Updated: Aug 28, 2021
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Although it has been over forty years since the release of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, new readers continue to journey through this great sci-fi classic by Philip K. Dick, and for good reason. The book does an excellent job of pulling the reader into a near future, post-apocalyptic world. The book, and the movie it inspired (Blade Runner), stirs incredible debate on the meaning of life, reality, and morality. This in many ways demonstrates the skill of Dick as a writer whose works remain timeless.
The novel takes place in the year 2021. The earth has become a desolate, dark wasteland. Because of World War Terminus, radioactive dust has covered the earth, which wiped out most life–specifically the animals. Humans, thus, have emigrated to colonies on Mars where they try to make a better life for themselves. On Mars, corporations have created androids to assist humans with various tasks like hard labor.
The corporation that is responsible for creating the androids continues to improve on their cognitive functioning. There improved brain development creates a problem for society; that is, some androids become unsatisfied with their state of affairs and attempt to create their own path. The narrative surrounds a group of unsatisfied androids who kill their masters and hijack a spaceship back to earth where they assume lives as humans since androids are outlawed on earth.
Rick Deckard, the main protagonist, is a bounty hunter hired by the city police department. His sole job is “retiring” androids. Though he has been destroying androids for years, Rick finds himself questioning his actions. Society has decided that androids are not truly alive, hence the language of “retiring” an android in place of “killing” one. But are androids just mechanical parts? What makes a human any different?
Empathy is a huge theme within the book. That is, it is thought that androids are incapable of demonstrating empathy, which is what the world has determined as the true quality for life. Mercerism, the religion of the day, emphasizes the power of empathy. The religion has two major tenants, (1) to be empathetic, and (2) to work for the good of the community. Yet Rick deeply struggles with this issue. He retires androids because they lack empathy and, as a result, have the potential to do terrible things. Ironically, Rick finds that his own empathy makes it difficult to retire the androids since they seem to be alive.
Animals are another key component for Rick and his struggle. Society places a high importance on being able to own an animal. Since most animals are extinct, animals are incredibly expensive. They act as a sign of social status. This is reinforced by the values of Mercerism. Rick, who had a sheep, is frustrated because his pet sheep died, but without the funds to buy another Rick resorts to owning and taking care of an electronic replica.
In every way, the robotic sheep functions and looks like a real sheep; it baa’s, needs food, walks around, and requires the care of Rick to survive. This acts as a paradox of sorts for Rick, as the only difference between the electric sheep and the real sheep is one’s knowledge of what it is. This mental struggle is what causes Rick to question his own feelings towards the androids, yet the situation is more complex.
Dick introduces the idea of false memories. Androids can be given false memories, so Rick begins to question whether everything in he knew was a false memory implant. The reader begins to wonder if Rick is an android when in the alternate police station. As he meets other characters at the alternate police station, what is real and fake are almost indistinguishable. Much like the Matrix or Ghost in the Shell, reality seems to be elusive.
The plot continues to thicken throughout the book as more existential questions are asked (i.e., questions about existence and reality). Perhaps one of the most climatic moments of the book is when Rick meets a fellow bounty hunter named Resch at the police station. Rick is convinced that he is an android because of his cold and callous nature.
The irony of an android as a bounty hunter who is unaware of his true nature furthers the mental dilemma–both for Rick and the reader. Resch, realizing his own lack of empathy, begins to question his entire life and begins to believe that he may be an android. Strikingly, Resch proves to be a human. This causes Rick to go further down the rabbit hole as he sees a stark contrast between himself and Resch.
The thought of Rick’s wife insult of being a killer rings within the mind of Rick as he begins to feel empathy toward the androids. Trying to internally deal with his struggle, Rick argues that it isn’t killing if they aren’t alive; it is obvious that Rick doubts his own beliefs. Again, another contrast between the beginning and end of the book, as Rick asks his wife in the end of the novel if it was wrong to retire the androids.
Unlike the animals, the androids—specifically the nexus-6 types—are incredibly intelligent. While they do lack genuine empathy, there are several moments where it seems as if they are empathetic or, at least, alive. The reader is consequently challenged to think if true empathy can be programed, and if that is an essential standard for life, are the androids alive in the same way humans are?
As a philosophy lover I found this question fascinating. The open ended nature of the book brings up so many issues within society’s own modern day struggle (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, artificial intelligence, human privilege, etc.). In my view, true empathy cannot be programmed because no matter how good technology gets, true reality can never be fully quantified. For instance, take the phenomena of social media: it allows for individuals to connect with others through written words, pictures, emoticons, videos, etc., but it misses many elements that are seen within natural, face-to-face experiences.
Things like the weather, setting, facial expressions, smell, and the power of spoken conversation are not truly seen within social media. Someone may argue that as technology develops the ability to quantify reality increases, but there will always be some element of reality that is lost through the medium of technology. Rick seems to subconsciously pickup on this, but does not understand it within his conscious mind, so he struggles.
Rachel Rosen, for Rick, represents the ultimate struggle with his views of androids and life. Rachel, unlike any other android he has ever been with, has elicited an emotional and empathetic response in Rick. So much so that Rick falls in love with Rachel and sleeps with her. Rachel’s advanced programing fools Rick. He sees shadows of empathy in her, but the empathy that he sees is not real. Her empathy, like all technology, fails to properly represent reality.
The empathetic response that Rachel has within her is limited by her own programming. While Rachel experiences the world, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be alive, she is just a false representation of life that Rick sees but does not fully accept. It is like the spider near the closing of the book.
The spider may be the last spider ever to be alive, yet the androids mutilate it, thus, showing the reader that even the most sophisticated programing can lack the smallest details: Namely, that a spider can be special. This ultimately leads to his decision of not being with Rachel although his doubts are still haunting him since he cannot retire Rachel.
In many ways, Rick has struggled in understanding his own emotions throughout the book. In the beginning, he programs his emotions by dialing them into a stimulator—much like an android has programmed emotions. But by the end of the novel, when ask by his wife if he wants to dial in an emotion, he decides not to. This shows the development within Rick; he now realizes that part of being a human is to have feelings that are uninhibited by suggestive programming like the androids.
The novel never explicitly answers the questions it raises. Dick seems to provide some sort of resolution to Rick’s story arch, but there is still room to question what his conclusion was. In many ways, this marks the difficulty that is seen within our world and ideas of Postmodernism. Is there such thing as meaning in life, and how does one know? If anything, this story shows the need for a fixed and transcended law that defines what life is and isn’t. I recommend this book for those of you who love sci-fi and enjoy being challenged by existential questions.
Some questions for the reader:
Do you think empathy can be programmed?
Where the androids alive?
What is the difference between being an android or a special?
Why did Rachel kill Rick’s goat? (This is something I’ve really been wondering.)