I finally got around to reading Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And although I had no idea what to expect going in, it was still nothing like what I expected.
Rick Deckard is a police bounty hunter, “retiring” escaped androids that pose a vague threat to Earth’s remaining human population. His world is dull and grey, full of despair and the detritus of human lives long gone. Nuclear war has made much of Earth uninhabitable, causing freak mutations and decimating animal populations. Most humans eligible to immigrate to off-world colonies have done so.
While this premise might sound dark, gritty, thrilling, and potentially action packed, –spoiler– this novel is not.
Instead we peer into a decaying world where animals are curiously revered. Those who can’t afford the real thing tend realistic fakes– the titular electric sheep. Much of the characters’ motivations are left unexplained and unexplored, as if obscured by clouds of radioactive dust.
While electronic animals are considered perfectly safe to own if a person can’t afford a real one, androids are considered too dangerous and are mostly forbidden on Earth. Yet those who agree to move to off-world colonies are each given an android to accompany them. What those androids are for, and why they’re considered safe off-world, is left frustratingly unexplained.
Then there’s Mercerism, a new religion that centers around the use of an electronic “empathy box” to take part in a shared hallucination. We’re told that the experience makes the users feel connected to others using the box (the need to feel connected is a common theme in Electric Sheep,) no matter where they are.
This performative empathy– the need to demonstrate humanity by being empathetic towards animals and other humans– is another of the novel’s core themes. P.K. Dick seems to have been an adherent of the belief that empathy is a uniquely human trait; yet, with the exception of the chickenhead John Isidore, most of the human characters show little more empathy toward other creatures than the androids do. When pet animals die, the humans seem to be grieving the destruction of a prized and expensive possession, not a friend and fellow living being.
Toward the end of the book, P.K. Dick shows one of the escaped androids gleefully clipping the legs off of a rare live spider to demonstrate that androids are unable to feel empathy or value life. While the scene is powerfully written, if you have to resort to zero-hour depictions of cruelty to demonstrate why your antagonists are worthy of execution, you’ve probably failed to write antagonists deserving of that fate.
An empathy test is the benchmark used to determine if someone is human or an android, and Deckard rightly wonders if it’s leading bounty hunters to kill innocent humans. When tested, android Rachael Rosen points out that if being unable to feel empathy for androids is a sign of being an android, then Deckard, who has killed many androids without a second thought, must be one also.
This is where the theory of a universal standard for empathy falls down. Everyone is empathetic in different ways; what might draw an immediate reaction from one person will not draw a reaction from everyone. I would almost certainly fail the Voigt-Kampff empathy test as it is administered in the book.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? portrays a dying Earth whose remaining inhabitants are thoroughly obsessed with looking successful and happy to their neighbors. After all, there’s no shame in owning an electric sheep; only in your peers discovering that your sheep is fake. Everyone does it, and everyone is too polite to ask whether their neighbor’s sheep is real.
It portrays a society obsessed with staying connected, even as it spreads out across the solar system and eschews human company in favor of robotic pets, androids, and televised entertainment. And if it was meant to demonstrate how sickeningly ironic it is that humans appoint themselves the arbiters of empathy, it is successful.
Throughout the tale, I found the androids more interesting and sympathetic than Deckard and his fellow humans. Escaped slaves making their way in a hostile world, the androids are simply doing the best they can to stay safe and forge a new life for themselves. They’re curious, intelligent, and ultimately more human than the human characters. When Deckard shoots Roy Baty’s wife, the android spontaneously screams in anguish– as you would, if someone you loved had just been killed.
In their ability to yearn for freedom, to love, to commit violence in self-defense, to create beautiful music and works of art, to deceive, and to be appallingly cruel to other living things… P.K. Dick’s androids are just as human as we are.
I lot of people would probably be surprised that I’m reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? for the first time. Blade Runner is considered to be an original of the cyberpunk genre, and novels like this one are considered by some to be the forerunners of that movement.
Published in 1968, Electric Sheep belongs to a class of science fiction that rests at the junction of the horrors of the atom bomb, the creeping paranoia of the Cold War, and the golden age of psycho-physiological analysis. It’s not particularly cyberpunk, and it’s not a type of science fiction that I’ve enjoyed greatly in the past. While the overarching themes have their own merit, writing of this era often contains the casually ingrained sexism, racism, and pseudoscience of the time.
While it has some scenes that are nicely done, I feel that Electric Sheep is not a novel that would have made it to publication through a traditional publisher under today’s standards. Many questions are left unanswered, leading to gaping plot holes. It’s hard to tell what the unifying theme of the book was meant to be, or what point the author was trying to make.
Perhaps most disappointingly of all, Deckard ultimately doesn’t evolve or grow as a result of his harrowing experiences. Despite being forced to confront the unreliability of his vaunted Voigt-Kampff test, and to come face to face with the humanity of the androids he hunts, he still goes home at the end of the day, shrugs off the deaths of all the androids he’s killed and of his brand new goat, and goes to sleep in “long deserved peace.”
If I’m certain about anything at the end of this book, it’s that peace is not something Deckard deserves.