Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is a classic in the sci-fi canon that I was excited to finally read, after having read many of Dick’s short stories and seeing both film adaptations of the novel. (Or rather, film adaptation plus sequel.)
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
This 1968 classic follows Rick Deckard, android bounty hunter, as he seeks to “retire” six of the latest models of humanoid robots who have escaped from the Mars colony to Earth. We find him in a future post-apocalyptic world in which most people have immigrated to Mars to escape the toxic/nuclear fallout environment. In addition, because of the global nuclear war, most animal species have gone extinct, making it a status symbol to own a real, live animal and take care of it.
However, since real animals are so rare and thus expensive, many people, such as Deckard, buy electric animals that look just like real animals in order to maintain some social status. In fact, Deckard is so enthusiastic about his latest mission to “retire” (i.e. kill) six androids because the bounty will be enough for him to buy a real animal for himself and his wife.
This plot line about electric animals is completely erased from the Blade Runner movie, but, I think, it adds an interesting texture to the storyworld and acts as an important parallel to the organic/machine dichotomy in the main plot of the novel. And, honestly, the idea of electric sheep is just plain fun!
Animal Extinction, Status, Machines
“Nothing could be more impolite. To say ‘Is your sheep genuine?’ would be a worse breach of manners than to inquire whether a citizen’s teeth, hair, or internal organs would test out authentic.”
As mentioned above, because of the dystopian, nuclear fallout environment of Earth in the story, most animal species have gone extinct. And because we humans like rare things, owning and taking care of a real, live animal has become a status symbol. This concept by itself is already very interesting, but Dick doesn’t stop there, he adds the extra layer of propriety illustrated by the above quote; to ask if your neighbour’s sheep is genuine would be a terrible breach of manners.
Let’s unpack all this.
In a world with very few organic animals left, real animals come at a premium price, elevating your status. As such, there is a kind of underground electric animal market. But you can’t ask if your neighbour’s animal is genuine. So not only is the real/authentic/organic prized in this storyworld, it is prized so much so that no one wants to be caught with a fake. The unreal/inauthentic/inorganic is not prized. It’s really quite an embarrassment actually.
This sets us up for the type of world that Deckard lives in and offers us some insight into why it’s okay to kill androids. The religious/theological theme in Deckard’s post-apocalyptic world is the idea that all life is precious. Certainly, after almost wiping all life out, this sentiment makes sense. However, this motto gets taken to its extreme: only the purest organic life is seen as precious (i.e. not androids).
This ties in to the sub-plot of John Isidore (who does not feature in the movie), a “special”; someone who’s genes have been damaged by the nuclear fallout and thus is seen as a second-class citizen.
So we have a world in which the humanoid android is rejected. The electric animal is rejected. The radioactively damaged human is rejected. Only undamaged organic life is precious.
This then becomes Deckard’s character arc as he starts to realize that his job killing androids is probably wrong and unethical. He realizes he has empathy for the androids he’s killing (more on empathy later). And he begins to think that maybe the idea that all life is precious should be expanded to include other forms of life, such as androids and electric animals, especially since these are becoming increasingly difficult to tell apart from real people and real animals.
“Under U.N. law each emigrant automatically received possession of an android subtype of his choice, and, by 2019, the variety of subtypes passed all understanding, in the manner of American automobiles of the 1960s.”
“The Nexus-6 android types, Rick reflected, surpassed several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence…For better or worse. The servant had in some cases become more adroit than its master. But new scales of achievement, for example the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test, had emerged as criteria by which to judge. An android, no matter how gifted as to pure intellectual capacity, could make no sense out of the fusion which took place routinely among the followers of Mercerism.”
Mercerism & Despair
“Despair like that, about total reality, is self-perpetuating.”
Another interesting theme in Electric Sheep is that of despair. The Earth is dying. Few people remain. And those who do face nihilism and meaninglessness that results in despair. This is one of the reasons why everyone has an empathy box, a type of virtual reality machine that they can log into to fuse or mind meld with other people and feel collective empathy and suffering. As they do so, they are presented with an image of a martyr-like figure, Wilbur Mercer, who is seen endlessly climbing a hill, Sisyphus style, and being pelted with rocks.
I think the idea here is supposed to be that humans always need a purpose and need to feel connected to each other. Owning and take care of real animals is one way that the remaining humans living on Earth can feel that they have a purpose and are connected to something greater than themselves. The empathy boxes are another way to feel connected. Moreover, this empathy and preservation of life is happening on a dying planet that is being overrun by death and decay. So these efforts might themselves be Sisyphean.
What does it mean to be one of the last humans living on a dying Earth? This is one of the central questions of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? How can you find meaning in such circumstances?
This line of thinking reminds me of Elon Musk’s comments about humanity and consciousness from a talk he gave a few years ago. He said that consciousness “is a small candle in a vast darkness,” and therefore it is very much worth preserving.
Strengths & Weaknesses
As I mentioned up top, I’m a big fan of Philip K. Dick and I really enjoyed this story. It’s definitely a must-read in the sci-fi canon. The one weakness I will point out is that it’s never made clear why exactly the androids need to be killed. It’s just assumed as part of the story world. (If it is explained and I just missed it somehow, please let me know in the comments!) This bothers me from a purely story-telling and story structure perspective. I know I’ve criticized over-exposition a lot in previous book reviews, but this is one bit of exposition I would have been grateful for!
Right now the main explanation I can think of is just what I wrote above about how the story is set up such that what is organic is prized and worthy of preservation, and what is inorganic is not prized and not worthy of preservation (even though the androids themselves are actually about as close to organic as you can get). The androids are seen as imposters, muddying up the remaining human population the same way poor John Isidore’s genes have been muddied up and damaged by the nuclear fallout. The androids are not seen as alive. They are impure and must be excised from the body politic! (That’s a joke for my big brother :P.)
In conclusion, I highly recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as part of the science fiction canon. If you’re so inclined, you can watch the movies as well. (Though I have some serious issues with a few of the scenes in the first movie, but that’s a post for another day.)
The story is creative, thought-provoking, and fast-paced, and overall a fun read.
Next up is The Left Hand of Darkness!
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ballantine Books, 2008. Kindle Edition.