Study Guide

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Setting

By Philip K. Dick

Setting

Post World War Terminus

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.

Age of Aquarius

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.

Boom Goes the Dynamite… and the Earth

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.

What Does the Fox Say?

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.

Cloudy with a Chance of Radiation

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.