Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, written by sci-fi maestro Philip K. Dick, was the inspiration behind the film Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1982.
Blade Runner is a favourite of mine – a futuristic noir classic, but I want to discuss the novel it was based on. The film is relatively faithful to the book in terms of overall plot but I found the tone to be vastly different.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep introduces us to Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter operating in North California on an Earth that has been ravaged by nuclear war, nearly extinct of all live animals and left behind by the majority of humanity, who have begun to colonise on Mars and beyond. Rick Deckard hunts androids who illegally pose as humans and must ‘retire’ them (as you cannot kill what is not alive).
Animals are the ultimate status symbol – well live animals anyway. To keep and own a live animal is an important societal need. World War Terminus has caused extinction in a huge percentage of animals, and now the humans who remain on earth spend their credits on live animals…or if they can’t afford them, the cheaper electric variety. In the past Deckard owned a live sheep but chose to replace it with an synthetic sheep when it died of tetanus. When he reveals this to his neighbour there is a sense of pity and awkwardness. His neighbour promises not to reveal the truth to anyone, such is the shame of owning a synthetic animal.
The androids Rick must hunt over the course of the novel are the most advanced robots ever created and their intelligence and likeness to humans is eerily close. The Nexus-6 brain module is a technical accomplishment that the creators The Rosen Association are immensely proud of. So much so that they boast their androids are near indistinguishable for humans. Deckard must hunt down and destroy six of these Nexus-6 models who have escaped their colony on Mars and are classed as fugitives.
His only method of identifying these androids is by asking the suspect a series of questions aimed to measure a person’s empathy, the Voigt-Kampff test. Various scenarios are put to the suspect to test their reactions, more specifically their empathic responses as the androids have no sense of empathy.
Meanwhile, a second strand of narration is viewed through the eyes of John Isidore, who is deemed special, derogatively called a ‘chickenhead’, and ultimately viewed as below human life as the vast amount of radioactive dust on the Earth has caused his intelligence to diminish (along with thousands of other ‘specials’). He lives alone in an empty apartment building covered in ‘kipple’ and has little outside contact outside of his job as a driver. As a special with sub-par IQ he is treated with disdain by all other humans who have not yet been genetically damaged.
When one of the fugitive androids Pris Stratton moves into an apartment below his he attempts to befriend her. She is eventually joined by Roy and Irmgard Baty, husband and wife within the group of fugitive androids. Isidore aids them due to the involvement and importance he feels when they include him in their plan to stop Deckard, despite treating him with as little respect as other humans do.
Philip K. Dick’s novel contains several interesting themes, one of which seems to be humanity’s struggle for relevance; those people who have been left behind and have to exist on this dying Earth. I want to talk briefly about Mercerism, a new religion based on the life and struggles of Wilbur Mercer. All over Earth and in the space colonies, empathy boxes are used for followers of Mercerism to connect with each other, to share their emotions together. Empathy, compassion and community spirit are the core beliefs of Mercerism, and so both joy and pain are shared collectively in a kind of hallucination that all believers can share together.
Opposing Mercerism is Buster Friendly, a talkshow android who dominates the television with his chatshows, guests and interviews. An upbeat, colourful, chatty distraction from the real world, Isidore notices that the world seems much more lonely when the television is off. This is because Buster Friendly gives an illusion of friendship but no more; after all, it is just a television show. Towards the end of the novel, Buster Friendly announces
“We may never know [who has spawned this hoax]. Nor can we fathom the peculiar purpose behind this swindle. Yes, folks, swindle. Mercerism is a swindle!”
Mercerism is based on a lie; Mercer is portrayed by a down and out actor, and the ‘hallucinations’ the users share were recorded years ago. Buster Friendly and the androids seem to relish this expose, that humans have been deceived into following a phoney. But what Buster Friendly doesn’t realise is that even if Mercerism is a ‘swindle’, the effect it has on people is real. It causes empathy, while the androids who are devoted to Friendly’s type of religion are pulling legs off spiders.
So it is true that Mercerism is fake, but does it matter who Mercer is or whether he even exists? For the likes of Rick, his wife Iran and Isidore, the ideals of Mercerism still stand because they are believed in.
The whole novel boils down to the emotion of empathy. Deckard initially feels no guilt in performing his job as a bounty hunter as he believes that androids are incapable of true human emotion and therefore do not deserve a status on par with humans. But if the androids cannot feel empathy why does Roy Baty scream in anguish when Deckard shoots his wife Irmgard through the door of their apartment?
And so the lines are blurred. Androids are capable of empathetic feeling with each other…and humans are capable of a loss of empathy. Fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch has no empathy at all. He enjoys killing androids for the sake of it, and thus can perform his job easily.
“If I test out android,” Phil Resch prattled, “you will undergo renewed faith in the human race. But since it’s not going to work out that way, I suggest you begin framing an ideology which will account for-”
If this is the case (and Deckard seems to realise that it is) then it makes his job that much harder, leading to his existential crisis towards the end of the novel. Humans are meant to feel empathy, something that androids cannot do. But they are not meant to feel empathy for androids, despite the fact that they are not mere machines but have emotions and are made from living tissue.
“These electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”
After Rick’s epiphany and fusion with Mercer, he has renewed empathy with all forms of life; he is able to see value in the androids version of a life, and even the ‘paltry’ life of a mechanical toad he found, that he had believed was real. Rick states that while he is disappointed that the toad is not real, he prefers to know it is fake rather than believing it to be a live creature. Just one day hunting these ‘androids’ has completely changed his idea of empathy and compassion and is now similar to Isidore in this respect. Does this make them both chickenheads?
Outside of the various messages which could be discussed in much greater depth, I found the Dick’s writing style through the book to be fantastically simple. We switch from tense, slow and steady scenes to fast paced dialogue and laser tube showdowns. The perspective occasionally shifts between Deckard and Isidore, two protagonists with differing views and levels of intelligence but both were fascinating to me as a reader. We are introduced to so many themes and ways of life that are now the norm in this future, but Dick manages to make them real and understandable.
To end the novel (and this post), Deckard collapses into bed exhausted at his physical and mental battle throughout the day. He dials the 670 setting into the Penfield mood enhancer; the setting for long deserved peace. Yet he doesn’t naturally feel, or feel he deserves, this mood. If our moods and emotions can be affected and manipulated by electrical currents, how different are we to the androids?