LEFT FIELD: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Review published on September 14, 2018.

Stephen Hendry’s new autobiography goes by the fascinating title – Me and the Table, it may make sense but it’s not exactly inspiring or even very interesting. Perhaps it’s easier to come up with attention grabbing titles when you write science fiction for a living (Philip K. Dick 1928-1982). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not only an intriguing title but it’s hard to forget once you’ve heard it. May be in wouldn’t have done much for box office revenue but it would have been brilliant if they had stuck with the title for the 1982 film. Although I admit Blade Runner is a little more sexy, it has more pizzazz.

If you think about it, the title of the novel as explained in the text makes sense, it isn’t a flight of fancy. That is, if you accept the existence of androids that look and behave like humans and then the possibility of them becoming sentient beings (or even that we may feel they are sentient). The whole debate around artificial intelligence, deals in the possibility that AI beings will not only outstrip us intellectually but may learn to feel as well as think. As this seems to be something futurists and scientists are predicting now – how far ahead of the game was Dick with this novel? The title Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? goes to the heart of the novel. We have robots that look like us and appear to behave like us, do they have feelings, are they sentient? If they have trouble sleeping do they count electric sheep? It a personification and a rare touch of humour in a very dark novel.

Animals have another meaning in this novel. Originally set in 1992 but later amended to 2021, this is post-apocalyptic San Francisco, the nuclear conflagration has wiped out most species and much of the human race. Owning an animal is a status symbol in the new world, exclusively the privilege of the rich. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, his wife Iran is depressed and he needs money to replace her pet electric sheep. He wants to get her a real animal, this he sees as a way of improving their quality of life.

The story (spoilers) – Deckard is hired to ‘retire’ six violent androids who have escaped from the Rosen Association on Mars and are seeking to hide on earth. Retire of course means terminate, means kill, or does it? Can you kill a non-feeling machine, are they non-feeling machines? Deckard takes his empathy test to the Seattle headquarters of the Rosen Association to test it’s efficiency. The point is that androids lack sentience and therefore empathy, their reactions will be different to humans. Deckard is met by the beautiful Rachel Rosen but the test proves that she is an android, she tries to bribe Deckard into silence. He is convinced that this is a ploy to discredit the test. Deckard is recognised as a danger by the androids, he is arrested and accused of being an android himself.

The novel is beginning to explore ethical and philosophical themes around Deckard’s behaviour. There are many theories as to the meaning of the novel. Dick deals in perception, there is no singly defined reality, consequently no singly defined character. Just like life, we don’t perceive events or other people the same way as each other. Crucially, some of the humans behave without human empathy, they are pitiless and cruel. So I tend to lean towards the very simple analysis of the novel, that it is looking at what it means to be human, what constitutes humanity and fellow feeling. This means that our concerns over the androids, their behaviour and our treatment of them is only a reflection of our concerns for human behaviour. This is a theme that is picked up in science fiction again and again. Particularly with the exploration of AI and the possibility of thinking computers. This is the main theme of Humans on Channel4, for example.

More story (spoilers) – Bounty hunter Phil Resch finds that the staff at the police station holding Deckard are androids. The two men kill the androids and leave. Deckard and Resch find a third android, an Opera Singer, he is retired cold bloodedly by Resch. Resch is brutal and unfeeling, Deckard disturbed by the ethical issues raised in retiring the androids, he is sympathetic to their plight. With his prize money Deckard buys his wife a Nubian goat and retires (the usual put your feet up kind of way!)

More Story (spoilers) – Meanwhile, Pris Stratton hides with a ‘damaged’ human John Isidore, considered ‘special’, because he has a low IQ but he is an open character, friendly to the androids. Knowing that they are being hunted, the other two remaining escapee androids, Roy and Irmgard, join Pris to plan their survival. Despite considering it immoral Rickard comes out of retirement, he takes Rachel with him and seeks the remaining three androids. Rachel informs Deckard that she is the same model as Pris, so the woman will look like her. The lines between human and Android are blurred by Rachel seducing Deckard, the two appear to be in love, but Rachel is forced to admit that she is programmed to seduce bounty hunters as a self preservation mechanism. They part angry and bitter.

There is another aspect here, Mercerism, a techno-based religion, that seems to wallow in a virtual reality misery. The androids are confused by a programme debunking the religion on the television. They want something to believe in too. When Deckard arrives they attack him and he uses this justification for killing all three. He is a hero for retiring all six androids. But when he returns home he finds that Rachel has killed the precious goat he bought for Iran. A mystical trip to the mountains in Oregon allow Deckard to think. The basic conclusion is that the lives of androids are just as shitty as humans.

The book had slipped into obscurity but remained a respected Dick story until the film, Blade Runner, came along. Originally a cult movie, the film has acquired mythical status and a growing reputation. The 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049 has helped to further revive the story (some of the more abstract elements of the novel are explored). The Blade Runner hunt for replicants simplifies the story but sticks to the essence of the novel. A director’s cut exploring more fully the possibility of Deckard as a replicant and Rachel being unaware of her status as an android is also available.

So why is this sci-fi classic also a crime novel? Actually it’s not a big leap of imagination. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is neo-noir, the essence of the story is a modern interpretation of the hard-boiled fiction of the 1940s. The mysterious all-powerful corporation hires a man to hunt down the criminals and restore order. The problem is that the motives and methods are dubious, this is morally ambiguous territory at best. Deckard is a bounty hunter, jaded and run down (a private eye). He is tasked with tracking down a gang of criminals and eliminating them. He’s a lone wolf faced with a dilemma over the rectitude of his actions (he is no hero). It’s a chase story that explores the best and worst of humanity. Rachel is a femme fatale, her relationship to Deckard complex. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? holds a mirror up to human behaviour, just as Chandler and Hammett did. Any crime fan looking to stretch their reading could do worse than takes look at Philip K. Dick.

Paul Burke 4/4

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Gateway 9780575094185 pbk Mar 2010


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