Novel November

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

by Philip K. Dick


Reading Review by Michael Channing

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is, on the surface, a science fiction adventure novel about a bounty hunter tasked with the dangerous mission of “retiring” androids who escape to Earth illegally. But below that thin veneer, it repeatedly poses the question Philip K. Dick asked all his career: Is there a definitive, objective reality? Dick believed there absolutely was not, and in this book he examines every possible iteration of real vs. simulacrum that his pulp fiction setup will allow.

The book is set on a post-nuclear war Earth. Radioactive dust threatens to render the remaining human population infertile or incompetent. To entice people to relocate to one of the colonized planets, the government gives each and every transplant their very own slave. I mean android helper. Once in a while an android breaks free and makes its way to Earth. Which is illegal. But, you may ask, what gives people the right to subjugate androids which apparently have free will factory-installed?

What the androids lack and the humans have is empathy. All humans on Earth have an empathy box, a sort of virtual reality device that allows them to experience the actions and feelings of Mercer, a Christ-like man who, in a constantly looping video, climbs up a hill while being pursued and stoned by an angry crowd. Mercer dies, goes to a tomb world made of animal remains but then rises again in rebirth. Every human who is using their empathy box at the same time walks with Mercer on his journey and experiences his pain, so much so that they actually bleed from wounds inflicted by virtual rocks. It's a way for the scattered, final inhabitants of Earth to connect as a whole, to feel part of a community. Androids don't have the capacity to connect through Mercerism, and they resent humans and hate Mercer because of it. The oneness of Mercerism might seem like a good idea, but the book points out that while an individual is engaged with the collective, he is completely cut off from and oblivious to the person directly beside him. Fake life overwhelms real life.

The war and resulting radiation has driven many animal species extinct. Owning a living animal is viewed as a status symbol now. The larger the animal, the more the prestige. But the real luxury creatures cost tens of thousands of dollars, so the free market did what it always does and created a product and related services to meet that need. Can't afford a real cat to one-up your neighbor's mouse? Fool 'em with a robot cat. Only your vet (who's​ really a repairman) will know the difference. Deckard, the main protagonist of the novel, accepts the job to hunt down six rogue androids so he can replace his run-down electric sheep with a live one. (He bought the fake one to secretly replace his real sheep when it died after accidentally eating a bit of wire with its food.) He sees his neighbor's horse and feels jealous and ashamed. So he takes on the job of destroying artificial human lifeforms so he can buy a real animal. That's how low androids are considered to be. Even a fake sheep is worth more than an android in the eyes of the so-called empathetic humans.

One human does befriend an android. He aligns himself with the escaped group and does his best to protect them from the coming bounty hunter. His friendship is repaid in a gut-wrenching scene involving a spider. I don't remember how I reacted to this scene when I first read the book about twenty years ago, but this time it hit me hard. The guy is completely betrayed and tortured by someone he thought was a friend. It's a brutal scene, but one the reader absolutely needs. After so much grey area of pondering both sides of the real vs. fake argument where we see a robot animal confused for a real one; a real animal treated as a robot; an android who thinks she's human; a human who wonders if he might actually be an android; the realization that androids might actually have something to offer an evaporating culture; the awakening of one human to his own innate bloodlust; and the harsh light of doubt cast upon what appears to be Earth’s one remaining religion, the reader needs an absolute. With the death of a single spider, all the grey turns black and white, and we agree with the final actions of the protagonist.

Deckard, however, doesn't share the reader's perspective. He still doubts his convictions, questions his motivations, and sinks into a deep depression. Dick's novels often end this way. The story meanders a dozen more pages as the characters stumble blindly through existential confusion, and the reader is left unsure of the book's final message. I always feel lost at the end of his books. The plot usually wraps up neatly, as required by the pulpy nature of the genre, but Dick is never satisfied with tight closure. He always cracks open the chest of uncertainty, unleashing all manner of misgivings and indecision upon a troubled world. There is no truth, no resolution. Anything can, at any moment, change form; anyone can shift allegiance. The universe will not maintain balance or rationality, and it cares not for your sanity. This is an action story embedded in a philosophy dissertation, and it comes close to nihilism. But the questions Dick asks are important. Maybe the answers don't always lead to despair, but sometimes they will, and Philip K. Dick has already mapped that territory for us. Should you ever find yourself traversing those dark passages, may Mercer guide you back into the light.

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