Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

“You mean old books?”
“Stories written before space travel but about space travel.”
“How could there have been stories about space travel before -”
“The writers,” Pris said, “made it up.”
~Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Plot summary

“By 2021, the World War has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remain covet any living creature, and for people who can’t afford one, companies have built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. They’ve even built humans.

Entry for the 50 Watts' Polish Book Cover Contest by Andrianov Arseny. Photo: Will (CC BY 2.0)
Entry for the 50 Watts’ Polish Book Cover Contest by Andrianov Arseny. Photo: Will (CC BY 2.0)

Emigrées to Mars receive androids so sophisticated it’s impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government bans them from Earth, but when androids don’t want to be identified, they just blend in. Rick Deckard is an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job is to find rogue androids and retire them, but cornered, androids tend to fight back–with deadly results.” More on Goodreads

“Emigrate or Degenerate.” ~Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

On Philip K. Dick

“Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) lived most of his life in California. In 1952, he began writing professionally and proceeded to write numerous novels and short-story collections. He won the Hugo Award for the best novel in 1962 for The Man in the High Castle and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel of the year in 1974 for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

Book cover for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Photo: CHRIS DRUMM (CC BY 2.0)
Book cover for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Photo: CHRIS DRUMM (CC BY 2.0)

In addition to 44 published novels, Dick wrote approximately 121 short stories, most of which appeared in science fiction magazines during his lifetime. Although Dick spent most of his career as a writer in near-poverty, ten of his stories have been adapted into popular films since his death, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, and The Adjustment Bureau. In 2005, Time magazine named Ubik one of the one hundred greatest English-language novels published since 1923. In 2007, Dick became the first science fiction writer to be included in The Library of America series.” More on Goodreads

“I’d like to see you move up to the goat class, where I think you belong.”
~Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Key concepts
  • Mood control
  • Empathy through caring for animals
  • Like tears in the rain
Review

“What happens when you find – if you find – an animal believed extinct? (…) It happened so seldom. Something about a star of honor from the UN and a stipend. A reward running into millions of dollars.” ~Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Okay, here we go. Philip K. Dick is the ultimate black sheep of science fiction, the odd element, a bit like the elephant in the room in the convention of snobs. There is something in his novels that makes you addicted, although they are insane and Dick himself was most likely insane or at least heavily hallucinating. I’ve been reading countless numbers of his works, one stranger than the other. One always comes for more.

There is a funny – aka tragi-comic – story on Dick related to the Polish science fiction author Stanisław Lem who is waiting to be reviewed next for His Master’s Voice. I’m not sure whether that’s just to prove a point (but mainly due to the order of chronology) or play a further trick on poor Mr. Dick. Yes, about the actual story. In 1974, Dick had written the FBI a letter stating that a conspiracy of a communist committee was planning an attack “(…) aimed at the hearts and minds of America through propaganda in the subtle guise of science fiction. Major science-fiction publishers and organisations had been infiltrated, and their agents, notable figures in the genre, were abroad in the West. The orchestrator of it all was a communist committee, acting under the name… Stanisław Lem.” (Davies 2015)

Dick was of the opinion that Lem as an individual did not exist but only served as a figure head for the committee in question. Well, I am of the opinion that truth is often stranger than fiction, as this particular conspiracy theory projects. The story gets weirder by the fact that Lem actually praised Dick as the only worthwhile science fiction writer in America, although this happened after Dick had sent the letter to the FBI. He was especially taken by the style and new form of writing Dick had done for science fiction.

Well, all I have to say is that this relationship between two sci-fi authors on two continents outplays the brotherly teasing between Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, which was mostly witty and utterly innocent compared to the Dick-Lem affair.

Enough about conspiracy theories and on to the novel at hand. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a clever mirror on the emotional turmoil in a future world where a large-scale world war has made living on Earth nearly unbearable and many humans have emigrated to off-planet colonies. Earth is filled with dust and other remnants from the war, so living is tedious and unhealthy.

However, furthermost the novel is about what is means to be a human, as often mirrored through the eyes of androids, humanoid robots looking for answers to their identity. The human emotional deprivation is further intensified through the longing after for animals long gone extinct. People rely on mood control devices since life as such cannot be tolerated but needs extra stimulation from outside sources.

The novel also plays well with Blade Runner (1982), a film by Ridley Scott on Dick’s novel. The atmosphere in the novel is quite different from the one in the film but the film remains loyal to the main plot of the novel. The novel lacks the drastic dystopian and dark elements and is more leaning towards questions of identity and mentality. The cyber punk like society in the film is missing from the original novel. And the animal matter is less prominent in the film. There is also less dust in the film that portrays a society used to constant raining and lack of sunshine.

It seems that the attachment and potential owning of an animal comes on a high pedestal in the novel. All human emotions and feelings of empathy are directed towards the acquiring of an animal. Without an animal, be it real of synthetic, one is less of a human being, it seems.

Blade Runner is my favorite film but I’m so happy that it is such a different interpretation of what it means to be human compared to the novel. The film is further enhanced by the wonderful and beautiful music by Vangelis. Both the novel and the film are different but the similarity between the two is that they both try to answer the same question: what makes one human.

I’m looking forward to the new Blade Runner 2049, although it better be good. I’m slightly skeptical, since remakes and sequels often tend to be major flops. Or it’s the fact that one has changed herself/himself and one sees a film through very different eyes. E.g. the film Sound of Music should be prohibited for anyone past the age of 12, otherwise the whole concept goes to pieces and the magic is gone.

More information
– Matt Davies: Philip K. Dick: Stanisław Lem is a Communist Committee, published in culture.pl on 29 April 2015, link retrieved on 9 December 2016
– Stanislaw Lem: Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans, published in Science Fiction Studies in March 1975 (translated from the Polish by Robert Abernathy), link retrieved on 9 December 2016

Other novels and stories by Dick
  • The Defenders and Other Stories (1950)

    Forever Young. Photo: CHRISTOPHER DOMBRES (CC0 1.0)
    Forever Young. Photo: CHRISTOPHER DOMBRES (CC0 1.0)
  • Paycheck (1953)
  • The Minority Report (1956)
  • Eye in the Sky (1957)
  • Dr. Futurity (1959)
  • Paycheck (1959)
  • Vulcan’s Hammer (1960)
  • The Man in the High Castle (1962)
  • Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964)
  • Martian Time-Slip (1964)
  • The Penultimate Truth (1964)
  • Dr. Bloodmoney (1965)
  • Lies, Inc. (1966)
  • Now Wait for Last Year (1966)
  • Counter-Clock World (1967)
  • The Zap Gun (1967)
  • Ubik (1969)
  • A Maze of Death (1970)
  • Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970)
  • Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974)
  • Confessions of a Crap Artist (1975)
  • A Scanner Darkly (1977)
  • The Divine Invasion (1981)
  • Valis Trilogy (1981-1982)
  • The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (2002)
  • Second Variety and Other Stories (2010)

And many more on Goodreads

 “Mors certa, vita incerta,”
~Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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