An Inquiry into the Abiding Popularity of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

The future is now

In 2017, exactly 35 years after Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) was released in cinemas, moviegoers were once again brought back to the dystopian science-fiction world based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). The reason for this was the release of Denis Villeneuve’s sequel Blade Runner 2049, which picks up 30 years after where the science fiction classic from the 1980s left off, assembling big Hollywood names such as Ryan Gosling and the star of the original movie, Harrison Ford. Of course, the sequel’s target audience was fans of the original Blade Runner movie. However, the sequel revived the pop cultural status the original movie has reached over the years by attracting a new audience to the story, consisting of viewers born after the release of the original movie. The prevailing popularity of the Blade Runner franchise raises questions as to why the story of bounty-hunter Rick Deckard has reached a secure place in the canon of Western popular culture. To answer this question, it is important to look back at the roots of Deckard’s story in Philip K. Dick’s novel. After having enjoyed the science fiction masterpiece of Dick myself, I wanted to explore the reasons behind the novel’s continuous popularity, arguing that it not only acquired fame through its adaptation to the film world. Instead, the novel offers a fascinating insight into Dicks’ imagining of the future. Androids inquires to define the essence of humanity, draws attention to the relationship between humans and technology, touches on topics such as environmental destruction, isolation, and humans dealing with otherness, explaining the text’s relevance up until today.

© imago/Prod.DB

Philip K. Dick wrote his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the turbulent 1960s in the United States, foreshadowing a dystopian future, possibly inspired by the circumstances of his time. At the height of the Cold War, the world was witnessing the horrors of the Vietnam War while fearing escalation between the two superpowers. The anxiety of a possible third world war with weapons such as the atomic bomb overshadowed the world. In the light of this apocalyptic environment, Dick writes the story of Rick Deckard, who is one of the last remaining human beings on Earth. While most of the population has emigrated to Mars, the rest of society must stay behind and fight Earth’s progressing degeneration after World War Terminus. In Dick’s future, technological improvements have allowed humankind to create humanoid robots, which are enslaved and take on the lowest status in the hierarchical structure of society. In his introduction to Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik, Michael Marshall Smith elaborates on Dick’s remaining relevance, stating that “[o]ne of the key challenges facing any work of futuristic fiction is that of lasting” (XI). The fact that his novels secured their place in the canon of popular literature shows that Dick understood the importance of this challenge. The essential and timeless questions arising in Androids, which are the focus of my inquiry, are the reason for the novel’s enduring popularity over the last decades. 

Should we read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as a cautionary tale? Or does it simply mirror a dystopian future we already inhabit?

One of the most interesting questions Dick examines is concerned with the essence of humanity in a post-apocalyptic future, revealing that in the world he imagines, mankind relies on technology to define their humanity. In his article on the legacy of Dick’s work, Ananyo Bhattacharya describes Androids to be “a meditation on how the fragile, unique human experience might be damaged by technology created to serve us”. Bhattacharya’s statement indicates a negative effect resulting from humankind’s dependency on technology. However, the fact that technology in Androids helps mankind to regain their humanity contradicts this. From the very beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to the technological advancements that allow humans to display their empathy as Deckard and his wife Iran rely on the “Penfield mood organ” to feel something (3). The fact that Deckard uses the mood organ to artificially recreate emotions suggests that humankind relies on the help of technology to experience emotions. In his essay on the relationship between humans and technology in Androids, Christopher A. Sims alludes to this dependency and argues that “technology becomes inseparable from the idea of what it means to be a human” (68). This notion is repeatedly confirmed in the novel, as mankind relies on the “empathy box” to experience a feeling of togetherness (18). By gripping the handles of the empathy box, humans can experience empathy through a physical merging “accompanied by mental and spiritual identification” (18). Deckard repeatedly refers to empathy as the only means to distinguish humans from humanoid robots as it exists only “within the human community” (26). Paradoxically, humanity’s reliance on technology like the mood organ and empathy box suggests that humans have lost their empathic abilities after all. Empathy in Deckard’s world makes the essence of humanity but is not obtained unless technological devices help along, revealing mankind’s reliance on technology. Sims claims that technology humanises Deckard and his fellow men, as it is “fundamental to revealing the true essence of humanity and showing how humans and technology are inextricably linked” (86). In Dick’s dystopian future, technological improvements are humanity’s salvation, helping to regain their true essence: empathy. In his novel, Dick was early to anticipate the growing dependency of humankind on technology. In the Digital Age, every human being relies entirely on his smartphone and social media accounts to communicate and evoke feelings of approval and companionship. The fact that Dick’s predictions have proved themselves to be eerily accurate explains the prevailing popularity of Dick’s novel as his mood organ and empathy box allow for interesting comparisons to technological advancements in the 21st century.

Another reason why the novel remains relevant is Dick’s portrayal of a highly individualised, isolated population, consisting of lonely survivors. John Isidore, one of “thousands of individuals” living in the “virtually abandoned suburbs” of the San Francisco area, belongs to this group (13). Isidore’s circumstances suggest that he is one of many recluses left behind on a planet that is slowly falling apart. After all, Isidore “lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which […] fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin” (16-7). Most importantly, Isidore ceases to be a part of mankind because he is considered a so-called “special” due to the radioactive dust affecting his body and ultimately making him “biologically unacceptable” (13). In his essay, Sims alludes to Dick’s depiction of “lonely isolation” by stating that the “problem of humankind in this speculated future is […] that humans have moved too deeply into their individuality that they no longer experience the reality of other humans” (71). In this post-apocalyptic world that almost saw the extinction of the human race, Dick creates an interesting insight into the psyche of a lonely and isolated population. The fact that individuals like Isidore are excluded from emigrating to Mars and are deemed to live on a deteriorating planet adds a new layer to his isolation, as “loneliness becomes the feeling that the entire history of mankind is evaporating” (Sims 77). Interestingly, it is once again technology that helps to fight the solitude humankind experiences. When asked about the benefits of having an android slave, Mrs Klugman describes a feeling of reassurance as she can “depend on [the servant] in these troubled times” (15). Moreover, as stated above, the empathy box helps individuals like Isidore to break “the illusion of aloneness” (19). In both instances, technological improvements such as the humanoid robot and the empathy box help humanity to break out of their solitude and experience a feeling of connectedness. In times of the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic, in which humanity must partake in social distancing, self-isolate, and rely entirely on technology to communicate, Dick’s descriptions of a secluded world are more pertinent than ever. 

In addition to an isolated population relying on technology for emotional support, Dick presents a future in which the environment is destroyed, nature is non-existent, and animals have become extinct, paralleling the defining contemporary issue of climate change. In his essay on nature in Androids, Aaron A. Cloyd remarks on the importance to consider the novel’s historical and social context, as the 1960s in America witnessed a steady rise of “environmental fervor and energy” (4). This tendency is reflected in Dick’s description of the environment “spilling over with radioactive motes, gray and sun-beclouding” (5). The post-apocalyptic world Dick describes is deeply shattered by a destroyed environment, made uninhabitable due to radioactive dust affecting human health. Moreover, Isidore notes the Earth’s growing pollution with litter leading to a “total, absolute kipple-ization” of the entire universe (57). If mankind pollutes the planet without rightfully disposing of the waste they cause and goes off to colonise other planets like Mars to do the same, there is no way to stop the growing amount of junk. Instead, Isidore claims it will get “more and more” as junk “reproduces itself” (56). In contrast, while the world is overrun by waste, the number of real living animals is decreasing. The majority of animals have become extinct, and humans own electrical pets instead. Ironically, caring for animals is believed to define humanity, as it is deemed “immoral and anti-empathic” to not own an animal (10). The irony of this statement lies in the fact that mankind has destroyed the planet’s environment, but ultimately relies on it morally. Consequently, animals have become a symbol of social status and are exploited by humans to prove their empathic abilities and moral purity. Instead of caring for the animals, Deckard is only interested in displaying his ability to care for an animal and show his wealth. Deckard merely acknowledges that a spider could be worth “a hundred and some odd dollars” thinking about profit and ownership rather than the animal’s wellbeing (190). Returning to Cloyd, it can be noted that the “shifting understanding of the position and role of humanity within nature” led to a rise in environmentalism in the United States (4). This trend is represented in Dick’s novel as it questions mankind’s egotism to see itself as the owner and controller of nature. Regarding the ecological concerns of the 21st century, it is interesting to observe the relevance of the text’s portrayals of an uninhabitable environment, junk, and extinct animals. With climate change as the defining issue of humankind’s recent history, there is no doubt about the appeal of Dick’s novel. Androids touches on aspects like pollution and environmentalism while foreshadowing problems that arose in the middle of the 20th century but have become a bleak reality in the last 50 years and will continue to affect humankind’s lives in the coming centuries.

In times of ongoing global pandemics, in which humanity must partake in social distancing, self-isolate, and rely entirely on technology to communicate, Dick’s descriptions of a secluded world are more pertinent than ever.

The final theme of Androids sustaining the novel’s popularity, is his presentation of humanity’s lack of empathy when dealing with otherness and foreignness, revealing a human flaw that has shaped the history of mankind and continues to do so. As a bounty hunter, Deckard must chase down androids that escaped slavery and kill them. Nevertheless, Deckard does not acknowledge the consequences of his job, stating that he “never killed a human being in [his] life” (1). Deckard believes he is acting correctly as he kills “only the killers” (27). The humanoid robot becomes the embodiment of “the killer”, as it is believed to “[possess] no ability to feel empathic joy for another life form’s success or grief” (27). However, in the novel, humanity’s lack of empathy is made apparent as Deckard himself becomes a killer. In addition to that, some androids do indeed show emotion. In her essay, Seyedhamed Moosavi undergoes a psychoanalytical reading of the good and evil in Androids, stating that the humanoid robots show signs indicating they are alive. According to Moosavi, the androids display “feelings such as fear, hatred, lust, revenge, collusion”, they are “capable of sympathy” and are “at least partially organic beings” (38). Nevertheless, the androids have no right to live a free life simply because they are different and alien to what is familiar to humankind. Moosavi describes this method as “depersonalization or deindividuation” (40). In Androids, the humanoid robots are systematically labelled, stereotyped, and anonymised, which allows mankind to put them in the position of the evil other, legitimising their enslavement and ultimately their extinction. Interestingly, Moosavi acknowledges that Dick wrote Androids in “the immediate shadow of the Jewish Holocaust” which suggests that Dick did not invent this phenomenon of othering, excluding, and killing a minority (40). As the history of mankind shows, people have always singled out minority groups, created stereotypes and labels to mark them as different and justify their persecution and eradication. In times of an ongoing refugee crisis, police brutality, and racism, the depiction of humanity’s approach to otherness in Androids is more resonant and confronting than ever.   

In his article on the original movie adaptation of Dick’s novel, David Barnett rightfully asks the question of whether “we [are] living in a Blade Runner world”. After all, the opening credits of Blade Runner reveal that the story is set in Los Angeles, in November 2019, which is now merely three years ago. According to Barnett, Blade Runner is no longer a science fiction movie, but has become a “contemporary thriller”. Sean Young’s Rachael may smoke in an office which is unimaginable in the Western hemisphere of the 21st century today but the movie predicts environmental collapse, mass industrialisation, the police state, and social marginalisation. There may be no artificial humans in 2021 but progress in gene-editing is not too far off. However, in the end, the relevance of Blade Runner and its sequel Blade Runner 2049 needs to be considered in regard to its origin: Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. In my blog post, I have shown that Dick raises awareness of abiding and essential questions determining the human experience. He not only gave an interesting outlook on his imagining of the future but managed to stay pertinent through his discussion of empathy as the essence of humanity, the growing isolation and individualisation of mankind, the destruction of the environment, and humankind’s dealing with otherness. Dick’s book never ceased to be popular because it allows each generation to draw parallels to its own time. The question that remains is whether we, living in the 21st century, should read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a cautionary tale, or whether it merely mirrors a dystopian future we already live in.

Bibliography:

Barnett, David. “Are we living in a Blade Runner world?.” BBC culture, 12 November 2019, www.bbc.com/culture/article/20191111-are-we-living-in-a-blade-runner-world.

Bhattacharya, Ananyo. “Where Blade Runner began: 50 years of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.” nature, 7 March 2018, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-02695-7.

Barlow, Aaron. “Reel Toads and Imaginary Cities: Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner and the Contemporary Science Fiction Movie.” In The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic, edited by Will Brooker, Columbia University Press, 2006, pp. 43-58.

Cloyd, Aaron A. “Electric Nature: (Re)Constructing Wilderness in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 26, no. 1, 2015, pp. 76-91.

Debrudge, Peter. “Film Review: ‘Blade Runner 2049’.” Variety, 29 September 2017, www.variety.com/2017/film/reviews/blade-runner-2049-review-1202576220/.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Gollancz, 2007.

Howard, Andrew. “The Postmodern Prometheus: Humanity and Narration in the SF Worlds of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Scott’s Blade Runner.” Interdisciplinary Humanities, vol. 35, no. 1, 2018, pp. 108-120.

Kürten, Jochen. “8 reasons why ‘Blade Runner’ became a cult film.” Deutsche Welle, 4 October 2017, www.dw.com/en/8-reasons-why-blade-runner-became-a-cult-film/a-40795870.

Moosavi, Seyedhamed. “The Psychology of Good and Evil in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.” Science Fiction Foundation, vol. 133, no. 48, 2019, pp. 35-46.

Sims, Christopher A. “The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2009, pp. 67-86.

Smith, Michael Marshall. “Introduction.” In Ubik, by Philip K. Dick, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000, pp. IX-XIV.

Vinci, Tony M. “Posthuman Wounds: Trauma, Non-Anthropocentric Vulnerability, and the Human/ Android/ Animal Dynamic in Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 47, no. 2, 2014, pp. 91-112.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s