Study Guide

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Themes

  • Compassion & Forgiveness

    Put away that Mensa application and stop studying for that IQ test: in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the key question isn't how smart you are but how emotionally smart you are. Not IQ; EQ.Does the word "empathy" look familiar? After all, you've only seen it appear in the novel roughly 9,634 times. Empathy is the ability to imagine the thoughts, feelings, attitudes of another person or animal as though they were your own. Not surprisingly, it tends to lead to compassion and forgiveness.

    But what happens when a person is born human but lacks empathy, or when an android develops the ability to think of others beyond his or herself? Is the human no longer considered human? Is the machine more than a machine? (And will it still obey our every command?)

    Questions About Compassion & Forgiveness

    • Do you think any androids develop empathy? If yes, who and where do you see it? If no, then why not? Either way, explain how this affects your reading of empathy in the novel.
    • The Voigt-Kampff test discovers that Phil Resch is a human, that he empathizes with animal life, but that he has no empathy for androids. As in, none, zero, zilch. How would you characterize Resch's character based on this fact? Do you see him as more human or more android? Something in between? Explain your answer.
    • How does Mercerism characterize empathy? Do you agree with this characterization or do you find some problems with it? Why or why not?
    • By the novel's end, do you suppose Rick has fully empathized with electric life or do you think he has lost the ability to do so? Use examples from the text to explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Mercer's prompts for Rick to kill the androids that Mercerism's definition of empathy is inherently faulty.

    No character is completely empathetic in the novel. Even Isidore, the grand master of empathy, can't fathom the pain or feelings of Rick or Roy.

  • Perseverance

    There's a lot to look forward to in the future. The iPhone 96 will come out, Iron Man 11 will be released, and civilization will be destroyed. Fun stuff like that. The remains of civilization's structures and innovations will pollute the landscape, the atmosphere will become an irradiated wasteland, death will be the only conceivable outcome for anyone experiencing this literal hell on earth, and Brad Pitt will find no miracle cure in the third act. What a downer. Yet the human and android characters of Do Androids Dream? persevere. Like Wilbur Mercer, they keep climbing their personal mountains despite knowing they will later fall. Why? For Luba Luft, it's trying to be human and sustain art in a decaying world. For Roy Baty, it's survival. Isidore is seeking an end to his isolation, and Rick… well, we don't want to give too much away, now do we?

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Does any character's perseverance free them from the death and decay of the world? If so, who and how do they manage? If not, then why do you suppose it's important that no one escape?
    2. Rick is one perseverant guy, coming close several times to just giving up and dropping dead. At the end of the novel, do you think Rick can keep on keeping or is his ability to persevere against the reality of his situation done for? Explain your answer.
    3. Not counting Rick, who do you think is the most persevering character in the novel? You can pick android or human. Where do you see this character's perseverance and why is it important in understanding this theme?
    4. On the other hand, who is the least persevering character in the novel? Where do you see this character calling it quits, and why is it important to our understanding of this theme in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Because the androids are machines, they have much more perseverance than humans. They'll keep on going until someone flips their switch—or maybe even longer, with the right batteries.

    In Mercerism, perseverance as an individual is impossible. Only the perseverance of the group—or, shall we say, the species—has a chance of success.

  • Man and the Natural World

    The natural world is a hot mess in 2021. We can practically hear Earth remembering the last Ice Age fondly, thinking to itself, "Aw, those were the days, weren't they?" Pristine snow, awesome woolly mammoths, those funny little walking apes with their spears … and now the natural world is a gray, desolate landscape with radioactive dust indiscriminately murdering whole species into extinction. Not exactly a Bob Ross picture we're dealing with here, people. The world as humans have always known it may be a distant memory, but that distance means that the novel can explore the complex, often contradictory, relationship between man and nature—one where humanity seems both outside the natural world and also part of it.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Which character would you say is the most in tune with nature? Why? Then again, maybe you think no character is really down with nature? Why not? Explain how this affects your reading of the novel's presentation of this theme.
    2. Think back on the novel's treatment of the animal trade: the buying, the bartering, the Sidney's price guide checking, and so on. How do you read this business in regards to man and his relationship with the natural world?
    3. Why do you think it's important that all the citizens of Earth gather and live in the once great cities of the world? What does this say about man's relationship with the natural world?
    4. Do you think the spider Isidore found was electric or authentic? Why do you read it this way? Does it matter for the way we read the novel?

    Chew on This

    Rick found the electric toad in the supposedly human-free wasteland once called Oregon, meaning that the toad must have hopped there from someplace else—meaning that the natural world just might end up repopulated after all. 

    The radioactive dust degrades humans, such as Isidore, at the same time that it is destroying the natural world. Humanity isn't separate from the natural world; we're a part of it.

  • Versions of Reality

    We did the math, and Philip K. Dick's worlds contain, on average, 3.74 versions of reality. (Okay, we totally did not do actual math.) For Dick, realities aren't like in the Matrix or Narnia, where the boundary between the real world and the other world is definitive. Instead, Dick's realities bleed together so much that the characters can't tell where one reality begins and the other ends—or if they were even separate realities to begin with. In Do Androids Dream?, Mercerism makes us ask some hard question about what's real. When the novel begins, Mercer's reality is distinct from the character's world and only the empathy boxes connect them together. As the novel progresses, Mercer finds his way into Rick's world and Rick into his until the readers no long know who is who or what reality they are in or, if one is the other, then where is the one who isn't the other…ow, brain pain.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Did Mercer really provide Rick and Isidore their revelations or was it all in their minds? Does it matter?
    2. Do you think the empathy box brings its participant into another reality or does it just stimulate his or her mind into believing the connection to others? Why do you think this, and why is it important to your reading?

    Chew on This

    Rick's journey into the Oregon wasteland took him into the same reality as the empathy box; he just managed to enter without the contraption.

    By the end of the novel, Rick comes to see Isidore's reality: that the electrical animals have their lives too.

  • Identity

    Characters in Do Androids Dream? don't carry the usual character ID cards of "good guy," "bad guy," or "comic relief sidekick." They're fluid concepts, shifting and changing depending on their environment—a lot like regular old people, come to think of it. Future society tries to peg individuals with concrete identities and even speech patterns, like how all the humans in the house say "Hey!" and the androids say "Ho!" But as the longest day of Rick's career continues, the identities of humans and androids begin to seem a lot less important. Maybe androids are human; maybe humans are androids. And maybe it doesn't really matter in the end either way.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Which character undergoes the most dramatic shift in identity? Where does he or she start and how does he or she end up?
    2. Which character has the least dramatic shift in identity? Compare this character to the one with the most dramatic shift. What does this tell you about the theme of identity?
    3. Had Luba Luft taken the Voigt-Kampff test, would she have been identified as a human or an android? Why do you think this, and what does it tell you about the differences and similarities between humans and androids?

    Chew on This

    Rick can be identified as a bounty hunter throughout the novel, but how he defines that identity changes as Rick continues on his quest.

    When Isidore pictures a bounty hunter (i.e. Rick), he imagines a mechanical, nightmarish creature. When he sees Baty, he notices the same qualities. These similarities suggest that androids and humans aren't so different, after all.

  • Isolation

    There's a lot of isolation in Do Androids Dream? and not just because Facebook isn't a thing. In the year 2021, the remnants of humanity live in cities to be closer together, but they're not exactly walking down the street shoulder-to-shoulder. Instead, people can live in entire apartment building by themselves. That's right, one person for an entire San Francisco downtown apartment. (Does the Google bus still run?) But isolation in the future isn't just physical. The social bonds that keep people together continue to grow more distant, and only the empathy box can bring them together—except even that turns out to push people apart.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How are Rick and Isidore's isolations different? How are they the same? Explain how this affects your reading of the theme.
    2. Is any character in the novel completely isolated? If yes, who and why? If not, why not?
    3. Did any of the androids manage to break through their built-in isolation and make a connection with either a human or another android? If so, who, and where do you see this? If not, why not? What does this tell you about isolation and androids?

    Chew on This

    Isolation comes from empathy, but you can't fake it. In the end, Rick has to turn off the empathy box to learn how to feel.

    It's hard to feel isolated living in a city like San Francisco (population 825,111, and that's not even a particularly large city). But in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, isolation is a state of mind.

  • Memory & the Past

    Imagine: A government crushes a peaceful protest using tanks and guns against people armed with picket signs and no tanks. Then, the government uses a special device that alters people's memories, so they remember things differently. In this new reality, the protesters came ready for a rumble. Science fiction? Try fact. The government was 1989 China's, and the protesters were in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The special device wasn't a sci-fi thingamajig but good-old fashioned propaganda using memory-distortion techniques. In Do Androids Dream?, memory is just another version of reality that can be altered or blended to create something new. As with the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the tools necessary to alter memory in Do Androids Dream? aren't complex James Bond inventions. They can be deceptively simple.

    Questions About Memory & the Past

    1. We're told that only androids can have false memories implanted in them. Do you find any evidence in the novel suggesting this isn't strictly true? Why or why not? What does this tell you about the novel's use of memory as a theme?
    2. Why do you think the space colonists have an active underground market for pre-colony science fiction stories? What does it suggest to you that they long for a fictional memory of space colonization?
    3. What is the connection between animal keeping and memory in the novel? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.
    4. Why do you suppose it is important that no one can remember how the world got in the shape that it is in?

    Chew on This

    Wilbur Mercer's knowledge of his real life counterpart, Al Jerry, suggests he has the memories and past of both versions of himself—and that human memory can be altered, too.

    Buster Friendly's exposé on Wilbur Mercer proved unsuccessful with characters like Iran and Isidore because memories are not the same as facts.

  • Violence

    In science fiction, violence can sometimes feel sterile or matter-of-fact. Think about all those poor stormtroopers that the heroes of the Star Wars series have gunned and/or lightsabered down. Did you ever stop to think about all those deaths before? Exactly. Do Androids Dreams? steps back and considers the acts of violence that, in many other science fiction novels, might be committed without second thought. It looks away from large-scale conflict like world wars to focus on small scale violence, such as the torturing of a spider. Can you imagine a future in which no android—or future stormtrooper—will be "retired" without a little stab on conscience again? Yeah, neither can we. But Philip K. Dick wants us to try anyway.

    Questions About Violence

    1. By the end of the novel, did you see Rick as "retiring" androids or "killing" them? What is your reason for thinking this?
    2. Who would you say is the most violent character in the novel? What makes this character more violent than the others?
    3. Who would you say is the least violent character in the novel? What does it tell you to compare this character with the most violent one?
    4. Does a certain type of violence seem more horrible than the others in the novel? If yes, what is it and why do you suppose this is? If not, then why do you think the novel treats all violence equally?

    Chew on This

    We never see Mercer's rock throwing attackers because their violence symbolizes the violence the world does to people and that people do to themselves.

    The android who most hurts Rick is Rachael, the android who doesn't try to inflict physical violence on him. Dick wants us to realize that not all kinds of violence are physical.