy genre. When Dick was in the seventh grade he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, the first of a number of mental illnesses he was diagnosed with throughout his life. Dick would also struggle with excessive drug use [2], mental breakdowns and visions.

After briefly attending the University of California, Dick began writing pulp science-fiction stories in 1952. He churned them out at an impressive rate and had his stories published in both sci-fi magazines as well as more mainstream ones. In the mid 50s he began writing novels, after being convinced by one of his favorite sci-fi authors that there was more money to be made in books. Even in the world of novels, he wrote at an incredibly fast rate, publishing 16 novels over the course of five years.

He continued writing until his death in 1982 due to a heart attack and stroke. By the time of his death, Dick had written over 30 novels and won the Hugo Award his 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle. He had a total of five marriages and three children. While popular throughout his life in the sci-fi niche, Dick never received the mainstream attention that he craved in his lifetime. In a cruel twist of fate, Dick's works only came into the public eye after the release of Blade Runner, a film based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in 1982, mere months after his death. Since then, many of his works, which had been out of print for years, saw new life and a surge in popularity, and have inspired a number of film adaptations. Philip K. Dick is now considered one of the best science-fiction writers, often being grouped with the likes of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and is recognized as one of the most notable American writers of the 20th century. [1]

Plot Summary


In the year 2021 the world has been decimated by a nuclear war. The world is poisoned; daily weather reports detail the movements of fallout. An immature space program quickly became a full blown inter-planetary colonization effort to escape the dying world. Humanity was sent to Mars and beyond, attracting colonists with the offer of their own personal slaves: androids that look and act like humans. Now the Earth is sparsely populated by the few who chose to stay and “specials” – those deemed too stupid or too damaged by the radiation to be allowed to leave and propagate.

The fallout also lead to mass extinctions: first the birds started dying, then all the other animals. Now almost no animals are left, and a new religion, Mercerism, has sprung up as a way to save them. Humans must own an animal, it is seen as immoral not to, and all develop a strong sense of empathy towards animals. The connection with animals has come to be a defining characteristic of what makes us human.

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Harrison Ford as bounty hunter Rick Deckard in Blade Runner
Meanwhile, the remaining governments on Earth have banned the presence of androids on the planet, deeming them dangerous. But this doesn’t stop the occasional android from going rogue and coming to Earth anyway. With technology always increasing, these androids can easily blend in by pretending to be human. To exterminate the threat, police forces around the world have started employing bounty hunters trained specifically to detect and kill – or “retire” – the illegal immigrants.

Rick Deckard is one such bounty hunter, so down on his luck he can only afford a robotic imitation of a sheep, until a group of eight androids make their way to Earth and critically injure the chief bounty hunter for the San Francisco area. Now Deckard has a chance to prove himself and earn the money for a genuine animal, or die trying. But he has never faced a group of androids like this: so high-tech and intelligent that even his best techniques for hunting them down are called into question. The hunt will lead Deckard through a series of encounters that cause him to question his humanity, sanity, job, faith, and the world he lives in.

Themes and Imagery


The overarching theme of the novel is humanity. Dick uses the android characters to create a contrast to the humans in order to help him define humanity. A similar contrast appears in the different reactions towards real and artificial animals.

Mercerism

Mercerism is the dominant religion of the novel, focusing primarily on the human relationship with and empathy towards animals. It creates a culture in which the connection to animals is key to the definition of humanity. Mercerism also provides the book’s most prevalent imagery: the religious tale of the messiah-figure, Wilbur Mercer, climbing up a rocky hill while unseen figures throw rocks at him to try and stop his progress. This story is repeated many times throughout the book, and is linked to the “empathy box,” a device which allows a human to be sucked into Mercer’s struggle up the hill, feeling his pain and exhaustion, but experiencing it while feeling the presence of Mercer and everyone else on Earth using their empathy box. This creates a sense that in this terrible world, everyone is together and experiencing the same feelings. The box is used as a way to lift the spirits of the depressed, and for those with joy to spread the feeling around the world.

Another facet of Mercerism in the novel is a background rivalry between the religion, and the popular talk show Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends. Both are competing for the attention of the public, and neither are going anywhere. Mercer's cyclic struggle is shown all the time on the empathy boxes, while Buster Friendly hosts separate television and radio shows, both on 23 hours a day and featuring a recurring cast of guests. At one point, even John Isidore, deemed too stupid to be allowed to leave the planet, figures out that "Buster Friendly and Mercerism are fighting for out psychic souls." Isidore's boss then notes that "Buster is immortal, like Mercer. There's no difference." (76) This competition for the attention of the masses comes to a head when Friendly tries to strike a killing blow against Mercerism with a damning report that the entire novel spends building up to.


The Voigt-Kampff Test

This is the technique used by Deckard to identify androids. It monitors unconscious flinches and reaction time while the tester reads a number of scenarios meant to bring about an emotional response. This is strongly linked with Mercerism and empathy, as almost all the scenarios involve dying animals. While humans are extremely sensitive to this, androids look at the world in a more cold unsympathetic way. But the real trick of the Voigt-Kampff test is that anyone reading the novel probably wouldn’t pass. The scenarios talk of leather wallets, bear-skin rugs, mounted deer heads and other situations that we take for normal.

Androids

Androids are supposed to be the clear contrast to humans. Their key difference – the reason they fail the Voigt-Kampff test, is their lack of empathy. They are incredibly intelligent but only care about themselves, lacking the empathic connection with animals, or even the drive to help their fellow androids. However, Rick Deckard comes across a wide variety of androids, most of which call these qualities into question. One of the androids desperately wants to be human, and Deckard feels that she is more human than the bounty hunter who helps him kill her. Deckard takes a Voigt-Kampff test himself and finds that he’s developed a sense of empathy towards her, and possibly other androids as well. Further more, Deckard comes across a pair of androids that are in love, and when one of them dies, the other shows a very human and emotional reaction.

Blade Runner


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Blade Runner theatrical release poster
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
was adapted into the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard and directed by Ridley Scott. The film takes the plot of Deckard hunting the rogue androids and makes a stylish and effective noir out of it. Outside the hunt however, the essential story elements of Mercerism and the deeper questioning of humanity are left out.

The world is entirely different. San Fransisco is a huge metropolis filled with people, rather than the sparsely populated world of Sheep. There is clearly something wrong with the environment, it is constantly dark and raining, which leads the audience to assume a nuclear war, global warming or some other disastrous event has changed the weather, but nothing along this line of thinking is addressed. There are brief mentions of electric animals, and the lack of real animals around the world, but this major element of the novel is not developed, and could be due to failed conservation efforts rather than a war. Also without the focus on animals, the theme of empathy is largely dropped and the Voigt-Kampff test, while still present has much less impact on the story. In the theatrical release of the film, Deckard and Rachel (Sean Young) fly up north to escape pursuit, and images of forests are shown. This is in stark contrast to the novel, in which Deckard flies up to the California-Oregon border to a piece of dead land that was presumably the location of a nuclear bomb going off.

The major question throughout the film, a question which has varying answers depending on which of the many versions you watch, is if Rick Deckard is a human or an android. The novel quickly addresses this possibility and just as quickly proves that Deckard is in fact a human. The novel then goes on to question his humanity in a much less literal way, and explores more complex relationships with androids.

A number of characters are also removed or highly altered. Rachel is a straight love interest, rather than the complex manipulative character from the book. The story thread of Pris (Daryl Hannah) being the same model of android as Rachel is dropped, and with it goes Pris’ importance. Most of the other androids are gone or reduced into bit parts as well, with the exception of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), who becomes the main villain of the story complete with a long climactic confrontation with Deckard, while in the novel the encounter with him only lasted a few paragraphs and ended with little fanfare.

Critical Response


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of Dick's most famous works, partially due to Blade Runner which adapted the story and launched Dick into the limelight. Since then, the book has been analyzed by a number of critics. Focus tends to stay on the novel's major theme of humanity, and the role of androids in defining and throwing into doubt what it means to be human. "It is not, as often argued, that Deckard risks becoming increasingly like the androids through his work as a bounty hunter; rather, the risk faced by Deckard and other humans in the novel lies in realizing that they already are android-like..." [3]. This is also often seen as an analysis of the ever increasing presence of technology in our lives: "There is a general critical consensus that the novel's major concern is with alienated, modern, technologized life rendering humans increasingly cold and android-like." [3]

Continuing the contrast between humans and androids and sheep and electric sheep – organic vs mechanical – other sources have noted Dick's use of doubling in the novel: "The novel sets up a series of opposing ideas: people-things; subject-object; animate-inanimate; loving-killing; intuition-logic; human-machine. Double character sets abound; Rick Deckard and Phil Resch; Rachel Rosen and Pris Stratton, John Isidore and Wilbur Mercer." [4]

Some have deconstructed the background hints and implications of the dystopic setting of the book, especially taking into account the empathy boxes, and Buster Friendly's damning report on Mercerism. "As Buster Friendly insinuates in his own heavy-handed fashion, Mercerism and the ideology of empathy that is its mainstay, far from appealing to innate human characteristics, function merely as the means by which the government controls an otherwise unwieldy populace," [5] also noting that "In effect, in being called upon to fuse with Mercer, the political subject is encouraged to empathize with a noble criminal, to ben lurking feeling of rebellion, but only in the controlled space of her own living room. The empathy box thus operates as the state's optimal homeopathic remedy: it recuperates the citizen's transgression into bounds where it can have no consequences." [5] This interpretation gives an ominous purpose to what otherwise may be seen as an escape from the terrors of reality, or a way that humans are becoming more isolated, even as they think they are connecting together.

Personal Response


Spoilers

Despite what some of the critical reaction has to say, the existence of some sort of controlling government utilizing Mercerism to control the masses is questionable at best, and generally unimportant to the story being told. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not necessarily a dystopia. Buster Friendly's report indicates some foul play, and suggests the danger that everyone may be being controlled by some "would-be Hitler" (209). However, this evidence is not from an impartial reporter, as Buster has been vying with Mercerism for popularity. Furthermore, this is the only major suggestion of such a situation, and even if it is accurate, it has little affect on the events in the book. While Earth in the novel is in no way ideal, in fact it is a bombed out, post-apocalyptic hell hole, it does not seem to fall in line with the typical definition of a dystopia, and the novel is not didactic, as much of the genre is.

Instead of being a dystopia, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? seems to be two separate novels rolled into one. First, there is the simple detective story which harkens back to Dick's more pulpy origins and is the main portion of the book adapted in Blade Runner. Second, there is the more philosophical look at the world that Dick has created: is Deckard crazy? Is he a social abnormality? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What does that say about his humanity? Are the androids really that different from humans? Is Mercersm real? This is where the novel gets interesting, and where, by the end of the novel reality begins to break down and Dick is so busy asking questions he finds little time to answer any.

This philosophical portion of the novel is simultaneously where it succeeds and fails most. Dick does best when the questions he poses are not answered, and the situations too bizarre to ever have a proper explanation. One of the most intriguing portions of the novel is after Buster Friendly exposes Mercerism as a fraud, at which point the figure of Mercer and the whole idea of empathy and the importance of real animals should come crashing down. Instead, mirroring the general public's lack of reaction to the report, Mercerism suddenly become centrally important, with both John Isidore and Rick Deckard having intense religious experiences that produce tangible objects, and one experience that saves Deckard's life. Deckard later goes on a spiritual journey and experiences Mercer's struggle in real life, as opposed to plugged into an empathy box, and as such, becomes closer to Mercer than anyone else. No clear cut explanation is ever offered for these experiences, instead the reader must simply accept them as a mixture of the divine and the result of extreme circumstances that changed or reaffirmed the characters' outlooks on life.

Where the novel really fails is when it gives too clear answers to the questions it poses. The most extreme example of this is with the question of the androids' humanity, which is probably the biggest question and theme of the book. Most of the novel is a way to build up evidence that the androids are more human than they are ever given credit for, and humans can be unempathic monsters. We are given the examples of Roy and Irmgard Batty, who are presented as being very much in love, despite Roy's tendency to act like a psychopathic murderer. When Irmgard is killed Roy "let[s] out a cry of anguish," and Deckard is immediately aware that "[Roy] loved her." (223) The example is also given of Luba Luft, an android that desperately wants to be human, and who Deckard feels empathy toward, but is nonetheless brutally murdered by a human. Finally, there is the example of John Isidore who is treated horribly by most other humans he encounters, humans who look down on androids for not even being empathic enough to help their own kind, while the androids accept him and Irmgard actually treats him with dignity and respect. All this accumulating evidence that human's picture of androids and themselves is flawed is however, largely disproved when for mere curiosity and lack of empathy the androids cruelly pull off the legs of a real spider one-by-one. This is an act meant to horrify the reader, making us feel for something as unsympathetic as a spider. This undermines all the arguments built up through the rest of the book and presents a far too strong and simplistic answer that androids are actually quite different from us.

References


  1. Sutin, Lawrence. "Official Biography." Philip K. Dick – The Official Site. 2003. 27 Apr. 2009 <http://www.philipkdick.com/aa_biography.html>
  2. Dick, Philip K. "Author's Note." Afterword. A Scanner Darkly. 1977. By Philip K. Dick. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. 276-8.
  3. Vint, Sherryl. "Speciesism and species being in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?(Critical essay)." 40.1 (2007): 111(16) <http://find.galegroup.com.proxy2.library.uiuc.edu/itx/start.do?prodId=AONE >.
  4. Warrick, Patricia S. "The Labyrinthian Process of the Artificial: Philip K. Dick's Androids and Mechanical Constructs." Short Story Criticism 57 (2003): 189-214.
  5. Galvan, Jill. "Entering the posthuman collective in Philip K. Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.'" Science Fiction Studies 24.3 (1997): 413-29.