Most of mankind has emigrated for the colonies (i.e. Mars and other off-planet bodies). Those remaining on Earth are charged with maintaining it. Rick Deckard works as a bounty hunter for San Francisco and “retires” rogue androids with the hope that the reward money could buy him a real live animal to replace that electric sheep. He’s afraid the neighbors are getting suspicious.
Other men, like J.R. Isidore, are “specials, “chickenheads,” “antheads,” whose exposure to the radiation left by World War Terminus has made them ineligible for emigration to Mars. They’re tasked with more menial jobs – repairing artificial pets, say, or collecting trash, a lucrative business as everyone is fighting against a relentless deluge of virtually self-reproducing detritus and trash aka “kipple.”
Things start getting a little iffy though when Deckard is turned on by an android he’s commissioned to kill and Isidore finds himself playing the sympathetic hero in the fight against AI run amok.
Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the original Blade Runner (the series was based on Dick’s cyberpunk/sci-fi mashup). With Electric Sheep, Dick tests our capacity for empathy and tries to define what makes us human in a future that is now nearly our present (the year is 2019) and when technology has supplanted the humans who created it.
Although Dick’s writing is in many places blunted and awkward, and while it’s clear he didn’t labor over the many inconsistencies in the premise of Electric Sheep, the novel is still an entertaining one.
Technology progresses and humanity regresses. But Electric Sheep doesn’t come from such a cynical egg. Dick’s novel chases excitement even in Earth’s desolation; chases it even in Deckard’s desperation; chases it in spite of the lugubrious mood his wife, Iran, schedules for herself each day via her trusty Penfield mood organ.
This excitement, which veers into the pulpier realms of literature, saves Electric Sheep from getting sappy and bleeding out the usual banality of dystopia sci-fi. It shows that Dick, even when he waxes existential, still has fun with his story.
Empathy is the last signifier. It’s the only thing now differentiating humans from androids, but even this is beginning to blur. Owning an animal – caring for one and keeping it alive – is the last assurance of staying attune to humankind (but Phil Resch? He – it – has a squirrel, you know). And it’s expensive: the radiation killed most animals, and the prices listed in the Sydney’s catalogue…well, you’d have to make a down payment.
At the center of Electric Sheep is the idea that empathy can’t be replicated. Memories can be pre-programmed or planted later on, physiques designed, emotions set to an algorithm and intelligence of course can be called for on spec.
But empathy is a singular, for-humans-only thing, and coming across it is so rare and so needful that we cherish it.
With the absence of any religion, an empathy box stands in most residents’ homes and Mercerism issues from this virtual pulpit. Humans grab hold of its handles and climb with Mercer, a sort of Sisyphus, as he mounts an interminable hill and is pelted by rocks. It’s how humans stay in the race, a healthy dose of empathy for those who can only afford the electric kind of sheep.
Like Albert Camus’ rendering of the mythic Sisyphus, Mercer is a figure for whom we wonder why? Why does he go on and why do humans dial the Penfield for a depressive state when joy is also an option? Maybe Buster Friendly, the 24/7 talk show host, in his long-awaited exposé can finally give us the clue we need.
And it’s been such a long day for Deckard, trying to pull the plug on six of the most humanoid androids ever created…
But Rick Deckard has his dear Iran. Dick wrote their relationship faintly but with a warmth and empathy that transcends the goat Deckard finally buys and the uncertainty of his own human identity in light of his bounty hunter job, a job that demands he kill things of his own image. The inversion – from Deckard’s concern for Iran to Iran’s care for him – at the end of the day, alongside their few moments of shared emotion that Dick writes between the pulp, prompts far more feeling than that goat ever could.
So, tired as Deckard must be and surrounded by kipple as he is, like Camus’ Sisyphus, we must imagine him happy – no need to dial the Penfield for a long-deserved peace.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? · Philip K. Dick · 1968
Del Rey, 2017 · 224 pages, paperback