Thursday, May 9, 2013

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick


****This Commentary contains major spoilers. I could not make the points that I wanted without giving away significant plot developments.****





Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is another book that I first read when I was much younger and that I have recently revisited. This work earned recognition as a result of the film version Blade Runner. Though I thought that the film was extraordinary, it differs enormously from the book in plot, theme and characterization. Some fans of the movie may strongly dislike this book. Those who did not like the film could potentially find a lot to like about the novel. This is a strange and oddly structured tale that likely could not work as a faithful film adaption.  


This is a novel of great philosophical and metaphysical depth and complexity. Having read Dick extensively, including his latter, aesthetically weaker but philosophically straightforward works, allowed me to interpret much of this book relatively easily. In Dick’s latter books such as VALIS, the author laid out a similar belief system as is presented here, but does so unambiguously and less allegorically. In those later books, he also specifically spelled out many of his theological and philosophical influences that are apparent here.


Written in 1968, the story takes place in the “future” world of 1992. A nuclear war has transpired. The conflict was obviously limited as there is no apparent direct physical destruction. However, radioactive dust has spread over the Earth killing an enormous proportion of humanity as well as most plants and animals. Many of the survivors have immigrated to outer space colonies. Civilization has not collapsed and technology has not disappeared, however. Earth’s remaining population inhabits the partially empty cities living with shortages but enjoying the benefits of an advanced society.


Humanity is building increasingly sophisticated androids to use as slave labor on the colony worlds. The androids occasionally rebel and return to Earth. Rick Deckard is a San Francisco based bounty hunter who is tasked at tracking down and killing escaped androids. When eight dangerous fugitive androids are reported to have arrived in the San Francisco area, Deckard is assigned the job of destroying the group. Two additional characters are introduced: Rachael Rosen, a “legal” android herself who initially offers to assist Deckard, and John Isidore, a “Special”, meaning he is a human who has been mentally damaged by radiation contamination. Isidore encounters the escaped androids and befriends them.

There is a parallel and interwoven plot. It involves a conflict that is ancient and cosmic. Dick clearly sees two forces at work in the Universe.  The first is malevolent and relates to death, nihilism, chaos and cruelty. It is generated in part by human isolation. In multiple passages Dick equates it with the silence of an empty and dead world. At one point while in his apartment, Isidore observes,

Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it—the silence—meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won.”


This dark force manifests itself in many cruel acts committed by both the humans and the androids. It is epitomized by the inane and mocking media personality of Buster Friendly, whose crass comedy television and radio programs are constantly broadcast throughout the Earth and the colonies. The androids too, though complex and not entirely unsympathetic, are characterized by a total lack of empathy, are mostly cruel, and are ultimately on the side of chaos and meaninglessness.


There is another force in Dick’s universe. It is a power related to kindness, perseverance, art and, most particularly, empathy. It is exemplified by a religion practiced by humans known as Mercerism. Adherents of the creed employ a device known as an Empathy Box. Users of these boxes are simultaneously linked in a kind of group vision. The vision includes an old man, Wilbur Mercer, who is continually ascending a barren hill in a desert. As Mercer climbs, he is constantly confronted by unseen tormenters who assault him with rocks. This experience engenders a feeling of compassion and group comfort for those using the box. The true origins of these visions remain a mystery. Mercerism also values empathy toward animals. Due to radiation poisoning, live animals are rare and expensive. Followers of the belief system go to great lengths and expense to own and care for all sorts of animals including goats, sheep, rabbits as well as insects and other creatures. Isidore, the moral center of the story, represents this benevolent force as he shows empathy and kindness toward all people, animals and androids, including those who are very cruel to him. At times he exhibits the ability to bring animals back from the dead.

Decker, on the other hand, sits on the cusp of these two forces. He is a follower of Mercerism, yet he realizes that both he and society as a whole are acting cruelly and in violation of the religion’s precepts by killing the androids. Throughout the book, he agonizes over what he is doing. He ranges from an incredibly empathetic person to a terribly malevolent one. Dick avoids thousands of years of cliché and does not create a linear transformation from the morally vacant to the morally redeemed for Decker. Instead he continually jumps back and forth. Ultimately, his character is complex and marvelously crafted.

Though its source remains murky, it is shown that the benevolent force of empathy ultimately cannot be defeated. When Buster Friendly seems to have successfully discredited Mercerism to the world, and Isidore is traumatized into madness by an act of cruelty committed by the androids, all of the good in the universe seems lost. However, the specter of Wilber Mercer, who moments earlier had been “proven” not to exist, descends into the “Tomb World” and rescues Isidore. Later, even the in the face of bitter disappointment and disillusionment for several characters, empathetic feelings and actions assert themselves in various unexpected and unpredictable ways.

Dick mines various theologies and philosophies to build a complex metaphysical worldview. Mercer’s ascent is obviously Christ-like. The dualism of the two forces reflects tendencies towards Manichaeism. There are multiple references to the Universe and life not being real that reminded me of Hindu belief systems. From his later writings, I know that Dick was interested in certain Gnostic beliefs. A simplified version of one such set of beliefs is that the creator of the Universe got something very wrong when fashioning the world. This manifests itself in several instances when Mercer appears in visions to both Decker and Isidore and hints that the Universe is flawed and cursed. At times we cannot help but act contrary to the empathetic way. He tells Decker, 


“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.”

There is a lot more going on here both in terms of character and philosophy than I have touched upon, including all that I picked up and likely a lot that I did not. Some ruminations include the nature of consciousness, the allegorical meaning of religion and criticism of consumerism, to name just a few other points explored here. There are also numerous additional characters, including several of the escaped androids, which are interesting in their own right.


Though I am far from accepting Dick’s view of creation, I love this book. I must point out, however, that it is not for everyone. It is a strange story that is an odd mix of the deadly serious and the absurd. Structurally the book is unconventional. The plot takes unsettling and abrupt turns. It has two climaxes, one conventional and one spiritual, both of which occur well before the book’s end. To some extent, the ending lacks a sense of closure. Readers should not expect anything like the film. For all of its oddities, this is an imaginative science fiction and metaphysical romp with real aesthetic value. If one is interested in such things, this is a must read.

47 comments:

Caroline said...

I had this in my hand yesterday, thnking I wanted to read it. I loved the movie Blade Runner but I haven forgotten almost everything about it. the atmosphere stayed with me Good to know that the book is quit different though. I haven't read your whole review because of the spoilers and because I might read it soon... I hope to come back.
Is this your favourite book by Dick?

Tom Cunliffe said...

Well, although that's a book I've heard of before I didn't know it formed the inspiration to Blad Runner. When it comes to imaginative writing it sounds hard to beat! Very nice review - quite intriguing

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Yes this is my favorite PKD book. Before I reread some of his books over the last couple of years I used to say Ubik. But I now think that this is his best hands down. I would love to hear what you think if you read this.

I loved the movie Blade Runner too but it is so very different in atmosphere to this novel.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - PKD had such an imaginative and out of the box mind. At times in terms of novel structure and plot devices I do think that he let his mind run a little too wild however.

Book Dilettante said...

I haven't seen Blade Runner but this book does sound interesting. About the rogue androids, though, I wouldn't hesitate to destroy them if they are all mechanical, have no soul, etc. Like turning in a piece of equipment that no longer works. Did I miss the point?

seraillon said...

Well done post - I'm glad to know a bit more about this novel. If for no other reason than that, as a resident, I should be all read up on literature set in San Francisco, I should read this. But it's also one of those books that's been floating about my peripheral vision for as long as I can remember. So I'll pick it up, and hopefully I will get to it this summer.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

That is true, M. Seraillon, Electric Sheep is an SF novel in two ways. It is not as essential as The Maltese Falcon, but what is?

I vote for The Man in the High Castle as Dick's best. As usual, my opinion is tediously conventional.

Guy Savage said...

I've been meaning to read this for years as Blade Runner makes my top film list

anenduringromantic said...

Broadly agree - Androids is a great book; in some ways, it is reminiscent of Asimov's Robot series - in particular, Robots and Empire, where the whole question is about the "humanity" of thinking, feeling androids.

Have to disagree on the best book argument, though - I think Ubik wins this, for sheer outrageousness of conception as well as brilliance of execution.

The Penultimate Truth is really good as well - read it if you haven;t already.

Miguel said...

Knowing PKD only from the movies, I liked this review. The passages make me think he's a better writer than I often hear. What are his best novels?

Suko said...

I have not heard of this book before (or if I have, I don't remember). It sounds rather thrilling and "movie-like" to me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Personally I think that it is likely, but not certain, that once an entity, weather biological life or machine, reaches a certain level of mental complexity and reasoning ability, we must begin to treat it as an entity with life , interests, etc. As far as a soul goes, that is what I consider it to be.

Dick's androids are complex literary creations. At time they have some sympathetic and human aspects, but they completely lack empathy. Why Isidore was such an admirable character was that he shows sympathy for all biologically living things as well as machine sentience, regardless of imperfections.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - Thanks for the good word.

Indeed as a native to the city this book is part of your heritage :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Tom - I find Man in the High Castle really, really close. I come down slightly for this one being a little better because I think that Dick conveyed human emotion more artistically here.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy 0- I too love Blade Runner. As i alluded to, one will avoid disappointment not expecting this to be too similar.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gautam - It is such a close call between this one, Ubik, and man in the High Castle that I find it difficult to argue strongly.

I have read the Penultimate truth and it is another great one.

Though it has been a while, I read all of Asimov's the Foundation as well as Robot book. Absolutely brilliant works.

Naida said...

This sounds like an odd read, as the title suggests. I haven't seen Blade Runner but have heard of it. I enjoy science fiction, and the whole androids versus human theme can get interesting. It almost reminds me of IRobot.
Nicely reviewed Brian, enjoy your weekend :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - I do think he is a really good writer, those he tends to get a bit sloppy at time.

IMHO I think that his three best books are this one, Man in the High Castle, and UBIK.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Parts of this were adapted into Blade Runner but the structure is odd and there are a lot of metaphysical musings. I would recommend experiencing both but not trying to compare too much.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The Asimov robot stories were fantastic indeed. Though Asimov robots were usually much more benign and sympathetic then these. The film humanized the androids (or at least one of them) and they were much more sympathetic in it.

Sharon Henning said...

Really a thought provoking review. I've never seen Blade Runner or read Dick but your review gives a great synopsis. I see my local library has the book. I'm going to check it out.

I find the point that the Creator "got something very wrong when fashioning the universe" problematic. How can we know that it is flawed? Doesn't that imply that there is a paradigm of perfection by which we can compare it to in order to form that conclusion?

Therefore, it follows that it is not the Creator who created a flawed universe but a creation that deviated from its original intent.

In Christianity it's called being given free will which mankind used to rebel against God.

I would like to read more about Dick and his views on religion and the metaphysical.

Thanks for writing a great review that makes me think! Take care!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

he tends to get a bit sloppy at time

I remember a couple of books where you can almost identify the point where Dick gives up, where he decides he just needs to finish quickly and move on to the next one.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I would love to see what you think of the book if you read it.

I am not as versed in Gnostic beliefs as I would like to be. I do know some variations contend that there maybe a perfect God behind it all but that some kind of impostor actually created our universe. Perhaps all part of a bigger plan.

As for the flawed universe thing I have a very different worldview. As you know I doubt that there is even a creator. I also tend to think that the universe is what it is. The term "flawed", while a vital human concept, not something that is part of nuts and bolts reality of things.

Take Care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Yes you hit that on the head about the sloppiness. Occasionally he seems to do the same thing with ideas, not developing them nearly enough before he is presenting more.

stujallen said...

I just strangely mentionj Dicks in my review this is one of the two books by him I read mainly due to bladerunner link although it is very different than the film ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - Though I have not yet read it I see that you have a post on Robert Bolano. I believe that Bolano was an admirer of PKDs work.

I am now off to read your post.

Parrish Lantern said...

I remember reading this in my teens along with JG Ballard & Michael Moorcock and thoroughly loved them all. Keep meaning to revisit these writer's work to see if the feelings the same. Great post, thanks.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Parish - I too read a lot of science fiction in my teens. Of course much of it does not hold up now. However there are few few great writers such as PKD that I actually appreciate more as I understand the world a little bit better now.

Parrish Lantern said...

One of the ones that I'd like to reread is Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man, which I've recently got hold off, have you read it, if not you might enjoy it.
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behold_the_Man_(novel)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Parish - I have not read Behold the Man but I like Moorcock's work.

If you recommend it I am thinking that it is a worthy novel!

Parrish Lantern said...

I would, but with a proviso that it's my teenage self giving the recommendation, altho to be fair to him he also the introduced me to Sartre, Camus, Calvino etc :-)

Lucy said...

Brian, this is a really great post. I read the book once at school, but I'd really like to revisit it. As you said, I'm sure that it's a book you need to go back to at least once. Your philosophical insights into the book have really interested me, particularly those relating to Hindu belief, and I think I'd have a lot more understanding of such plot aspects now.

I've only watched half of Blade Runner. However, as I really enjoyed what I saw, I will have to seek out the other half! I've heard good things about it, despite the differences from the book that everyone seems to agree upon.

All the best :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy- Thanks for the good word.

Much of PKD work shared the Hindu belief in the non reality of the everyday world. Existence itself is questions. In my opinion UBIK was the best example of this.

Richard said...

I have Dick's "The Man in the High Castle" to get to first, Brian, but I'd love to reread this book at some point because I think I read it right about the time "Blade Runner" came out. Although I used to love that movie in all of its different versions, I don't remember half of the things in the book you touched on here. My memory's going, going, gone, I'm afraid!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - Man in the High Castle was really a great book.

Many of the things that I mentioned above were not in the movie. Some of the characters were also radically different.

Book Dilettante said...

Brian: you have so many comments on this very intriguing subject of androids vs humans.

My husband, the IT guy, says that he thinks that in reality computers/androids can be made to imitate human emotions and decision making, etc., but as for a spirit or soul, that could be another question.

(You can tell I was raised on Thomas Aquinas)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi harvee - Thanks for stopping by again and continuing the conversation.

Though I am familiar with his writings and important arguments in a basic sense I really need to get to reading Thomas Aquinas.

I think what we call "self", "consciousness" or what people consider a soul, is a wondrous, amazing thing. It is the universe reaching awareness through organization. However, I think it is all a function of physical laws, biology, chemistry, physics, etc. Hence, though likely to be very different, I believe that the day will come when machines will have "souls".

Ryan said...

I'm embarrassed to say that I've never read Philip K. Dick, though he's been on my radar for years. What's more embarrassing is that I was completely unaware that this novel was the basis for Blade Runner, which just happens to be one of my favorite movies.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - There are so many important writers and books that I have not read yet!

Blade Runner was such a great film! Yet so very different from this book.

Amritorupa (@Rivers I have Known) said...

Brilliant analysis Brian! We use words like 'soul', 'intelligence', and 'life', but don't really think of their definitions or implications.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Amritorupa - Indeed these concepts, especially soul and intelligence are perplexing. I prefer "consciousness" as that seems to get to what it is about. I have read some interesting musings from a scientific point of view on these issues from Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers. I recommend all three.

Maria Behar said...

(I deleted the previous comment because of typos. Lol.)

Oh, Brian, what an incredibly BEAUTIFUL, fascinating review!!! I have enjoyed reading it immensely! You've brought out this novel's salient points in such lovely prose, too!

Okay, I'll stop. I don't want you to start feeling uncomfortable. Lol.

From what you've described, the book is MUCH superior to the film adaptation, which I absolutely LOATHED. I've only seen it once, by the way. Thank God it wasn't in a movie theater! No, I saw it with my husband on Netflix, at home. I don't know why we watched it all the way to the end, because I don't think I've EVER seen a film so full of depression, darkness, and despair. I really don't know why it's got such a cult following.

Anyway, the book does sound depressing, as well, but the religion of Mercerism brings in a ray of light, amidst all the darkness. I really like the parallels to Christianity. Besides, the prose style is just incredibly LUSCIOUS. I also think that the book is much more complex than the movie, with layers and layers of meaning. Granted, such layers don't usually translate well to film. But heck, then this book should NEVER have been made into a movie!

I find Dick's inclusion of such things as Gnostic beliefs so very interesting...I've recently begun to struggle with these ideas myself, wondering whether they have any validity. I sometimes wonder whether the world's religions have merely been the creation of the human mind. At other times, I want to firmly believe in the reality of the spiritual world.... I know this book will give me much food for thought!

I honestly didn't think you gave too much away in your excellent review. I thought the 'spoilers' you included were, as you pointed out at the top of the review, necessary in order for you to give your readers a good grasp of what this book is all about.

Of course, I've known about this book for years, but have never read it. I don't own it, either. These are two things I must change at once! This book sounds like the greatest type of intellectual tour-de-force, and I definitely LOVE reading such books!

Thanks for the AWESOME review!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - Thanks so much for your always kind words.

I had a feeling that you would be interested in this one. There is darkness in this book. The positive half of the universe that PKD describes is very strong. It is represented by Mercerism and by the character of John Isidore, who, in Christ like fashion shows enormous empathy for all beings, even the cruel ones.

I find Gnostic beliefs interesting and really want to do additional reading on them. On one hand I love the way that PKD mixes so many religious belief systems. On the other hand sometimes he seems to be attempting to mix every religious belief that he has ever heard into one giant unified theory and I wonder if he is trying too hard.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria again - Just thinking about the film.


It has been a little while since I have seen it. It really was so different from the book that comparisons are mostly meaningless. It is indeed dark. I do believe that at least sometimes that art needs to show the darkness that is part of existence. For all its negativity I did think that its ultimate message was that of respect for all life.

vb said...

Though metaphysical rambling is not my cup of tea , This book seems to be interesting for the theme and its future forward approach ...I would like to read ur review and ur insightful commentary rather than reading so that I'm well informed of these genre and writings which I would miss otherwsie..

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - There really is a lot of metaphysical stuff in the book. Have you ever seen the Blade Runner? Though philosophical it was not nearly as metaphysical.

vb said...

Yes I have actually my friend is a movie fanatic he gave me a list of must watch movie and this was one on the list but I must say I never knew the book was adapted from this book and I see it is different from the movie all together..