who dreams of electric sheep?

>I read this as a part of the Sci Fi Experience 2011 (see sidebar)<

I have every intention of (re)watching Ridley Scott’s  Blade Runner (1982) and do a comparative. Meanwhile, a read of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the novel that inspired the film. I need to say that Philip K. Dick’s writing impresses me to no end. His imagination and explorations are fantastically rendered. He writes paranoia so incredibly well. I hope to read UBIK again soon (a favorite).

7082Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

The version I read: Del Rey Books, 1996.

Trade paper, 244 pages.

(Originally published 1968)

Would it be too obvious to state that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is preoccupied with the question “What makes a human human?” What does separate the Human from everything else? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? interrogates a possible and popular answer: Empathy.

It is 2021 and most humans have emigrated off world to one of the colonies created after the world realized that the ecological system was irreparably damaged due to use of weapons of mass destruction during World War Terminus.

Androids were created as company, as an enticement to inhabit the foreign colonies. But some humans stayed behind: those who refused to leave the Earth; humans judged too far gone, permanently and uncomfortably damaged by the radioactive dust (chickenheads); and people like Rick Deckard whose work keeps them on Earth.

Deckard is a Bounty Hunter, contracted with the city of San Francisco, to hunt and “retire” Androids who are illegal on the planet Earth. Deckard’s job is becoming increasing difficult with every newer and better model of Android manufactured. “You and I, all the bounty hunters—we stand between the Nexus-6* and mankind, a barrier which keeps the two distinct”(141).

The androids, even the animals, have become extremely well-made; so well-made that differentiating them from a real human or animal is nearing impossible. In one sad, but humorous case, a real cat was mistaken for an electric one. But the realism of the electric animals aren’t as threatening as the androids, if anything not owning and caring for any animal is cause for ostracization.  “They’ll look down on you. Not all of them, but some. You know how people are about not taking care of an animal; they consider it immoral and anti-empathic. I mean, technically it’s not a crime like it was right after W.W.T., but the feeling’s still there” (13).

Apart from the status the ownership of a particular animal (insect, reptile, etc) might bring, fundamentally it is about proving your ability to care for something natural; (or is it to care for something vulnerable, dependent upon a human’s attentiveness).  In a world decreasingly natural or even Real (the two often seeming to equate), clinging to the vestiges of a time before (via animal-life) becomes vital—a life thread. The longing for nature is accentuated by its loss. It is something very human to long for a connection with the natural world. (What about their longings for the “unnatural” things?)

Deckard “thought, too, about his need for a real animal; within him an actual hatred once more manifested itself toward his electric sheep, which he had to tend, had to care about, as if it lived. The tyranny of an object, he thought. It doesn’t know I exist. Like the androids, it had no ability to appreciate the existence of another. He had never thought of this before, the similarity between an electric animal and an andy. The electric animal, he pondered, could be considered a subform of the other, a kind of vastly inferior robot. Or conversely, the android could be regarded as a highly developed, evolved version of the ersatz animal. Both viewpoints repelled him.” (42)

The lack of recognition from an ‘other’ creates revulsion in the human. In a sense, the lack of acknowledgment creates an aloneness that the human wants to reject. Conversations about Loneliness are primarily housed in the story of John R. Isidore, a chickenhead, who shares the narrative with Deckard.

Because of his lowly status as a deteriorating human, semi-functioning, Isidore is set aside by society. Grieving his own loss of who he was before and tormented by how people treat him, he does what most chickenheads do and retreats to abandoned apartment buildings in the outer fringes (the suburbs). He lives alone in a dying building, returning to dust, and being overrun by “kipple,” debris. His television has only one station. Fortunately, he has a job to go to, even though it more menial than he would desire. He also has Mercerism, a popular religion in which Wilbur Mercer is at the center epitomizing Suffering and facilitating Collective Empathy.

There is an object called an empathy box. One holds the handles and the screen not only focuses the cyclic journey of an old man climbing a hill in a brutal landscape, but connects the human with the old man (Mercer) and with anyone else holding their box. A fusion of empathic emotion ensues.  When a rock cuts Mercer, the human holding the box will have a cut as well.  Notably Androids cannot participate due to their lack of empathy.

The exclusion of the android is a sticking point for some androids (particularly the newest model manufactured by the Rosen Corporation, the Nexus-6). Roy Baty, one such android, would attempt his own fusion experiments using drugs. Finally, failing, he, his wife, and friends kill their owners and others who would prevent escape from the harsh fruitless Mars colony and come to Earth.

The desire to belong, to be recognized as worthwhile, has a tangible presence in the novel. A hierarchy has been established, and the androids find themselves at the bottom. Isidore isn’t too far above them.

With the hierarchy comes a commodity structure. There is a Sydney’s Guide that monitors the cash worth of every specie and such are valued accordingly, effect status accordingly. Where a human is career-wise, intelligence-wise, health-wise still effects value/status.  Humans are constantly being tested for fertility and intelligence.  For a chickenhead, their intelligence scores, dictates their job options. That which is considered an abomination occupy the lowest rung. We lock away the mentally ill. While electric animals are not really acceptable, society has made a place for them, the androids have no place.

With the hierarchy comes the seemingly inevitable demon of racism (from all sides). “I’m not going to live with a chickenhead.” [Pris’] nostrils flared.  Irmgard said rapidly, “I think you’re foolish to be a snob at a time like this.” (157) “The chickenhead,” Pris said, “likes me.” “Don’t call him that, Pris,” Irmgard said; she gave Isidore a look of compassion. “Think what he could call you.” (159)

What is least tolerated, however, seems to be the willingness to throw one’s own kind under the bus. Part of what feeds into the hatred of the andys is that they easily turn on one another.  Or is that even true any longer? Pris, Irmgard, Roy, the other of the new model seem to create a gray area where there was not one before. They are sticking together, fighting back, and in Irmgard’s case show instances of compassion.

Some of the humans create gray areas as well.

Deckard to Resch: “There is a defect in your empathic, role-taking ability. One which we don’t test for. Your feelings toward androids.” “Of course we don’t test for that.” “Maybe we should.” (140-1) Resch became very close to being mistaken for an android and thus nearly “retired.”


The hatred for the android is strange (and yet not) and not fully articulated. Discussions of the Uncanny would enter here. An assumption is meant. From here, Dick can subvert the assumption and cast it out of the black and white.  Deckard starts his day quite certain in his job and his feelings toward the andys, by the end of the book, 24 hours later, conflicts have arisen. Deckard is forced to re-evaluate everything.

“Some female androids seemed to him pretty; he had found himself physically attracted by several, and it was an odd sensation, knowing intellectually that they were machines, but emotionally reacting anyhow.” (95)

The andys have become a greater threat, confusing a standardized test (to evaluate the empathic), fighting back, questioning, not running and hiding but taking the offensive, manipulating him…stimulating empathy. If he cannot call an andy an “it” than he has difficulty retiring them. They have to remain an object.


“I’ll tell you what we trust that fouls us up, Roy; it’s our goddamn superior intelligence!” (166-7)**

A problem with the andys is not really that they have a far more superior intelligence. That is what gets them caught. What terrifies the human population of 2021 (and perhaps now) is their desire to become more Human. If they were to become Human, humans would easily become obsolete. Becoming obsolete is already a concern with the loss of planet and nature, the effects of the dust on fertility and intelligence. The andys do not have reproductive capabilities in the human sense, but they do not require a womb. If they elicit emotion and desire, if they were not programmed with a 4 year life span…

And the andys seem to want the human experience.  They aren’t dreaming of electric sheep any more than Deckard is. Why are Irmgard and Roy married? What about the fusion? What of Rachael’s remarks on pregnancy? [Did her remarks on abortion send up any red flags for you?] Is it that they are made that way? To want those things? Can they be manufactured that way?

What I find interesting is how the androids would work to expose the falsity/the manufactured of the human*** as diligently as the humans work to expose the andy’s.

Despite the efforts by the andys to expose Mercerism (the foundation of an empathy-driven religion) as a fraud, Empathy as a desirable trait remains—not so easily extinguished. Not only is empathy an important (superior) mark of being Human, it is also a necessity for survival. Otherwise, what separates the Human from the Machine?

*nexus: “the central and most important point or place” (Oxford English Dictionary); 6: man’s number.

** do only andy’s corner the market on this issue?

***what did you think of the mood organ?

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

5 thoughts on “who dreams of electric sheep?

  1. I could not agree with you more. This was my first experience with Philip K. Dick’s work and I was in awe of his skill as a writer. And, even more than the film, this book drives home the thought-provoking idea of what it means to be human. I did my own review, slightly comparing and contrasting the film and book here:


    All this time later my strongest recollection of what I took from the book is that the andy’s seemed so much more “human” than the humans did. They were striving for some of the things that I personally think makes humanity worthwhile, while the humans in the story, particularly Deckard, became less and less human as the story progressed. At least that is the way I recall feeling about it, not necessarily the truth of what PKD wrote. It is not surprising that this was a story I enjoyed, and that I enjoy Bladerunner as well, because I seem drawn to stories that have robots in them of some form or fashion, particularly when those stories are examining the ‘what it means to be human’ theme. I think Asimov does this well in many of his robot short stories and I though Keith Laumer touched on it briefly (but entertainingly) in the Bolo stories I read recently.

    1. thanks for the link, Carl, and the comments.

      you are absolutely right about how the androids exhibited more “humanness” as the story progressed, and the humans were seen less so, certainly colder and more disconnected; and yet Deckard stands outside both and while we would presume human traits upon him near the beginning, we seem him as becoming more authentically human as the story progresses; he begins feeling disconnected, Isidore is the same way (I liked this character). What does it say about the society when assassins and chickenheads and machines are more human than the humans?

      I know it has been a while for you, but I didn’t know what to do with the whole Mercer appearing to Deckard and Isidore thing.

  2. I’ve not read this, but I have seen Blade Runner. While reading this review & the comments I couldn’t help but think of Battlestar Galactica and the Cylon quandary.

    Great review!

    1. yeah, I can see that. Sean was reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl and there were similar discussions between the two books as well, which made for interesting conversations…but BSG and Do Androids Dream comparisons would make for an interesting post.

  3. Very good review. This is one of my favorite books and is due for a re-read. It has been a couple of years since the last time I read it.

    I would like to see a post that compares BSG to this novel.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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