Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Man and the Natural World
By Philip K. Dick
Man and the Natural World
The alleged sheep contained an oat-tropic circuit; at the sight of such cereals it would scramble up convincingly and amble over. (1.34)
So the electric sheep is not a real sheep on account that it was born on a factory assembly line. But … isn't an oat-tropic circuit kind of the same thing as a hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls hunger? Both send signals to the body at the sight of food that say, "Baa-ba-baa" (Sheepy translation: Eat up).
At his console he hesitated between dialing for a thalamic suppressant (which would abolish his mood of rage) or a thalamic stimulant (which would make him irked enough to win the argument). (1.10)
Ten paragraphs in, and the novel is already letting us know that humans are not separate but a part of the natural world. A couple chemicals here, a dash of stimulant here, and presto: Rick's entire mental state changes.
Perhaps, deformed as it was, Earth remained familiar, to be clung to. Or possibly the non-emigrant imagined that the tent of dust would deplete itself finally. In any case thousands of individuals remained, most of them constellated in urban areas where they could physically see one another, take heart at their mutual presence. (2.5)
Mankind is a social animal because the conditions on Earth made it advantageous for us. Consider: Without eyes in the back of our heads, it's nice to have someone with us to say, "Dude, is that a lion following us?" With that kind of legacy, it's only natural that future us would want to stick together even in a future of space colonies and nuclear dust storms.
"We know this to be a primary autonomic response, the so-called 'shame' or 'blushing' reaction to a morally shocking stimulus. It can't be controlled voluntarily, as can skin conductivity, respiration, and cardiac rate." (4.75)
Here is another reminder that humans are not separate from the natural world: all those emotions and thoughts floating about in our heads, seemingly disconnected from the world outside our minds, have physical properties in the real world. (Does that mean we can imagine a chocolate cake into physical form?)
[H]e remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species upon species had become extinct and how the 'papes had reported it each day—foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits. (4.49)
The Sixties saw the beginning of a new form of environmentalism. It was called New Environmentalism because historians are really, really bad at naming things. Do Androids Dream? takes the environmental concerns of the era and creates a world where they actually happen. And it's bleak, bleak stuff.
Deftly, [Isidore] ran his fingers along the pseudo bony spine. The cables should be about here. Damn expert workmanship; so absolutely perfect an imitation. (7.12)
When the novel was written, it was probably a crazy idea that you could create a cat that looked, walked, meowed, and all-around acted like a real cat. Today, we might not be at that level of sophisticated robo-tech, but we're getting pretty good and fixing up reality nonetheless.
"We came back," Pris said, "because nobody should have to live there. It wasn't conceived for habitation, at least not within the last billion years. It's so old. You feel it in the stones, the terrible old age." (13.43)
The Earth isn't going to spin around the Sun forever, and it's going to stop supporting life a long time before then. But the sci-fi dream of space colonization looks pretty grim to Dick and his merry band of androids. The colonial planets are too old and too dead to be livable. Oh, sure, you could probably survive—for a while, at least. But maybe human life is too Earth-bound to thrive outside the atmosphere.
"That's not true. Even animals—even eels and gophers and snakes and spiders—are sacred." Pris, still regarding him fixedly, said, "So it can't be, can it? As you say, even animals are protected by law. All life. Everything organic that wriggles or squirms or burrows or flies or swarms or lays eggs or—" (14.63-64)
Minus the whole near-destruction of the Earth part, this future is an environmentalist's dream. All animals are sacred, and it is people's moral duty to keep them safe—even the electric ones.
Yet, the dark fire waned; the life force oozed out of [Rachael], as [Rick] had so often witnessed before with other androids. The classic resignation. Mechanical, intellectual acceptance of that which a genuine organism—with two billion years of the pressure to live and evolve hagriding it—could never have reconciled itself to. (17.55)
The novel often muddies up the distinction between "real" and "android" life, but here the difference is made very clear. Real people have an intense survival instinct—fight or flight, but make sure you survive. But the androids just give up and accept death. Maybe they can come up with a test for that?
Here there existed no one to record his or anyone else's degradation, and any courage or pride which might manifest itself here at the end would go unmarked: the dead stones, the dust-stricken weeds dry and dying, perceived nothing, recollected nothing, about him or themselves. (21.16)
Humans might spend a lot of their energy messing up the natural world, but they also recorded it. Without cave paintings, Walden, and Instagram sunsets, can we really be sure that the world exists?