In a future where artificial intelligence is possible, the elephant in the room is where androids would stand in society. Where would they place in our social stratification? What would be their role in human culture, politics and philosophy? Phillip K. Dick had an idea, and quite frankly, it is sad but likely.
Set in 1992 (or 2021 for later editions), the world is a radioactive wasteland, caused by a devastating World War that has destroyed most of the world. In an attempt to preserve human life, humans have expanded to off-world colonies. With life sparse on Earth, animals are now valuable commodities and have become signifiers of wealth and social status. Protagonist Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter on Earth, whose job is to ‘retire’ – or terminate – fugitive androids that have assumed human identities.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is as riveting and provocative as its title. Dick explores a multitude of ideas, such as an android’s place in a human world, morality, human nature, consciousness, sentience, empathy, how signifiers of status are arbitrary and socially constructed, and among other things that I may not have picked up. All of these themes are relevant, and it is the ambiguity and its narrative style that makes it so effective. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not a meditation, but Dick shows us a glimpse of a world where these constructs exist. In that sense, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not a book where all of its contents and intricacies are immediately visible to the reader – the reader has to engage with the themes and sometimes be the person to go further and ask the questions.
Something that really captured my attention was the question of what makes us human? It is a question that has been asked time and time again by countless authors, writers and philosophers, but Dick answers it like how Ghost in the Shell answers it (e.g. not at all, which gives it its permanence). People reading this will come to answer this question – or be stumped by this question – when we learn more of the androids and their motivations. What distinguishes us as human and them as robot? Is it the instinct of survival, our molecular makeup, our ability to empathize, our consciousness, or our sentience? What is life? What is sentience? (I’ve fucked myself up with these questions.) Maybe when I read more philosophy I’ll be able to answer this question, but for now this question will hang in the back of my mind.
For a short read, Do Androids Dream of Sheep says and asks much. I now see why Dick’s work was iconic and I wish I had read this sooner. So do yourself a favour: if you read this book in high school and you didn’t like it, read it again; and if you haven’t read this book, read it.
And now to schedule a time to force myself to watch Blade Runner.
Book Name: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Author: Phillip K. Dick
Publisher: Del Rey