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. That said, when you get past the weirdness of the novel, some clear and definite themes emerge.
Human empathy is a joke
The Voigt-Kampff test famously differentiates between replicants and humans by testing 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 empathise 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.
Of 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 conversion 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 have no actual connection to the thing itself.
Similarly, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, human beings put such an importance on something being real, whether it be android or electric sheep, even though they can’t tell the difference between the natural and manufactured product.
Fake Vs Real Religion
The primary religion for those on earth is Mercerism. The religion that 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 an 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.