Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

electric sheep

blade runner

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a science fiction novel by American writer Philip K. Dick. First published in 1968, the novel is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, where Earth’s life has been greatly damaged by nuclear global war. Most animal species are endangered or extinct due to extreme radiation poisoning, so that owning an animal is now a sign of status and empathy, an attitude encouraged towards animals. The book served as the primary basis for the 1982 film ‘Blade Runner.’

The main plot follows a single day in the life of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter hired by the San Francisco Police Department to ‘retire’ (kill) six escaped androids. A secondary plot follows John Isidore, a driver for an electric-animal repair company, who is a ‘special’ (a radioactively-damaged, intellectually slow human whose status prohibits him from emigrating). In connection with Deckard’s mission, the novel explores the issue of what it is to be human. Unlike humans, the androids are claimed to possess no sense of empathy.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic 1992 (or, in later editions, 2021), in the aftermath of ‘World War Terminus.’ Earth’s atmosphere is now permeated with gene-altering radioactive dust, and the United Nations has been encouraging mass emigrations to off-world colonies to preserve the genetic integrity of the human race, with the incentive that every emigrating person receives their own android: a robot servant that looks identical to a human being. The mass extinctions and accompanying cultural push for greater empathy has motivated a technology-based religion called Mercerism. However, poorer people can only afford realistic-looking electric animals, including Deckard and his wife, Iran, who own a robotic black-faced sheep. The religious movement requires the use of an ’empathy box’: a device that links simultaneous users into a collective virtual reality of communal suffering, centered on a martyr-like character, Wilbur Mercer, who eternally climbs up a hill while being hit with crashing stones.

Critical reception of ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ has been overshadowed by its 1982 Ridley Scott film adaptation, ‘Blade Runner.’ Of those critics who focus on the novel, several nest it predominantly in the history of Philip K. Dick’s body of work. In particular, Dick’s 1972 speech ‘The Human and the Android’ is cited in this connection. Media scholar Jill Galvan calls attention to the correspondence between Dick’s portrayal of the narrative’s dystopian, polluted, man-made setting and the description he gives in his speech of the increasingly artificial and potentially sentient or ‘quasi-alive’ environment of his present. The essential point in Dick’s speech, for Galvan, is that ‘[o]nly by recognizing how [technology] has encroached upon our understanding of ‘life’ can we come to full terms with the technologies we have produced.’ As a ‘bildungsroman of the cybernetic age,’ Galvan maintains, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ follows one person’s gradual acceptance of the new reality. Professor of English Christopher Palmer emphasizes Dick’s speech to bring to attention the increasingly dangerous risk of humans becoming ‘mechanical’: ‘Androids threaten reduction of what makes life valuable, yet promise expansion or redefinition of it, and so do aliens and gods.’

In a departure from the tendency among most critics to examine the novel in relation to other texts by Dick, German professor of American studies Klaus Benesch examined ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ primarily in connection with French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s essay on the mirror stage (the developmental period where infants beginning recognizing themselves in a mirror) There, Lacan claims that the formation and reassurance of the self depends on the construction of an Other through imagery, beginning with a double as seen in the mirror. The androids, Benesch argues, perform a doubling function similar to the mirror image of the self, but they do this on a social, not individual, scale. Therefore, human anxiety about androids express uncertainty about human identity and society. Benesch draws on professor of English Kathleen Woodward’s emphasis on the body to illustrate the shape of human anxiety about an android ‘Other.’ The debate over distinctions between human and machine, Woodward asserts, usually fail to acknowledge the presence of the body. ‘If machines are invariably contrived as technological prostheses that are designed to amplify the physical faculties of the body, they are also built, according to this logic, to outdo, to surpass the human in the sphere of physicality altogether.’

Tags: ,

One Comment to “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

  1. I wonder what meaning this has for our society today: are we losing our sense of the Other as a real person because of technology? Have we less compassion for ourselves & for others because of our focus on computers and technology? What do you think P. K. Dick’s take is on this? Your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.