Sci-Fi Classics: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Recent reprint as part of the SF Masterworks Gollancz series – check it out! Credit: Gollancz

Written in 1968 by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was adapted for film by Ridley Scott, who created Blade Runner in the early 80s. Starring Harrison Ford as a bounty hunter tasked with killing rogue androids (the “replicants”), the movie went on to become a cult classic. Its dark, rainy aesthetics became the standard for futuristic dystopias, and its troublingly human portrayal of the replicants left its viewers deep in thought about the nature of life and consciousness. A sequel, Blade Runner 2049, came out in 2017, and was very positively reviewed as a faithful continuation of the original.

But what’s actually in the book that started it all?

What is it about?

In a post-apocalyptic Earth, bathed in leftover radiation from World War Terminus, a small human population still survives. The world is a shadow of its former self: heavily polluted, depopulated, and with most animal species now extinct. A new global religion has emerged, based around shared suffering, empathy, and respect and reverence for all organic life: Mercerism (named after its creator, Mercer). Because animals are so rare and revered as symbols of enduring life, owning one is the ultimate status symbol and what every citizen aspires to.

Where are the androids?

To avoid widespread mutations from the radiation, citizens are encouraged to migrate to Mars, with the help of humanoid servants (the androids). The Rosen Association releases more and more advanced models, which you can’t tell from humans except by psychological tests or invasive bone marrow tests. But the androids have now become advanced – or conscious – enough to rebel against their status as servants, and attempt to escape back to Earth to exist independently. However, governments can’t allow this, and instead employ bounty hunters to track and “retire” rogue androids. 

Mistakes to avoid when retiring a Nexus-6

Rick Deckard, a burnt-out bounty hunter, can’t afford a real animal and instead “pretends” to have one thanks to an electric sheep. But when eight androids illegally land in San Francisco, and one of them injures his superior, he has an opportunity to step up and earn the money to achieve his dream of caring for a real animal. However, this proves more taxing than he imagined, as the boundaries between androids and humans blur, and leads him to question everything from his job to his religion. 

Meanwhile, John Isidore, a mutated human (“a special”), lives alone in an abandoned suburb, working for an electric animal repair shop. When a new neighbour moves in, he’s overjoyed to have some company. But Miss Pris Stratton isn’t quite all she seems to be, and John Isidore will have to be careful when choosing his friends.

So why is it called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Current electric sheep, manufactured by japanese company Tomy (credits). We understand Deckard’s one looked a bit more life-like.

What a mouthful of a title! But it frames the book’s central questions well. As we’ve mentioned, Deckard’s dream is to finally be able to afford an actual sheep. And this is a big part of what marks him as human in the society he lives in. In contrast, androids are described as cold beings with no empathy or sense of survival. But since they can aspire to be more than servants, the book does establish that they have ambitions and dreams. So if a human dreams of a sheep, would an android dream of owning an electric one? And wouldn’t that make it quite similar to us in the end? 

What we thought

First of all, this book came as a big surprise. Reading it after having seen both movies, we expected to be very familiar with the plot, main themes, and atmosphere – but we were very much mistaken. While Blade Runner feels quite linear and slow-paced, this is a proper “action” story in the vein of police thrillers. It’s a breathless man-hunt happening over just one day, with lots of plot twists and reveals along the way, all the way up to supernatural intervention. It also turns out that both plots are actually different enough to surprise you along the way, even if you know the movie by heart. Trust us, it’s a page-turner!

Notwithstanding that, Do Androids Dream… is also very introspective and meditative. A significant portion of the book is devoted to exploring the religion of Mercerism: its origins, the story it tells and how it is practiced. This makes for some quite spiritual sections, and offers an insight on what global trauma (caused by the Terminus war and ensuing extinctions) could look and feel like, and how humanity could deal with it.

John Isidore’s story, which hasn’t been picked up at all in the movies (probably because of how much harder it is to have several narrators in film rather than in print), is sweet and incredibly attaching. It also offers a different angle on the book’s culture, through all the protagonists’ treatment of John and his “specialness”. Do humans actually treat him any better than the androids do? This may be one of the parts where the story grows the most satirical. The “fake pets” hospital elements also expands on human’s relationships with electric pets, and let us see how the latter can “pass” for real.

Finally, the main thesis of the book feels quite different to the one carried by the movie. It focuses less on the “blurring” of boundaries between androids and humans, keeping a rather clear-cut line throughout. Instead, it poses the question: shouldn’t “subclasses”, like the specials or the androids, have similar rights to humans? Or at least, the same respect that is given to animals?

Favorite futuristic object

The Penfield Mood Organ lets you program yourself to feel any desired emotion, including 888 “the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it”; and 594 “pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters.” (Hello 60’s gender roles.) 

A perfume organ: a precursor of the Penfield? Credits: Tristan Mimet, under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Why should you read it?

It’s nothing like the film

If you loved the movie and didn’t bother because you thought the book would just be more of the same – it’s not, and it’s just as much of a cult classic in its own right. On the other hand, if you didn’t enjoy Blade Runner but you have a group of friends who swear by it and you feel left out: read this book instead! It’s a completely different take on the story, and feels much faster-paced. It’s also a quick read, and next time you’ll get to school them all with “I think you’ll find that the original story was…”

It’s a great mix of action and reflection

If you love sci-fi’s capacity to deliver both a gripping story and tackle existential questions: this book definitely does both. It’s a page-turning android-hunt full of twists, on a background of ethical questioning. The post-apocalyptic setting, and the commentary on the loss of animal species and the ensuing religious respect of animal life is also just as topical as it was when the book came out. 

It teaches you about the 60’s – in a fun way

If you don’t like non-fiction but still fancy learning more about the 60’s: Do Androids Dream… gives you an interestingly oblique insight into the 60’s culture and society. The backstory of apocalyptic war and destruction of the environment, the major theme of how to treat minorities (whether they’re androids or specials), the underlying patriarchy (Rick’s wife is expected to care for her husband and spend her days at home, nothing more), all let you deduct what the preoccupations and societal norms of the time were. And you get to enjoy a good story at the same time.

Do you love sci-fi but have no idea where to start? Maybe we can help you out. We regularly review science-fiction classics, mostly taken from Gollancz’s Sci-Fi Masterworks series (which is an amazing starting point in its own right). So you get to know exactly what you’re getting into – and we get to read (or re-read) amazing books.

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