DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? – Philip K. Dick (1975)

Do Androids Dream Of Electric SheepThere are 2 main problems with this book: its philosophical themes are a mess, and the action/detective part of its plot isn’t well conceived. Nonetheless, it’s still a fun read.

One of the main themes is the question of the possible “humanity” of artificial intelligence, a classic scifi theme. It is worked out poorly, because the androids themselves and the science behind them are worked out poorly. The androids are practically full-blown biological humans, except for some minor detail in their bone marrow, at least, that’s the only way for scientists to notice they are androids. Yet the androids can’t get children? They do get drunk. They can’t control their physical, sensual passions? They lack empathy, but can sometimes love each other? They die inevitably after about 4 years, because of a cell replacement problem? If so, why bother hunting them down?

Dated notions of empathy make the mess even worse: there is talk about empathy not working for carnivores, since carnivores are hunters, and would starve if they empathize with their prey. The fact that humans do hunt, is brushed aside. PKD clearly is no philosopher nor a behavioural psychologist – as empathy is observed in all kinds of animals.

Its focus on animals makes the book very quirky, and again adds to the inconsistencies. Real, live animals are a status symbol on future earth, but this choice seems mostly made because of the word play within the title. My guess is that PKD came up with the title first, and all else followed after.

Further illustration of the inconsistency of the novel is the fact that the title is not coherent with the story itself, since androids in the story are not electric, but living, organic entities, not made of electric circuits like the fake animals in the story. Moreover, PKD also fails to ask the important question whether there truly is a difference between organic nerves transporting electric signals and inorganic circuitry transporting electric signals.

The fact that the empathy tests to determine whether an individual is an android or not rely for the most part on humans’ empathy with animals is very strange too: as if an apocalyptic world war would turn us all into vegetarians. Again, PKD doesn’t prove to be a great social thinker by making these strange choices. The different relationships between humans-androids-animals-electric animals seem forced and ill-conceived.

As a result of all this, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t a book that gives one new insights on what it means to be human at all. Diverse authors like Asimov and Banks have written much more interesting books on AI. Hell, even the Star Trek Voyager TV-series explored the humanity of AI in a much more interesting manner. PKD basically reduces it all to “the will to live” and “empathy”.

The other problem I hinted at in the beginning of this review is the plot. While this could have been an interesting thriller set in an SF-world, it also falls flat in that respect. The androids can’t point and shoot, and the protagonist is able to track down and kill all of his opponents mainly because of sheer luck.

Having said all that, I mostly enjoyed reading the book. It’s not too long (192 pages in my edition), Dick has some good ideas, the setting seems edgy, the atmosphere has a vibe and at times the language and imagery is excellent. So: this is not a content book, but something you read for mood.

All in all, I’m guessing Bladerunner‘s glow keeps this high in all kinds of lists. To me, it didn’t feel like a timeless SF classic. In dealing with questions about humanity and AI, Philip K. Dick just scratches the surface, in a messy, clumsy way. Yet that’s part of its appeal: clumsy is cute.

originally written on the 13th of January, 2015


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4 responses to “DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? – Philip K. Dick (1975)

  1. Pingback: UBIK – Philip K. Dick (1969) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  2. cielodenashville

    First and foremost: I love your reviews! I’m reading everything that it’s posted in the blog.

    About this novel, I really like PKD and I think that it’s a weird and different author in the genre. And I agree with this review totally, this is one of his most mediocre works (worst than some of his early works, that at least are pulpy fun and had an incredible spill of imagination). Some people consider this one as one of his best, but to me it’s really clumsy and disjointed.
    The themes are interesting (yet poorly developed) and I thought that the setting it’s pretty cool, but everything else falls flat.

    I even found this book boring in some parts, especially when the focus was on the character Isidore.

    To me his best work may be “The three stigmata…”, I like “Ubik” too, “A Scanner Darkly” and “Flow my tears” are very mature and interesting novels (and I think that are worth a read).
    His short stories are in my TBR list.

    Grettings from Argentina!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your nice words, much appreciated!

      I’ve read Ubik & A Scanner Darkly, I guess you’ve read my reviews, more interesting indeed.

      Atm, I plan to read Flow My Tears, a short story collection, and The Man In The High Castle. Maybe also VALIS and Stigmata. But as I usually leave at least half a year inbetween revisting an author, that will take me a few years.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID – Philip K. Dick (1974) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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