Enthralling Books: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

NewImage I’ve been a pretty serious Dick-head ever since a roommate gave me a copy of A Scanner Darkly 20 years ago. The drugs and dystopian SF hooked me. But it wasn’t until a few years later, in college at the University of Hawaii, that I discovered Philip K. Dick’s literary merit, a discovery that forever altered the course of my life.

I was buying books for an American Lit class: Frederick Douglass, Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, nothing I was particularly excited about reading, but then, in the next shelf over, with the books for another section of the very same class, I see Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- as assigned reading. You know, the book Blade Runner is based on?

Like the movie, the novel features Rick Deckard (ever notice how his name sounds like the philosopher Rene Descartes?) who’s been recruited to ‘retire’ six androids in a single day. Spurred on by a nagging wife and a ‘mood organ’ that keeps him in his business-like manner, Deckard hits the mean, post-apocalyptic streets of San Francisco in search of some of the most dangerous machines ever conceived of by man.

I dropped the boring section of the class the next day. Little did I know, my new professor, Robert Onopa, would connect Dick’s novel to some of the most influential American literature of the 20th century including T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and, in the process, save me from an existential crisis that threatened to swallow me whole.

You see, in each of those works (Fitzgerald was trying to duplicate the effect of Eliot’s poem in prose form) emotional connection is the antidote to the angst and ennui that ensnare the characters in the freshly secular 20th century.

Suffering a serious case of self-involvement at the time, I was sinking, lost in the big questions. Try as I might, I couldn’t come up with any good answers, and worse, I didn’t feel any real connection to the people around me. I was having trouble mustering the energy to make it through my days.

We started with Eliot’s “Waste Land,” one of the most difficult poems ever. But like a good mountain, Eliot’s pastiche rewards summiting. In Eliot’s wasteland, sympathy and compassion are the measures of our existence:

[…]what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed

Eliot’s saying that really living involves making ourselves vulnerable, caring about those around us enough that we give them the power to hurt us. In Fitzgerald’s novel, the love Gatsby has for Daisy gives his first-world problems a Fight Club-sized kick in the ass, snapping him unwittingly into a real life lived vibrantly.

And then in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick literalized this figurative connection between emotional connectedness and being human -- by inventing a protagonist who tests humanness through empathy. My mind wasn’t just blown -- I had been rebooted.

Deckard can’t see the androids as people; they are things, its, to him, but like Huck came to realize about Jim as they floated downstream a century earlier, once you spend a little time with these folks, the distinctions of definition disappear pretty quickly.

And did you ever notice, the Voight-Kampff test (the test Deckard gives to determine humanity) doesn’t really use questions? Rather, Deckard describes a scene and the subject of the test reacts to it. There’s a really important lesson here: literature is our Voight-Kampff test, and it helps us to be human.

Can you feel something when the protagonist in the novel is in danger? When he succeeds? Reading strengthens what clinicians call ‘empathic imagination’ -- the ability to imagine the situation of another. Once I had a little empathic imagination, I was able to see that we were all in the same boat, and that the people around me, by the virtue of their own plight, were deserving of my love and devotion.

As if that weren’t enough, when I looked close, there was a Voight-Kampff test for me, the reader, right at the beginning of the novel, an obituary about a turtle blinded in a fire. Does the thought of that animal, helpless and suffering, move your VU meters into the red? If not, your ship may be headed for the rocks, the same apathetic disengagement that Shakespeare, and Eliot, and Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, and Vonnegut, on and on, and have been warning us about since forever.

Now I teach Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to college freshmen, have assigned it to probably 1500 students, and yes, that means I’ve read about that many essays on the book. And, still, every time I go back I find something new. But I’m also reminded of an important lesson summed up so brilliantly in a snippet of Matthew Arnold’s poetry Dick knew well:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Buy Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Amazon



  1. The movie title was taken from the writings of William Burroughs who it appears got it from another writer.   Too bad Burroughs and Dick never got together. I would have paid big bucks to have been there. 

  2. Empathy (or the lack of it)  is the main focus of the novel.  The scene where the replicants are snipping the legs off the spider with nail clippers, and very detachedly/emotionlessly discussing how it doesn’t really need all those legs to get around on, is pivotal.

  3. Been almost 20 years since I read it, but I remember my impression that it was one of his weaker novels.  My favorites were probably “Radio Free Albemuth” and “Clans of the Alphane Moon”.  But no one ever accused me of having great taste.

    1. I’d agree that it seems scattered and unfocused.  The theme (so capably expounded by Professor Gill) pushes it up among his best, though.

    1.  It’s actually a very profound statement with a lot of applications.

      For example, when for three of my six required U.S. History hours in college, I took a course on the American Revolution. Among other things, we read the Federalist Papers, some accounts of the revolutionary battlefield, and Charlotte Temple. Charlotte Temple is a 1790s English novel about a good British girl who is seduced by a young British officer, which the help of a woman named La Rue who Charlotte makes the mistake of considering a friend. She’s married, taken to New York, and then abandoned with child, ultimately dying. A pretty standard morality play, written in a way that that doesn’t seem in any way special. So why spend time reading it, especially for a class on revolutionary history?

      Because it asks you to identify with someone in dire straights. It’s a morality play that doesn’t judge, but empathizes. And it is VERY standard for the times. Cheap press and leisure reading took us from a society where we were only able to identify with people we know, to a society where we can identify with almost anyone through literature. Even if it is in a vicarious, filtered way, readers of the era were able to empathize with sort of people they might ordinarily shun.  And that in turn had a part in making us able to move to a more democratic society. For example, it is much more obvious that one should be considered innocent until proven guilty if you can empathize with one accused.

  4. A Scanner Darkly (Dick).  Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald).   Better books, both of them.

  5. I like where the deckers argue about the setting of their mood organs:

    “My schedule for today lists a six hour self-accusatory depression,” Iran said.

    1. The best line is when she says “I don’t feel like dialing anything,” and he says “Oh, well then dial 3.”

      Coincidentally  I just started reading this book for the first time a few days ago.  I really like it.  I’m only about half way through, but I love how unabashedly it addresses empathy as critical to the human experience.  There are too many on this planet without it.

  6. I didn’t really like the mind-screwy ending, but aside from that definitely a great novel. 

    For the most part, I think “Do Androids Dream” is better than Blade Runner; it often seems like people only prefer the latter because of its contributions to the cyberpunk genre.

    1. I have always felt that Blade Runner is a weak story with FANTASTIC art direction. That is still worth something — in the same way a great play is no worse for failing completely as a cookbook — but you have to recognize the fact in time to tune in on all the little details of the scene rather than focus on the actors and dialog.

  7. Ubik is always my introductory recommendation for people who have never read PKD. My first exposure was a budget ($3.95 in 1993 (good value for my $20/mo. allowance dollar)) paperback version of Clans of the Alphane Moon that included a laudatory and intriguing afterward by Barry Malzberg. I think I read Valis next and then everything else I could get my hands on. 

    I don’t consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to be one of Dick’s better works. That being said, my opinion of the book is indelibly coloured by the fact that I read it through the lens of Bladerunner, which is my favourite movie. I saw the movie before the book, and I liked the movie better. If it pleases the essayist, I think I liked the movie better than the book because I felt more empathy for the characters in the movie. 

    I also had read a large portion of PKD’s catalog before reading DADoES, so many of the themes were not new to me. That is not to say that those themes were not mind blowing, just that it wasn’t this particular novel that introduced me to them. Philip K. Dick was prolific, and not always consistent (my understanding is that he went through a phase where he produced two novels a year, often under the influence of amphetamines, because, aside from being addicted, he desperately needed the money) and he repeated his pet themes obsessively. 

    That being said, I love that someone is making college freshmen read Philip K. Dick novels. I ended up a philosophy major in college largely because my freshman Intro to Philosophy professor included The Metaphysics of Star Trek on the syllabus. (It blew my mind to find out that I could effectively major in Star Trek.) 

    Rejoinder to Roy Trumbull: Based solely on their works of fiction, I envision a meeting between Wm. S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick as consisting of WSB violating PKD over the back of a stained sofa in a strange apartment with WSB half out of his mind and PKD rationalizing the whole time that WSB’s actions still count as human because the man really loves his cats. I would pay big bucks to be sure that that never, ever happened. 

  8. My first PKD book was “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (never seen Blade Runner) and while I can’t say that my world view changed as drastically as yours, it’s definitely enthralled me to the point that I couldn’t put it down at all, and as I was reading it something big clicked within me, though I’m not entirely sure what it was though.

  9. Philip K. Dick was not a great writer. His books are hard to read  and sometimes feel like talking to a drunk.
    That doesn’t matter a damn thing as his ideas, his stories and his characters are amazing.

    1. Sorry, but A Scanner Darkly is a great book. It has moments of incredible lyricism and never lets the reader feel like they know what is coming next. Dick leaves Vonnegut and many others in the dust.

  10. In the book it seems like Decker is established clearly as a human, and it says he has monthly checkups for radiation exposure. Did anyone think that was a red herring?

  11. DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP is one of Dick’s best books and is infinitely superior to BLADE RUNNER, a movie primarily of visual splendor, and little else. Harrison Ford is terrible and wooden, the dialogue in parts doesn’t make sense, and the themes Dick explores in the books are so not well conveyed. I’ve seen it numerous times, and bought the boxed set, so I’m a “fan,” but I don’t think the film is as good as its reputation.

  12. As to the question of whether Deckard is an android, one of Dick’s persistent themes was the question, “what makes us human?” As in the book (and film), his answer is, “empathy,” our capacity to feel love or compassion for other living things. In Dick’s novels, as in the real world, there are humans who don’t have empathy, who don’t feel love for others, who don’t hurt at the pain suffered by other human or non-human creatures.  We call such people “sociopaths” or “psychopaths,” (essentially two words for the same thing), and, for Dick, such people were “androids,” notwithstanding that they are actual humans and not manufactured beings. Sociopaths/androids are biologically human and can skillfully mimic the emotions and reactions they learn are expected in interactions with others, but they present false fronts, their apparent emotions are counterfeit. Dick sees all humans who are casually, carelessly, joyfully or obediently cruel as androids…the Nazis were androids en masse.

    I don’t think Dick meant for Deckard, in the novel, to be viewed as an android, but there may have been intent by Ridley Scott to convey ambiguity on this question regarding the film Deckard. On the other hand, if one considers that Deckard and his wife (in the novel) must calibrate their moods and emotions artificially via their “mood organ,” perhaps Dick did see them, and perhaps all humans, as at risk of becoming androids through lack of care and attention to their own humanity. Perhaps Dick saw the prevailing trends of modern day technological  societies as inevitably culminating with the transformation of human into android.

  13. I like both DADoES the book and Blade Runner the movie. 

    Dick is often not easy to read but I thought this book hung together much better than some of his others, and the question is right there: what makes a human human? Ridley Scott contributed his own marvelous visuals — film is after all a visual medium — and brought out themes that were handled differently in the book. Both work, basta.

    This makes me think of Clockwork Orange, although Kubrick kept closer to the novel’s narrative. Both book and movie succeed yet end up feeling quite different.

  14. I’ve
    seen things
    you people wouldn’t believe.
    Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
    I’ve watched 
    C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.
    All those moments
    will be lost in time
    like tears
    in rain.

  15. My favorite PKD novel is Our Friends From Frolix 8.

    “Because you were once loved proves that you are worthy of love.”

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