Like much of his work, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968) is a fable of identity crisis and phenomenological breakdown.
It might start off with a fairly straight SF premise – bounty hunter Deckard pursues runaway androids around a decaying San Francisco – but as rug after rug is pulled from under the reader, it’s clear that Dick’s real concerns lie elsewhere than the ostensible premise.
Front and centre lies the problem posed by the androids of the title. They might legally be property and indentured servants, with intelligence but lacking in the empathy humans claim as their USP. But if people like Deckart and his wife Iran have to resort to artificially controlling their emotions in order to function, or have to participate in religious simulations to feel a connection to others, how different are they really in any meaningful sense?
If memories can be altered and implanted, as the book points out, how do they know they are not themselves androids?
And as the droids themselves become increasingly sophisticated, harder to tell apart from humans with a battery of psychological tests, this distinction becomes finer and finer. Deckard, whose career rests on being able to confidently identify and ‘retire’ droids, begins to behave erratically and question the meaning of his work.
So Do Androids Dream… is a novel about what it means to be human in a technological age. But it’s a lot more than that too.
For example, as members of my reading group pointed out, it responds tolerably well to a recasting of its themes in social terms – bear in mind Dick was writing at the time of the civil rights movement and a great deal of political turmoil besides. You don’t have to look far to find examples of second-class citizenship and extralegal killings in the US at the time. And Iran’s decision to programme herself a self-accusatory depression is a nicely done sketch of traditional femininity in crisis.
While this is subtext, what is undeniably text in Do Androids Dream is a deconstruction of a hard-boiled, traditional, and yes, masculine way of seeing the world. The events of the novel chip away at the props of Deckard/Dick’s life – his pride in his work, his belief that what he does is right. They hold out the prospect of material gain and romantic love, and then whisk them away. His manufactured religion of Mercerism is exposed as a sham.
With deep irony, this race to internal rock bottom coincides with Deckard’s greatest triumph in the eyes of the world – his successful ‘retirement’ of the last of the runaway androids. But such success no longer has any meaning to him.
This is Dick’s signature trick: he takes you down the rabbit hole only for the Big Reveal to be a sarlaac pit.
The ending holds out at least the possibility of hope – that Deckard can choose to be content with his manufactured religion, his artificial pets and his dialled up emotions. But this is presented as a least worst response to purgatory, not an alternative, for Do Androids Dream is at its core a deeply unhappy novel, an authentic tragedy rare in science-fiction.