Science Fiction analysis. Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 18 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Concepts and back story
2.1 Setting and storyline
2.2 Elements of the future world

3. Hierarchies and discrimination
3.1 The value of animals
3.2 Human relationships and hierarchies
3.3 The relationship humankind – technique

4. The depiction of humans and androids
4.1 Empathy and being human
4.2 The ambiguity in the depiction of androids

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is one out of at least six novels by Philip K. Dick that deal substantially with the questions surrounding androids or replicants, as they are called in Ridley Scott’s film “Blade Runner”, which is based on the novel. It is embedded in Dick’s definition of Science Fiction,

(…) a society that does not in fact exist, but is prededicated on our own knowledge – that is, our own society acts as a jumping-off point for it….this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the authors mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition.[1]

It is exactly the distortion between the real as the jumping-off point cited above and the hypothetical, unreal, fictional which is to create a critical comment on the world the present reader lives in. The special focus on humanlike androids in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” implies a particular philosophical issue. Of course, the somewhat murky, obscure and intransparent depiction of androids involves the problem of man-machine relationships, which can to a certain extend be equated with human-android relationships. But Dick goes a step further, pointing out the differences as well as the parallels between both the android and the human being, using ambiguous descriptions and playing with the reader’s sympathy for both sides. One could even argue that Dick tried to create a kind of meeting halfway between man and android, which will be analyzed in 4.1 and 4.2. Certainly, Dick himself faces difficulties when trying to define the android as “a thing somehow generated to deceive us in a cruel way, to cause us to think it to be one of ourselves.”[2] Although this is according to Aaron Barlow a mere description showing that Dick might have been unsure of the exact nature of the androids he created in his stories and novels, it meets exactly to core of our analysis, which deals with the impact and the effects created by this somewhat ambiguous representation of human and android life.

2. Concepts and back story

2.1 Setting and Storyline

The setting of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is San Francisco in the post-nuclear-holocaust world of 1992, in later editions 2021, after World War Terminus. This fictional last World War and the radiation poisoning that it brought about is the reason for the earth decaying and all life forms facing the risk of extinction. As animals are endangered and very rare, owning and caring for them is seen as a civic virtue and status symbol. To obtain and maintain social standing, people like the protagonist Rick Deckard can buy cheaper, artificial, “electric” ones. The people remaining on earth are vehemently encouraged to emigrate to the off-world colonies as loitering “on Earth potentially meant finding oneself abruptly classed as biologically unacceptable, a menace to the pristine heredity of the race.”[3] An incentive is provided by the free offer of a personal, humanlike android in the colonies on Mars, which is to fullfill the function of a personal servant to the emigrants. Androids illegally leaving the Colonies, returning back to earth, are “retired” by bounty hunters such as Rick Deckard, who is required to apply tests like the Voigt-Kampff test to identify the organic androids physically indistiguishable from humans.

Rick Deckard is chosen to find and to retire six of the very sophisticated Nexus-6 androids, which would give him the possibillity to purchase a real sheep instead of his electric one. Meeting Rachel Rosen at the Rosen Corporation, the makers of the Nexus-6 models, he adminsters the Voigt-Kampff on her, which finally reveals that she is an android, Rick’s faith in the disparity between humans and androids having been thrown into doubt for the first time. Having retired Polkov disguised as the Russian agent Sandor Kaladyi in his hovercar, Rick fails to administer the test on the opera singer Luba Luft, who calls the fake police department. Phil Resch, unaware of his working for a kind of conspirational police department, retires Officer Garland, who is actually one of the androids on Deckarts list. Depressed after the retirement of Luba Luft with Resch’s help and concerned with his increasing tendency to empathise with androids, Deckard buys a genuine goat in order to reassure himself.

The “chickenhead” John R. Isidor, who works for a veterinerian service, actually a false pet repair frim, remaines in an abandoned suburban apartment building, as he is not allowed to emigrate to the Martian Colonies due to the fact that he is genetically and intellectually too far deteriorated. There, he gets in touch with the three remainig Nexus-6 models who treat him badly. Deckard, who has meanwhile accepted Rachel Rosen’s help, ends up having sex with her in a hotel room before they both head towards Isidor’s apartment to retire the remainig androids. He is saved by Mercer from being shot in the back by Pris, one of the androids, and manages to retire them all. Back home, he finds his wife on the roof of his apartment building and learns that Rachel, who confessed him in the hovercar on their way to Isidor’s apartment that she had sex with a lot of bounty hunters, just to stop them from doing their job, and that she furthermore failed to convince Resch of the absurdity that lies in killing humanlike androids, has killed the goat.

Totally depressed, he flies north in his hovercar to the Oregon desert. Walking up a hill in the manner of Mercer, Rick is struck by a rock whereupon he seems to awake from his mental fusion with Mercer and quickly returns to his car. The live toad which he finds in the sand turns out to be synthetic back home, but Rick doesn’t seem to mind any more.

2.2 Elements of the future world

From the beginning on, the reader is introduced to a peculiar mix of the familiar and the strange, projected in a dystopian post war scenario. The first indicator for the importance of technology in the fictional future world after World War Terminus is the Penfield mood organ, a brain stimulation device that obviously can create moods and feelings and also serves as alarm bell. Rick is awakened by a “merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ besides his bed (…).”[4] This technical device seems to influence and control people’s behaviour, though the user has the chance to set the organ by dialling certain moods. The scheduled mood for Rick that morning is “a businesslike professional attitude”, whereas Iran’s designated mood is a “six hour self-accusatory depression”. Having discovered the intellectual emptiness and the mere absence of real life connected with the use of the mood organ, she admits that she found out a setting for despair which reflects her actual feeling and which she therefore puts on her schedule twice a month.[5]

The dangers of this predestination of life evoked by Iran is put ad absurdum by Rick’s suggestion to dial “888 […]. The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it.” And after his harsh reply to dial 3, Iran counters:

“I can’t dial a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial! If I don’t want to dial, I don’t want to dial that most of all, because then I will want to dial, and wanting to dial is right now the most alien drive I can imagine; I just want to sit here on the bed and stare at the floor.”[6]

Only at the end of the novel do Rick and Iran seem to be independent from the mood organ. “Long deserved peace”, the 670 setting, doesn’t have to be dialled for, as Rick, totally relieved, stretches out on the bed. “No need to turn on the mood organ,” Iran realizes as she stands besides him.

The most prominent cultural icon on earth is the TV and radio show Buster Friendly. Apart from television extolling the virtues of the Martian colonies and presenting the new world as “rich with every imaginable possibility […], [providing the dignity of having] a servant you can depend on in these troubled times,”[7] it is Buster Friendly and his friendly friends who constitute the major means of influence on those remaining on earth. Technically, Buster Friendly, a more or less broad satire of the talk show host, has to be an android, his show running 23 hours a day. He symbolizes a kind of messiah to the androids due to his undermining exposure of the faked Mercer. The latter, a strange media but also spiritual figure, constitutes the center of the most significant religious movement on earth.

Mercer, an amalgam-like representation of Moses and Jesus[8], reveals on the one hand due to his discovery in a river Moses’ basket in the bulrushes as well as the function of a leader of people on the journey to a better world. On the other hand, he may recall Christ, performing miracles, being persecuted and eventually killed. “His fundamental function appears to be to provide a vivid pretext for humans to demonstrate their capacity for empathy”[9] by an individual, virtual fusion with the figure of Mercer on his endless and difficult ascent, the medium being an empathy box.


[1] Dick, Philip K. The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, Ed. L. Sutin, New York: Pantheon, 1995, p. 99.

[2] Barlow, Aaron. “Philip K. Dick’s Androids: Victimized Victimizers”, Retrofitting Blade Runner, Ed. Judith B. Kerman. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991, p. 76.

[3] Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ? 1968. New York: Balantine Books, 1982, p. 13. All further quotations from Dick’s novel refer to this edition.

[4] Dick, p. 1

[5] Cf. Dick, p. 2-3.

[6] Dick, p. 4.

[7] Ibid, p. 15.

[8] Cf. Butler, Andrew M. “Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The Popular & The Canonical. Debating Twentieth-Century Literature 1940-2000. Ed. David Johnson. London and New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 140.

[9] Ibid.


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Title: Science Fiction analysis. Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"