Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is Philip K Dick’s 1968 post-apocalyptic novel. It’s a world where people synthetically ‘dial up’ their mood, aspire to keep a real animal as a pet, and organic androids (built as a slave class) are escaping from Mars to the earth.
The novel is a series of extraordinary and fascinating ideas that don’t quite cohere into a satisfying story. There’s a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, a world ravaged by nuclear radiation, the abandoned suburbs, mass emigration to Mars, Mercerism (the religion of the day), which values empathy for all living things, keeping animals as a status symbol, human-like organic robots (the enemy within), the Voight-Kampff Test (a way of identifying non-human behaviour through an involuntary physiological response to a repugnant suggestion), and even sex with robots (which, in the novel, is against the law).
The plot of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is straightforward. Like his other novels, it begins in the ordinary world, the mundane reality of the everyday, a kind of dull version of 2oth century middle-America. Rick Deckard wakes up and has a boring chat with his wife about the settings on their Penfold mood machine. The he goes up onto the roof of the building to feed his ‘electric’ sheep (his real sheep has been replaced by an ‘electric’ one). He has another dull conversation with his neighbour about their pets. It’s an inauspicious start, and a very different beginning to the film.
Dick’s preoccupation is world building. He enjoys taking us into his visionary society of the future, revealing the specifics of its culture. He does it through the experience of the central character. He’s keen to make it all real and plausible. In this future, ordinary people are struggling with problems and fears. They are dreaming of a better future. Just like us.
Their desires are focused on pointless status symbols, which they perceive as being essential to their happiness. This parallels consumerist notions of shopping for one’s identity, and expressing oneself through consumer purchases.
Dick’s world is a grubby one. And his characters’ motivations are equally grubby. Deckard kills androids so that he can afford to buy a real goat.
Blade Runner, the film of the novel, is an action adventure where the action takes precedence over the carefully observe minutiae of world building. As a visual medium we can see the world as the action unfolds. In Blade Runner we see the world of the future as soon the opening credits appear. Where the novel can exist within the detail of world building, the film efficiently suggests it through images, music, and sound. This allows the film to focus on the action: the bounty hunter tracking down killer androids.
Most of the novel takes place in rooms with talking heads. It’s static. The film offers movement: chase sequences, characters evading capture, flying cars, dramatic fight sequences.
The novel feels like a Hollywood detective film from the 1940s. A Film Noir, with the regular guy, Deckard, manipulated by the doe-eyed android, Rachael, the Femme Fatal. In the novel Rachael is coldly seductive, she herself is aware that she’s not human. She sleeps with Deckard, mistakenly believing that having sex with him will make him empathise with androids, and less likely to kill the remaining three. When Deckard does kill them (in what turns out to be a disappointingly short scene) she kills his newly acquired goat in revenge (throwing it off the roof of his building).
The empathy theme in the novel doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Rachael explicitly states that androids don’t protect one another because they don’t feel empathy. But she’s attempting to protect other androids. And other androids, operating in the guise of policemen (the enemy within) are working together.
Dick believed that humanity has lost touch with itself, because technology has encroached on our lives, altering our identity and understanding of ‘reality’. He was interested in the notion of simulation. Things that look real, but aren’t. Authenticity. Copies. The androids are simulations of humans. Copies. At what point does an android become real enough to be considered human?
Unlike Blade Runner, in the novel Deckard and his colleague both believe that they might be androids. Neither of them are. Deckard begins to feel empathy for androids, but after having sex with Rachael changes his mind when she tells him that she’s slept with other bounty hunters. Rachael is at the centre of this reversal. He almost kills her, but changes his mind.
At the end of the novel he cares for a toad that he finds in the radioactive wasteland. His wife discovers that the creature is an escaped electric toad, but does not tell him.
What is real? What is a simulation? Dick seems to say: if we believe something is ‘real’, then to us it is real.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner are different stories. They cannot be meaningfully reconciled. Ultimately, they both hinge on Deckard’s relationship with Rachael. In the novel she is a manipulative Femme Fatal. In Blade Runner she’s a doe eyed innocent, confused about her identity. In the novel Deckard sees her as a lifeless object. In Blade Runner he’s sympathetic to her, perhaps he’s in love. Blade Runner 2049 offers another version of the story, making its own conclusion.