Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Themes

  • Humanity is the central theme of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Deckard uses the Voigt-Kampff test to gauge empathy levels and thereby identify androids. Empathy is considered humanity's defining factor, but this belief is complicated by the fact that androids can feel empathy for each other.
  • Science and technology are important themes in Philip K. Dick's work. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in a world where science has advanced to the point of creating artificial intelligence. This raises important moral questions about what it means to be human and how to use technology ethically.
  • In some ways, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a novel about the American Dream. Rick Deckard lives in a dystopian future devastated by World War Terminus. Owning an animal is the new American Dream, and Deckard's quest to own one makes him a more sympathetic character.


(Novels for Students)

Science and Technology
One of the goals of Dick's fiction is to show that the idea of technology as passive helpmate, slave, or fantastic mistress is unrealistic. Similarly, the opposite notion—that humanity can somehow return to a pastoral way of life and live in an agriculturally based paradise—is naive. These two beliefs, according to Dick, actually endanger the evolution of humankind: so long as humans are uneasy about their own tools, or regard them as in some way mysterious, those tools will be seen as having some innate power over mankind. In other words, regardless of technology's fallibility, if humans regard themselves as less smart or less able than their tools, then they will be at the mercy of their tools. Technology will advance, regardless of what the majority of humanity feels about that technology. Any struggle to remain the ruler or owner of new technology will surely fail. Dick believes the only solution to human uneasiness with technology is a wholesale acceptance of it.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? expresses Dick's ideas about technology in ways very similar to the story of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. That creature, animated from lifeless flesh, was its creator's scientific success. But the good doctor was so horrified by his creature's grotesque appearance that he ended up destroying it. In Dick's version, the trouble with scientifically created androids is that they resemble their masters too closely. Yet that is what the market has created and that is "what the colonists wanted," says Eldon Rosen. "If our firm hadn't made these progressively more human types, other firms in the field would have." So the problem is not whether androids can approximate humans, but continuing the classification of androids as non-life. It becomes harder to justify the slavery and "retiring" of androids if there is little difference between them and humans. As Isidore tries to teach the group of illegal androids, all life is sacred: all of it, even spiders—whose lack of empathy at one point is compared to the androids' lack. The question then becomes, why can't androids and technology, in all its glorious animation, be defined as a type of life and, therefore, sacred?

Human Condition
Throughout the novel, humans are defined as constructs capable of empathy and "empathetic, role-taking ability." Human empathy is what the Voigt-Kampff test looks for: whether the test subject responds to a described situation as if it were real for them. Even without the test, humans reveal themselves through their need for other living creatures and their being needed in return. "You have to be with other people … in order to live at all," says Isidore. To be human, to be alive, is to depend on other people. Pris, Roy, and Irmgard have accomplished this to some extent, and they decide to accept Isidore. That is all he needs as verification that though "not alive" and illegal, the three are people. Through the ability of the three androids to work as a team and Isidore's acceptance of them, Dick leaves open the possibility of a harmonious future. At present, however, the definition of human is constantly challenged and then reconfirmed by human relations with androids—humans remain humans by eliminating the almost human. Dick is reflecting on man's inhumanity to man by putting humans in the position of defending their identity through the elimination of their imitators. It...

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