Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick asks a basic question that is all the more pressing today. What’s the difference between a human being and an android? Dick goes beyond the current debate about the potential replacement of humans by robotic software to produce creative works we feel should only be produced by people. He puts the nature of human emotion at the center of the story. Emotion is a key way we evaluate every experience and motivate ourselves in the world as well as gain understanding of others through empathy. As in Blade Runner, the 1982 film based on Dick’s novel, the question that guides Rick Deckard’s profession of bounty hunting is how to distinguish android from human. He uses sophisticated tests to see if the subject has feeling and empathy. Androids, who are illegal on the Earth of this novel, don’t, and when Deckard finds one, he gets paid to kill them.
Though the nature of life and human emotion is central to the novel, the human characters wake up to the stimulus of an emotional setting dialed into a device called a Penfield mood organ. The story opens with Rick and his wife Iran arguing over those settings, since Iran is depressed and refuses to dial herself out of it. Rick sets his mood as alert and capable of meeting the purposes of his workday. But depression dogs him as well throughout the story, as he becomes troubled by the work he is doing. So even though emotion is so central to the separation between human and android, humans in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? depend on machinery to support their emotional lives. They also depend on two other artificial sources for a sense of well-being and even of spiritual support.
TV is dominated by a show called Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends, and on this day Buster’s familiar voice is promising to broadcast the biggest expose ever having to do with what passes for religion in this world, Mercerism. Most people can get access to Mercer himself through another machine that makes them feel like they’re fusing with his mind. He is a long-suffering old man who trudges up a barren hillside while unseen people throw rocks at him. As he suffers in his pointless work, like Sisyphus, he offers a kind of bleak encouragement about life, even in these barren circumstances of the present.
And the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is bleak indeed. It’s quite different from that of Blade Runner. Instead of dark, rainy, crowded streets dominated by high rise buildings with giant ad images of the classic film, the San Francisco of Dick’s world is a decaying remnant with few people. World War Terminus has left the Earth a largely desolate place where radioactive dust coats everything, where physical objects and buildings are always breaking down into useless objects called kipple and where some people’s brains become stunted. Most have left for colonies on Mars where their needs are met by increasingly sophisticated androids. Decker’s job is to find and “retire” any androids that escape from Mars and come back to Earth.
Most live animals have died off, and the few that remain fetch very high prices. They are especially prized, and Deckard and his wife Iran are somewhat ashamed that they have only been able to afford an artificial sheep. The main thing Deckard wants to do, if he gathers enough money from bounty hunting, is to buy a live animal. The artificial ones have become quite realistic and often fool a casual observer, but they are a poor substitute for subtle interactions humans want, even with reptiles and insects, if they’re lucky enough to find a rare survivor.
The characters in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? live on the edge of a void that threatens to engulf them. John Isidore is a spacer or chickenhead, someone whose intelligence has been harmed by the radioactive dust, who works for an animal hospital – a place that fixes artificial animals. He lives alone in a decaying apartment building on the outskirts of the city and grows increasingly frightened and lonely as he senses the void, in the form of a great silence, encroaching more and more into his life.
“Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore has lived here. … The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won. He wondered, then, if the others who had remained on Earth experienced the void this way.”Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, marketed as Blade Runner, Del Rey paperback edition, 1982, page 16
His hopes for companionship are answered when a young woman moves into an apartment in his building. Isidore finds himself falling in love with her, even after two companions join her, and he realizes they are all androids. As a spacer, he identifies with their plight as outcasts and finds a new purpose in his life of protecting them. But they are not to be left alone for long.
After another bounty hunter is almost killed by an escaped android, Deckard gets the assignment to track down six especially sophisticated androids and retire them all. After retiring three of them, he gets a lead on the location of the other three, and the scene is set for a final confrontation with the androids living with John Isidore. It also leads to the culmination of Deckard’s inner struggle and search for meaning in his life.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of the most tightly constructed and powerfully written novels Dick wrote. From the first chapter on, each scene at once brings out a key conflict, centers all the action and dialogue around it and builds to the next level of the story. If you haven’t read much or any of his work, this is an excellent place to begin.