Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Review

Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968; New York: Del Rey, 2008. E-book.

I bit. With the new Blade Runner film coming out and Amazon offering this book at a bargain price for a few days, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a book I had always wanted to read. I had seen the original Blade Runner a few years ago and, like most people, got a kick out of the special effects. It had a potentially interesting theme in the background, too.

I liked the book better. Much better.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a gem. It has literary merit. While a few of the characters are similar to the Blade Runner film, the story is quite different. I honestly am not sure how the book’s Soviet-era plot would fare in left-coast Hollywood, but it is much more ingenious than the Blade Runner film plot.

Yes, Rick Deckard is a special policeman who acts as a bounty hunter. Scientists have developed androids that appear to be almost human, though a good bounty hunter with some specialized testing should be able to tell the difference. Apparently though, the sophisticated androids are trying to take over the earth and killing humans, so these specialized bounty hunters must “terminate” them first.

In the book, by the way, the androids are called andys for short. We have to thank Star Wars, I guess, for using the last syllable instead of the first for droids. The film used the term replicant. They are all the same thing.

Nuclear war has devastated the earth. People who were able have left earth to colonize other places in the Solar System. Many species of animals have been wiped out. Even people have been so affected by the nuclear radiation that many are born with low functioning intelligence—known colloquially as chickenheads. The other main character is John R. Isidore, a chickenhead who lives alone in an abandoned apartment complex.

Isidore is a driver for a pet store. Pets are status symbols because so few animals have survived. Many are extinct. Often people buy electric animals manufactured with standards similar to the latest andys so that it looks like they have a live animal. Perhaps this is what inspired Sony with its robot dogs.

Deckard and his wife Iran (yes, he is married, and he stays married) have an electric sheep which most of the neighbors think is real. Bounty hunters get a bonus of a thousand dollars for every andy they terminate, so he is hoping to get a few they are tracking so that he and his wife can afford a live horse.

Two other things we should note in the post-nuclear culture: Mercerism and Buster Friendly. Mercerism is Dick’s answer to Huxley’s soma. Instead of a drug to keep the masses stoned, Mercer (or someone using that name) has invented an electronic device that attaches electrodes to the skull to stimulate the brain emotionally. The relatively petty conflicts that Rick and Iran have are usually over which setting to set their Mercer machine to make them happier.

Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends is a 22-hour a day television show. It mostly consists of Buster telling bad jokes and interviewing a variety of different people. It seems to be popular with many. It really gives meaning to the life of J. R. Isidore, for example. He watches it when he can. Even when he is working, he is usually listening to the show on the radio.

The conflict begins almost immediately as the top bounty hunter in the San Francisco Police Department has been nearly killed by an andy that he mistook for a human. These latest models have been fooling even the experts. It looks like a group of the most sophisticated robots are planning to take over the governments of the world. (In Dick’s future the Soviet Union still exists.) But it is all very subtle. There is no superhero monomachy as in the film, just clever detective work and learning from mistakes.

I am reluctant to give too much away, but Deckard does find himself in an alliance with one of these sophisticated andys, a female figure called Rachel. It appears that the andys think the Soviet-style honey trap can work to bring down their opponents with the help of useful idiots (in this case literal idiots, namely chickenheads). The question then becomes whether or not Deckard can trust Rachel in his work and whether the andys can execute a Soviet-style takeover.

As was the case with The Man in the High Castle, Dick seems to try to either escape or perhaps mock the “pulp fiction” reputation that his works have. In our review of the other novel, we quote a character trying to define what science fiction is and, by implication, that The Man in the High Castle is not sci-fi. Similarly, at one point in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, an undercover Deckard calls himself Frank Merriwell—an athletic hero of early twentieth-century pulp fiction magazines.

Dick is known for presenting speculative fiction more than specifically science fiction: What if…

With The Man in the High Castle, Dick wondered what it would have been like if the Axis had won World War II. In this case, he asks what if androids were that sophisticated? Do they dream? Would they think they were superior to their maker the way that many people have?

And also like some of the Star Trek: Voyager episodes with the Borg, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? confronts us with a second existential question: What does it mean to be human?

It is a little like Genesis and Revelation together.

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