Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Analysis

Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Analysis

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the source material for Ridley Scott's cult classic Blade Runner. Both the novel and the film are set in a dystopian future where Earth has been ravaged by World War Terminus. This post-apocalyptic setting allows Philip K. Dick to explore what it means to be human in extreme situations.
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is Philip K. Dick's classic science fiction novel about the limits of empathy. It plays with the tropes of science fiction, including artificial intelligence, advances in technology, and what it means to be human.
  • In the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, animals are symbols of social status. Essentially, the more animals one owns, the higher their class on Earth. Rick Deckard's quest to own an animal is in effect a desire to move up in the social hierarchy and achieve the American Dream.

Analysis

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 Dick’s work). These...

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The Plot

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? recounts a day in the life of bounty hunter Rick Deckard. The action begins on the morning of January 3, 1992, as Deckard and his wife, Iran, wake up in their apartment; it concludes the following morning, as an exhausted Deckard returns to bed. In that twenty-four-hour period, Deckard faces the greatest challenge he has ever encountered: He must “retire” a rogue band of “organic androids” (or “andys,” as they are called) of a design so advanced that they are almost indistinguishable from human beings. His task is complicated by his attraction for another android, Rachael Rosen, who tries to prevent him from carrying out his mission.

The story is set in a gray world devastated by “World War Terminus” and the resulting radioactive fallout, which is slowly depopulating the planet. Many people have left to settle in a colony on Mars, where androids are employed for hard labor, domestic service, and other purposes. In making their escape from Mars and servitude, the rogue andys that Deckard is to retire killed a number of humans. The people who remain on Earth have witnessed the extinction of many animal species. Possession of an animal—a horse, a sheep, or even a cat—confers status; for those who cannot afford the real thing, artificial animals are available. Deckard himself has an electric sheep but greatly desires to own a living creature. That is the primary motivation in his quest: The...

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Historical Context

Harrison Ford atop a Metrocab in Blade Runner Published by Gale Cengage

The Cold War and Vietnam
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? portrays a world that has survived a nuclear...

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Setting

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?? portrays a world that has survived a nuclear holocaust, a possibility that did not seem too...

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Literary Style

Narrative/Point of View
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is narrated in third person, with the characters...

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Social Sensitivity

The 1960s—the decade during which Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?? was published— were a time of conflict, confusion, and...

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Compare and Contrast

  • 1968: The Americans are caught in a space race with the Soviets to reach the moon. Many predict moon colonies and...

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Topics for Discussion

1. Do some research into the pieces of art and music mentioned in the novel. What is the significance of the paintings of Edvard Munch or...

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Draw parallels between Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and other abolitionist novels. Imagine the speech of Shylock in...

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Topics for Further Study

  • Do some research into the pieces of art and music mentioned in the novel. What is the significance of the paintings of Edvard Munch or...

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Media Adaptations

  • The novel was adapted to film as Blade Runner in 1982. Directed by Ridley Scott, the movie starred Harrison Ford as retired...

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What Do I Read Next?

  • Dick presents some insight into his fictional cosmology in his essay "Man, Android, and Machine," published in the anthology Science...

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For Further Reference

Dick, Philip K. "Notes on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)." The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick. Pantheon Books,...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Dick, Philip K. Afterword to The Golden Man. Berkley Publishing, 1980.

Le Guin, Ursula K....

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Bibliography

Apel, D. Scott, ed. Philip K. Dick: The Dream Connection. San Diego: Permanent Press, 1987.

Carrere, Emmanuel. I Am Alive and You Are Dead: The Strange Life and Times of Philip K. Dick. Translated by Timothy Bent. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003.

Lem, Stanislaw. Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Mackey, Douglas A. Philip K. Dick. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Mason, Daryl. The Biography of Philip K. Dick. London: Gollancz, 2006.

Olander, Joseph, and...

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