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.