Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was a 1968 novel by Philip K Dick. The novel’s protagonist is Rick Deckard, a man who hunts sentient androids for profit on a ruined, irradiated earth where the majority of the population have emigrated to Mars. Animals are mostly extinct, and extremely valuable; Rick can only afford an electric sheep, not the real thing. The book explores the nature of the soul, the value of animals, and what constitutes a human being.
Humanity and Despair
One of the key points in the book is the nature of humanity. Rick isn’t a good man. He scratches a tawdry living assassinating increasingly human androids. He uses a machine to regulate his moods; appears to be bad with money; cheats on his depressed wife. His goal in the book is to pay off a real goat he can’t really afford by ‘retiring’ (murdering) a group of six sentient androids.
There’s a telling moment where he declares he can’t stand how they “just give up”. That’s because it’s easier to justify killing someone who fights back. The passivity of Luba and other androids shows the situation for what it is – murder.
The most human character in the book is a man with brain damage, John J Isidore, who has empathy for humans, androids and animals alike. His simple caring and respect for all life makes him the most humane person in the book. It’s a blunt but powerful message about what makes us human. Especially as so many supposedly evolved characters revile him for disability.
The Android as Minority
Rick is a bland, hateful bureaucrat, and his selective power of life and death, often applied according to his own prejudices, is highlighted and critiqued. He wants to let Luba go, because she’s beautiful and talented; much is made of her Nordic looks. The male androids he retires get little such mercy. A Verge review pointed out that the film provides a rather racially charged justification for Deckard’s work. After all, the androids are threatening, powerful, way too much for a regular police officer to handle.
There’s a discussion where Rick is wavering on the ethics of his role. His supervisor reminds him that the androids killed people to get off Mars, and that justifies their ‘retirement’. It’s a far starker comparison to slavery than in the film. It specifically states the androids were used as ‘field hands’, and the police officers joke about ‘android mistresses’.
Think of the Finding Your Roots episode where Anderson Cooper discovered that his ancestor was beaten to death with a farm hoe by a rebellious slave. When asked if that ancestor deserved his fate, Cooper gave an unambiguous “Yeah.”
A modern audience sees a slave killing the master who raped her as a hero, not a villain. This paints Deckard as even more monstrous – he’s not just a cop, he’s a slave catcher.
This is something of a side note, but I am baffled that a 1982 film manages to be consistently more misogynistic than a 1968 novel. Now, no-one could call Philip K Dick a feminist. His books are crammed with strong women obliterating their weak husbands, in a rather telling projection from his personal life. But the film is so relentlessly sexist that it’s almost comical.
In the book, beautiful and erudite opera singer Luba provides a telling illustration of the value and beauty of synthetic life. In the film, she’s a snake wielding stripper who… runs away and gets promptly shot in the back by Deckard. In the book, Rachel manipulates and seduces Deckard for her own ends and discards him afterwards. In the film, he rapes her and then the film has her ‘fall in love’ with him.
Roger Ebert even wrote a review where he shakily admitted he’d been forced to recognise that Deckard was the villain and not the hero of Bladerunner. And that it was via an article describing the rape scene that he had initially taken to be consensual. Ebert also points out that in the film, the only replicants Deckard can kill are women; one of which he shoots in the back.
In The End
I think very few people who had seen Bladerunner would think of ‘Androids’ as an environmental novel. However that is why I shrug when people ask if I prefer the book or the film – the two are so different that it’s an an almost meaningless comparison (it is the book though).
The increasingly rare animals on Earth are an important part of the novel. Deckard recalls how the irradiation of earth was presaged by the deaths of the owls, followed by other species. Animals are cared for and paramount; a neighbour pities him for not having an organic pet to care for. They speculate about whether a neighbour has a real cat or electric, but admit it would be ruder to ask than to enquire whether he had false teeth.
In the denouement, Rachel punishes him for continuing his campaign against the androids by throwing his goat off a roof. She does so after laughingly acknowledging that he probably loves his goat more than her, and certainly more than his wife. It is indeed the perfect revenge; the goat is dead, and Rick will still have to pay for it, rendering his brutal ‘retirement’ spree null and void. His lack of humanity has effectively cost him his soul.