Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in a future where mankind lives among the stars, spread out across the vast, unknown landscapes of extraterrestrial planets. But the tone of the novel is very down-to-earth. The omniscient narrator discusses the weird happenings of Mercerism and renegade androids as though he were chatting it up with us over a cup of coffee. You know, just another day, after work, talking about humanoid constructs hiding among the people of Earth. NBD.
The character's dialogue also feels like real people speaking—even when they aren't technically people or, for that matter, real.
Chew this example over:
"You're not Polokov, you're Kadalyi," Rick said.
"Don't you mean that the other way around? You're a bit confused."
"I mean you're Polokov, the android; you're not from the Soviet Police." Rick, with his toe, pressed the emergency button on the floor of his car. (8.72-74)
Now, Dick's novel didn't need to add Rick's flub. From the technical perspective of storytelling, it doesn't alter the plot at all, since it doesn't not affect the outcome of Polokov's scuffle with Rick. But the flub makes Rick pop off the page, all the more human. We've all had those moments, haven't we?
It's these small details—whether provided by the narrator or the characters—that provide the story's tone with an everyday quality. Truly the novel is just another day in the future.
Like its title androids, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? seems to evolve every time we read it, making it really hard to pin down into a particular genre box.
Of course, that doesn't mean we won't try because labels is what we do.
First, this novel is science fiction. Surprise! We know you never saw that one coming, what with the word android featured so prominently in the title. And if that didn't clinch it for you, then the hovercars, space colonies, and laser guns might make you a believer.
But the novel is science fiction for more than just these futuristic tech trappings. It belongs to this genre because it openly questions how technology will change what it means to be human.
Will technology end our isolation, bringing us closer together through such feats of ingenuity as the empathy box (cough, Internet, cough)? Or will technology continue to push us further apart, such as the nuclear bombs that led to a sparsely populated Earth?
More than lasers or space travel or flying hovercars, these questions are what make this novel science fiction.
The novel also plays with the dystopian—or perhaps we should say apocalyptic—genre. In this genre, society has degraded into a horrible state, and it likely won't get any better. In fact, chances are it'll continue to slide deeper and deeper into oblivion until the civilization as we know it is but a memory.
Consider this passage: "This legacy of World War Terminus had diminished in potency; those who could not survive the dust had passed into oblivion years ago, and the dust, weaker now and confronting the strong survivors, only deranged minds and genetic properties" (1.31).
The radioactive remnants of a world war has infected the globe with irradiated dust that is slowly killing or deranging the minds of Earth's survivors. It doesn't get much more dystopian than that, Shmoopers.
Finally, the novel is also a psychological thriller. Sure, there are shoot outs, attempted assassinations, and arguably murder mostly foul, but the story really derives its thrills from the mental conflicts the characters find themselves in.
For example, Rick is often tricked into believing a human to be an android and androids to be human. His search for the truth also entails his self-conflict surrounding his beliefs on the morality of "retiring" androids.
Like most great stories, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? can't really be contained by a single genre. It branches out of a single framework, drawing inspiration in bits and pieces of any genre it can find useful. We've provided you with three examples here, but there are arguably more. Philosophical literature? Sci-Fi Noir? Comedy?
Okay, maybe not comedy. Although that bit with the spider was hilarious. (Not. Please don't shoot us.)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a difficult title for two important reasons. First, it takes forever to type, and our autocorrect hates that question mark.
Second, our autocorrect isn't the only one struggling with that question mark. We at Shmoop are having a hard time coming up with an answer for the question posed by this title. We're pretty sure the "dream" and "sheep" part is a reference to the belief that counting sleep will help you fall asleep, with the electric sheep part being a play on the fact androids would count electric sheep rather than real ones.
But think about this: the human nervous system also uses electrical signals to process information (source). So maybe the sheep we dream of as human beings are the same electric sheep. Perhaps a reality outside the electrical is beyond us as well.
Consider this scene, where Rick asks himself a similar question:
Do androids dream? Rick asked himself. Evidently; that's why they occasionally kill their employers and flee here. A better life, without servitude. Like Luba Luft; singing Don Giovanni and Le Nozze instead of tolling across the face of a barren rock-strewn field. (16.2)
In this scene, Rick is struggling with his job and his growing empathy for the androids he hunts. He's starting to wonder if androids dream, with all the implications of dreaming: imagining, hoping for, and attempting to claim a better life. While dreaming is hardly unique to human beings, it is unique in that only living creatures dream (source). So, if androids do dream, they must be a form of life, which means that Rick's android-killing job is to hunt down and destroy life.
Think of the novel's title as extending these questions to you, the reader. Do you believe the androids are truly alive? Do you think they dreamed of sheep, electric or otherwise? And what does this mean for our consideration of what is and is not human?
Before you try to answer these questions, let us just say: Good luck.
The ending to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? leaves a whole mess of unanswered questions. Will Rick leave his job bounty hunting? What's up with the electric toad? Iran takes her coffee black, seriously?
Some of these questions can be answered with a little digging, some will forever remain mysteries, and some are just matters of personal taste. No cream or sugar, really?
When we last saw Rick, he was racing home in his hovercar to show Iran the toad he found in the wasteland formerly known as north Oregon. When he gets home, he's excited to show her the toad, like kid on Christmas excited. Then Iran picks up the toad, fiddles with it, and finds the hidden control panel. The frog is electric. Boo!
At first Rick is disappointed, and Iran wonders if maybe she shouldn't have told him. But Rick says he's glad to know, saying:
"The spider Mercer gave the chickenhead, Isidore; it probably was artificial, too. But it doesn't matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are." (22.30)
Gee, only this morning Rick was ashamed about owning an electric sheep—and now he's stoked about owning an electric frog. Electric life may not be exactly human life, but Rick accepts it as life in its own way. For Rick, this tiny toad seals the deal. He recognizes the life in the body electric and he can't unsee it.
A second layer to the irony is that Rick doesn't feel he's earned this long-deserved peace; instead, he chooses to dial for it, desiring the feelings artificially programmed into him. Unlike the end of Star Wars, our hero doesn't receive a medal while grand orchestra music swells and everyone tells him what a wonderful job he's done. For Rick, the question of what he has accomplished is still a conflict. After all, didn't Mercer say that Rick's task was wrong but he should do it anyway? How do you find peace in a message like that?
After he falls asleep on the bed, Iran realizes there is "[n]o need to turn on the mood organ" (22.48). Iran recognizes Rick has found some form of inner peace, whereas Rick does not. This leads to another of those open-ended ending questions: If Rick doesn't recognize his long-deserved peace, then has he really achieved it? We don't see what happens after Rick wakes up, so we have to decide for ourselves whether this sleepy time harmony is fleeting or not.
Whether that means he'll find a new job or keep on hunting bounties is left open, but the Rick who callously tallied his paycheck based on the number of "retirings" he could perform in a day is gone.
After the discovery of the toad, Iran admits she's happy that Rick has returned and asks him if he won't go to bed and dial on the Penfield mood organ. She suggests dialing the 670 setting, long-deserved peace (22.45).
There's a bit of an ironic twist here on the classical quest ending. In the classic ending, the hero returns from his vanquishes the evil of the land, returns home from his trials, and gets the girl as a prize, and then settles into an era of peace with his kingdom. Think classic stories, such as The Odyssey or Beowulf, or more modern takes such as The Lord of the Rings.
Of course, Rick didn't really vanquish any evil. Instead, he killed slaves who escaped from their masters to seek out a better, or perhaps just freer, life. Sure they were androids, but we're not exactly talking Mechagodzilla types here. Polokov and Roy might be considered "evil," they certainly weren't the poster boys of care and compassion, but the word evil might be a stretch even for them.
A second layer to the irony is that the peace doesn't come naturally to Rick. He doesn't feel he's earned it; instead, he decides to dial for it and have the feeling artificially programmed into him. Also, the world isn't really any better a place for Rick's exploits. It's still a radioactive duct-filled cemetery, arguably worse off with the likes of Luba Luft missing from it.
With that said, Rick does, at least, get the girl. Or in this case, he and his wife make-up for the fight they had earlier with Rick saying he understands her feelings regarding his "crude cop hands" and Iran saying she doesn't feel that way anymore (22.36). Hey, one out of three isn't too bad.
After Rick falls asleep, Iran stays for a bit to make sure he doesn't have night terrors. Then she leaves and calls an electric animal shop to order flies for the frog. She tells the saleswoman, "I want it to work perfectly. My husband is devoted to it" (22.58).
Here again we see Rick's change of heart regarding electric life, and also Iran's acknowledgement of that change. More importantly, the frog stands as a symbol for mending the isolation between Rick and Iran. When Iran was feeling depressed earlier, Rick felt totally isolated:
No support, he informed himself. Most androids I've known have more vitality and desire to live than my wife. She has nothing to give me. (8.89)
Iran's willingness to support the toad shows her reconnection with Rick. Empathic to his suffering, Iran has decided to help him carry the burden of his day. Despite all the questions, the murder, the lies, the corruption, and the ultimate sense of impending death left by the novel's unanswered questions, we'd have to say that still makes for a pretty happy ending—for Iran and Rick at any rate. The androids, eh, not so much.
Like so much good science fiction, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in the future, but it's written about the present. Well, it was written about its present day, which is technically our past. Then again, we deal with a lot of the issues raised back then, so it can still be considered a novel for the present…even though it isn't. Just… it'll make sense in a second.
Philip K. Dick penned Do Androids Dream? in the 1960s, so let's take a look at the social and political concerns of that decade before we look toward the not-so-distant future of 2021.
In the '60s, the world had seen two World Wars in just a half century and was smack in the middle of the Cold War, so-called because it never got "hot": the USSR and the United States never openly engaged one another in combat. However, they did fight several proxy wars, notably the Korean War in the early fifties and the Vietnam War, which was in full swing when the novel was published.
The U.S. was definitely raring to beat the Russians (Our form of government is better than your form of government! Nuh-uh! Yea-uh!). Yet, there was a tremendous fear that these proxy wars or another conflict could escalate into another world war.
Only this time, the combatants would bring the big guns.
And by big guns, we mean nuclear weapons.
This brings us to World War Terminus.
How bad was World War Terminus? So bad that future historians decided labeling it with a III didn't quite deliver the message of how truly awful it was.
And awful how. The novel never mentions who the combatants were (one assumes the world), but it does mention that the U.S. was driven to war by assurances from the Pentagon that it would end swiftly. (Lol, we've never heard that before.) The Pentagon had its info courtesy of the Rand Corporation—likely a fictional Lockheed Martin type company, though it might be a reference to the actual RAND Corporation. In any case, they beat feet after the war and disappeared, presumably because the end of the world as we know it is, in fact, bad for even the wartime business.
What's left for the people of the world? Not much.
The world is covered in irradiated dust that kills or deranges the mind and genetics of the Earth-bound survivors. As Rick describes it, the world is "spilling over with radioactive motes, gray and sun-beclouding," smelling of "the taint of death" (1.31). Those that remain on Earth must try to eke out an existence among the ruins of the old world, empty cityscapes crumpling to dust around them.
Nothing. Because it's dead. The novel pointedly reminds us (and reminds us and reminds us…) that entire species are extinct in this future. See, in traditional post-apocalyptic futures, the destruction of society that is the real downer of nuclear war. Dick's story is unique because society is more or less still kicking about. It's a little spread out, but all the bells and whistles of civilization are still to be found: police, corporations, technology, and, most importantly, flushing toilets. Waterworld, this is not.
Instead, nature takes the real beating in World War Terminus. Animal species we take for granted are extinct, and most other species are only alive thanks to human intervention and care. (We don't know who is caring for the world's last polar bear atop her apartment building, but we do know that gal is a team player.) Natural landscapes have also seen better days. When Rick visits the typically verdant Oregon, all he finds is a mountain that is "gray and refuse-littered" and the ground in "[p]ebbles the sizes of houses" and "the fragments of craters" (21.1).
Altogether, the condition of the environment in Do Androids Dream? harkens back to the social and political discussions of the Sixties. For example, Rachael Carson's highly influential nonfiction book Silent Spring was released in 1962. The book showed the dangers of DDT and is largely credited with making us realize that our actions just might have an effect on nature, and making way for the modern environmentalist movement (source).
If bald eagles don't get your empathy going, the wide-spread use of napalm and Agent Orange in the Vietnam War gave TV watchers of the '60s a graphic, violent display of the effects human interactions could have on nature—especially of the destructive wartime variety.
All of this comes down to what we like to call "science fiction forecasting." That is, the novel takes a look at the world in the time it was written and wonders what a future world would look like if social, political, or environmental conditions aren't changed.
It's like a weather forecast warning you there's a chance of rain later in the day. Only instead of rain, it's radioactive waste, and instead of an umbrella, you really ought to pack your lead-lined Underoos.
Was Philip K. Dick's forecast accurate? So far, thankfully, the answer is no. We've yet to suffer through a third World War, and the environment will likely still be sticking with us in 2021. (Likely.) The value of the forecast isn't accuracy so much as that it makes us think of preparation at all. It's to get us to think about the possibilities, so we can plan ahead and adequately prepare—whether tomorrow's rain turns out to be nuclear or not.
A turtle which explorer Captain Cook gave to the King of Tonga in 1777 died yesterday. It was nearly 200 years old.
The animal, called Tu'imalila, died at the royal palace ground in the Tongan capital of Nuku, Alofa.
The people of Tonga regarded the animal as a chief, and special keepers were appointed to look after it. It was blinded in a bush fire a few years ago.
Tonga radio said Tu'imalila's carcass would be sent to the Auckland Museum in New Zealand.
- Reuters, 1966
It's sad that Tu'imalila died, but we've got to say, 200 years is a darn good run.
While Tu'imalila's story is fascinating—and true—what is it doing at the start of a science fiction novel about a bounty hunter hunting down androids in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco?
It introduces the reader to two of the novel's important themes: empathy, and perseverance in the face of entropy.
Humanity's ability to feel empathy, even for nonhumans, is presented in the way the people of Tonga treated Tu'imalila—royal palace, special keepers, you know, the good life. In fact, his was probably a life better than they experienced. The national grief over his passing also demonstrates their profound love for the turtle.
The turtle's preserved body shows us the desire to fight the good fight against entropy—the breakdown and disintegration of a system including society, the universe, and even life itself. The memory of the turtle is an artifact there, and the perseverance of memory might be the best we can hope for in a reality where everything, even reality, will one day end. Like the Tongans, Rick and other future citizens revere animals as an important part of their society. They are also trying to keep the memories of animals alive although their battle is to preserve entire species rather than the memory of a single turtle.
The journey through Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is—like many Philip K. Dick novels—a surreal mixture of accessible and difficult.
Dick's writing style and word choice are not overly complicated, feeling more like a coffeehouse chat rather than a college lecture. Keep a dictionary nearby all the same as a few technical terms slip in now and again—looking at you, "cephalic" and "catalepsy."
Where the journey gets steep and rocky is in the ideas. Dick's exploration of what it means to be human and how we can properly understand the human spirit touches on philosophical debates that have been happening for 2,500 years, give or take.
Sure, these questions are presented with androids, space colonies, and laser guns, but that doesn't make them any easier than they were in Socrates and Plato's day. (But they aren't any less fascinating either.) If it's an easy answer you're looking for, journey into another future.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is relaxed in its writing style, but that doesn't mean you won't have to use that gray matter floating about in your skull. You just get to fire up those neurons in a laidback kind of way.
The sentence structure and word choice on display gives a somewhat stream-of-consciousness feel. It's not full-on stream of consciousness, but more like stream-of-consciousness lite. Consider:
Conscious of his defeat and failure, Rick settled back. And, helplessly, waited for what came next. Whatever the androids had planned, now that they had physical possession of him. (9.130)
That first sentence is a sentence: subject, verb, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. The second sentence, though, is not technically a sentence. Since it lacks a subject, it is what's called an incomplete sentence, or, if you know it by its street name, a fragment. (And we don't even know what happened to that last sentence there.)
Sure, maybe the editor of this novel should be fired—to be fair, there's other evidence in the book to back up that recommendation—but let's consider for a moment that this was done on purpose. What kind of vibe do fragments and irregular sentences give the story being told?
A casual, stream-of-consciousness vibe, that's what. The above example reads like broken and unregulated thoughts, as though we're stepping into the head of a guy going about his day, uncensored and uncut.
Want more? We go into this in more depth in our "Narrative Technique" section.
Feeling a little down about your post-apocalyptic life, full of empty apartment buildings and electronic sheep?
Enter Mercerism, a new religion based on the life and teachings of a man named Wilbur Mercer will appear on the scene. It's spread all over Earth and in the space colonies, thanks to some mysteriously-appearing empathy boxes that showed up after Mercer's death.
Talk about mystery: Mercer is a major conundrum. His followers don't exactly claim that he's a god or deity, but they don't not claim that he's a god or deity, if you know what we mean. But is it just that new religion smell that has people converting or is there something more? Let's find out.
We guess Mercer was a big fan of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, because he basically stole Keanu's life philosophy.
Mercerists follow two major tenets: (1) be empathic to the individual, and (2) work for the good of the community. (Sounds pretty solid to us.) And instead of heading to a church or temple to worship, Mercer's followers use a device—the empathy box. Gripping the twin handles of the empathy box, users enter a parallel world, or perhaps a shared hallucination, where everyone is connected together within Mercer's mind:
[Isidore] crossed over in the usual perplexing fashion; physical merging—accompanied by mental and spiritual identification—with Wilbur Mercer had reoccurred. As it did for everyone who at this moment clutched the handles, either here on Earth or on one of the colony planets. (2.22)
Everyone takes place in the ritual together, a collective consciousness all crammed into Mercer's head. Think Facebook without Farmville or LoLCats, just everyone hanging out together in one virtual "like"-fest. When Wilbur Mercer is dinged with a rock, "it hurts like hell" for everyone (2.25). It's not just pain but also joy that is shared through empathy. As Iran notes, one day she was connected with someone whose animal had died and the shared joys of others helped lifted the man's spirits (15.62). Empathy leads to a sense of community; community leads to empathy.
But what's the purpose of all this feel-goodery? Is there a religious end game of paradise or salvation? Or an epic end-of-the-world battle between gods, monsters, and burly, bearded men set to the tune of a MegaDeth soundtrack?
It's none of the above, Shmoopers. Mercer even tells Rick there is no salvation (15.108). In his own words, Mercerism exists to show "that you aren't alone. I am here with you and always will be. Go and do your task, even though you know it's wrong" (15.110).
There's just one problem with all this empathy talk: Mercer is a phony and a fake. Late in the story, Buster Friendly has a 60 Minutes-type expose where he proves that Mercer is really an actor named Al Jerry and that his world was created on a soundstage. The whole thing is like an interactive movie, and for a TV-guy like Buster, that is just the worst kind of deception.
Of course, this accusation could be boiled down to a TV-guy-said, Deity-said scenario. Well, except for the fact that Mercer totally sides with Buster:
"I am a fraud," Mercer said. "They're sincere; their research is genuine. From their standpoint I am an elderly retired bit player named Al Jerry. All of it, their disclosure, is true." (18.90)
Hold on though; Mercer isn't through yet. He may be a conman, but his opponents will "have trouble understanding why nothing has changed" (18.92). Rick backs Mercer up on this one, too. When Iran asks him if he believes the Buster Friendly expose, he answers, "Everything is true. […] Everything anybody has ever thought" (20.22).
It just doesn't matter who Mercer is, or whether he really exists at all. His tenets are outside such physical ideas as fact or fiction; they're true because people like Rick, Iran, and Isidore believe in them.
Mercer's life story is loaded with references from myths and religions. Here are a couple of the ones we spotted:
So, is Dick suggesting that other religions of the world are frauds, too? Maybe. But does that make them worthless? Maybe not.
One of the weirder parts of the Mercer mythos is the importance of the donkey and the toad, "the creatures most important to him." These might be pretty ordinary animals, but in the future, they've all vanished, "become extinct" thanks to our nice little nuclear war (2.27).
Why are these two animals so sacrosanct to Mercer? It's never directly said, so we'll have to do a little inferring and see if we can't come up with an intriguing answer.
Let's start with the donkey. Donkeys are the poster animal of the "beasts of burden," creatures that have been domesticated by humans to do the difficult jobs for us. Donkeys pack heavy loads, they pull the plough, and they can even be ridden if the need arises to get from A to B. (Jesus even rode a donkey.) In short, they live, they work, and then they die.
The toad isn't worth much in the burden department. It's more work to load up a toad with camping gear than it is just to pack the stuff yourself. But these amphibians are highly adaptable. Toads live part of their lives in the water, part out of on land, and all across the world—though some of them probably shouldn't have ended up in Australia.
Based on these characterizations, we'd have to say that these animals are special to Mercer because they symbolize humanity. Humans are highly adaptable; in the novel they even moved into outer space. Yet they also have to suffer and work hard to survive in this world. Sounds like a case of toad and donkey to us.
In that case, the return of the toad—the adaptable one, represents the resurrection of Mercer back into the world through his merger with Rick. Sure, it's an artificial animal—but that's kind of the point.
There's a lot to be said about the androids of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Like, a lot a lot. Each android character brings new concepts of what it means to be an artificially created human, and the meaning the androids can change depending on what theme you're focusing on. As such, if you want a full picture of what the androids represent in the novel, you'll want to check out our "Characters" and "Themes" sections as well.
In this section, we're going to be focusing androids as a group and how they symbolize the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism. Yep, things are about to get Marxist up in here. Libertarians, avert your eyes.
Let's get the Karl Marx part out of the way first. According to Marx's social theories, the workers of industrial capitalism struggle to create the goods needed to sustain the system, but they're always working for someone else's gain. This distance between their work and the fruits of their labor leads to an extremely negative effect Marx called "alienation," which means a little something like this:
In a nutshell Marx's Theory of Alienation is the contention that in modern industrial production under capitalist conditions workers will inevitably lose control of their lives by losing control over their work. Workers thus cease to be autonomous beings in any significant sense. (Source)
Workers become estranged: estranged from their work, estranged from each other, estranged from their lives. This ultimately leads to dehumanization, where the workers and their employers begin to see people as a means of production and not human.
And the word of dehumanization is a perfect segue into discussing androids if we ever saw one.
"Alien" and "dehumanized": Two words that perfectly express how the androids are viewed in the future society. First, they're illegal aliens, having fled a life of unequal hardship and unending work. (Also literal aliens, since they come from Mars.) Second, they aren't considered human by the standards of the society they live in.
Instead, they are considered property, a product created to make life easier for the space colonist in the same way a dishwasher or washing machine makes our lives easier today. We can see this when Isidore watches a commercial extolling the awesomeness that is space migration:
The TV set shouted, "—duplicates the halcyon days of the pre-Civil War Southern states! Either as body servants or tireless field hands, the custom-tailored humanoid robot—designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS, FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE—given to you on your arrival absolutely free, equipped fully, as specified by you before your departure from Earth; this loyal trouble-free companion in the greatest, boldest adventure contrived by man in modern history will provide—" It continued on and on. (2.8)
From the commercial's point of view, the android might as well be a Shamwow that can walk and talk but has lost none of its absorbency. In this language, the android becomes a thing, "the mobile donkey engine of the colonization program" (2.4).
And that thing is designed to do your work for you without any gain of its own. Sound familiar?
Notice the phrase "pre-Civil War Southern states"? Dick is spelling it out for us in case we got distracted by the exciting possibility of having a fully-equipped manservant to do our bidding: he's drawing a direct analogy between the androids and the slaves of American history.
Like the slaves sold in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Southern States, the androids fall under what is often termed chattel slavery. Also, like the slaves in American history, the androids were created—for historical slaves the term enslaved would be more appropriate—for the sake of profit.
Get yourself a tasty beverage, because it's time for a History Snack:
Plantation owners used the slaves to farm their fields and turned a tidy profit since they didn't have to pay wages. British slavers would use the profits from selling the slaves to purchase goods such as textiles, sugar, and guns. Finally, African slave dealers would exchange slaves for the goods the British ships brought, and these ships would in turn bring the slaves to the Americas and sell them for money (source).
At the center of this trade, called the Triangular Trade, is capitalist commercialism and profit. Of course, we're simplifying here because this aspect of world history could fill several books. (Or several bookshelves.)
For a more thorough take on the subject, check out our discussion on the Antebellum Period. For our purposes, the take-away message is that Do Androids Dream? taps into this sordid part of history, combines it with 1960s Marxism, and adds a dash of science fiction tropes to represent some of the darker aspects of the free market.
But the novel takes things in a step Marx doesn't. It argues that capitalism doesn't just dehumanize the workers at the bottom of society. The guys at the top of class pyramid also devolve into something less than human.
The profiteers in this future society are mega-corporations. In the case of the Nexus-6 androids, it is the Rosen Association. After Rick gives Rachael Rosen the Voigt-Kampff test, he realizes something about the two heads of the company:
Experts, he realized. Mammoth corporation like this—it embodies too much experience. It possesses in fact a sort of group mind. And Eldon and Rachael Rosen consisted as spokesmen for that corporate entity. His mistake, evidently, had been in viewing them as individuals. It was a mistake he would not make again. (5.51)
As part of the Rosen Association, Rachael and Eldon can't afford the luxury of being individuals. (Ironically, it's probably the only thing they can't afford.) Everything they do is for the good of the corporation, much like ants don't care as much for their own safety as much as they do for the safety of the colony. Even Rachael's sexual relationships are calculated by what is good for the company.
But unlike ants, who at least have a physical queen running things, the members of the Rosen Association have sacrificed their individuality (read: been dehumanized) for the sake of a nebulous creature that only exists in the form of contracts and bank accounts. Like Marx's workers, they too have dehumanized themselves for its benefit and estranged themselves from the rest of humanity doing so.
After World War Terminus, the world became—how to say this politely?—a hot mess. Entire cities were destroyed, large swaths of wilderness were wiped out, and entire animal species died thanks to radiation-laden dust in the wind. This disaster led to two very important changes:
First, nursery rhymes had to be completely reworked. Mary's Irradiated Lamb, Old McDonald Had an Animal Row Shop, and the Itsy-Bitsy Nano-Spider were the new favorites of preschoolers everywhere.
Okay, okay, that didn't actually happen. What did happen was that animals needed to be cared for by humans if their species were to survive. Citizens of future earth had to care for animals how and where they could, whether in their apartments or on their rooftops.
In fact, it became faux pas to not own an animal, and people who didn't were looked down on as being immoral—you know, those people. If you weren't high-roller enough to buy your very own ostrich, no worries: you can purchase an electric one to make yourself presentable to your neighbors.
The animals represent regeneration, which makes them a type of anti-kipple. See, after the war, the people of Earth decided to care for the remaining animals to keep them from going extinct. It wasn't just an isolated environmentalist group either, but all of society. As Bill reminds Rick:
"You know how people are about not taking care of an animal; they consider it immoral and anti-empathic. I mean, technically it's not a crime like it was right after W.W.T., but the feeling's still there." (1.57)
They want to save what they can from the old world and maybe even return things to the way they were one day (… though that last part seems unlikely). The cool thing is that animals aren't just a symbol for the reader; the characters in the story see them symbolically, too—at least in their hallucinations. After the spider has its legs removed by Pris, Isidore tries to drown it in the sink. The trauma pushes him into a hallucination where he meets Mercer, who hands him the spider "with its snipped-off legs restored" (18.94). That's a clear symbol if we ever saw one.
Here's the funny thing: turns out, it's hard to stay committed to the common good. There are hints in the book that preserving the animals it has moved beyond a "let's all pull together" attitude and into just another type of social elitism.
We can see a few of these clues here and there in the novel. When Bill spoke of his brother's boss's animals, his "eyes glazed over, imagining such possessions; he drifted by degrees into a trance" (1.39). Another clue is when Rick said he didn't want an animal he could afford:
Rick said quietly, "I don't want a domestic pet. I want what I originally had, a large animal. A sheep, or if I can get the money, a cow or a steer or what you have, a horse." (1.60)
For both Rick and Bill, owning an animal isn't just about the social good. It's about increasing their social status. And that is so not the point.
But what about all those electric animals? Are they a symbol of degeneration—or of regeneration?
At the beginning of the novel, Rick might have said "kipple"—something that leads to degeneration. As he thinks to himself, "Owning and maintaining a fraud had a way of gradually demoralizing one. And yet from a social standpoint it had to be done, given the absence of the real article" (1.36).
Clearly, he sees an electric animal as a something less than genuine, not life and not even real and therefore not a part of society's push toward regeneration. And he's hardly alone. Bill says the same thing when he finds out Rick's sheep is electric, saying "You poor guy" (1.47).
Still, by the novel's end, Rick changed his tune. When he finds the toad in the wastelands, he is overjoyed to have recovered an extinct animal. Just imagine being able to resurrect an extinct species; that'd be crazy exciting. But the excitement lasts only as long as it takes Iran to find the toad's control panel.
Rick isn't disappointed though. He responds, "But it doesn't matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are" (22.30).
The toad may be artificial, but in its own way, it's still a toad. While it may not bring organic toads back into the world, it can still keep the memory of the toad alive for people, which in its own small way is part of the process of regeneration as well. Vive le crapaud artificielle!
In the future, androids have invaded Earth from space colonies and live among humans. They could be your boss, your neighbor, your dentist, and you'd never know it. And while we at present-day Shmoop think it would be awesome if our dentist was like, "Yeah, I'm a super intelligent android, no biggie," the people of the future don't like the idea. Not one bit.
Maybe it is because that androids do things better than humans. Maybe it is because the androids are supposed to be slave property of the space colonist. Whatever the reason, the humans needed a way to identify androids from humans.
Enter the Voigt-Kampff test.
The Voigt-Kampff test is the standard for differentiating androids from humans. During the test, the test giver, usually a bounty hunter, asks a series of questions revolving around hypothetical social situations where an animal is harmed or killed. Here is one of the questions asked during Rachael's test:
"Okay," [Rick] said, nodding. "Now consider this. You're reading a novel written in the old days before the war. The characters are visiting Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. They become hungry and enter a seafood restaurant. One of them orders lobster, and the chef drops the lobster into the tub of boiling water while the characters watch." (5.14)
The test giver then reads the taker's reaction to the question. The actual answer plays no importance, just the taker's eye-muscle and capillary reaction (5.3). If the taker shows an empathic response to that poor lobster's fate, he or she is a human. If no empathic response is shown, he or she is an android. The human gets to walk free; the android gets a free sampling of lasertube. (And a delicious dinner. Too much?)
But there are a few problems with the Voigt-Kampff test that should make us question handing out a simple pass/fail (read: life/death) grade.
First, as Eldon points out during Rachael's test, a human with an "underdeveloped empathic ability" might be killed in place of an android. Eldon tries to trick Rick into believing this is Rachael's problem. (Not true, but the point is that it could be.)
Second, the test generally looks for a person's empathic response toward animals. This means there can be holes in a person's empathy, but as long as that hole doesn't deal with the animals in question, the person will pass the test.
Rick eventually realizes that this is Resch's problem: "There is a defect in your empathic, role-taking ability. One which we don't test for. Your feelings toward androids" (12.95). What makes empathy toward androids any less valuable than toward animals? Or humans?
Third, and this is a big one for us, not too many people reading the book today would pass the test.
The fates of the animals in Rick's questionnaire are horrible when you stop and think on them, but several of the situations are so every day to us that we in fact don't think of them as horrible. Maybe you felt sorry for the lobster, but what about the bearskin rug? Or the squished wasp? Or the leather wallet? By the Voigt-Kampff standard, ordering anything made from animal would result in a fail, meaning only a few modern-day vegans would likely walk away from it. The point is that by the standards of the Voigt-Kampff test, most of us reading the book aren't technically human.
Like most science fiction, there's a big helping of fact tucked away in there, like black beans hiding out in brownies.
When the Founding Fathers were drafting the U.S. Constitution, they had to decide what people qualified as "We the People." Not on the list were women and slaves. Actually, only white, male adult property-owners had the right to vote, so "We the People" was more around 10 to 16 percent of the actual people when the U.S. was getting underway (source).
Want something a little closer to the present day? In 1920s, German officials came up with a 25-point Party Program "to abrogate Jews' political, legal, and civil rights" (source). This made it very clear that by the standards of the so-called "Aryan Nation" the Jews were not to be considered endowed with the same human rights.
Dig deep enough into any society's history and you'll come up with similar laws. The Voigt-Kampff test symbolizes these laws, the standards that separate "us" from "them," and tests that help "us" rise above "them." But with any such test, the holes are there if you scrutinize and don't just accept its results at face value.
Penfield Mood Organs are devices used by future citizens to regulate their emotions. (But does it come in chewable tablets?) All they have to do is find the proper emotion number in the manual, dial it, and then they get to feel whatever they want. For example, if they input 481, they instantly receive an "'[a]wareness of the manifold possibilities open to [them] in the future'" (1.19).
Just imagine plugging an emoticon into a device and instantly feeling :-), :-o, :'(, or even :-P. That's some pretty sweet technology—even if there's an irony underlining the whole affair that's just a tad disturbing.
Basically, the Penfield mood organ turns people into machines, programming them like one might a computer or, yep, an android. Iran makes this exact comparison:
"My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting—do you see? I guess you don't. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it 'absence of appropriate affect.'" (1.17).
The problem with the Penfield, according to Iran, is that people live with the absence of appropriate affect. Also known as the flat affect, this is the condition where "a person does not display emotions to the degree that other members of his or her culture normally exhibit" (source). For example, if a future citizen gets fired they don't have to feel sad about it. They can jump on the Penfield and, bam, instant elation! Now legal in 23 states!
But remember how one of an android's key characteristics is that they do not feel empathy when, say, they see an animal being tortured? Androids suffer from the flat affect, just like users of the Penfield mood organ. But don't see Penfield users with bounties on their heads, do you?
Don't look, but chances are there's kipple hanging around your life somewhere right now.
No, no, it's not you specifically—it's just that kipple is everywhere, because it's the representation of decay and degeneration in physical form. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it's really everywhere. World War Terminus has left our home planet in an awful mess: entire cities have been leveled, radioactive dust is getting in everyone's hair, and people have left the planet to go seek a new existence in the space colonies—leaving behind all their stuff. As that stuff rots and decays, it becomes kipple.
Isidore describes it:
"Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more." (5.23)
So, in other words, just like the dishes in our sink?
We kid, we kid. But that does give you an idea of what this means. The decay of an entire planet or species might be too much for us to fully grasp, but we experience the disrepair of consumer goods in our everyday lives. Anyone who has ever maintained an attic, rented out a storage unit, or had a locker can tell you how true this is. As we collect stuff, and the stuff just spreads out, growing in number, expanding the mess as it goes, bringing disarray into our lives with a tsunami of junk.
Is there hope against this state of decay? Maybe:
"No one can win against kipple," [Isidore] said, "except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I've sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I'll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over." (5.31)
Maybe it's time to buy a tiny house.
But beyond being a killer new way to play video games, third-person limited omniscient is also a way to describe one of the tried-and-true narrative techniques of storytelling.
Er, speaker. We mean speaker. Just got video games on the brain today. A third-person narrator is simply a way for English majors to say that the narrator isn't a character in the story. The narrator has stepped back, taken himself out of the equation, and is content to tell us the story without getting involved in its happenings.
A tell-tale sign of a narrator being a part of the story is the use of the pronoun "I" to describe himself and his actions (Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby is an excellent example of this). Since our narrator here is using "he" and "she" to describe the actions of all the characters, we can safely label this third-person narration.
The word omniscient comes from the Latin meaning "all-knowledge" (source). So, when we say the novel's narrator is omniscient, we just mean that he is all knowing, that his knowledge of the world and the characters' thoughts extends beyond that of a mere mortals (and by mortals we mean the characters in the novel).
But Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has two focal characters, which is why we say the narrator has limited omniscience. A truly omniscient narrator would be able to zip into any character's head and tell us what they are thinking or feeling. In this novel, the narrator limits himself to just the perspectives of John Isidore and Rick Deckard. We never get to see the personal thoughts of Iran, Rachael, or Pris.
(Hm. Notice anything about those characters? Anything, say, female about them?)
Another aspect of the narrative technique we should mention is that it comes pretty close to stream-of-consciousness, which happens when a writer presents the thoughts of a character as they occur to him or her—that is, the thoughts flow from mind to the page seemingly in real time with no editing.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? doesn't go as far with this technique as, say, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or James Joyce's Ulysses. It's more like stream-of-consciousness lite: half the calories but all the flavor.
Consider this example:
"Two parallel police agencies, [Rick] said to himself; ours and this one. But never coming in contact—as far as I know—until now. Or maybe they have, he thought. Maybe this isn't the first time." (10.7)
Notice how the sentence structure almost looks to be coming directing out of Rick's mind as he thinks his thoughts? The second sentence isn't a full sentence because we rarely think in full, grammatically correct sentences. Also, it's broken up by another thought, one that reads like it just came to him on the spot.
Can't get enough? We'll have more on this in our "Writing Style" section.