My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In this blog post I’m going to explore the themes which popped into my brain when reading the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. For a summary of the book, click here. Some of the references and characters I mention below won’t make a great deal of sense unless you’re familiar with the story and the main characters (note: don’t think you can watch Bladerunner instead of reading the book as the story isn’t exactly like the movie).
In general the story concerns two contrasting character types: androids and humans both of whom want to live and would kill to do so. At its most fundamental level the book asks what is life and what is reality, without giving any clear answers. The themes I identified are as follows:
Hopes and Dreams
As the title of the book suggests, do androids dream and if they do then what do they dream about? Dreams are not only the sort which occur when you fall asleep but also encompass the big dreams that we as humans have concerning our lives. If they do “dream” then what, apart from their physical forms, separates them from humanity? Indeed, Roy Baty (Rick’s literary double) appears to have just as many dreams as Rick; he wants an improved life and he wants to have some spiritual fulfilment too. But Rick executes him and is then conflicted over what value should be placed on life: Rick kills to make a living whereas Baty kills to try to stay alive, which is more moral.
As the narrative progresses Rick Deckard discovers that his initial feelings and perceptions about androids become challenged and blurred. Are they actually alive? Can empathy exist in all “living” things as they try to realise their dreams and survive. The use of a false religion, Mercerism (see below) is used to bind these questions together and explore whether individualism is worse than a sense of collective humanity (again see below).
…ultimately, the empathic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated.
One of the primary themes explored in the novel is that of empathy. The supposed intrinsic difference between humans and the androids is ability of humans to be empathetic, something which initially Rick believes androids cannot manage. Does this perceived inability make them any less human? As the book progresses Rick begins to question this assertion: androids may in fact be empathetic and some humans are bereft of empathy. For example, Resch (a human) has little empathy for androids or indeed for anything living; he finds killing enjoyable whereas the anguish felt by Baty (an android – see the clip below) following his wife’s death leads Rick to decide that androids can feel empathy.
The main religion is Mercerism which uses Empathy Boxes to allow people to collectively join with the suffering of one man. The other more subtle religion is television with Buster Friendly’s continuous broadcasts. Buster does not simply symbolize a distraction from reality but attempts to transform reality by the control and manipulation of mass media.
Although Buster Friendly proves that Mercerism is false Dick suggests that while all religions may indeed be “false” the values they promote make them worthy as they meet the spiritual needs of humanity. Indeed even Mercer himself questions the validity of Mercerism as he tells Rick that it can’t offer any salvation. So perhaps the purpose of religion is not salvation but more about bringing individuals together (see “The Collective” below)?
The term “kipple” is used to allegorically represent decay; but at times (such as the animals towards the end of the book) Dick seems to propose that decay is essential for the continuation, survival and renewal of life itself.
Rick clearly believes in individualism: he’s a consumer; he wants a real animal and the associated prestige; he kills to get paid and for economic gain. The Rosen Association, as a company in a capitalist society, wants to create androids which are indistinguishable from humans thereby generating sales and profit.
The default capitalist position is that of individualism and the self and this leads to a misdirected sense of empathy, for example it’s impossible to really care for an electric animal or ultimately for an android. However, Mercerism suggests that if humanity came together then the decay of the world can be survived by us all via empathetic sharing.
The future Dick conveys is one of double standards. On one level there is importance placed on empathy and the intrinsic value of life but on another some lives are more important than others, for example John Isidore is viewed as a lesser human despite the fact that he is arguably more selfless, altruistic and humane than other characters, such as Rick Deckard. John is not only less affected by kipple and consumerism but he acts from the heart. He helps Pris even though he understands she is an android and in return Pris slowly becomes more human in terms of adopting some of John’s values.
Also as androids are used either as slaves or servants on Mars raises the question of the validity of a society which would allow this to occur; creating a “life” for pure economic and capitalistic reasons. Androids are portrayed at despising this, using drugs to escape their existence or actually trying to physically escape from the planet itself. This suggests that they actually display more empathy than the people who own them further blurring real /not real /human /not human binary divisions.
All in all a thought provoking novel which raises more questions than it answers and is highly recommended.