Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Essays and Criticism

Philip K. Dick

A Comparison of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the movie Blade Runner

(Novels for Students)

It is awkward to tell friends that you are reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The title is long and complex, and besides, few people outside of the small, particular community of science fiction fans are familiar with it. Much easier is to tell friends that you are reading the book that Blade Runner is based on. Why not? The publisher even uses this shorter title on the paperback reissue editions, remembering to include Philip Dick's original title only in parentheses. The 1982 movie Blade Runner was a critical success upon its release, and its reputation has grown since then. Special effects technicians point to this movie as a turning point in cinematic design. The Library of Congress has listed it with the "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" films on the National Film Registry. Fifteen years after the movie's release, a video game based on it has become a best seller, introducing a new generation to the Blade Runner idea.

The problem is that the Blade Runner idea is not the same thing as the complex examination of humanity's goals and weaknesses found in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The film does have its virtues, but, as is almost always the case with cinematic adaptations, the book is better.

The emphasis of the movie can be found in its title, which uses a phrase for bounty hunters that never appears in the novel. The words "blade" and "runner" suggest weapons, action, fighting, hunting, and, by extension, survival. Rick Deckard is played by Harrison Ford as a familiar movie type, a man of few words, the lonesome, weary private eye slogging through the filth and hopelessness of a corrupt society. Rather than taking place in a deserted San Francisco, the film moves the action to jam-packed Los Angeles, where the street scenes are dominated by twin influences of advertising and Asian design: aspects of today's Los Angeles projected to an extreme. This setting keeps the viewers' eyes busy and realistically projects the social changes that Southern California is expected to undergo in the decades to come. It has less to do with Dick's novel, though, than with the detective movies of the 1940s and 1950s that spun off of Raymond Chandler's fiction. In the film version Deckard struggles against the dehumanizing effect of the corrupt culture that he lives in, which actually is a different thing than the book—Deckard's struggle to retain his humanity. Only his growing respect for android life is presented in the film, dramatized by Rachael Rosen's simplified role as a traditional love interest and by Roy Baty's touching sacrifice of his own life at the end.

While the film is able to insinuate the ways in which humans and androids are similar (very convincingly, since the androids in the film are played by humans), it is unable to come near the book's intricate understanding of the many ways we humans relate to the world around us. Focusing our concentration on hunting and killing the androids invites the viewer to think of them as objects, to focus on the ways that they deserve to be found and destroyed, and this draws viewers away from the empathy that is at the core of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and that is found throughout most of Philip K. Dick's works.

The quasi-religion Mercerism, based on empathy with the struggles of Wilbur Mercer, is just too complex to convey to a motion picture audience with sounds and images. Introduced in Dick's 1964 short story "The Little Black Box," Mercerism is a well-conceived religion for modern times, offering a touch of the spiritualism that has been pushed aside by technology throughout the twentieth century. Dick shrewdly gave Mercerism the structure that a post-apocalyptic society will require only slightly more than our own: its focus is away from moral laws and toward unity, but it achieves unity, as our society increasingly does, via the shared experience of an image on a screen. Mercerism is a believable practice in the novel because it represents the struggle against the forces that try to isolate us from each other. So convincing is it at fulfilling a human desire that readers tend to empathize with Deckard and ignore the evidence that Mercer is a fraud, a character played by an old drunkard, and to accept Mercer as being more real than ever when he mysteriously, supernaturally, appears to Deckard.

Unfortunately, the only way to include the practice of Mercerism in the movie would be to waste precious screen seconds showing Deckard, Iran, or Isidore staring at a video tube. Dick did suggest a cinematic quality to Mercerism by having the empathy that is felt by its practitioners show up as physical bruises and...

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Recognising a 'Human-Thing': cyborgs, robots and replicants in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner

(Novels for Students)

It really is time to take science fiction seriously. The genre now forms about ten per cent of paperback fiction sales, and with the continuing success of comics such as 2000 AD and graphic-novel fiction such as Watchmen there's every reason to think that the readership will continue to grow. Literary syllabuses in schools and colleges have traditionally been slow to catch on to the study of contemporary forms of popular narrative, whether they are soaps, pulp romances, detective novels, or science fiction. But the growing number of self-constructed course work options does offer the possibility of bringing new kinds of contemporary writing and reading-experience onto the syllabus. I want to suggest some ways of approaching the writing of one of the most celebrated SF authors Philip K. Dick through a discussion of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and its acclaimed film realisation as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). I concentrate on the central theme of both novel and film: the conflict between 'authentic' and 'artificial' personality, that is, between people and robot….

A common reason often given for not paying attention to science fiction is the supposed lack of 'human interest' in the genre: technology dominates to the exclusion of developed personalities or relationships. Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream? is a special case for this kind of objection because it explicitly plays with confusions between human personality and artificial or machine-derived intelligence: what would be the difference between a physically perfect android kitted out with memories and emotions passably like our own, and a person nurtured through the usual channels? The question can stimulate good discussion: name as many robots as you can think of; do we believe artificial intelligence will ever equal human resources; and if all robots look like the Ford automated-assembly line then why are we even beginning to take the idea of androids seriously?

One answer to the last question is that in all periods 'human-Things' have been imagined as entities which test or define the contemporary sense of human value: the incubus or succubus in Christian tradition, the Golem in Jewish folklore, Prospero's Ariel and Caliban (and perhaps even Miranda too?), E. T. A. Hoffmann's Sandman, and of course Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Philip K. Dick's androids are no exception, they belong to their period, the late 1960s, in the way that they are defined in relation to authentic human emotionality and sanity. But as soon as we have written the glib phrase, we are brought up short, in exactly the manner which the novel provokes: what is an authentic human psyche?

Do Androids Dream? is set in the decaying megalopolis of Los Angeles, AD 2020, a post-holocaust society where the human population has been decimated by the effects of radiation sickness. So far, so conventional; the scenario is one major cliche of pulp SF. This novel's originality is created by the compelling logic to be found in the details of the North Californian world which it evokes. The effects of 'World War Terminus' have induced progressive species death, beginning with birds, then 'foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits.' This species-scarcity induces a kind of religion of animal-ownership in the surviving human population, where everyone aspires to possess and care for one of the beast creation. Curating animals is also partly a replacement for child-rearing, because the fear of genetic damage has discouraged human reproduction. The bounty-hunter hero of the novel, Rick Deckard, keeps a black-faced Suffolk ewe on the roof of the apartment block where he lives with his wife Iran. But the sheep is not ideal, in fact it's electric; Deckard can't afford a real one, and he continually checks the list-price of animals in 'his creased, much-studied copy of Sidney's Animal & Fowl Catalogue.'

At the verge of its extinction, the natural world becomes a valuable commodity; the process of collecting and buying the living merchandise itself accelerates the destruction, increasing scarcity, raising prices. Here the often-praised predictive aspect of good science fiction is very evident. But the keeping of animals in the future world of the novel is an element of a larger belief system: everyone views their own life as part of 'the Ascent', a progress up an increasingly steep incline which they share with the god-like figure of Wilbur Mercer. This religious empathy, or feeling-with, is generated and experienced through technology. By tuning in to an 'empathy box' each individual shares in the Ascent of Mercer, and shares the antagonism directed to their god-figure by some unknown enemies, 'the old antagonists': 'He had crossed over in the usual perplexing fashion; physical merging—accompanied by mental and spiritual identification … As it did for everyone who at this moment clutched the handles, either here on Earth or on one of the colony planets.'

'Empathy' joins believers with Mercer, either through use of the black box, or through the empathy which they extend towards the animals they keep or, more rarely, to other individuals. And at the center of the novel's increasingly tortured attempts to locate absolute differences between androids and human beings, we find the linked ideas of empathy and affect. The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'empathy' as 'The power of entering into the experience of or...

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Humanity, Personhood and the Ideological Problems Technology Creates in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

(Novels for Students)

Both the movie Blade Runner and the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are centrally concerned about the definition of humanness in the context of modern technology. The irony present in both works is that through its technology, humanity has diminished its own capacity to survive, necessitating the invention and mass production of a new life form (the android) which is capable of challenging humanity. This situation gives rise to the central dilemma of both movie and book—if the creature is virtually identical in kind to the creator, should not the creature have virtually all the same rights and privileges as the creator? (The theological theme here is obvious, but I leave others to deal with it.)


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