Although The Man in the High Castle probably takes the trophy for Philip K. Dick’s most well-known novel, it is followed closely by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but this is mostly because the story was thrust into prominence by the success of Ridley Scott’s loose film adaptation known as Blade Runner. So closely was the book’s sales tied to the popularity of the film that some later reprintings of the book were retitled to match the film. My own feelings about this may be guessed, but it’s particularly disingenuous when you consider that the movie represents a radical departure from the book in many important regards. And, despite the film being quite good in its own right, the book is a more important piece of work.
I dislike comparing books and movies because the media are so different, and as such I’ll attempt to refrain from referencing Blade Runner unless I feel it is particularly illustrative. The most startling difference in reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, having already been familiar with Scott’s film, is how much cultural information was ultimately lost. The title itself, in fact, is derived from an idea which Dick stresses more than any other: in the semi-recovered post-apocalypse world described in the book, living animals are so rare that raising an animal as a pet—any animal, from a cricket to a stallion—is considered a social mandate. Since living animals are so expensive, many citizens, including our protagonist, Rick Deckard, resort to purchasing realistic electronic facsimiles of these animals. In Deckard’s world, any viable candidates for reproduction long ago emigrated to other planets, even given a free android for purposes of hard labor; Earth is a dying planet populated by sterile humans and “chickenheads” (the mentally retarded) and every so often, escaped androids (“andies”) who have killed their off-world masters and escaped back to Earth in the hopes of living out the rest of their abbreviated lives as free individuals.
It is Deckard’s job to hunt down these androids and “retire” (kill) them. He has no qualms about this job; they are, after all not human. They are as fake as at electric sheep Deckard owns, his real one having died of tetanus some years before. When a large group of escaped andies come to the Northern California area where Deckard works, he sees to potential to rake in $1’000 a head and get himself a real animal. The problem with this new group of andies is that they are an advanced model which cannot be reliably detected using the Voight-Kampff test, which measures empathic response. In other words, the dividing line between humans and androids is the ability of humans to care about things other than themselves—animals, sure, but especially other people. This, in fact, is the basis of a pseudo-religion on Earth known as Mercerism, whose practitioners use “Empathy Boxes” to see and empathize with a man named William Mercer repeatedly climb a mountain while tormented by onlookers.
The rather twisted result is a sort of caste system, with the relative worth and humanity of certain beings measured by gradations of their ability to empathize: in Mercerism, anyway, humans are at the top, followed by Mercer’s favored animals, (arbitrarily) the donkey and the toad. Next are normal animals, next are the “chickenheads”, and finally androids come in last, a step above scrap metal.
In Blade Runner, we see the caste upset by the actions of the normally-ruthless Roy Batty (so brilliantly performed by Rutger Hauer), who ultimately empathizes in some way, shape, or form, with Deckard. There is no such gripping scene in Androids; in fact, Dick’s point goes to quite the opposite extreme. Though a lack of “empathic effect” can otherwise be found in humans suffering from schizophrenia, Dick shows characters who display an enormous capacity for cruelty and callousness even toward fellow humans; he also shows that Deckard is capable of empathizing with (and feeling lust for) androids. In this way, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? fulfills one of Dick’s overarching theme: what is real, what is fake, and where is the line drawn (and by whom)? There are no simpering moments wherein Deckard has a tear-streaked epiphany, throws down his gun, and buys the androids a Coke; Deckard, in fact, isn’t changed much at all by the experience short of his relationship with his wife. Readers, however, see the several layers of irony in the story, and are faced with the uncomfortable task of choosing their position.
Deckard himself is a difficult character to like. Emotionally distant, he appears obsessed with acquiring a real animal, spending a not-inconsiderable amount of the 24-hour span of the story in pet stores and on the phone, making inquiries about the expense of ostriches, rabbits, and goats. I think it would be fair to say that such distractions comprise as much of the novel as the android hunt does, and that’s probably on purpose. On the one hand, the desire to own an animal is an artifact of a rather brutal, self-imposed social policy which intensely stratifies an already-bitter population; on the other, it’s a shibboleth of humanity (though, it must be said, there have been androids who owned animals). Then, too, the degree to which humans will empathize with animals stands in stark contrast not just to their lack of empathy for androids (except in Deckard’s case), but seemingly in their lack of empathy for each other: Deckard’s relationship with his wife is in dire straights, the mentally retarded are sterilized and cast off into slums, and so on.
It is easy to see why Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? remains so influential. Though its plot is, strictly speaking, straightforward, its subtext is deep indeed, and if you pay attention, you will be thinking about the book long after you flip the last page.