Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Androids.jpg

This is the deal: it’s impossible for me to separate Phililp K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? from its film adaptation, Blade Runner.

This is because I’ve seen Blade Runner approximately 4,000 times, and because my science fiction-obsessed college professors would always build elaborate paper castles of syllabi, heavy on the words “dystopia” and “postmodern,” just so that they could teach Dick, but ultimately it was always Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, so everyone I knew just relied on their knowledge of Blade Runner rather than do the reading. And so did I, apparently; hence, all my discussions of the book have really just been about half-remembered things from Blade Runner.

The aforementioned problem almost ruined the book for me. The whole experience of reading it was fraught with attempts to conjure up equivalent scenes from the film. Darryl Hannah with her crazy legs akimbo, Harrison Ford eating ramen noodles in the rain, the dark L.A. pyramids of the Rosen corporation. At a certain point I no longer remembered what had happened in the film, and what happened in the book, or vice-versa. Which is fitting, I suppose, for a story revolving around the distinctions between human and android, the latter of which is so sophisticated as to be almost indistinguishable from humanity, and the moral position of a hunter (a “retirer”) of rogue androids.

Also, when I picked up my copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? at the library, a dollar bill fell out.

I found this appropriate because the novel is fundamentally about the failure of human systems to serve as arbiters of value. What is the difference, for example, between an artificial thing and a “real” one if they serve the exact same purpose, have the same market value? Androids are designed to be servants, and they only have a market value as workers, a value that is depreciated if they liberate themselves and choose to live a life of servitude — not to a master, but to their own needs. But still, they are beings which take up space in the world, which breathe and exhaust resources, which have a desire to integrate in human society. And so their value is similar to ours, if not identical.

Ultimately, it’s perception that defines everything: whether you are human or a sophisticated android that just looks human, the importance of your life, insofar as everyone else is concerned, is the same. It’s no one’s purview to murder you just because you’re incapable of empathy. Or so we are led to believe. As Marilyn Gwaltney notes in her essay, Androids as a Device for Reflection on Personhood, which can be found in the excellent compendium Retrofitting Blade Runner, “the androids are clearly human beings, but are they persons? Do they have ‘selves?’ We cannot answer that question until we define what a self is, and what it means to be a person.” The idea, then, is that our understanding of selfhood is so nuanced, so flawed (attributes which, incidentally, elude androidkind) that we are left with nothing, with which to judge nothing.

Blade Runner looks like Dick’s novel in the same way that androids look like humans; in a way, it’s exactly the same. The habitual guidelines do not stand: as the story is about originals and copies, we are left with the realization that it’s impossible to judge a copy, for we may be copies ourselves.

NEXT BOOK: OLAF STAPLEDON’S ODD JOHN AND SIRIUS

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4 Responses to Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

  1. Ricky Grove says:

    Beautiful write up on Androids. I understand your dilemma completely. I think most people who have seen the film are in the same boat. I think Dick answered Marilyn Gwaltnye’s “self” question with his essay “The Android and the Real”: the difference is that androids lack empathy, which is what makes humans real in Dick novels.

  2. Bryan says:

    Very good article, as always. I really enjoyed comparing Blade Runner with AI and The Bi-Centennial Man to get the full perspective of “What is human-what is machine?” Neal Asher’s book Gridlinked also deals with the issue somewhat. We are getting close to AI and some of the robots are beginning to look human. Some serious ethical problems or robot rights will soon arise. Thanks for your reviews- they are always good.Bryan

  3. Yoder says:

    Claire, I’d never seen this blog of yours until tonight, and I’m really happy with it. Have you had a chance to read “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”? I’ve been reading through Dick’s catalogue over the last three or so months now, and I think it (not uniquely, but especially, because all of his novels deal with, more or less, the same themes) really touches on the ideas of perception and humanity, whether the components determine the being, or whether the thing’s conception of its self does.Anyways, I love this page and what you’re doing with it, and I can’t wait for the next write-up.Also: The Heinlein review was fantastic.Yodes

  4. hank says:

    This is an old post I’m responding to, I know, but I’d just like to say I love the bit where you point out that “Blade Runner” looks like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” in the same way that an android looks like a human. Before I ever saw “Blade Runner” I had read several of Dick’s books, so when I finally did see the movie, I was actually quite disappointed. I lay the blame on Ridley Scott and Hollywood. It is true that the book and the movie have very similar atmospheres, but the cutting of Wilbur Mercer and Mercerism, Deckard’s wife, the significance of animals, references to kipple, Buster Friendly, plus the increase in violence between the book and the film ended up turning it into something else altogether, in my opinion. (The violence, for me, was probably one of the more disappointing aspects to me — I think that if fight scenes hadn’t taken up so much of the movie, we could have seen something that definitely provides much more to think about. The book really didn’t spend that much time on the fights, if I recall correctly.) If a person really wanted to get into it, I think they could make the case that “Blade Runner” is really a future-noir, while “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is a bonafide postmodern-noir that just happens to take place in the future. It isn’t for naught that Dick has been called a “poor-man’s Pynchon.”Also, I must say that the opening scene in “Androids,” with the Penfield Mood Organ is a real riot.

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