SF Masterwork of the Week: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick’s seminal Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is our current Masterwork of the Week because: exciting stuff (we’ll tell you on Friday). And who better to walk us through the cyberpunk streets of future Los Angeles than Gollancz‘s very own Stephen Baxter (He knows the lingo, any good author does)? Here’s his take on the novel that would become world famous as the text behind Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with thanks for our good friends at SFX, in whose SFX Book Club feature this piece first appeared [PDF] . . .

Nearly 30 years ago Philip K Dick, 39 years old, published the novel that became the centrepiece of his career. In 1982 Ridley Scott adapted Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to become the movie Blade Runner, which would bring Dick’s name to a wide audience. But there’s much more to the book than that, influential as the movie remains, and it’s a good entry point to Dick’s work.

Androids, set in San Francisco 1992, is the story of Rick Deckard, hunter of androids (“replicants” in the film). Earth has been left poisoned and depopulated by a “World War Terminus”, and androids, meant as servant-slaves for colony worlds, have been leaking back to the home world. “Do androids dream?” Deckard asks himself. “Evidently; that’s why they occasionally kill their employers and flee here.”

These machines with their Nexus-6 brain matrices are indistinguishable from humans – save only that they entirely lack empathy. Deckard has a test to detect this, and the horror of the book (and the movie) comes from the androids’ deadened responses. The artificial girl Pris is cold, “like… the breath from the vacuum between the inhabited worlds… it was not what she did or said but what she did not do and say.”

Dick had a bleak view of the world, and his books constantly question whether what we see is real, or the result of deliberate manipulation. All this was a product of his own turbulent life.

Philip Kindred Dick was born in Chicago in 1928. “Started reading SF when I was 12,” he said. “Accidentally bought a copy of Stirring Science Stories instead of Popular Science. Never able to stop, once started.” All his five marriages ended in divorce. From 1952, aged 24, he was a full-time writer, but in the ’50s SF publishers were generally low paying. Heavy drug use made Dick’s life still more troubled.

Dick became paranoid after a visit from the FBI in 1955, following a letter he’d written to a Soviet scientist. Fascinated by mental illness, he speculated that he might be ill himself, perhaps schizoid. He was a “flipped-out freak”, he said.

All these influences funnelled into Dick’s work. Decker’s androids sum up Dick’s endless questioning of what is real, and what makes us human. But if reality is unreliable, one thing that’s dependable in his work is human kindness. He was well aware that some humans would fail Deckard’s empathy test. He’d tell the true story of a Nazi concentration camp officer who complained at being woken by the noise of crying children.

In Androids people derive consolation from an “empathy machine”, a kind of shared virtual reality: “He experienced them, the others, incorporated the babble of their thoughts, heard in his own brain the noise of their many individual existences.” Perhaps Dick would have been impressed by the internet, which joins people together by emails and blogs and in shared virtual spaces.

Twenty-five years after Blade Runner, Dick’s legacy is profound. Cyberpunk drank deep of his dystopian visions, and adaptations of his work continue to be made. It’s easy to see why his work still resonates. Saturated by surveillance, bombarded by hidden threats, we too are paranoid. Today, the plot structure of Androids, with an immense disaster in the world war followed by a continuing struggle against the android menace, feels like a metaphor for the story of the West since 9/11, with the initial horror of the attack followed by a slow-burning campaign of terrorism. Similarly, in Dick-influenced shows like Lost and The 4400 you have characters trying to put their lives back together after a catastrophe while coping with a carnival of ongoing strangeness and threat.

In early 1982 Dick saw rushes of Blade Runner. He said Ridley Scott’s 2019 LA was “exactly as how I’d imagined it”. But he died of a stroke four months before the movie was released, aged 53. As of 2004, the movies made from his work had made $700 million. But Dick didn’t live to see any of it, or how his ideas continue to resonate in the consciousness of a new century.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of Philip K. Dick’s work via his author page on the SF Gateway website and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Stephen Baxter is the author of the acclaimed Xeelee sequence of hard SF novels, the Time Odyssey books with Arthur C. Clarke and the Long Earth books with Terry Pratchett. His latest novel is Proxima, which is available in hardback, trade paperback and as an eBook. Stephen Baxter’s website is www.stephen-baxter.com and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.