Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K Dick (1968)
‘War had left the Earth devastated. Through its ruins, bounty hunter Rick Deckard stalked, in search of the renegade replicants who were his prey. When he wasn’t ‘retiring’ them, he dreamed of owning the ultimate status symbol – a live animal. Then Rick got his big assignment: to kill six Nexus-6 targets for a huge reward. But things were never that simple, and Rick’s life quickly turned into a nightmare kaleidoscope of subterfuge and deceit.’
Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition
From the first page when Dick introduces us to Rick Deckard and his wife, debating what moods to set for themselves on their Penfield mood organs, we are thrown into a world where what is real and what is fake is clearly a matter of one’s own perception. Perhaps of all Dick’s novels, this is the one where his examination of the concept of ‘the fake’ works on so many levels that the meaning of the phrase itself becomes hazy.
This is a depopulated and poisoned Earth, most of Humanity having emigrated to other planets, leaving a world of empty apartment-blocks and radiation damaged humans. Animals, having suffered the brunt of the radiation which has blighted the ecosphere, are a rarity, which makes a live animal of any sort a highly desired status symbol. Consequently, businesses have sprung up which manufacture life-like electric animals such as Deckard’s sheep, the electric sheep of the title.
Deckard is a bounty hunter, part of a team which hunt down androids, originally created as ‘slaves’ to work on pioneer planets, some of which escape and, for reasons which are not entirely clear, return to Earth to live freely, posing as humans.
The androids are the product of the Rosen association, whose work has developed to such a degree that their latest development, the Nexus-6 model, although synthetic, is virtually indistinguishable from humans, and can only be detected by psychological testing of their empathic reactions.
When Deckard’s boss is injured by one of a group of six Nexus-6 androids who have killed their owners and escaped to Earth, Deckard is giving the job of hunting down and ‘retiring’ them.
This is not a novel, however, which is as simplistic as the synopsis would suggest. Dick is using the medium to explore – as is often the case – the themes and concepts which fascinate him.
Many of the characters, for instance, are concerned with their own states of mind and their place in society. Rick’s wife, one of Dick’s trademark harpies, is seen at the start of the novel setting her Penfield Mood organ, a device which allows one to dial states of mind at will. Although used as a comic device initially, the point being made is a serious one. The Mood Organ is a metaphor for drugs, a device which allows one to experience whatever mood one chooses, and if one doesn’t have the desire to choose a mood, there is an option to dial 3 which produces a compulsive desire to dial a mood at random.
There is also a spooky foreshadowing of consumer gullibility of TV via the Buster Friendly show. Buster Friendly is a TV host who somehow manages to be live on air twenty four hours a day and also simultaneously produce a separate and quite different radio show. Most of the viewing public don’t question this, although it is obvious to the reader that Buster must be an android himself, something that is pointed out to JR Isidore later in the novel. This is something that comes as a shock to JR and – even given his chickenhead status within the novel – has disturbing parallels with contemporary society’s slightly hallowed view of TV celebrities and the media.
In terms of the novel, it is merely another fake which forces the reader – if not the characters involved – to question the reality of the world in which they have become immersed.
The novel has of course been overshadowed by its cinematic adaptation, ‘Bladerunner’. Although an excellent movie in its own right it employs the shell of the ‘DADOES’ narrative, abandoning some of the weirder aspects of the novel in favour of a Gibsonesque cyberpunk superficiality. Its success has to a certain extent served to turn ‘DADOES’ into the book of the film, which it most certainly is not.
Certainly it is in the top ranking of Dick novels, but those who come to it as a new read need to divorce themselves from comparisons with the movie and see Dick’s vision fresh and weird in a world in some way very like ours, but at the same time unsettlingly strange and filled with doubts with regard to various perceptions of reality.