Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a 1968 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. It tells of the moral crisis of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who stalks almost-human androids in a nuclear fallout-clouded, partially deserted future San Francisco.
Along with The Man in the High Castle, the novel is Dick’s most famous. It is one of the defining science fiction works exploring the ethical dimensions of androids.
Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples loosely adapted the novel into the 1982 film Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford. The Blade Runner (video game) is set in the same universe as the movie but incorporates many more elements from the book and its "look" can be considered a blend of the two.
Concepts and back story
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in 1992 (2021 in more recent editions of the novel), several years after the fallout resulting from World War Terminus decimated much of Earth. In the aftermath, the United Nations encourages people to emigrate to Off-world colonies to preserve the human race from the effects of the radioactive dust. One incentive is that each emigrating family will receive a custom-built android servant (derogatorily referred to as an "andy."). 1
The people who remain on Earth live in cluttered cities where radiation poisoning causes significant illness and gene damage. All animals are endangered. Owning and caring for an animal is considered a civic virtue and a status symbol, depending on the rarity of the species. Animals are bought and sold according to the price of the latest Sidney's Catalog, extinct animals are listed at the price of the last example sold. Some people who cannot afford an animal choose to buy an artificial, robotic animal to maintain social standing. The protagonist Rick Deckard owned a sheep, which died of tetanus and was replaced by an electric replica to maintain the illusion of animal ownership.
Androids are only used on the colony planet of Mars, but many escape to Earth to escape the isolation and to be free of slavery to humans. They are made entirely of organic components and are physically indistinguishable from humans. Bounty hunters, such as Deckard, track down and "retire" fugitive androids posing as humans. A bone marrow test is performed on the body of each retired android to confirm that it is not a human who has been killed. Due to differences in the vagus nerve, an android can commit suicide by holding its breath. Bounty hunters are required to apply tests such as the Voight-Kampff machine empathy test to differentiate humans from androids. The test measures brain activity and eye movement in response to emotional triggers, most of which involve harm to animals. Because androids are said to not feel empathy, their response is categorically different from those of human beings. The simpler Boneli test measures the speed of the reflex-arc response which takes place in the upper ganglia of the spinal column.
Mercerism is a prominent religious/philosophical movement on Earth. The movement is based on the fable of Wilbur Mercer, a man who lived before the war. Adherents of Mercerism grip the handles of an electrically powered empathy box, while viewing a monitor which displays patterns that are meaningless until the handles are gripped. After a short interval the user's senses are transported to the world of Wilbur Mercer, where they inhabit his mind in an experience shared with any other people using an empathy box at that moment. Mercerism blends the concept of a life-death-rebirth deity with the values of unity and empathy. According to legend, Mercer had the power to revive dead animals, but local officials used radioactive cobalt to nullify the part of his brain where the ability originated. This forced Mercer into the "tomb world." He strives to reverse the decay of the tomb world and ascend back to Earth by climbing an enormous hill. His adversaries throw rocks at him along the way, until Mercer reaches the top, when the cycle starts again.
Another device from the novel is the "Penfield Mood Organ," named for neurologist Wilder Penfield, which induces emotions in its users. The user can dial a setting to obtain a mood. Examples include "awareness of the manifold possibilities of the future," "desire to watch television, no matter what's on it," "pleased acknowledgement of husband's superior wisdom in all matters," and "desire to dial." Many users have a daily schedule of moods.
The most significant cultural icon on Earth is Buster Friendly, a jovial talk show host whose simultaneous radio and television programs air 23 hours a day. This implies that Buster is an android. Buster is seen as competing ideologically with Mercerism, frequently attacking it in his programs.
Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.
Rick Deckard, an inactive Bounty Hunter for the San Francisco Police Department, prepares for a typical work day. He feeds his electric sheep as per usual to prevent his neighbour from suspecting its true nature. Meanwhile, his wife spends her days at home under the influence of the empathy box and mood organ.
At the police station Deckard learns that the active senior hunter Dave Holden has been incapacitated by a Nexus-6, the most advanced and humanistic type of android created to date. Deckard is chosen to find the six remaining Nexus-6 models in the San Francisco area.
His superior asks him to travel to the Seattle, Washington headquarters of the Rosen Association, the makers of the Nexus-6, to confirm that the Voigt-Kampff test will work on the new model. There he meets Rachael, a sharp-tongued, dark-haired woman who claims to be the company heiress. Rachael is selected as the first test subject, which reveals she is an android. The Rosens inform Deckard that Rachael is in fact a schizoid human which would invalidate the Voigt-Kampff test, requiring a new test to be developed. He administers a last question, testing Rachael’s reaction to a fabric supposedly made from baby hide. Her reaction (or rather, her delayed reaction) proves conclusively that she is an android. Deckard leaves to begin his work, but his faith in the disparity between humans and androids has been thrown into doubt.
After searching the apartment of the first Nexus-6 on his list, Max Polokov, Rachael phones Deckard offering to help with the Nexus-6s, but he dismisses the offer. Deckard meets with W.P.O. agent Sandor Kalyadi from Russia, who turns out to be Polokov. Deckard struggles with Polokov in the cabin of his car, but manages to fire his .38 Magnum while still in its shoulder holster. He moves on to the android opera singer Luba Luft. After an attempt to administer the Voigt-Kapff test, she calls a police department, and an officer takes Deckard to a police headquarters he had never known existed. At the headquarters, Deckard is passed along to officer Garland, who is discovered to be Deckard's next target. Deckard is introduced to the department's own bounty hunter, Phil Resch, who, in light of Polokov's confirmation as an android, comes into conflict with Garland about administering the Boneli test to station personnel. Resch leaves the office to retrieve the testing gear, and Garland produces a laser tube, hesitating to fire until Resch re-enters. Resch shoots Garland in anticipation of his reaction and the pair escape the station to retire Luba Luft.
After Luft is retired at an art gallery, Deckard administers the Voigt-Kampff to Resch, who fearfully suspects himself to be an android after unwittingly working under androids for two years. Given the apparent eagerness by which Resch retires androids, Deckard is convinced he is not a human, but to Resch's relief he passes the test. Deckard is even more concerned with his increasing tendency to empathise with androids. Depressed, he uses his bounty money to buy a genuine goat in an attempt to reassure himself of his own morality.
The final three Nexus-6 models are holed up in an abandoned suburban apartment building with John R. Isidore, a "chickenhead" (a person whose intelligence is too far deteriorated from radiation to emigrate from Earth). Isidore is kind towards the three, although they are indifferent towards him, and exemplify androids’ lack of empathy. After discovering a live spider, they clip off its legs one by one to see how many legs it requires to move without a second thought.
At his apartment, Deckard uses an empathy box; when he does, Mercer tells him that doing the wrong thing is sometimes necessary. Deckard's superior phones to insist that he retire the remaining three andys in the same day in order to catch them by surprise. Deckard decides that he will need Rachael Rosen's help and accepts her offer, arranging to meet at a San Francisco hotel room. At the hotel room they drink antique bourbon, and after going over the remaining assignments, end up having sex. Afterward, while travelling in the hovercar, Rosen reveals that she had done the same with nine other bounty hunters in order to stop them from bounty hunting, and that the only one to maintain his profession after a liaison with her was Phil Resch. Deckard threatens to retire her but wavers. Rosen has scored a minor victory, but Deckard continues with the assignment. Deckard shows up at Isidore's apartment building to retire the last three androids. Mercer appears and saves him from being shot in the back by Pris, an identical model to Rachael. He efficiently retires the remaining two androids. Back at the apartment he learns that Rachael has pushed the goat off the roof of his building. Deckard heads out for one last trip, flying north in his hovercar to the Oregon desert. He walks up a hill in the manner of Mercer and is struck by a rock, whereupon he quickly returns to his car and finds a live toad (presumed extinct) buried in the sand. Back at the apartment his wife Iran finds a control panel on the toad's underside, revealing that it is synthetic. Surprisingly, Deckard does not seem to mind. After he has gone to sleep, Iran orders a batch of synthetic flies for the synthetic toad.
False hierarchies and divisions of life
On post-war Earth life forms, natural and artificial, are classified on hierarchies. Animals are considered endlessly precious, humans are considered less so and androids are considered meaningless. After their sexual encounter, Rosen explains this to Deckard, “That goat. You love that goat more than you love me, more than you love your wife probably” (page 177).
The three groups are also sub-classified. Sidney's Catalog gives the exact worth of every type of animal, humans are divided between those who can immigrate off-world and those who can't ("chickenheads") and new androids, that are superior to previous models, are constantly produced.
Yet these classifications have many flaws, especially between humans and androids. The latest androids are more intelligent than some classes of humans. Isidore even calls the three androids living with him "superior beings." Empathy is the trait that definitively separates human psyches from those of androids. Yet Deckard notes that, to perform their job, bounty hunters must not be empathetic towards androids, thus their superiority to the androids they hunt is questionable.
Two of the most respected “persons” on Earth may be artificial creations: Buster Friendly and Wilbur Mercer. Friendly, who often mocks Mercerism, reveals in an exposé that the stimuli humans encounter in an empathy box is based on old Hollywood films starring an alcoholic actor. Thus, Mercer may be nothing more than a repeating computer program.
Plus, androids’ flights to Earth reveal that they have the capacity to imagine a better life for themselves. This is epitomized by Luba Luft, the android opera singer, who likely performed menial work on an off-world colony.
While androids struggle for true contentment, many human beings are relying on artificial means of happiness, such as the mood organ. “Most androids have more vitality and desire to live than my wife,” Deckard notes (page 83).
At the novel’s end, Deckard comments on the way that his conflict with his profession has turned him into an “unnatural self,” which would make him android-like.
Decay and renewal
The twin forces of decay and renewal play an important role in the book. This can be seen in the allegory of Mercer, who possessed the ability to resurrect life and who now is dead and in a continual quest to rise back to life.
It also can be seen in the slowly dying Earth that is the novel’s backdrop. "Kipple" is a term given to "unwanted or useless objects that tend to reproduce itself". The first law of Kipple is...Kipple drives out nonkipple. Other forms of the word; Kipple-ized, kipple-factor, and kippleization. People can turn into "living kipple". An apartment can become "kipple-infested". Buster Friendly liked to declare, Earth would die under a layer--not of radioactive dust--but of kipple. Isidore, as he secures his apartment, notes that he is in a continual battle between “kipple” and “anti-kipple.” These and other descriptions in the book suggests an analogy to entropy.
Deckard sees the larger picture of decay and renewal and his own part in a microcosm of the process while watching Luft rehearse for a production of The Magic Flute:
- This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die, eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another; finally the name Mozart will vanish and the dust will have won. If not on this planet then another. We can evade it awhile. As the andys can evade me and exist a finite stretch longer. But I get them or some other bounty hunter gets them. In a way, he realized, I’m part of the form destroying process of entropy. The Rosen Association makes and I unmake. Or anyhow so it must seem to them. (page 86)
Humanity versus non-humanity
Dick's inspiration for the central plot point involving androids which are indistinguishable from humans came from specific factors in his own life experience. First and foremost, he could not accept that the people who committed atrocities such as the Holocaust during World War II were truly human. He felt that they must be inhuman monsters who merely appeared to be human. While this was initially a figurative philosophical concept, Dick was a user of methamphetamine, which he used to fuel his writing. As a result, he developed a high level of paranoia, and his notion about people appearing to be human when they were not became more literal.
Relation to Other Philip K. Dick Works
According to Dick, the inspiration for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? initially came from reading the diaries of Gestapo officers whilst researching The Man In the High Castle. Additionally, We Can Build You, a novel which Dick had written previously (but did not publish until the 1970s), details the Rosen family firm's invention of humanlike robots, initially in the form of replicas of historical figures for educational purposes; it is possible that We Can Build You represents a prequel to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, or an alternate version.
Differences between the novel and film
The plot and characterizations of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are different from that of its movie adaptation, Blade Runner, in a number of ways. The key few differences are:
- The film takes place in the year 2019, replacing the novel's 1992 (2021 in a later edition).
- The film takes place in Los Angeles , replacing the novel's San Francisco.
- Penfield Mood Organ, empathy box, Buster Friendly, and Mercerism are all important aspects of the novel not mentioned in the film.
- In the film, Deckard is divorced, not married. His relationship with Rachael is more thorough and, in the original theatrical version, the two enjoy a “happily ever after” ending.
- The atmosphere lacks dust in the film while in the novel, dust is a constant presence. The dust is radioactive, and male characters in the novel wear lead codpieces to avoid becoming sterile.
- Deckard is retired from bounty hunting in the film. He is active in the novel.
- Bounty hunters are deemed “Blade Runners” in the film. This phrase does not appear in the novel.
- An android is called replicant in the movie, but andy in the novel.
- In the film the profession of Luba Luft is changed to an exotic dancer. In the novel she is a gifted opera singer who has the appearance of being in her late 20's, that Rick admires. When she is killed by Phil Resch, a fellow Bounty Hunter, Rick is tormented that such a beautiful voice must be silenced. This anguish is not visited in the film.
- In the novel the androids seem to "give up" when confronted by the inevitable, the film versions are much more retaliatory. In addition, the androids in the novel are much less skilled in combat than in the film, where the fight scenes are highly climactic.
- Moreover, Roy, the leader of the rogue androids, does not force a murderous confrontation with his creator in the book. He remains holed up in Isidore's apartment until Rick hunts him down.
- In the novel, Rachael and Pris are identical. In the film, they are not; they are played by two very different-looking actresses, Sean Young and Daryl Hannah
- In the novel, J.R. Isadore is a "chickenhead," a person of borderline intelligence who is thus not allowed to emigrate. In the film, he is a brilliant android designer and cannot emigrate due to a hormone disorder.
- In the novel, the androids are slowly trying to replace humans and derogate the Mercer religion (which they cannot experience).
- The film, as originally released, leaves lingering the question of whether or not Deckard is an android (although the later Director's Cut gives more clues.) In the novel, Deckard passes the Voigt-Kampff test, proving that either he is human or that the test is flawed.
- In the novel, the androids live a maximum of roughly four years because their cells cannot be replaced as they deteriorate. The film Blade Runner depicts the four-year lifespan as a safety feature, deliberately included so that the android beings could not grow into fuller humanity.
Despite these differences, several post-1982 editions of the novel have been published under the title Blade Runner.
References elsewhere in fiction
In Life, the Universe and Everything, the third book in Douglas Adams's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" franchise, Marvin the Paranoid Android recites a lullaby which ends with the following verse:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
Try to count electric sheep,
Sweet dream wishes you can keep,
How I hate the night.
In Stephen King's The Dark Tower (series)|Dark Tower V, there is an android named Andy, who is fed up with the way humans treat him.
In "Fringe" an american science fiction television series co-created by J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the 4th episode of the season 3 is called "Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?", an obvious nod to the title of the novel that inspired Blade Runner.
In a similar fashion, the Japanese comedy anime, "Shimoneta: A Boring World Where The Concept of Dirty Jokes Doesn't Exist" makes a nod to the original title in the name of its 9th episode, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Masseurs".
References in computer technology
The Electric Sheep distributed computing project was inspired by the title of this novel.
References in music
In the song Talk Show On Mute by Incubus there is a phrase that states the electric sheep are dreaming of your fate enjoying from the chemical comfort of america. The electric sheep and chemical comfort part of the song are directly from the book. The electric sheep dreaming up your fate relates to animals being more important then humans and the chemical comfort reference is from the mood organ machine in the book.
The song "A Leaden Stride to Nowhere" by grindcore band Discordance Axis makes mention of "Feeling the stones as they're cast at Mercer", a direct reference to the experience of using the empathy box.
The song "Are Friends Electric?" by Gary Numan and his band Tubeway Army was inspired by the novel and the album that features the song, Replicas is essentially inspired by the novel as it is set in a dystopian machine world plagued by isolation and Urban decay as well as murderous Androids called Machmen.
- 1968 - Nominated to Nebula Award, Novel
- 1998 - Locus Poll Award, All-Time Best SF Novel before 1990 (Place: 51)
1 The term android is sometimes used when referring to artificial beings of a biological composition, though in most modern SF the term has come to refer to non-biological machines instead (e.g. the "Droids" in the Star Wars movies). Debate on such fine details is likely to encounter deep complications; the very issues which Dick—and Isaac Asimov before him—explored along the human-artificial boundary.