Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

From Academic Kids

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Cover of the 1977 Grenada edition of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (sometimes mistakenly cited as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?) 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 gloomy, partially deserted future San Francisco.

With the possible exception of The Man in the High Castle, the novel is Dicks most famous. It is one of the defining science fiction works exploring the ethical dimensions of androids.

It was loosely adapted into the 1982 film Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford.


Plot Synopsis

Concepts and Back Story

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in 1992, several years after "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. One incentive is that each emigrating family will receive an android servant (derogatively 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 something of a status symbol. Many people who cannot afford an animal buy artificial, robotic animals to maintain social standing.

Androids are banned on Earth, but many escape to the planet to be free of slavery to humans. Bounty hunters, such as Deckard, track down and "retire" fugitive androids. Bounty hunters apply the Voigt-Kampff empathy test to differentiate humans from androids. The test measures facial movements in response to gruesome stories, most of which involve harm to animals. Because androids cannot feel empathy, their response is categorically different from those of human beings.

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. According to legend, Mercer had the power to revive dead animals but angered local officials, who attacked him with radioactive cobalt. This forced Mercer into a tomb world. He continues to try to ascend back to Earth, forever climbing an enormous hill. Adherents of Mercerism use an empathy box, an electronic device which instills in its user a hallucination of sharing Mercer's sufferings. Mercerism blends the concept of a life-death-rebirth deity with the values of unity and empathy, all of which are inspiring to those left on a dying Earth.

Another device from the novel is the "Penfield Mood Organ," 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 radio and television programs air 23 hours a day. This implies that Buster is an android.


Before the novel begins, San Franciscos top bounty hunter is incapacitated by a Nexus-6, the most advanced and humanistic type of android ever created. Deckard is assigned to finding the remaining six Nexus-6 models in the San Francisco area.

Deckard hopes to use the bounty to buy an animal. He owns an electric sheep, a replacement for a living one that died. Although his peers are ignorant to the change, it is a source of shame to Deckard. Meanwhile, his wife sits at home under the influence of the empathy box and mood organ.

Before he begins his hunt, Deckard travels to the Seattle headquarters of the Rosen Corporation, the makers of the Nexus-6, to interview a model. There he meets Rachael Rosen, a sharp-tongued, dark-haired woman who claims to be the company heiress. Rosen asks Deckard administer the Voigt-Kampff test to her. The test reveals she is an android. The Rosens then insist that the Voigt-Kampff is deficient and Deckard can not go on with his work. Deckard administers the last question on the Voigt-Kampff, testing Rosens reaction to a fabric supposedly made from baby hide. Her reaction (or lack of) proves conclusively that she is an android. Deckard continues his work but his faith in the disparity between humans and androids has been damaged.

Deckard retires the first Nexus-6 on his list and moves onto an android opera singer. She calls a police department and an officer takes Deckard to a mysterious police headquarters. Deckard soon realizes that the department is run by androids, even though it employs a bounty hunter named Phil Resch. Deckard and Resch escape the station (killing the third Nexus-6 in the process) and then retire the singer.

Deckard administers the Voigt-Kampff to Resch, who fearfully suspects himself an android after unknowingly working under androids for two years. Given the sadism by which Resch retires androids, Deckard hopes he is not a true person but the test reveals that he is. Deckard is even more disturbed with his profession. He uses his bounty money to buy a 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 Isodore, a "chickenhead" (a person who is too damaged from radiation to emigrate from Earth). Isodore is kind towards the three, although they are callous towards him and exemplify androids lack of empathy. At one point, they clip off a spiders legs one-by-one to see how many legs it requires to move.

Rachael Rosen travels to San Francisco to help Deckard. They end-up having sex in a hotel. Afterwards Rosen, in a drunken fury, bemoans her life situation and cruelly taunts Deckard for his profession.

Reassured by an experience in an empathy box in which Mercer tells him his job is necessary, Deckard travels to the suburbs to retire the last three androids. He does so without wavering, despite the fact that one is identical to Rachael. He concludes that the androids are alive, in meaningful if not legal ways, but that his job is necessary, linking himself to a force of nature but he is still deeply uncomfortable with it.


False Hierarchies and Divisions of Life

On post-war Earth life forms, real 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. An almanac gives the exact worth of every type of animal, humans are divided between those who can immigrate off-world and those who cant ("chickenheads") and new androids, that are superior to previous models, are constantly produced.

Yet these classifications have many flaws, especially between humans and androids. Androids are more intelligent than humans. Isodore 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 androids: Buster Friendly and Wilbur Mercer. Friendly, who often mocks Mercerism, reveals in an expos that the stimuli humans encounter in an empathy box is based on an old Hollywood films starring an alcoholic actor. Thus, Mercer is a repeating computer program, if not an actual android.

Plus, androids flights to Earth reveal that they have the capacity to imagine a better life for themselves. This is epitomized by Luba Loft, 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 novels end, Deckard comments on the way that his confliction 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 novels 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. Isodore, 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 Loft 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, Im 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)

Differences Between the Novel and Film

The plot and characterizations of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are different in a number of ways from that of Blade Runner. The novel is both more surreal and more complex than the movie, as the movie was based on the themes rather than the plot of the novel and included many more of the action sequences typical to Hollywood science fiction films.

A few key differences between the two:

  • 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 film leaves lingering the question of whether or not Deckard is an android. In the novel, Deckard is definitively not an android; he passes the Voigt-Kampff test.
  • In the film the part of Luba Loft is changed to a sex dancer. In the Novel she is an opera singer that Rick admires. When she is killed (by the other Bounty Hunter) he 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 version is much more confrontational. In the novel, the androids are slowly trying to replace humans and derogate the Mercer machines (which they can not interface with).
  • The film takes place in Los Angeles, replacing the novel's San Francisco.
  • Bounty hunters are deemed Blade Runners in the film. This phrase does not appear in the novel.
  • Deckard is retired from bounty hunting in the film. He is active in the novel.
  • 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.
  • The film takes place in the year 2019, replacing the novel's 1992.

Despite these differences, several post-1982 editions of the novel have been published under the title Blade Runner, and changed the year it takes place to 2021.


1 It should be noted here that 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). Excessive debate on such finer details is likely to encounter deep complications; the very issues which Dickand Isaac Asimov before himexplored along the human-mechanical boundary.

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