Blade Runner was one of the top formative science fiction movies of my teenage years, so when a publishing professional recently suggested I read Philip K. Dick’s novel or banish myself to the nearest dimension of shame, it was an easy decision. I’m glad I did.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Spoiler: You won’t find the answer in this book. In fact, it asks many provocative questions and seems content to leave you wondering. Set in a dystopian future a whopping two years from now (in 1968, I’d have thought we’d all have flying cars by now, too), humanity barely survived nuclear war, though animals weren’t nearly as lucky. They’re never seen in the wild, and having one is a privilege of wealth and a status symbol, and everyone—without exception—takes very good care of theirs.
Or those people who elected to stay on Earth do, that is. Most humans who weren’t mutilated or left infertile by the radiation emigrated off-planet, where human-like biological androids, called “andys”, do most of the work in inhospitable environments. Though they’re intelligent, they’re treated like property and have no rights, and while that may sound cruel, it’s not without reason. Intelligent though they are, andys lack one very important trait: empathy. In fact, the only way to tell a human from an andy, short of a bone marrow test, is to ask empathy-evoking questions and measure their body’s responses.
Why is this a problem? Andys are getting smarter with each generation, leading up to the current Nexus-6, and some of them have decided they shouldn’t be treated as slaves. Occasionally, some of those make their way back to Earth, where they have a chance of blending in with the sparse remaining population. Without empathy, they’ll harm humans or any of the remaining creatures on the desolated planet without a second thought, making them a danger.
That’s where our protagonist comes in. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter for the San Francisco Police Department whose job is to retire (aka kill) runaway andys. The general population aren’t aware andys are among them, and it’s the bounty hunter’s job to keep it that way. Rick has problems of his own, however, including a wife who’s prone to depression (as is most of the population) and a dangerous job that provides a decent but inconsistent income. Worst of all, his real animal died years ago, an unforgivable sin, and he and his wife are now stuck with a shameful electric sheep just to keep up appearances.
Throughout the story, Philip K. Dick introduces a post-apocalyptic religion, Mercerism, which is propagated and enforced through an empathy device that unites humanity through shared emotions. While abstract at first, Mercerism becomes more and more important. Philip’s message became lost on me, however, and by the end of the book I was confused about what may have been hallucination/metaphor versus what actually happened, which unfortunately detracted from what was otherwise a well-told and engaging story.
Do I regret reading it? Not in the slightest. There’s enough good stuff that I’d recommend it to anyone who appreciates a good post-apocalyptic tale filled with moral questions about what exactly it means to be human.