Book review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick

originally posted elsewhere: December 19, 2010

tl;dr: A science fiction classic, just as Blade Runner is a cinematic classic...

These days I imagine that most people, like myself, read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? after having seen and enjoyed the movie Blade Runner. In my case Blade Runner is one of my all-time top ten favorite movies, for a variety of reasons: the questions it raises about what is human and what is not; the love story and the conflict it creates between a man's feelings and his occupation; the futuristic film noir settings and acting; and the contrast between the rich and powerful and the degraded denizens of the street.

Blade Runner is one of the few movies I own on DVD or Blu-ray, since there are few movies that I want to see more than once. Recently, after introducing one of my kids to Blade Runner, I decided that we should both read the book that it is based upon. We each thoroughly enjoyed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but for slightly different reasons than the movie Blade Runner.

Contrasting first the book with the movie: it turns out that the movie follows the book fairly closely for about the first third of the book (minus one character, as Rick Deckard is married in the book), but then the plot of the movie departs fairly significantly from the book. One of the enjoyable aspects of reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a Blade Runner fan is seeing the choices that the moviemakers made to come up with a compelling two hour movie. They basically redid the plot to make the major conflict in the movie one between the Nexus-6 androids and the head of the corporation that made them, and they also made the romance between Rick Deckard and the android Rachel into the second major plot element of the movie.

A book cover with a dark background featuring an image of a metallic sculpture of a face, with a drawing of a sheep superimposed over the left eye socket, and containing the book's title, author's name, and a blurb

Philip K. Dick died in 1982, the same year that Blade Runner had its first theatrical release, so I don't believe there is any way to know what Dick thought of the movie. I think that the choices made to create Blade Runner were the right ones to make a great movie, even though there were unfaithful to the book. The movie and book are separate works with similar themes, and can be appreciated on their own.

The main theme of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the same as Blade Runner; what does it mean to be human, and how should humans and artificial humanoid lifeforms treat each other, especially in cases where the humanoids come in peace and want nothing more than to be treated the same as humans and left alone. Although this specific situation can only come about in the future, if artificial intelligence and life science technology progress far enough, the situation has parallels that are nearly as old as mankind: the conflicts that come about when two civilizations, races, ethnicities or tribes meet and start to intermingle. Should the groups be kept entirely separate under penalty of death? One of the Nexus-6 androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a renowned opera singer - should she be terminated simply because she is an android impersonating a human?

The post-nuclear-war world that Philip K. Dick portrays in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is even bleaker than the landscapes in Blade Runner. Animal species have become extinct and animals have died off in such large numbers that people's greatest status symbol possession is their pet - and of course a real animal pet is far superior to an artificial one. People's minds are degenerating because of the nuclear fallout, and the move off-planet is not one of lifestyle choice but of survival, for those smart enough to make it. People squat in abandoned buildings and move from place to place to try to minimize the nuclear fallout, In the book Philip K. Dick is able to explore these sub-topics and others that are barely alluded to in the movie.

The primary (albeit minor) problem I had with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? were a couple of logical inconsistencies in the plot. If the world and mankind are as damaged as Dick describes them, then would there be enough of civilization left to still support opera performances? Why would the androids want to come to Earth? In all science fiction there is some disbelief that the reader has to suspend. I also felt that some people could easily interpret Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as being misogynist, since the female characters are for the most part pitifully weak, whereas most of the action is taken by men.

That said, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? should be a must read for anyone who enjoyed Blade Runner. The parallels between the two works are fun to uncover. Each work poses deep questions about humanity and makes a major impact on the audience, which are two important criteria for earning the accolade "masterpiece".