Introduction to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Originally published in a new hardback edition of Philip K. Dick's novel, published by Gollancz on the imprint's 50th anniversary.

Before we consider this novel about empathy, identity and memory we must commit an act of unremembering. We must unremember Blade Runner, the film adaptation whose teeming, rain-sodden, noir-inflected streets and monumental cityscapes cast a long shadow over cinematic science fiction and seeped into the climate of cyberpunk and much near-future fiction. Philip K. Dick’s novel is far less action-orientated and much more intimate: a domestic drama that begins with desultory bickering between husband and wife, and unfolds over a single day in which its hero, like so many heroes of Dick’s novels an ordinary working stiff suffering an existential crisis, confronts the true nature of his profession, and questions the truth of his own existence.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, written in 1966 and published in 1968, comes from the middle of Dick’s most creative period, in which he produced a small stack of masterpieces, including Martian Time-Slip, The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Dr Bloodmoney, A Maze of Death, and Ubik, as well as a dozen lesser books. Like many of Dick’s best novels, it’s set in a depleted, depopulated world slowly sinking into a sea of junk, and it’s also one of the best explorations of one of his enduring themes, the menacing, mechanical simulacra, or androids, that threaten to undermine human reality. As Dick explains in his essay ‘Man, Android and Machine’:

'Within the universe there exist fierce cold things, which I have given the name "machines" to. Their behaviour frightens me, especially when it imitates human behaviour so well that I get the uncomfortable feeling that these things are trying to pass themselves off as human but are not. I call them "androids". . . Sly and cruel entities which smile as they reach out to shake hands. But their handshake is the grip of death, and their smile has the coldness of the grave.'

It’s some time after World War Terminus. Most people have quit Earth for colonies on other planets. Ecosystems are wrecked. Those animals left alive are precious commodities, kept to atone for the destruction of much of nature, and traded as status symbols. Rick Decard and his wife have to make do with an electric sheep, an affordable substitute for a real animal that died. Spurred by jealousy of his neighbour’s real, pregnant horse, Decard volunteers for a difficult job, hoping to earn enough for a down payment on a new, real animal. The twist in this mutant sitcom plot is that Decard is a bounty hunter who hunts down and retires -- kills -- androids who have escaped their servitude in the colonies and made their way to Earth.

Decard’s prey are highly dangerous Nexus-6 models that are able to pass, through clever misdirection, tests designed to detect the lack of empathy characteristic of all androids (Dick has a lot of fun parodying real psychological tests). In direct contrast to the androids’ solitary selfishness, human colonists on other planets and those left behind on Earth are united by one of Dick’s more inspired inventions: a secular religion, Mercerism.  By gripping the handles of an empathy box while looking into its screen, the user experiences with millions of other followers the tortuous ascent of a bleak mountain by the eponymous Wilbur Mercer, sharing his suffering and purpose. While an inane chatshow host, Buster Friendly, who broadcasts an impossible 46 hours live television and radio a day, and may well be as synthetic as any android, trails a revelation that will, he claims, prove that Mercerism is a fake, Decard doggedly tracks his prey through a maze of dopplegangers, fakes, and ruined landscapes that reflect his inner turmoil as he begins to wonder if he’s becoming as cold and ruthless as the androids he’s hunting.

At its best, science fiction attempts to reconcile the inhuman scale of the universe with the smaller compass of human life. Often, it does so noisily and gleefully, foregrounding battles between huge spaceships against vast backdrops of stars, winding up plots that totter across interstellar distances and deep galactic time. Philip K. Dick’s novels are on a smaller, intimately human scale, yet they deal with questions as large as any found in the most Wagnerian of space operas. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks hard questions about what it means to be human, and the true nature of the reality we share. When Buster Friendly finally provides incontrovertible evidence that Mercer is a fake, Rick decides that it doesn’t matter: ‘Everything is true. Everything anybody has ever thought.’ Even the revelation that Mercer’s final gift is also fake can’t shake this new, hard-won conviction. What he learns does not change the world, but it does change our understanding of it, and his story, which began with a silly spat with his wife, ends in reconciliation: a small movement of the human heart: a quiet and perfect moment of grace.

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