The Erosion of Humanity

Apart from horror and young adult fiction, science fiction is a part of the vast literary world that I rarely venture to. I admit, I am not a fan of any of these three genres. However, my aversion from these genres does not prevent me from indulging every now and then. One of these exemptions was Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Ship? It was my first work by the highly regarded American novelist. It was one of the books I purchased during the 2019 Big Bad Wolf Sale but I barely had an iota on what the book was about. I still bought it; after all, it was listed as part of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It is also often regarded as one of the best works of science fiction. So what else is stopping me from opening a classic of science fiction?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Ship? is not only Philip K. Dick’s most popular work. It is also widely regarded as one of the most seminal and most influential works of science fiction. The year was 1992 (although later editions used 2021) and the world was still recovering from the impact of the devastating global war referred to as World War Terminus. Earth has irreversibly been polluted by radioactive waste which prompted the United Nations to encourage mass relocation to off-world colonies. This was also promoted to preserve humanity’s genetic integrity. Those who opted to emigrate were provided with an incentive of free personal androids. The robot servants, which were akin to humans, were manufactured by the Rosen Association on a colony on Mars.

However, some androids go rogue and rebel against their manufacturers. They escape to Earth in the hopes of living undetected. These rebellious androids kept both the American and Soviet police departments on their toes. Thus commences the story of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Following the escape of six androids from Mars to Earth, the San Francisco Police Department commissioned Rich Deckard, a bounty hunter they keep under their payroll, to “retire” (kill) the rogue androids. It was going to be no ordinary manhunt, rather android-hunt as these androids are part of the new and highly intelligent Nexus-6 model.

“I never felt like that before. Maybe it could be depression, like you get. I can understand how you suffer now when you’re depressed; I always thought you liked it and I thought you could have snapped yourself out any time, if not alone then by means of the mood organ. But when you get that depressed you don’t care. Apathy, because you’ve lost a sense of worth. It doesn’t matter whether you feel better because you have no worth.”

~ Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Because of the similarities, distinguishing androids from real human beings is no easy task. So far, only a posthumous bone marrow analysis can determine the identity of a person. However, a new empathy test, the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test, showed promise of being able to determine who is who without having to wait for death. To confirm the accuracy of the test, Deckard traveled to the Rosen Association’s headquarters in Seattle. Deckard was apprehensive of the test’s ability to distinguish an android from humans, especially on the latest android models. There was also a possibility that the police have been killing human beings. As the narrative transitioned into a combination of suspense and adventure novel, the question arises, “Is empathy enough a basis to segregate a real human from a humanoid?”

According to the post-apocalyptic society of the book, empathy was an important determinant in segregating humans from humanoids. By being able to feel for others, and living through their experiences by some mystic group connection, one can easily prove that he is a human. Androids, on the other hand, were not capable of either, hence, they were considered as subhuman. However, as the narrative progressed, this central statement was questioned. It was eroded by the fact that not all humans were capable of empathy either, or at least they don’t immediately act upon it. It is safe to infer that empathy alone is not an accurate metric to gauge who is humans and which is android.

The discourse on humanity was present all throughout the story. As Deckard moves to retire all the rogue androids, he got erroneously arrested and detained because the policemen were unable to identify that he was a bounty hunter. At the station, he was accused as an android with implanted memories. The scenes at the police station were seminal in the narrative as Deckard reached an impasse. He started to ponder on the ethics of his line of work. Questions of philosophical nature also filled his mind as he grappled with the definition and value of life. What humanity is left in a bounty hunter who seeks out androids and mercilessly “retire” them? He was on the cusp of an identity and an existential crisis which may very well alter the way he sees the world. This personal dilemma was also a mantle the narrative was painted on.

It was not only Deckard’s moral crisis that underlined the question on humanity. How can one be called empathetic when he leaves the elderly, the weak, and the intellectually below-average (collectively called “chickenheads”) to a dying planet to be stranded forever? As one moves forward with the narrative, it cannot escape one’s notice how the androids have more emotional maturity compared to their human counterparts. The plausibility that the androids can possess emotions was underscored all throughout the narrative. It was this glaring dichotomy between between the protagonist humans and the antagonist androids that was the masterstroke of Dick’s prose. The androids, who exhibited more compassion towards fellow androids and even humans, can be seen as a reflection of a society whose humanity is in decline.

“As long as some creature experienced joy, then the condition for all other creatures included a fragment of joy. However, if any living being suffered, then for all the rest the shadow could not be entirely cast off. A herd animal such as man would acquire a higher survival factor through this; an owl or a cobra would be destroyed.”

~ Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, however, does not reduce itself into an exploration into the definitions of humanity and life. It is a multifaceted narrative that explored a plethora of subjects such as the consequences of a nuclear war, and war in general. The World War Terminus has drastically affected the environment, resulting to the extinction of many animals. The impact was so adverse that owning real animals has become a status symbol and only the rich were able to afford them. Poor people were relegated to owning robot imitations. Deckard, for instance, owned an electric black-faced sheep and with the bounty money from the success of his mission, he was hoping to procure a live animal. Replacing the machine with an authentic Nubian goat will also bring comfort to Deckard’s depressed wife, Iran.

The discourse on the real and the unreal was one of the ideas central to the narrative. These discourses were further complimented by the exploration of subjects such as mind control, intelligence and mental deficiency, and decay and regeneration. The value of individualism against the collective was also explored. On top of these subjects, Dick also incorporated a discourse on the fundamental value of religion to the lives of mankind. This was portrayed through the rise of a new technology-based religion called Mercerism. Centered on a Messianic character named Wilbur Mercer, Mercerism was an offshoot of the rise of empathy and used “empathy boxes” to link users to a virtual reality of collective suffering.

What worked on the novel’s favor was the gradual buildup of pace. It was slow at the beginning but as the story moved forward, the pace started to increase. Dick managed to keep his readers on the edge of their seats. He further complimented the rising tenterhook with unexpected twists. He kept the readers invested and riveted with the story. This was one of the novel’s redeeming qualities as Dick’s writing, for the most part, was dull. He did a commendable job with the worldbuilding but there was a lack of lyrical quality to the prose. This can be owed to the fact that the novel belongs to science fiction. Whilst the characters were believable, the character development was lacking.

With many good things executed properly, it was lamentable that the narrative started to crumble as it draws to a conclusion. Dick provoked his readers with the plethora of questions he raised. He managed to answer many of them but he also left too many questions unanswered in the end. These plot holes could have been excusable if the novel had a sequel but it did not. It was a digression from the progress that Dick made in the narrative. The conclusion was also in wont of something greater. The loose ends were never tied properly. It was rather confusing and, overall, it felt like it was an abstract idea that was simply juxtaposed into the narrative without much of a context.

“Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it—the silence—meant to supplant all things tangible.”

~ Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

For all its flaws and monotone storytelling, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was nevertheless a powerful narrative. It was parts-scientific, parts-dystopian, and parts-philosophical, a novel that explored a plethora of subjects and themes that remain seminal in the contemporary. Its exploration and prognosis of the human condition was scintillating, especially with the exponential rise of technology and how it is adversely affecting mankind. The novel gave a haunting albeit realistic picture of a future Earth. Its philosophical facet sets it apart from the typical science fiction and makes it stand out.

Originally published in 1968, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has proven Philip K. Dick’s innovativeness and imagination. The complexity of his prose and the depth of his analysis proved that he was ahead of his peers. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is, without a doubt, a tremendous product of the science fiction genre, one that will withstand the tests of time and one that every fan of science fiction must read.

Ratings

80%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%

I admit, I am no fan of science fiction, whether it be in the form of a film or of a published text. The only times I enjoyed science fiction was when it is incorporated with other literary genres. A good example would be the combination of dystopian and coming-of-age stories, or of a more eccentric literary genre such as the case with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. However, I find it challenging unraveling works of pure science fiction such as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds although I did have fun with Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now to my first Philip K. Dick. I have encountered Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in several must-read lists. But then again, I remained apprehensive of it. I did take a leap of faith when I finally decided to give it a try. I am glad I did for Dick offered me a new literary experience. The writing maybe stationary but the premise alone was enough to stir my imagination. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is undoubtedly a representative work of science fiction and everyone must not pass on the book.

Book Specs

Author:  Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Gollancz
Publishing Date: 2010
Number of Pages: 193
Genre: Science Fiction

Synopsis

War has left the Earth devastated. Through its ruins, bounty hunter Rick Deckard stalks, in search of the renegade replicants who are his prey. When he isn’t ‘retiring’ them, he dreams of owning the ultimate status symbol – a live animal. Then Rick gets a big assignment: to kill six Nexus-6 targets, for a huge reward. But things are never that simple, and Rick’s life quickly turns into a nightmare kaleidoscope of subterfuge and deceit.

About the Author

Philip Kindred Dick was born on December 16, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, USA to Dorothy and Joseph Edgar Dick. He had a twin sister name Jane Charlotte Dick. However, his twin sister died six weeks after their birth, on January 26, 1929. The family soon moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. His parents divorced when he was five, after his mother refused to move to Reno, Nevada, where his father was transferred to. Dorothy then moved to Washington, D.C. with her son.

Philip attended the John Eaton Elementary School. However, in 1938, mother and son again moved to the West Coast where Philip attended Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California. He and fellow science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin were members of the class of 1947 but were not acquainted with each during the years they attended the school. After high school, he attended the University of California, Berkeley from September to November 11, 1949. He received an honorable dismissal dated January 1, 1950. He dropped out due to ongoing anxiety problems. From 1948 to 1952, he worked at Art Music Company, a record store on Telegraph Avenue.

Dick’s literary career began in 1951 when he sold his first story, Roog. From then on, he took writing as a full-time career. In 1952, his first speculative fiction publications appeared in July and September numbers of Planet Stories, and in If and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that year. In 1955, he published his first novel, Solar Lottery. For his novel, The Man in the High Castle (1962), Dick won the 1963 Hugo Award. Among his popular works are The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ubik (1969), and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974). He has also published a score of short stories, short story collections, and collected non-fiction.

For his works, Dick has been nominated and won several accolades. He was nominated five times for the Nebula Awards Best Novel Category. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said won the 1975 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel while A Scanner Darkly (1977) won the 1978 British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel. In 2005, Dick was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Following his death, the Philip K. Dick Award was established in 1983 to recognize the previous year’s best science fiction paperback original published in the United States.

On March 2, 1982, Dick was disconnected from life support after suffering a series of strokes. His February 25, 1982 stroke proved to be fatal as it led to his brain death. After his death, his father Joseph took his ashes to Riverside Cemetery in Fort Morgan, Colorado, where they were buried next to his twin sister Jane.