As far as science-fiction literature is concerned, Philip K. Dick is absolutely one of the biggest (if not the biggest) and most important names you’ll encounter. Dick’s revolutionary stories helped shape the genre when true, “hardcore” science-fiction was still a genre-in-development and thanks to them, we can now enjoy a large number of science-fiction works. Dick’s seminal contributions to the genre have certainly not been in vain, as a lot of modern science-fiction is based on his stories and novels, whether we’re talking about other literary works, or adaptations of his opus. Today’s review is going to focus on his arguably most famous work, the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, first published back in 1968.
Although being a stand-alone work and a truly great piece of science-fiction literature, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has been overshadowed by Ridley Scott’s amazing 1982 adaptation called Blade Runner. It is a rare case that a cinematic adaptation overshadows a book it is based on, but Blade Runner has managed to do so. Thanks to the movie, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has become a cultural phenomenon and despite all the narrative differences between the book and the novel – and there are many, some even substantial ones – most retrospective reviews have focused more on the movie than the book itself.
We at Fiction Horizon are going to try to bring you a different perspective, focusing solely on the book and using the movie only for comparative details, and only when necessary. Despite the fact that Blade Runner is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word, a movie that has to be seen by everyone, even those that hate science-fiction, we think that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is quality work in its own right and that it does, indeed, deserve your time.
The novel was first published back in 1968 by Doubleday. Philip K. Dick was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard’s novella Fear, a horror story about a man who feels estranged from his own reality; the novella was published in 1940, when Dick was still a child, but it had a profound influence on him later, like other works written by Hubbard. Although it still “lives” in the shadow of Scott’s movie, the novel itself is a seminal work in Dick’s opus and the evolution of his literary ideas. This was further emphasized by his 1972 speech titled “The Android and the Human”, which has several crucial parallels with the novel. In his speech, Dick said:
Our environment — and I mean our man-made world of machines, artificial constructs, computers, electronic systems, interlinking homeostatic components — all of this is in fact beginning more and more to possess what the earnest psychologists fear the primitive sees in his environment: animation. In a very real sense our environment is becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive, and in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves…Rather than learning about ourselves by studying our constructs, perhaps we should make the attempt to comprehend what our constructs are up to by looking into what we ourselves are up to.– Philip K. Dick, “The Android and the Human” (1972)
Although this speech doesn’t fully reveal the mastery behind the novel, it highlights one of its most important aspects – the relationship between humanity and technology. Of course, in the manner of a great master, Philip K. Dick takes our machines, our watches, our calculators, our televisions, etc., and turns them into the Nexus-6 model androids that Rick Deckard, the story’s protagonist (played brilliantly by Harrison Ford in Scott’s adaptation) has to hunt down. The androids thus become the novel’s primary antagonists, but they are certainly not the only ones and their very nature transcends their beings and symbolically reflects their villainous traits onto their creators – the humans. And that is what Dick wanted to say in his speech, but also in this novel, on which the speech heavily relies.
The true villainy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? thus does not lie with the Nexus-6 androids – they are just sentient beings that want a place in the world, just like their creators, who deem them dangerous because of that exact same reason, because they are sentient and because they have stopped being the machines they are, although they were supposed to do exactly that (and that is the subtle cycle of irony that wonderfully manifests itself through the pages of the novel) – although they are much less human in the book than in the movie (e.g., Batty’s “tears in rain” soliloquy doesn’t exist in the book, a crucial moment in the film that made Batty’s character human-like, possibly even more than Deckard’s, was an invention by the screenwriters and a true moment of Rutger Hauer’s improvisational genius).
The book never tries so much to make the androids look human, it doesn’t make an effort, although that is – up to a point – exactly the point. Dick constantly portrays his antagonists as machines, but despite that, and despite the lack of intentional empathy-inducing efforts, he wants us to fully comprehend their position in the world they live in.
The androids were created by the humans. The same humans who caused the infamous World War Terminus (of course it had to be called “Terminus”, both because it seemed to have terminated society as the people knew it and because it could sound like “three”, which would fit the actual chronology) and created a polluted, dehumanized society that reminds us of a “neon hell” we can often see in cyberpunk stories. And although Dick does his best to describe the world his characters inhabit, his focus on the story and the story’s symbols led to the environment being somewhat pushed aside, except for the final chapters, where you could actually feel the building, the wasteland and, in the end, the nature that Deckard experiences.
In terms of world-description, Dick’s best lines tell us about the wasteland the world became after World War Terminus, but if you want a better and still completely authentic feel, we advise you to look at the scenery and production design of Scott’s Blade Runner, inspired by the futuristic sketches of Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia, which masterfully bring to life what Dick did only partially in the book. But, back to the point.
The world these androids inhabit is, at best, an imitation of life. The humans are alive, most of their needs are taken care of, but it still doesn’t feel authentic. In a way, the artificial androids seem more authentic than the humans, probably because they are more authentic in a world where technology has become a surrogate for life itself. The society is, of course, never to blame. It is society that labels the Nexus-6 androids as ready for execution, it is society that condemns its own children and sends Rick Deckard, the brilliant “hardboiled”-type investigator and bounty hunter to fight against the androids. Ultimately, it is society that labels the androids as dangerous, not even stopping to consider that it was that same society that created the androids. And we don’t mean it in the literal sense; Dick didn’t mean it like that either.
The evil of the androids is purely symbolic here, as they haven’t really done anything except being sentient. They wanted to survive in the society that created them, but then discarded them because they were to dangerous. It is a rather Kafkaesque situation they find themselves in, like the poor Josef K., a man prosecuted for being himself in a corrupt and morally hideous society, or K., from The Castle, who is “sentenced” to roaming the horrendous village under the fortress forever, waiting to be admitted to “the place above”. And yet, they are executed – one by one. Deckard fulfills his job perfectly, but what Dick really does with this is not a sentence of the villainy of these androids, but a symbolic execution of the society that created them.
This is mostly evident via Deckard’s own “spiritual” journey and the destruction of his “ideals” through his somewhat spiritual experiences (Dick is among the science-fiction authors who didn’t run away from spirituality, despite the hi-tech setting of his works). Dick never explicitly blames his society for what happened, but rather, he just tells a story and wants us to have an epiphany, like Rick Deckard did, he wants to engage us, he wants us to think about the society he portrays and draw our own conclusions. And although not everyone will agree, Dick’s society is inherently wrong, it is evil and destructive, and the ironic condemnation (or “retirement”) of the humanoid Nexus-6 androids is just another proof that society crushes those it deems dangerous, whether they actually are dangerous or not. History has shown us that countries and societies have done that in the past and it is, therefore, sad to see that they are repeating the same mistakes in the future, even if that future is, like here, only fictional.
We could write the same number of paragraphs for a plethora of other issues that Dick problematized in this seminal novel, but we decided to focus on what we thought was the most important and interesting issue the book itself explores. There is also the ever-important problem of the humans’ relationship with nature, as evidenced by the real animals in the book, or the lack thereof; this aspect wasn’t really explored in the movie, although it was very, very important for the development of Deckard’s character (even the title is related to the fact that Deckard owns and maintains an electric sheep). Along that, Deckard’s own nature is a very important question, but that is something the movie also explores, although we think the book did it quite a lot better. Finally, there’s the all-important question of simulation vs. reality, which is the second most important issue in this book alongside the one we analyzed in this text.
Why is that? Well, seeing how Hubbard’s novella with a protagonist being disjointed from his own reality was Dick’s primary inspiration for this work, the importance of this issue becomes rather self-evident. Also, the title – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – plays on a popular human dream motif, questioning whether machines dream electric or real sheep, if they even dream in the first place. The above-mentioned animals, which – as we stated – also serve as a metaphor for the humans’ treatment of nature, are also a part of this simulation vs. reality issue, which is far more important for completely understanding this book than this review reveals but, as we said, we decided to focus on the issue we thought was most important.
Italian philosopher and critic, Benedetto Croce, once stated that a critic’s only real job is to interpret a work of art and to make it understandable. A critic doesn’t really “create” or “destroy” a work of art; the work either is art or it isn’t, but that is an inherent trait that work either has or does not have. In that aspect, we cannot do much for the book here in terms of making it more or less important, and that is why we have opted for an analytical approach. We wanted to explain to you the genius behind this book, we wanted to explain to you the genius of Philip K. Dick’s vision so that you can, for yourselves, see why this book is truly a masterpiece that must not be overshadowed by Scott’s cinematic masterpiece, but rather stand beside it as a work of genius in its own, on equal terms and with equal appreciation.