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

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