When Philip K Dick first saw the script for Bladerunner, the film adaption of his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he wasn’t too happy. In an interview with Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, he even professed to having a nightmare in which he was on set for the film’s shooting, strangling Harrison Ford for “ruining his book.” This reaction, though, is to the movie’s original script. Dick was much happier after it was revised and some substantial changes were made, but I can’t help but wonder if this was simply complacency, relief at seeing an improvement—when any improvement at all would have done—upon the script which had so radically changed the meaning of his novel. In Bladerunner, many of the same themes present in the book are explored, but the takeaway is that the faux-humans, the replicants, are to be pitied in their struggle to attain humanity, while in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the androids are something to be hated.
The the narrative of the novel follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter tasked with killing a rogue group of androids who have assimilated into human society. The novel also follows John Isidore, a brain damaged “chicken-head” who works for a shop that repairs broken, electric animals. This theme of simulacrum pets is present throughout the book; on the dying planet of Earth, where nuclear fallout has led almost all animal life to near extinction, the remaining human population has come to value owning an authentic animal. Because of this, a market for electronic animals has sprung up, with the main consumers being the less affluent members of society who covet a higher stature, e.g., men like Deckard. Yet, Deckard resents the electric sheep he and his wife own, and longs for an authentic animal—an animal he doesn’t have to lie to his neighbors about being electric—hence him agreeing to chase down six androids all at once, his eyes on the bounty.
Another theme present throughout the novel is the religion of Mercerism—an element of the novel wholly left out of the Bladerunner adaptation—and the empathy box: a device the religion’s followers use to connect with one another on a global scale, whereby they share one another’s feelings, giving away their sadness or joy and receiving some other indeterminate emotion in return. When Deckard comes home after purchasing a real goat, his wife becomes ecstatic and suggests they tune into their empathy box to share the emotion with their fellow followers of Mercer. Deckard remains hesitant, stating that he’d like to keep the joy for himself. His wife calls him selfish, pointing out that if happy people didn’t use the empathy box, then people would only be sharing their misery with one another when they tuned in. She says it isn’t their joy alone to have, but that it belongs to the rest of the world, and it’s their religious duty to give their joy away whenever they come cross it. What the end goal of this religion is is never clear, but the world building employed in this depiction of self-sacrifice and communal suffering is remarkable, and it’s one of my favorite elements of the novel.
As the events of the day progress, Deckard begins to sympathize with the androids he is hunting down and killing. Though he realizes they are not human, that they do not possess empathy—the distinguishing factor in the novel—he still appreciates the fact that they are intelligent and thinking beings, each with a desire to live. Deckard has to force himself to look past these qualities when he performs his duties, but each time he “retires” an android, his conscience eats at him more and more. One of the androids on his list turns out to be an opera singer whose voice he enjoys. This android, against its own better judgement and advice from its fellow escapees to lay low, puts herself in the spotlight all because she cannot resist her love of art. Though she is not human, Deckard finds it difficult to kill such a creature without aggravating his conscience.
Meanwhile, three of the six escaped androids Deckard is hunting have taken up residence in John Isidore’s apartment, befriending him and taking advantage of his loneliness and longing for companionship. They ignore Isidore and treat him quite rudely, even forcing him out of his own apartment to run an errand for them. At this point in the novel the reader may feel ambivalent towards the androids. On the one hand, their callous disregard for Isidore demonstrates their lack of empathy, but on the other, their cooperation with one another shows just how much they long for a community of their own.
Yet, any doubts as to whether or not the androids can live alongside humanity are squashed when Isidore comes back from his errand, carrying a spider in his hand. Ecstatic at having found a real living creature still surviving in the wasteland of Earth, Isidore eagerly shows the spider to his new friends, wanting them to appreciate and marvel at its beauty just like he does. Instead, the androids stare at the spider curiously and begin wondering aloud why the spider needs eight legs. To Isidore’s horror, they begin to pluck the poor creature’s legs off one by one, testing to see how many they can remove before it becomes immobile.
It’s here that the reader sees why Dick thinks beings without empathy cannot live alongside us. Their callousness towards Isidore—and their lack of care for preserving what few remnants of the natural world there are—reveals just how inhuman they are. The androids, while thinking creatures with emotions, hopes, and desires, are far too distant from real humans to share a community with them. They will harm living creatures, not because they are evil, but because they simply do not recognize what they are doing; they lack the empathic faculty, the ability to consider the conscious experience of beings other than themselves.
So, the novel leaves us with an important question: should we empathize with living things that cannot empathize back?
If the sympathy Dick elicits from the reader for the opera singer Rick Deckard is forced to kill is any clue, then the answer is yes. We should empathize with such creatures. We should empathize with any thinking or feeling being with even a mote of sentience.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean such things should be allowed to exist—or, at least, exist alongside us. If something possess volition but also lacks empathy, we cannot bring it into our society, the communities where we care for those who cannot care for themselves, our children, elderly, and even our pets. Whether these non-empathic creatures kill human beings out of self-interest, or pull the legs off of a spider in a world where animals are the most precious thing there is, they can’t be allowed to live. It doesn’t matter whether they can dream or not.