“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” exhibits nearly all of Phillip K. Dick’s pet themes (existential terror in the wake of doubting the validity of reality, a society of oppressive government and over-reaching corporations where people are dehumanised, bizarre techno-spiritual elements touching on altered levels of consciousness and reality, etc.). It does so certainly in a more scattershot way than its very distilled film adaptation of Blade Runner, but while both versions of the story deal with the same themes and essentially the same setting (Dick himself was so struck by what he saw of Blade Runner that he declared “my life and creative work are justified and completed by Blade Runner”), their narratives differ and arguably so do how they go about elaborating on their themes.
Dick handles the existential dread as the line between reality and artifice, and humanity and technology, blur more and more. The second police station sequence is unnerving, the obsessiveness of the detectives as they grow unsure of their humanity plays well with the murky hardboiled style Dick employs in the novel, and the treatment of religion is particularly interesting – androids set out to “objectively” disprove a religion, ignorant of the fact it’s all faith-based in the first place. Characters consistently mistake what actually defines their humanity and reality (or lack thereof). That sort of communal consciousness that religion taps into (literally, in the novel) does actually resemble a hivemind seemingly more at home with robots, but its inherent absurdity and lack of basis in fact defines its humanity. Characters get caught up in trying to define their realities as “real”, rather than define them accurately. There’s a distinction there.
That sort of absurd doublethink extends to protagonist Rick Deckard’s self-defeating acceptance of his lot in life, when he absolutely has the capacity to better it for himself. Deckard spends his days distinguishing humans from androids, it’s literally his job. He spends his nights anguishing over how his animal is a robotic fake, a contrived status symbol, though one society would never directly address as a matter of propriety. But why does he never employ his skillset to his neighbour’s animals? Why does he only act existentially aware at work, and not at home? Why not strip away the veneer of contrived reality in his day-to-day life and see other people, his neighbours and otherwise, for what they actually are, as performative and stressed as him? He’s so caught up in following society’s rules he actively sabotages his chances for actualisation and self-improvement, even though he literally spends his days employing all the skills and knowledge he would need to do so. He is utterly irrational, just as Mercerism is, just as the concept of an electric sheep at all is. Perhaps that’s the clearest definition of humanity in the novel. Not empathy, but utter absurdism. The distinction between electric sheep and electric people is meaningless, but just like all the other codes of the society Deckard lives in, he follows it without thinking anyway. It’s no coincidence Deckard finds an electric woman easier to deal with than his wife, just as his electric sheep doesn’t require actual visits to the vet.
It’s a messier work than its seminal film adaptation, but a strong one all the same. I give it three toads, and an ostrich.