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

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a short novel written by Philip K. Dick, and was the inspiration for the cult classic Ridley Scott film Blade Runner as well as possibly one of the originators of the cyberpunk genre of speculative fiction. It tells the story of bounty hunter Rick Deckard, on a mission from the San Francisco police department to “retire” a number of escaped androids, and in the process face a number of troubling realizations about himself, society and the dangers of advancing technology.

Android, know thyself
One of the strongest images in this book is the scene where Deckard is tasked with making sure that the test his department has been using to determine whether or not someone is an android will actually work on the new Nexus-6 model he is being sent to hunt. He tests this on one of the employees of the corporation that manufactures the androids, and determines that she is, in fact, artificial. After being assured that she is not, and believing the test to be inaccurate, he tries one last time and determines that he stands by his results. The revelation from this scene is that she is in fact an android, but does not, herself, even know it. She has had false memories implanted and believes herself to be human.

This scene is the impetus for most of Deckard’s internal conflict throughtout this work, as he comes to doubt even his own humanity. This is a significant problem for a society like ours, where technology is expanding in leaps and bounds. We already store most of our memory in electronic form now (what need do we have for a dictionary, encyclopedias, history books when most of it is stored online now?) and it’s not long before we’re at the point where this information can be modified without our knowledge, and then who are we to doubt what the systems say? A perfect enough simulation is indistinguishable from reality, as we all saw with The Matrix, and the idea that we might already be living this world and not knowing it is a troubling one indeed.

Empathy is everything
The primary message in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of empathy and the importance of empathy to humanity. Every human owns and cares for a pet. The owning of an animal is seen as such a mandatory sign of humanity that those who can’t afford one will buy electronic replacements that even mimic illnesses to disguise malfunctions. The test Deckard uses to measure whether someone is an android is measuring empathic responses to morally strong imagery. Most importantly, the worry that Deckard is becoming empathetic towards androids causes him to doubt his ability to do his job.

We’re left with the internal message that his developing empathy towards androids is a problem that needs stamping out, that it prevents him from doing the “right” thing by “retiring” the androids whose primary crime is wishing for freedom equal to that of humans. And this in spite of the fact that empathy in general is one of the highest requirements of humans. There’s a certain element of power and control. If at any point humans lose the ability to tell an android from a human, they swiftly lose their moral justification for continuing to enslave them in untold numbers. Essentially, the androids would become human.

Dick does a truly excellent job setting up these moral quandries in the character of Deckard and in us, the readers. Even as the androids are setting about murdering people, plotting in secret, we feel sympathy for them. They really are very human characters. There are several moments where we the readers are left feeling sure that Deckard is himself an android even after we’ve identified with him as a human, and it really creates some brilliant tension.

But is this a dystopian future for us?
Aside from the obvious dystopian element that Earth has been largely destroyed by nuclear war (mitigated by the fact that most of the people who survived with their health intact have emigrated to colony worlds) and the degree to which people left on Earth live poorly, conceptually I don’t really find this to be a credible cautionary tale. While our technology has advanced in many ways past the world of Deckard, we’ve yet to even come close to that level of artificial intelligence, and honestly, I don’t think we ever will. I believe that our advances are going to be by way of improving human lives through machinary and appliance, rather than simply replacing human labor with artificial human labor.

Why should you read this book?
Phillip K. Dick, as evidenced by the nearly dozen major motion pictures based on his novels and short stories, spins a great yarn. He has a great skill to build a world around you in very few words in a way that you can see and feel and touch. He understands the human mind in a way a lot of science fiction writers don’t. He has more of the sense of a psychologist than a scientist or engineer, and he pulls you in very quickly. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a great entry in Dick’s bibliography and in the cyberpunk or dystopia genres overall.

About Dan Ruffolo

Dan Ruffolo
Dan is a History and Philosophy graduate from Laurentian University. When he’s not reading an excessive amount of fantasy and sci-fi novels, or putting way too much time into online gaming and forums, he runs a Wine Shop in the north end of Toronto Ontario. A lifelong fantasy reader, and gamer nerd, Dan’s life ambition is to become a librarian.

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  1. Ah, Dan, you’ve (like a lot of people do) left out the question mark at the end of the title. It is: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Then, one can ask, does the novel indeed answer the book’s interrogatory title, well, does it?

  2. Say, Dan, up there in Ontario, Canada, are you planning at all to fix the title, or not?

    • That’s a question for our editing team, not me.
      I suspect part of it though, is that the publication system we use at RantingDragon derives the page’s URL from the title of the review, and adding a ? character into the URL would cause some problems.

      • Huh? It’s the editing team’s fault? HTML has the ability to produce a “?” in text. I’ve never had any trouble doing do. Well, then, do you at least agree there is suppose to be a “?” in the title????

        • Such an elegant vocabulary, Ms. Harvey. We’re you a DI at Fort Dix, by any chance? But the page title has nothing to do with the URL query string, and there is a way to get an encoded special character “?” into that query string.

      • In fact, Dan, if you “right-click” on the page title up above, then click

        on “properties,” you can see the HTML coding, and the line for the page title is:

        Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

        I note that there is no “?” at the end of the book’s title. Curious,
        Dan, in the book review file you submitted, did you put a “?” at the end of the novel’s title?????

        • So you -didn’t- actually read what I said then. Thanks for the input. Why exactly are you so bent out of shape by the lack of a question mark?

          • Lemme spell it out for you again:

            The URL of the review page is built from the title of the review as placed in our publishing software. As a result, since you can’t put special characters into a URL and have it load properly, the process of publishing the page ends up redacting those characters. Now since your facebook page appears to be nothing but complaints about things in the news, and abject Philip K Dick fanboyism, I can tell you aren’t going to stop posting about this, so I took the time to set it up such that it manages to bypass the title of the review in generating the URL, so you get your question mark. Congratulations, angrily complaining and crossposting about something has caused someone to go to effort just to shut you up.

            Take pride.

            (A note to other RD readers: I’m sorry for the hostile tone of this post, but seeing how it seems that criticising everything around him is all this guy does, I decided to vent a little at having to deal with him. Obviously my views here are personal and do not in any way reflect those of Ranting Dragon or its other correspondents.)

          • Actually, I don’t criticize everything around me regards people who write about Philip K. Dick. But I am someone who has actually interviewed him and been writing about him since the late 1970s. And, by the way, what’s in the URL has no effect on what’s in the text file. Would still like to know if you included a “?” in the text file of your review that you submitted. And this particular “?” does matter because it’s what Phil Dick titled it, didn’t he?????

          • What’s in the URL has no effect on what’s in the text file. Yes. I never said it did. What I -DID- say was what what is in the title of the review DOES have an effect on the URL. And the URL cannot have a ? in it and still function.

            So the act of submitting the article for publication caused the software we use to remove the ? from the title in order to generate a URL that would function, and I had to go manually into the publication software and edit the file in order to display the ? in the title without it trying to add a ? to the URL as well, which would have broken the link.

            Do you now understand what I’m talking about?

          • But then, in the URL query string why couldn’t you have encoded the “?” as %3F, or %40, making it a “special character” vs part of the URL query string?

          • I direct you to the comment below from Shannon Harvey that this is a function of the automatic process the software engages in, and not something I could have “encoded in the string”

            Let me say it, again, because I don’t know man, you have some kind of comprehension issue.

            “The software was responsible for cutting your precious question mark. You bitched so long and so loud about it, that I took the time to find a way to bypass the functioning of the software to make the question mark appear. What I do NOT need, having already done this with the software, is you (Who have no access to the backend of the publishing software or the submission software, or any part of this website or the software underlying this website) spouting your mouth off about how I “should” have done what you wanted me to do, which is already done.”

            Continuing to belabour the point about the “missing” question mark that is now present makes you look like a petulant child who is so obsessed with appearing intelligent and knowledgeable on the internet, that you won’t stop trying to demonstrate how much smarter you think you are when I’ve already explained what the problem was, and that it was fixed.

            I’m not going to take that level of obsession with appearing clever from somebody whose facebook page has publicly viewable pictures of his grandchildren alongside a link to one of his favourite movie pages “Big BooBs and sex”[sic] and whose brilliant and insightful interview questions to Philip K Dick included “What do you think science fiction means?” and “When did you become interested in philosophy?”

    • I fear this is my fault, not Dan’s. I’m the one who made the html title of this page and I didn’t know the title needed a question mark. I have fixed this now. I never realized the omission of a question mark could lead to angry readers. My apologies.

  3. This review is totally on point. I disagree with the writer regarding the likelihood of some of the novel’s more pessimistic uses of technology; I think it’s unfortunately not at all a stretch to think that humans would use advances in such an empathy-challenged way. Still, great analysis. This is one of my all-time favorite books…

  4. Perhaps someone out there could address the substance of the review, as opposed to imitating the grooming behaviour of our less-evolved cousins, the chimpanzees and great apes (“nitpicking”, in case anyone missed that as being too subtle).

    While I’ve never read the novel, Blade Runner is one of my all-time favourite movies. I really should address this anomaly, as I normally try to read the source material for any movies I enjoy that much. That aside, one of the points made about improving humanity’s lot through technology rather than artificial life is, I think, something to discuss.

    Genetic manipulation has come quite far since Watson and Crick discovered the double helix. It’s routine work to insert genes from one species into another, such that we can “enjoy” the fishmato, watch creatures glow in the dark or use radioactivity-bearing bacteria to fight cancer. Cloning technology exists, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine a scenario where created organisms are used for a variety of purposes, including heavy labour/industry and fighting wars.

    Look at the furor that erupts every time a soldier is killed overseas. How about Fukushima workers nobly exposing themselves to radiation in order to clean up the plant. If replicants existed, “real people” wouldn’t have to die any more. They might look like us, but they’d just be… things. With all the resistance to racial integration in the US during the 1960s, with all the resistance to gay rights today (rioting? really, France?), is it that hard to see people wanting artificial life forms created that can do everything we can do, but aren’t actual people?

    I hope that’s thought-provoking, and I hope there’s enough question marks to satisfy even the most demanding of readers.

  5. While I understand being annoyed at certain types of typos and errors in critical material, I think that this minor nitpick has kinda degenerated a bit…at least disagree in an agreeable fashion, maybe? Mr. Ruffolo’s article is soundly written and has given us fodder for discussion. I disagreed with a couple of points in it, too, but this is getting out of hand. No, I have no personal reason to defend him, other than out of empathy–it isn’t like nobody here’s ever been guilty of a typo, I suppose, and I think the author’s at least demonstrated that he isn’t some semi-literate boon who deserves such harsh treatment. Just my thoughts, no need to pounce on me…

    • Actually, Paul, I’ve been called much worse than “semi-literate boon,” and I’ve already been to hell and back in Vietnam. So those who vainly attempt to kill the messenger because they don’t like the message doesn’t work on me. Apparently my concern for accuracy in the title of an author’s work was the wrong thing to do here. So be it.

      • Your reading comprehension needs some work Frank. He was suggesting that YOU were implying that -I- was semi-literate for leaving out the ? in the title (which I explained repeatedly) Astute readers will also note that the ? -was- present in every instance of the title IN the review itself.
        Further, students of logic and argumentation will note that “I’ve been to Nam” is an appeal to emotion and authority which is 100% utterly meaningless in terms of the strength of your argument.

  6. Matthew Wright

    I would just like to point out that, while Frank may have been a little obsessed with getting the ? in there, and perhaps even annoying about it, he was never rude or insulting. I feel that the same can not be said for Dan. As I click away from this page, I do so feeling like Dan is an a**. I find it funny that Dan accuses Frank of being “bent out of shape” when anyone reading all the way through these comments can see that Frank stayed calm while Dan got “bent out of shape”. Shame on you for being so childish Dan. Going to his facebook and insulting him based on what you find there? Yet still Frank stayed calm.

    Seems to me that, unlike Dan, Frank understands that an argument is a search for truth, not a fight.

    • He complained, continued pestering without leaving any time for anybody to fix things, then it was fixed for him, he continued to belabor the point, despite it being explained to him repeatedly what had happened. He was given the truth which was summarily ignored in favour of continuing to criticize and tell us how to do things using software he knows nothing about. If you think not standing there and taking that makes me an ass, then I’m perfectly comfortable having you consider me an ass.

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