“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is perhaps Philip K. Dick’s most famous work. It’s also one of his darkest.
The novel is an examination of human morality, empathy, and our perception of what makes us ‘real’ or somehow ‘special’. It’s fair to say that Dick does not believe that humanity scores well in any of these areas.
Like much of Dick’s work, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is a book that raises questions rather than gives answers. Although some clear themes do emerge by the end of the novel, which we look at below.
Human Empathy is a Joke
The Voight-Kampff test famously differentiates between replicants and humans by testing their empathetic response. Empathy is a constant theme throughout “Do Androids Dream”, and Dick loves to show how arbitrary our concept of empathy is.
At one point, Deckard (wrongly) points out that herbivores and omnivores are the only beings that feel empathy. Isn’t it strange that omnivores, like ourselves, feel empathy? We can empathize with animals, yet we eat them instead of being vegetarian. Doesn’t that suggest that, on some level, our empathy is not absolute?
This is illustrated by the psychotic bounty hunter Resch, who is devoid of empathy when it comes to androids, but who feels a deep connection with his pet squirrel. This again shows that empathy is not such an immutable human quality as we’d like to believe. We can choose what and who we feel empathy for. And, if that’s the case, can we really say we have empathy at all?
While “Do Androids Dream” is a book of contradictions, there are two clear hints that show that Dick feels humans ultimately lack empathy:
- They built intelligent creatures capable of emotion and used them as slaves.
- They destroyed their own planet and brought almost every species on it to extinction.
What About Electric Sheep?
The humans in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” are incredibly proud of animal ownership. Viewing being able to look after an animal as a sacred duty. Or at least that’s what they tell themselves.
Animals in the novel are nothing more than status symbols. People long for them not because they want to care for them, or because they feel an empathetic connection, but because they want to show off to their neighbors.
The hypocrisy of this position is astounding, especially when you consider that humanity in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” has essentially committed ecocide.
Real Vs Unreal
One of the more bizarre exchanges in the novel is between Deckard and his Russian counterpart, Kadalyi. At least he thought it was his Russian counterpart. It turns out to be the android Deckard is hunting, who is called Polokov. The conversation runs like this:
“You’re not Polokov, you’re Kadalyi,” Rick said.
“Don’t you mean that the other way around? You’re a bit confused.”
“I mean you’re Polokov, the android; you’re not from the Soviet police.”
At first, this exchange appears pointless and bizarre, even by Philip K. Dick standards. But Dick includes this exchange for a reason. By swapping the names around, Dick is pointing out that real and fake are just labels we put on something that has no actual connection to the thing itself.
Similarly, in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, human beings put such importance on something being real, whether it be androids or electric sheep, even though they can’t tell the difference between the natural and manufactured product.<H2>Fake Vs Real Religion</H2> The primary religion for those on earth is Mercerism. The religion allows everyone to come together and feel an empathetic connection with the rest of humanity. There is much discussion in the novel as to whether or not this religion is more than the opium of the masses.
Yet, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. People decide to call it ‘real’ so it becomes as ‘real’ as it needs to be.
In conclusion, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” stands as a profound reflection on the human condition. It critically examines empathy, morality, the concept of ‘real’ versus ‘unreal’, and the role of religion in society, raising more questions than it answers. The characters in the novel grapple with existential dilemmas, both as individuals and as a society, making it an essential read for those interested in exploring deeper philosophical themes. Philip K. Dick’s work continues to resonate because it deftly interweaves these timeless questions within a vivid and compelling narrative. It’s no wonder that this novel has carved out its place as one of the classics in science fiction literature.