Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a fun, short novel written by a writer skilled in coming up with science fiction ideas that comment on ordinary life. I encountered Philip K. Dick once before with Martian Time-Slip, but I found that I liked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a lot better because it wasn’t quite as complicated and the female characters were a little more believable. Martian Time-Slip is told out of chronological order and there are a lot of time loops and crazy plot machinations, so if you’re looking for a place to start with PKD, I’d recommend Androids over Martian Time Slip.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. It’s set in a world where a third world war has almost destroyed the planet. The Earth is covered with radioactive dust and most of the animal species are dead (starting with the birds-they were closest the skies, where the dust came from). Nobody knows which country released the dust, it just started appearing one day. In this society, most of the humans have emigrated to the Mars colonies or died of radiation poisoning, but there are a few still left to sit in the silence of empty apartment buildings.
Rick Deckard, the main character, lives in one of the more populated apartment buildings in the heart of San Francisco. He lives with his wife Iran and keeps an electric sheep on the roof. He works as a bounty hunter, “retiring” (destroying) androids who flee from slavery in the Mars colonies. The story also follows a “special” named Isidore, who has a low IQ because of radioactive fallout and lives on the edge of town. Isidore is a strict adherent of Mercerism and works for an electronic-animal repair firm. Isidore is extremely empathetic. Even though he’s a special, he sometimes seems more perceptive than the other characters.
Philip K. Dick has a talent for inventing new and exciting concepts. Among the new technologies introduced are the Mood Organ, a machine that allows you to set your mood (or someone else’s), and the Empathy Box, which allows people to “mind-meld” with a Jesus figure named Mercer. Deckard’s wife hacks the Mood Organ (normally it only sets good emotions) to depression so that she can feel bad about the destruction of the environment. This raises the question: If you don’t feel how you would feel naturally, and you set a machine to make you feel that way, is your feeling real or false? The feeling may be logical, but if you have to program it does that mean you’re past the point of feeling human feelings? If you need a machine to make you feel depression or empathy, doesn’t that mean something is wrong with you emotionally? And, making the jump to our reality: do movies and media, by inducing contrived emotions, cripple your emotional capacity if you become too reliant on them? Can media stretch your emotions so far that only something drastic can make you feel anything at all? Is that why we’re all depressed in America? Is it because media creates a half-true emotion, which satisfies our in-the-moment need for something to feel but is unsatisfying in the long term because we have to discard those emotions before we can return to reality?
Anyway, Mercerism is a little clearer. In Mercerism, followers of Mercer hook up to an Empathy Box and follow the old man Mercer on a journey up a hill, where he’s hit by rocks coming from an unseen group of people called “the killers”. After that, he falls off a cliff into the tomb world, where he sees pieces of dead animals and people scattered over the sand. During this experience, the followers feel like they are Mercer but they also feel connected to everyone else who’s using the Empathy Box. It’s a little bit like Youtube comments, except instead of starting petty arguments, people empathize (must be some really advanced technology…).
Spoilers: About three-quarters of the way through, it turns out Mercer isn’t a real prophet – he’s an old, B-list actor walking across a painted set. But if he’s just an actor, it’s strange that he was able to bring Isidore’s spider back to life after Pris pulled the legs off of it… unless the spider coming back was Isidore’s hallucination. When Isidore put the spider down, Rick didn’t see the spider even though his flashlight was resting right on it, so it might not have been real, except for that Isidore believed in it. Rick says, “Everything is true. Everything anybody has ever thought,” which implies that truth is not objective in this novel.
My favorite concept in Androids is KIPPLE. Kipple is another term for entropy, but it’s a cancerous, ever-expanding, garbage-y sort of entropy:
“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more… the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”
Why is this so awesome? Because it sounds much cooler to say “I’m fighting kipple” than “I’m cleaning my room”. It sounds simultaneously dark and silly to say that the whole universe is going to be overrun with kipple. Kipple is something so harmless in isolation, but deadly in conglomerate. It’s the opposite of human existence – important on the individual level, but insignificant on the galactic or universal level.
Something that makes this book really stand out among science fiction books is how memorable the female characters are. There’s Deckard’s wife Iran, who feels guilty on the part of her husband for his killing androids. There’s Luba Luft, the android opera singer who likes going to art exhibits, and there’s Rachel Rosen aka Pris, the drug-addicted, scifi-loving android who escaped from Mars. All three are striving for authenticity. Iran changes the Mood Organ to create a more realistic, depressed mood, instead of the one her husband would have her feel (which is “pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters”). Luba Luft seems to empathize with Edvard Munch’s The Scream (or at least she wants to – she says something about thinking humans are superior and wanting to be like them). The Scream is a really interesting choice of art to appear in this book, since a lot of critics say it’s based on a feeling of depersonalization or derealization (the character in The Scream has no identifying features, and the background looks anxious). Pris has been traveling with an android who is trying to develop mind-melding drugs to imitate the humans’ Empathy Box. Pris says something really brilliant, “We are machines, stamped out like bottle caps. It’s an illusion that I—I personally—really exist; I’m just representative of a type.” I think this gets at the gendered “programming” that women experience in society. When you’re expected to look how someone else wants and do what someone else wants you to do, it’s like becoming an android. You’re no longer in control of your own destiny; you’re made to fit a mold. It creates a sense of unreality because you’ve become a different person, you’re no longer authentic to yourself.
If I had to name the one thing this book is “about” it would be blurring of authenticity. PKD makes it hard to tell what’s real and what’s fake, what’s alive and what’s inanimate. If you feel something strongly for an object that turns out to be fake, are those emotions still real? I think in the context of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the answer would be yes. Rick, when he’s fused with Mercer, says, “Everything is true. Everything anybody has ever thought.” So if you believe in something and feel it is real, it’s real? But that depends on whether you accord the privilege of deciding what is reality to yourself or to others. Is what you see real because you cannot trust other means of perceiving it, or is what is real objective and beyond yourself?
The distinguishing factor this book puts forth between humans and androids false is empathy. Androids can’t feel empathy; they can’t hook up to the Empathy Box. However, they can have relationships with each other and with fleshy people. They can feel fear, anger, betrayal – but are they feeling or simulating feeling? Isidore notices that the androids have a certain kind of resignation to them, like their lives only matter to them so long as living is possible. Rick Deckard says that androids have no moral qualms about outing each other as androids. However, they seem to band together to stay safe, instead of telling Rick who’s an android, which calls the empathy distinction into question.
The narrator says, “Empathy, he [Rick] once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet. Because, ultimately, the empathic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated.” Rick is not particularly empathetic; he has a hard time using the Empathy Box or understanding what it’s for. Spoiler: By the end of the book, he starts to feel bad about killing the androids, but he still does it, and Mercer even encourages him to do it. He’s like the predator and androids are the prey… he doesn’t kill the androids because it’s the right thing to do, but he does it because he has to if he wants to keep up his lifestyle. He’s a bit like an android himself because even though he’s had these close experiences with androids and feels pity when he kills them, he stays in his job and keeps doing it. He doesn’t act on empathy, even though he feels it.
Most people are the same – we know that eating animals kills them, and we sometimes feel bad, but we keep doing it. The narrator says, “As long as some creature experienced joy, then the condition for all other creatures included a fragment of joy. However, if any living being suffered, then for all the rest the shadow could not be entirely cast off.” Maybe it’s wrong to say that empathy is what separates androids from humans, because our empathy is limited to a handful of species. Maybe it’s neither or both – humans and androids either both don’t have empathy, or they both do – and there’s no real distinction between humans and androids. Maybe empathy doesn’t exist, and it’s something we made up to make us feel better about doing other bad things, like “I’m going to eat this cow, but I’ll take care of this cat so that I can still say I’m a kind person.” Or maybe we’re just selective about which objects we entrust our empathy to.
As you can see, there’s a lot to think about in this book, and it’s also really entertaining. If you’ve heard of it a couple times and have it hanging out in your backlog, you should really read it when you get the chance. It might make you want to experience more of PKD’s writing… I will definitely be checking out more of it!