Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is best known as the source material for the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner (1982), but the novel is actually a far richer story than even the film, which has become a cult classic. The novel encapsulates many of the recurring themes and images in Philip K. Dick’s work.
Although Dick persistently tried to achieve mainstream success, only one of his numerous “nongenre” novels would be published in his lifetime. As a science-fiction writer, however, Dick enjoyed almost immediate success, and by the time of his death he was acclaimed as arguably the best science-fiction writer in the world. Part of this acclaim is based on the quality of his writing: witty, sparse, yet able to handle the most complex ontological ideas with complete clarity. Another part of this acclaim, however, is his ability to wrest the many variations, both comic and disturbing, from the narrow set of concerns he pursues obsessively.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick covers, for example, wide-ranging themes such as the instability of reality, the disturbing likeness between nature and artifact, and addiction and religious belief. He handles these weighty themes with an unfailing lightness of touch, but also with a firm grip of the drama of his story.
Dick’s work is full of ordinary people doing routine and generally low-paying work. They are often married, though their marriages are more likely to be companionable than entirely satisfying. The people are restless, filled with a usually ill-defined sense that they should be doing something better with their lives. His characters are humdrum and distinctly unheroic; Rick Deckard is certainly not the action hero portrayed in Blade Runner. When longings for change are answered, therefore, his characters are ill-equipped to deal with the disruptions, and their individual response is likely to be an obstinate muddling through rather than a decisive action.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the disruption to Deckard’s reality comes in two ways; literally, when he is assigned to retire the unprecedented number of six androids in one day, not only promising relative wealth but also promising great danger; and figuratively, when he is taken to the unfamiliar police station. For a while it seems that he has been transported into a different reality, one he does not know and one that does not know him (a consistent trope in...
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