Philip K. Dick “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” – book review

This is the first Philip K. Dick novel I have read.

The world has been destroyed by a great war. Animals have mostly gone extinct – and the few that survive fetch exorbitant prices and bring huge prestige. Rick Deckard can’t afford his own animal: he can only afford an electric sheep to impress the neighbours. Deckard earns as much as he kills. He is a bounty hunter, whose job is to kill “andys” (androids) who have escaped to Earth.

Androids were created to serve humans living in space. Escaping to Earth means that they have killed their human masters.

“The TV set shouted ‘duplicates the halcyon days of the pre-Civil War Southern states! Either as body servants or tireless field hands, the custom-tailored humanoid robot – designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS. FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE- given to you on your arrival absolutely free”.

This advert is supposed to induce humans to emigrate from Earth to the other planets.

Initially, the androids were conceived as simply human-shaped machines made to perform certain tasks. But with technological advances, humanoid robots became better and better over the years

“No intelligence test would trap an andy. But then, intelligence tests haven’t trapped an andy for years, not since the primordial crude varieties of the 70’s.”

The way to trap an andy is to use the Voigt-Kampff empathy test – a test that even ‘subnormal chickenheads’ human -beings pass. Chickenheads are humans who have had their intellectual faculties permanently impaired by the toxic dust: their emotions remain intact.

Ironically, most humans alive in Philip K. Dick’s time (and now) would fail the empathy test. The first question is how you respond to being given a calfskin wallet. The correct response is emotional outrage – this is a carcass of a murdered animal. There’s a hell of a lot androids around in the 21st century…

Regular humans and chickenheads empathetic faculties also enable them to participate in ‘Mercerism’. ‘Mercerism’ is a religious movement which relies on the believers touching an empathy box, which allows them to empathetically connect with Mercer – a man eternally walking up a hill and having stones thrown at him. He is a bit like Christ – he dies whenever he reaches the top of the hill and resurrects himself.

Mercerism has its appeal – especially to a chickenhead called John Isidore who lives alone in an abandoned building.  I think in many ways it is John Isidore who becomes a moral compass for the novel. He doesn’t unpick the foundations of the world he exist in. He simply responds as his emotions tell him to. In this way he is an antithesis of the robots, who can only respond intellectually to their surroundings.

Rick Deckard is not particularly keen on Mercer to begin with. He is more or less happy , killing androids to make a living and using ‘mood boxes’ to make himself happier if necessary.

Unlike Deckard, his wife, Iran, does respond in an emotional way to her surroundings.

“But then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting—do you see? I guess you don’t. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it “absence of appropriate affect. So I left the TV sound of and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found the setting for despair.”

Deckard tries to fix her.

“Dial 888. The desire to watch TV no matter what’s on it.”

“I don’t feel like dialing anything at all now.”, Iran said.

“Then dial 3.” He said.

“I can’t dial a setting that stimulate my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial! If I don’t want to dial, I don’t want to dial that most of all, and wanting to dial is right now the most alien drive I can imagine.”

When Iran gives up her side of the argument, because “What difference does it make?” Deckard ‘dials 594 “pleased acknowledgement off husband’s superior wisdom in all matters”.

Rick Deckard’s behavior tells you a fair bit about him. His wife is depressed – one might say that hers is the only normal response to a destroyed earth and the emptiness of her life which is spent entirely in front of the TV.  Rick who is happy using artificial mood stimulation to control his moods decides it would be better for everyone if he could simply control his wife’s mood too.

When given control of her mood, he decides to focus her feelings on gratitude towards himself.

It almost makes one hazard a guess about the behavior of his author towards women. The guess would not necessarily be unjust.

Philip K. Dick was married to 5 different women during his life. He tried to kill his third wife, and then had her confined to a psychiatric asylum, claiming that it was she who was trying to murder him. This was before his officially acknowledged complete mental breakdown. According to Wikipedia he also attempted to commit suicide while driving a car – while his girlfriend was a passenger in it.

I think it’s useful to mention Dick’s life, as I had a vague feeling of the novel being a bit sexist. His biography seemed to confirm that my suspicions did not come from nowhere.

There is so much to unpick and analyze in this novel. I will try not to get hung up on its portrayal of women.

What constitutes a human being?

Rick Deckard is forced to face it for the first time when asked to retire an andy called Luba Luft who happens to be an opera singer. She is also beautiful and fond of the art of Munch (her favourite painting is Puberty).  Luba accuses Deckard of sexual harassment while he is attempting to perform the Voigt -Kampff test on her and has him arrested by the police.

Only that particular police department is infiltrated by androids.

Some of those androids have implanted memories – which means they aren’t even aware of being androids themselves. As Deckard tried to figure out who is an android and who is a human, he becomes aware that some unempathetic monsters are only human after all.

What is the importance of emotion?

Unlike Paul Bloom in his book Against Empathy, Philip K. Dick seems convinced of the central role of empathy and is deeply distrusting of intelligence on its own. In fact, even when the basis of an emotion is proved to be a fraud – Mercerism and John Isidore seem a case in point – the emotion itself loses none of its validity.

One of the most horrendous scenes in the book involves an android ripping the legs of a spider, for the simple pleasure of being able to see what will happen to it next.

Why the hell does Deckard only really feel sympathy for women androids problem”.

Oh wait. That’s not a real problem according to this narrative’s framework.

Moving swiftly onwards. There’s something eerie about the supposedly unempathetic androids Philip K. Dick has created. They clearly feel anguish and probably feel love too. In Ridley Scott’s film adaptation (Blade Runner), this problem is clearly acknowledged – the replicants have evolved emotions with time. In fact, their four-year lifespan was originally conceived as a way of stopping androids from becoming too human.

In the novel, the metabolic rate is simply a design flaw. In the novel, when most androids are threatened with death, they resign themselves to it without too much resistance.

No-one ever says explicitly “hey, wait these androids do have feelings”. These are some quite profound differences.

Spoiler alert.

The novel’s ending

Rick Deckard’s perceived fusion with Mercer (who is a fraud, but his emotional response to him is nonetheless real) means that he has grudgingly accepted a role of the person who “does what needs to be done”.  He finds a frog – a symbol of Mercer and a living creature – whom he can protect from the implied threat of feelingless androids.  

But then comes his wife’s revelation that the frog he has found as a desert is actually an electric frog. What does that mean?

“The electric things have their lives too. Paltry as those lives are. “

Philip K. Dick “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”

P.S. To those who have read the book, one final quote:

“You love the goat more than me. More than you love your wife, probably. First the goat, then the wife, then last of all-” She laughed merrily. “What can you do but laugh?”

Philip K. Dick “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”

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