Everything You Need To Know About: "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Two orders of business:
Before I get started, I wanted to first acknowledge the amount of time passed since the last blog post. It's… been a while (cue Staind). There are a couple of reasons for this, but it just comes down to me being lazy and not knowing where I wanted to go with the blog portion of this project. So, I'm just going to wing it and see where we go!
The second thing I want to talk about is the reaction we've had to the show and the people we've met in the book-loving community; it's been amazing!
We've met so many cool people from different fandoms, specifically the Wheel of Time community and #TwitterofTime on Twitter. You guys have been just incredible to us. We're excited to roll out the next season of the show (I know, it's Dune, but we'll be coming back to Wheel of Time immediately after), so be on the lookout for that early November!
So let's get this blog out and rolling, shall we?
In the off-season of the show, I had a cue of a couple books, and I wanted to crush one before tackling Shai-Hulud. To do this, they needed to be the right size and scope. Not too large to take a lot of time, but just deep enough to keep my hyped for Dune. I landed on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick (whom I'm referring to as PKD because it sounds cool).
PKD's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep', released in 1968, is revered as a sci-fi classic for its themes and thoughts on paranoia, empathy, and humanity. The novel eventually served as inspiration for another classic in the genre, Blade Runner, an adaptation so popular it practically engulfs all knowledge of the book.
And I'm not even exaggerating here.
The book I own looks like a reworked poster design for Blade Runner 2049, complete with a very, shall I say, Harrison Ford-looking silhouette in the centre. Hell, the title Blade Runner takes center-stage and in the largest text. Suffice to say, I think I'd understand if you said you never knew there was a book.
So, what is everything you need to know about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
I'm also going to try and stay away from spoilers, but to talk about some of the characters and themes, I will have to give a few details here and there. So SPOILER WARNING! If you want to check out the book completely blind, stop reading now!
Everybody strapped in? Punch it, Chewie.
"I'm Going to Ask You a Few Questions": Background & Writing Style
Before we step into a radioactive dust-filled future, we need to first take a trip into our past. A lot of PKD's work as a writer revolves around his experiences as a child and teenager growing up in the '40s and '50s. This was a great time of change, and the most defining moments took place on the stages of World War 2 and the Nuclear Arms Race.
World War 2
While researching his alternative history novel Man in the High Castle, PKD came across a diary of a former death camp guard for the Nazis.
The guard described his trouble sleeping due to the memories he had of children crying while working in the camp. But something didn't seem quite right with how the man talked about it; instead of showing horror or disgust towards his past actions, he seemed more annoyed, even angered. This man, willingly or not, was stripped of all empathy for his fellow humans.
This struck PKD, and ignited deep thought about the nature of empathy and its relation to a person's humanity. But we'll get more into that later.
Nuclear Arms Race
If there is anything we can be sure about when it comes to PKD, it's that he is 100% a product of his era. Following the atomic bomb catastrophes in Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War 2, the world then settled on its next conflicts: The Cold War and Nuclear Arms Race.
As paranoia swelled about who was going to be the next nuclear superpower, PKD was already looking ahead at what these weapons could mean for the rest of the living world. For the most part, it didn't look pretty. I think it's plain to see that PKD saw these weapons as the end of our way of life as we knew it. Not only would the environment turn to ash, but so will parts of our genetic code, leaving some us irreparably different from the rest.
Big Ideas Over Pretty Prose
If you've never read a PKD novel before, be ready to reread pages a couple of times. I admire PKD's ability to really open up the imagination with really thoughtful philosophical questions and leaving them up for you to make your own conclusions, but it almost comes at the cost of simple, understandable writing.
I have my trouble with dream sequences in many books, but this whole novel feels almost as if it's all a dream, which I guess I should've known since 'Dream' is in the title. But it makes it hard to grasp why some of the characters are doing the thing they're doing. But if you're less worried about moment-to-moment action and enjoy the mind-bending surrealism Sheep displays, then you're in for a treat.
Workin' Stiffs: Characters
Rick Deckard is quite a different person from what we know and love from Harrison Ford's stoic performance in the film. Book Deckard isn't a retired Blade Runner forced back into work; he's kind of a working stiff. Doing a job that he kind of hates to pay for stuff that, he believes, will increase his status among friends and family (this has a lot to do with animals, which we'll get into in a bit), and earn the love of his incredibly unhappy wife, Iran.
What PKD achieves with Deckard is a pure sense of confusion and paranoia, especially during the book's back half. I feel as if PKD was trying to create an everyman type character and placing them in the boots of a hardboiled detective from early 40's pulps. But as the story progresses, the common bravado of many pulp heroes has faded away, leaving behind a man that is both scared and tired.
In the film and book, Rachel is pretty similar in the sense that they serve the same narrative purpose: to create doubt in Deckard about whether or not he sympathizes with androids. Filling in the "femme fatale" role, she also ends up being far colder and calculated near the end of the story, manipulating Deckard to serve her, and her kinds, purposes; even getting back at Deckard for his actions.
To me, John Isadore is one of the best parts of the story because his purpose is both narratively and thematically significant. Isadore is a "special," a person whose mind and body have been scrambled from radiation poisoning. Specials are often disregarded by society and are banned from moving to off-planet colonies.
The discrimination Isadore experiences imitate the same discrimination androids feel. In fact, as one of the only point-of-view characters we have in the book, he is practically responsible for illustrating the hardships androids experience.
Priss and Rachel share a similar story, but kind of on opposite sides of the coin. While Rachel is connected to Deckard, Priss spends a lot of her time with Isadore. Their relationship starts off rocky, but as she sees Isadore's problems and his dedication to helping his friends, Priss lets Isadore in.
Roy & Irmgard Baty
Roy and Irmgard Baty are lumped together here because they are never seen without the other person. Like Roy in the film, Roy and Irmgard are the leaders of the escaped group of androids that reach Earth, including Priss Stratten. They act as almost surrogate parents to her and work incredibly hard to keep themselves all protected from the wrecking ball that Rick Deckard and other bounty hunters hot on their tail.
They're not bad guys; in fact, they're victims in this story. Deckard is the only one driving conflict while everyone else is forced to hold tight and protect themselves as much as they can.
Dusty, Dirty, & Deprived: Setting
Welcome to post-apocalyptic San Francisco! Where World War Terminus has killed nearly all of the animals on Earth, poisoned large swaths of humans with radiation, and made it so that one of the only ways to lead a prosperous life is to flee to any of the colonies humans have created across the solar system! It is kind of your standard post-apocalyptic world, but there's more to it than meets the eye.
Using his world, PKD is able to set up his themes, particularly the relationship between robots and machines, and the role empathy plays. One of the most interesting things that I think sets this world apart from other science fiction realities is the relationship people have with animals.
In the world of Sheep, a pet isn't just something cute; it's a massive part of your status in your community. Essentially, anyone can own a fake, robotic animal, but it takes real money, and real responsibility, to own a real pet, whether it be a goat, a cat, or a fish.
However, this coin's flip side is the very real anger people feel towards androids and "Specials" like John Isadore. These people are without rights, and this hypocrisy isn't something that juts across the average Joe's mind in the book. It's developed as Deckard progresses throughout the story, interacting with androids as he comes across them, and in some cases, retires them.
It's Just an Illusion: Tones & Themes
By now, you can probably guess the main theme of this book is empathy. From beginning to end, empathy plays a role in what characters value and how characters interact and manipulate each other.
Apart from the relationship people have with animals and androids, a religion exists where empathy is the main focus: Mercerism. Mercerism has its own storyline in the book, but in general, it is all about sharing the experiences of others. One of the coolest scenes is where Iran and Deckard plug into this box to celebrate something I won't spoil here. But by plugging into this box, you can share in the experience with other people, giving others the same joy you felt.
Right behind empathy also comes paranoia, something that PKD knows how to do really well. Near the second half of the book, a short event happens that kicks paranoia into overdrive, and we sit with Deckard the entire way through it.
PKD is a master of this. He can get you on the edge of your seat trying to put together the pieces of a fractured state of mind, but it can be some work on your end to get a clear picture. A later book, A Scanner Darkly, exemplifies and amplifies this almost ten times over.
Sheep still holds a special place among sci-fi, and in many cases, is the starting point for many fans. While some of these themes may seem pretty common by today's standards, PKD set the groundwork for some of the greatest sci-fi works in the last 100 years.
If you're looking for an in-depth analysis of your favourite sci-fi and fantasy book, please check out our podcast! Next season, featuring Dune, is on track to drop November 2nd, 2020!