Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

do androids dream...“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” Spock

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Here we are back in our dystopian world of mid-20th century nightmares, when man has destroyed the planet in yet another global nuclear conflict. Most of the remaining humans have been persuaded to emigrate to other worlds, bribed with the promise of their own android if they go. Back on earth, the remaining population lives with the constant fear of infertility or worse, as a result of the radiation that covers the planet’s surface. Most animals have died and it has become a status symbol to keep a live pet. But these are hard to come by and expensive so some people keep electric pets instead – so well designed they are indistinguishable from the real thing without close examination. On these pets, real or fake, people pour out their feelings of empathy, feelings boosted by the Empathy Box – a machine that brings all humanity together to share in the suffering of their religious prophet, William Mercer.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, hunting down androids who have escaped from the offworld colonies and returned to Earth. Rick owns his own electric sheep, his live one having died. He dreams of one day having another live animal to care for. As the book begins, he has been given the task of destroying a group of six of the latest model androids, so convincing it’s almost impossible to tell them apart from humans. In fact the only test that works is one that measures lack of empathy – thus making this the characteristic that most defines humanity. If Rick manages to ‘retire’ all six androids, the bounty money will let him buy a real animal to cherish.

Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick

I’ve read this book three times now and each time I come away with the same feeling. It’s very readable, has some interesting ideas and the characterisation of Rick is excellent. But fundamentally the book makes no sense. There are so many inconsistencies in it that I always come out of it wondering what message exactly Dick was trying to send. The thing is I know what he was trying to say, because he explained it in interviews – he was saying that no matter how humanoid the androids appeared, they were still soulless and heartless, but that the very task of hunting and destroying such human-like beings puts Rick’s own humanity at risk. Unfortunately that doesn’t come out as the message in the book. I can’t help sympathising with the androids. They are created as superior beings then sold to be slaves (and Dick makes explicit reference to pre-Civil War slavery) performing domestic and agricultural chores. When they rebel, they are hunted down and killed. Humans on the other hand rely on machines not just to give them empathy but to control their moods. Seems to me that there’s very little left of humanity in the humans at all.

Mostly what the book provokes in me is a series of unanswered questions:

Why do the androids return to Earth knowing they will be hunted – why not go elsewhere when they escape?

Why have humans given up all their existing religions and taken up Mercerism? And what is the point of Mercerism? As religions go, it’s a particularly depressing one.

Why have some people decided to stay on Earth? There’s little prospect of it recovering in the foreseeable future, and they will eventually get sick and die.

Why are the humans so freaked about the androids – they don’t seem to do much harm except when enslaved or attacked. One of them has actually become an opera star – well, OK, soprano opera singers are a pestilence, I admit, but even so…

And the most basic question of all…

If humans are freaked by androids that are so human-like they can’t be told apart from the real thing, then… why make them???

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner - the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS...
Harrison Ford in Blade Runner – the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS…

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all the subsequent brilliant exploration of what it means to be human via the world’s greatest android, (no, not Marvin!), Commander Data. But I suspect Data owes his existence more to Asimov’s robots than Dick’s androids, and personally I think Asimov’s robots were the superior creation.

So while the book is an enjoyable read, and one I’d recommend because of its status as a classic of the genre, it’s lack of internal logic always prevents me from thinking of it as a truly great one.

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62 thoughts on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

  1. FictionFan – I think that’s the thing that sets apart great science fiction from the rest. Do the stories hang together logically? I think if that’s not there, it creates the need for too much suspension of disbelief – at least more than I’m willing to give up. Still, it is interesting to ponder the question of what it truly means to be human – or not human. And I’ve always loved Commander Data’s search for essential human-ness. Erm – but I also have a soft spot for Marvin. He does, after all, have a modulator!

    • Yes there has to be a reason behind the premise and this one fails to explain why the androids are made so human-like. I admit it would ruin the story, but why can’t they just be made green so they stand out! Data is a wonderful creation though – I loved the way Picard and he used Shakespeare to consider what it is to be human. And secretly I like Marvin too… 😉

  2. Oh, thanks – this is one I keep running past at the library. I know it’s one of the ‘classic SFs’ and its a great title, but I keep not being drawn by it, but thinking I should really give it a try………..you’ve enabled me to keep on avoiding it for some time again, for which relief, much thanks!

    • Even the title is misleading I think, ‘cos it gives the impression that the androids’ humanity is going to be the central point of the story. But it is good and well-written (for sci-fi, she said snobbily) so I wouldn’t want to entirely put you off. It would be much better if the answer to the title was Yes rather than No though…

  3. Hang on – is this Bladerunner? Or maybe I am completely confused. But anyway. I am all for suspending disbelief, particularly in a dystopian world as an environment such as that would do strange things to a population (whatever remains of it) but there are a lot of things here that just don’t make sense in any shape or form. That said, I love books that I can shout at in outraged indignation so I might give it a try. Although, if it isn’t Bladerunner, I am sure I have read this before…

    DATA!!!! Oh my goodness I had SUCH a crush on him once upon a time (maybe still! A bit). But then there was the episode where he decide to explore the *adopts Data voice* human emotion of love… and I got all excited but he wasn’t able to properly get in the mood, so to speak *sigh*. So I went back to pining for Will Ryker. Okay. I’ll go away now.

    • It is indeed Blade Runner, but I’m guessing Ridley Scott hit some of the same problems too, because the film sympathises more with the androids, I believe. (I’m not sure I’ve seen it actually). But apparently, according to wiki and other reviews from more knowledgeable types, Dick thought Ridley Scott had changed the whole angle of the story – some accounts say he was horrified, others say he thought the film script was fantastic. Apparently he died before the film was finished so never got to see it. The book is good – well worth reading – it just doesn’t have quote the same soildly believe base the best sci-fi has (IMO).

      I still love Data – the perfect man and with an off-switch! My dream come true! I suspect Data loved more truly than many a human – he just didn’t know he did! I loved the episodes with him and Spot the cat, and the one with his ‘daughter’ makes me weep every time. You can have Will – I’m a Jean-Luc girl, myself…

      • Oh, don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t kick Picard out of bed for eating biscuits but Will is the man for me.
        “I suspect Data loved more truly than many a human – he just didn’t know he did!” Most beautiful quote. Ever. It should be a meme or something. How does one say ‘meme’, anyway? Is it meeeem or memay? I am so uncool.

        • Haha! Lovely image! I might though – if he didn’t offer me some…

          I fear my coolness quotient is way less than yours – it’s only very recently I came to sorta understand what a meme is, much less say it – and I’m still not sure about it!

  4. I was thinking the same thing about Asimov’s robots. I loved his Foundation Trilogy. Some of his writing…well, I just about swooned.

    “If humans are freaked by androids that are so human-like they can’t be told apart from the real thing, then… why make them???” There is something about humans. We always think that it won’t happen to me. Whatever it is.

    • I love Asimov, and especially because he took the time to work his stories out so that they made sense within the world he created. To me, that’s the sign of great sci-fi – if I get distracted by things that don’t make sense, then the book loses me.

      Yes, humanity does like to be self-destructive, doesn’t it?

  5. Hoo the Foundation Trilogy – I keep saying I was never a one for SF (unless written by ‘literary’ writers) but remember a friend who loved classic SF pressing the Foundation Trilogy on me at an impressionable age, and I did enjoy it. memo to self, one for the TBRR pile??

    Electric sheep is a lovely idea though……………….

    • Foundation is on my list of sci-fi reads this year for the Goodreads challenge – a re-read also though from so long ago I don’t remember too much about it. It’ll probably all come back when I start reading though. Don’t know if I’ll be able to fit the whole trilogy in though.

      I’m thinking of trading the cats in for clockwork models…

    • It’s actually quite good, but it could so easily have been better, I think. But there is quite a human story at its heart. I’ll see if I can get you with one of the other ones on my list as the year goes by… 😉

  6. Oh, I bet BUS would love or love this book to death. That sentence does work a bit.

    But what a cool way to start off a book! Rick hunting them down. How can one feel bad for robots, FEF? I mean…I’d feel for worms, first.

    *laughing lots about the soprano opera stars being a pestilence* You can’t mean that!

    • She probably would! And she’d probably love the film too – with Mr Ford as the star…

      But if the robots are so human-like that they have emotions and can feel pain etc, then surely you’d feel a bit sorry for them? You need to watch more Star Trek!!

      *laughs* Oh, believe me, I do! Sopranos should be banished to a world far, far away…

      • Absolutely. That would make her happy for a thousand years.

        But…but…but…it’s like feeling bad for an orc! Well, I might feel a bit bad for the pale one, so you have a point. Isn’t Data half human, though?

        But…the feminists won’t like it!

        • I should have put a pic of Harrison Ford in the review now I think of it… *rushes off to do it quickly*

          Well, but if you met a nice orc, wouldn’t you feel bad about killing it? I bet you would – beneath that warrior exterior beats a gentle heart… No! Data is fully android! You must watch an episode a week, in order, starting this week! *severe schoolmarmy face*

          You can fight them off while I organise the rocket…

          • *laughs* Look how nice you are to BUS! I must say he looks very red in that picture. As a matter of fact, the whole picture is red-ish.

            For an orc? Now, now, orcs are ugly, and they stink, and they’re always trying to eat humans. That sort of beast should be vanquished–always! *laughs too much at schoolmarmy* What a wonder of a…name!

            Rocket as in escape rocket…or missile?

            • Look, I was in a hurry! Anyway, sci-fi films are always red, aren’t they? With lots of flashing lights…

              Now you’re beginning to sound like the Twain beast! They should be civilised! Generally speaking, give an orc a bit of chocolate cake and a tummy-tickle and he’d be sweet…

              Prison ship… till they get to their destination in the coldest darkest corner of the universe…

            • I think you’re right. You should have colored it black and white!

              Well…I’d tell you to try your way, but you probably wouldn’t come back alive, you know, you know. No, I’m way nicer than Twain. I just don’t have the meanness in me. I used to! When I was a warrior.

              *laughing* Oh, come on! They have great voices. But they do shatter glass.

            • Way beyond my skill level!

              You doubt my tummy-tickling skill? I’ve had years of practice with brutal beasts – Tuppence, for one! Yes, you are! Personally I prefer warriors who have just a touch of sweetness…

              Are you sure that’s not the audience jumping out through windows?

            • You know, doing that is actually harder than one might think. (Except you, obviously!)

              Well, that’s true. But something tells me the pale orc wouldn’t take to it too well. That’s it!! I have just a touch of sweetness.

              *laughing* Maybe you’re right. Poor blokes. (*taps foot* Are you going to tell me yet?!)

            • *laughs* I think it’s impossible! Why are computer graphics programs so hard? I can never get them to do what I want them to. They would stifle my natural creativity if I had any…

              You’d have to hold him down then. *nods* Like a perfectly brewed coffee made from the finest arabica beans with just a touch of demerara sugar to remove the bitterness…

              (Nope! *giggles and runs off*)

            • You’ve got lots…though you say you don’t! Programs like that can be vexing. But it’s the norm.

              Me? He has a hook (or claw) for a hand! He’d try and slice me in the gizzard. *laughs* I can say, I’ve never had that.

              (BUS is probably cranky with you!)

            • Well, it shouldn’t be. You should do something about it!

              But he’d fail! With all those pull-ups you must have the strength of ten orcs!

              (Oh, I’d tell BUS if she asked…)

            • I’ve never been a good programer…we’ll have to have WOB do it.

              *laughs* I do! You’re right. I’m stronger…than even Hector!

              (-/_-) There. That’s the face you’re going to get!

            • WOB?!? Never, never, never let WOB get near your technology! He only has to look at anything with a plug and it blows up!!

              Yes, but poor Hector only had those wee short arms with no fingers.

              *laughs lots* Sadly, I may have to admit to a certain resemblance… I like it. Lots!

            • *laughing lots* Really? I would never have thunk it! *grabs fugoo and laptop and hides it all* Does he play guitar?

              *bang* You can’t picture that chap for the great and mighty Hector!

              A resemblance to whom, madam?

            • Really!! No, but he did once play the triangle in the school orchestra! Which makes him just about the most successful musician in the whole family…

              *laughing lots* Sorry! Won’t do it again! (Well, not often…)

              I though it was supposed to be me, but your other comments elsewhere have confuddled and bewildered me now – so just a normal Monday!

            • *laughing lots* The triangle is an important instrument, I hear. But I never understood it myself. I’m thinking he should start guitar lessons. As should you–and BUS.

              Yes, ’cause if you do, I’ll be in trouble, since I say he’s more a warrior than this professor is.

              *laughs* Well, if it does resemble you…does that mean you’re always squinting your eyes?

            • Yes, I heard that too – many, many, many times! Always from WOB. *sighs* BUS ‘played’ cello at one time – but I think that was just to annoy us… *runs off in case BUS reads this*

              Tchah! No warrior is greater than the Professor! (Though you’ll need to watch out for the younger warriors challenging you now you’re old…)

              Only when anyone mentions Amelia…

            • Of course I did! That’s what sisters are for. Yes, a handy weapon…

              (See? Your reaction times are slowing already… soon you’ll be just like Sir Nigel…)

              *squints just for the Professor*

  7. “but why can’t they just be made green so they stand out!” I lover it!! So true, it’s an excellent question!
    I’ve just spent the last few nights watching a *very* highly lauded UK TV crime serial with several “But why….” moments in each of its eight episodes. And the thing is, no matter how good something is in all other respects, if you find yourself asking “why?” it disengages you from the world and the characters.
    Speaking of drama, though, you really must watch Bladerunner. Obviously Ridley Scott was fascinated by the question of ‘what makes a human, human’ and there are lovely performances and a terrific atmosphere.
    I haven’t read “Do Androids…” but from your précis, you should probably just judge the movie on its own merits as although it took inspiration from the book, it definitely went off in its own direction.

    • Haha! It seems so obvious a solution though! But I admit it would have made the book kind of short…

      Yep, as soon as I start thinking about the inconsistencies, the author’s lost me. I can put up with having to suspend my disbelief so long as the thing makes sense in its own context, but otherwise I start snorting and sniffing – not a good sign. Nor a good look, quite frankly!

      I was thinking I should watch Bladerunner – don’t know why I didn’t see it at the time. Personally I think the only reason to have androids in sci-fi is to use them to examine humanity, and I’m spoiled because Star Trek did it so well everything else pales in comparison, even if it predates Data. I believe, from what some other reviewers have said who sound as if they know what they’re talking about, that Ridley Scott made a deliberate decision to change the focus of the book and make it more sympathetic to the androids – a good decision, I’d say. Otherwise it just becomes a bit of a shoot’em’up…

      • Oh yes, the pace is definitely not shoot ’em up. It takes its time. One version has a first person, Philip Marlowe type voice over from Deckard, another version, the director’s cut, leaves the voice over off. To be honest they both work equally well, so it doesn’t matter which one you find. I watched the director’s cut again just a couple of weeks ago. It evokes the future quite well with very little in the way of special effects. It must be 30 years old now at least, scary -where did the time go.
        Speaking of where did the time go, one thing that was funny, I noticed the film said it was set in 2019 or thereabouts!

        • I know – I was looking at images of the film and Harrison Ford looks so young! Thank goodness I stopped having birthdays at 21 and never got any older! Yes, the 2019 thing always makes me laugh with sci-fi – it kinda shows that none of them had really considered that their books would last well into the future. The ones who set the books 10,000 years in the future had the right idea – though even they seem odd now because the technology of these super-advanced humans is so much worse than ours. I read one recently where they were still using video-cassettes centuries from now…

  8. I love both “Androids” and “Bladerunner”, tho’ I agree that the emphasis is quite different. It’s unusual for me to like the “film of the book”; it probably says something about the issues raised that both worked. And, of course, Harrison Ford is always good!

    • The Harrison Ford pic is just for you! Wasn’t he young then? I really must watch Bladerunner – I reckon Ridley Scott’s take on androids might work better for me than Dick’s did – I enjoyed the book, but my sympathy for the androids definitely stopped me from feeling whatever it was that Dick wanted me to feel.

  9. I loved Blade Runner, so I don’t know why I haven’t read this yet. But it’s interesting that you found the logic lacking.
    So many of his stories have been made into films. But the films don’t always match the stories perfectly.

    • I’m terrible for picking holes in the credibility. I wish I could just ‘go with the flow’ but if one thing stands out as not making sense then I start to notice all kinds of other things. Picky reader! But I still think it’s a good book – just not quite as good as it might have been. I must watch the film…

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