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Literature / Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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A 1968 novel by Philip K. Dick about escaped androids trying to pass for humans in a dystopian future, and the people whose job it is to hunt them down. The book is notable for film fans as being the source material for Blade Runner.

In the distant future of the 1990s, nuclear war has destroyed nearly all life on Earth. Almost all animals are extinct, and only a fraction of the human race remains on Earth. Those left behind are either unwilling to leave, or are "specials" (called "chickenheads" or, in severe cases of mental damage, "antheads"), who are ineligible to leave due to overexposure to fallout. The people on Earth give their lives meaning by taking care of the last animals that are left on planet. As a proof of their empathy and humanity, those who can't afford a real animal inevitably end up buying an electric model instead; it's considered antisocial, if not downright sinful, to not have an animal to show the neighbours.

Most of humanity has emigrated throughout the solar system, rebuilding civilisation along with their organic android slaves ("andys") to do the hard labour. Androids have advanced to the point where they look completely human inside and out, but exhibit certain psychological differences and are not officially recognised as alive. Naturally, there are some androids who try to flee from a life of slavery and pass as human on Earth.

But being non-human, the androids are excluded from the experience of "Mercerism", a religion based around respect for all life, and the shared empathy of all the human race. People can connect together using "empathy boxes", bonding over the shared visions of The Messiah figure Wilbur Mercer. Most of humanity on Earth follows Mercerism, but the religion is ridiculed by famed comedian Buster Friendly, whose shows on TV and radio "Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends" broadcast 23 hours a day each and who seems determined to bring Mercerism down for good.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter working for the San Francisco police department. He's assigned to hunt down and "retire" six Nexus-6 androids who have escaped from Mars, after the previous man on the case was left critically injured. His task is complicated when Deckard meets Rachael Rosen, a beautiful young woman associated with the leading android manufacturing company, and he begins to question the morality of his job. Deckard's life isn't going quite the way he wanted: he's stuck on earth, his wife has discarded artificial moods in favor of actual depression, and his sheep is electric.

Meanwhile, John R. Isidore — a chickenhead who lives alone in a decaying apartment building — finds that somebody else is now living in another apartment. It's a beautiful young woman named Pris Stratton, who calls herself "Rachael Rosen", then abruptly changes her story. She is cold and dismissive towards him at first, but later appeals to him for help: she has friends who have to come and hide out with her, because there's a bounty hunter trying to kill them. J.R. Isidore, who has never had a friend, is eager to help...

As in most Philip K. Dick novels, the characters are all extremely confused about their identity and their surroundings. Some plot twists are overly obvious from the start, and although the novel never explicitly states why the characters don't notice them easily, it can be assumed that every person in the novel suffers from some level of fallout-related brain damage and detachment from reality. The result is a very dreamy, expressionistic story that has become one of Dick's most popular works.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: From his novella, "The Little Black Box", which introduced Mercerism and empathy boxes.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Do androids actually feel empathy? There are some signs that they don't, like Pris pulling the legs off a spider just to see it twitch, and some signs they do, like Irmgard expressing concern over Isidore's reaction to said spider mutilation. But was she empathizing with him, or merely worried because of his abnormal behavior? The story has a potential Aesop that whether something is strictly speaking "real" or not is less important than people believe, and that's about all the answer it offers.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 1. World War Terminus killed a huge chunk of humanity, caused a mass extinction of fauna, and ruined Earth's ecosystem.
  • Artificial Human: The androids.
  • Black Market Produce: It's not elaborated upon as some examples, but Isidore mentions getting pre-war luxury food such as bean curd, peaches, and wine off the black market for a hefty price for himself and Pris.
  • Bookends: Begins and ends in Deckard's apartment, with his wife.
  • Broken Aesop: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is somewhat divisive, with two very different interpretations and resulting reactions.
    • On the one hand, Roger Ebert compared Deckard to "A Nazi measuring noses", and AI advocates compare the story to The Birth of a Nation for AI: Should "friendly" AI ever come to be, the story's premise could be seen as insulting or paranoia-inducing to said synthetic beings- thus potentially triggering a Roko's Basilisk scenario.
    • On the other hand, many take away from the story the moral that the difference between appearance of a thing and the actuality of its identity (emotion/compassion apparently being the deontological decider for humanity) are moot: "If it talks, speaks, and thinks like a person, it is a person." It also questions if there is a difference between sentience and programmed routine, and what constitutes self-awareness. What, after all, is the difference between an AI given the ability to simulate emotion via Transferable Memory, and Deckard's wife experiencing artificial emotion from her empathy box?
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Wilber Mercer reveals that Mercerism is this to Isidore. It doesn't matter if the scene of Mercer climbing a hill by being pelted with rocks is a hoax, empathy still comforts people.
  • Deadly Euphemism: Referring to killing androids as 'retirement' is one of several ways they are dehumanised throughout the novel.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Like many of Dick's books, it's an exploration of the Nazi mindset and the warped value system of people living inside a fascist society. But because of Blade Runner's success, it's often the first Dick book people pick up, and without a firm basis in Dick-ism, a reader might think Deckard's opinions are supposed to be taken at face value.
  • Deuteragonist: J.R. Isidore, who effectively serves as a foil to Deckard and whose story runs parallel to his.
  • Do Androids Dream?: The Trope Namer. Androids ultimately do feel emotions, and despite what human society says, at least one of them demonstrates empathy.
  • Doppelgänger: Rachael Rosen and Pris Stratton are physically identical, being the same model of android. Pris even attempts to use the name "Rachael Rosen" with Isidore as well, but she changes her story when he recognizes the surname Rosen as belonging to the robotics manufacturer.
  • Dystopia: The Earth is ruined and mostly abandoned.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Roy Baty cares about no one save Irmgard. Even Pris, Polokov, and the other andies are expendable to him.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: For given values of "evil" and "good". After Buster Friendly reveals that Mercerism is a hoax, the Mercer in the empathy box says that the androids just don't understand that the cold hard facts about Mercerism are irrelevant to most people in the face of how it makes them feel.
  • Extinct in the Future: In the aftermath of World War Terminus, many species are completely extinct, like frogs. Even the animals still alive, like sheep and goats, are rare enough that owning one is a major status symbol.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The novel takes place in a single day, but due to the extreme volume and gravity of events that happen throughout, even the main character finds this hard to comprehend.
  • Gaia's Lament: Much of the Earth has been poisoned by nuclear fallout, and all but a tiny fraction of Earth's fauna has been wiped out.
  • Gainax Ending: It's not clear how much of Deckard's experience with Mercer is a hallucination. Really, it's a Philip K. Dick novel; this trope was to be expected.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: Used throughout the novel as one of the many ways androids are dehumanised.
  • Kick the Dog: Rachael killing Deckard's goat. Pris cutting the legs off the spider Isidore found, just to see if it could still walk. Roy also seems to take an inordinate amount of delight in relating bad news to the group, including the deaths of their friends.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: Zigzagged. Lasers are preferred when dealing with androids. However, when Deckard is divested of his laser tube, his backup sidearm, a good old fashioned slugthrower, is able to do the job just as effectively.
  • Lack of Empathy:
    • Human society believes that androids have no empathy, and that empathy tests are the only way to tell them apart from (most) real humans.
    • Deckard notes that bounty hunters have to switch off their human empathy while on the job so that they can kill androids that are physically indistinguishable from humans except through precise, clinical tests. It's one of the many ways in which the line between humans and robots is blurred.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Pris Stratton, Rachael Rosen. Pris manipulates John Isidore into sheltering her and the other andies in his deserted apartment building, while Rachel seduces Deckard so that he wouldn't be able to bring himself to kill her.
  • Mechanical Animals: Rick Deckard maintains a mechanical sheep on his building's rooftop. Citizens are strongly encouraged to caretake domestic animals, which are dwindling on Earth at the time. An underground market arose that sells mechanical farm animals that can pass a spot check.
  • Mind Screw: It's not really clear what's happening at the end when Deckard is in the desert, though it's implied to be at least partially a hallucination. For that matter, the subtle use of Unreliable Narrator may cause this throughout the novel to a careful reader. (Again, this trope is a Philip K. Dick staple.)
  • Mythology Gag: John Isidore shares his name with the protagonist of Dick's earlier written, but later published book Confessions Of A Crap Artist.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: Buster Friendly explicitly compares the empathy box to the tools Hitler used to come to power, i.e. the Aryan racial soul.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Humanity believes androids incapable of empathy, but at the same time, Deckard himself notes that bounty hunters have to 'switch off' their empathy in order to 'retire' androids, and humanity's dehumanisation of androids demonstrates Lack of Empathy in itself.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: It's implied that this is how Luba Luft beats the Voigt-Kampff test; every time Deckard asks a question, she either misses the point, argues with the premise, or claims not to know a key English word. This probably wouldn't have given her a false negative on the test, since if she really did understand the questions, then her unconscious physical responses would still reveal her to be an android. However, she uses her behavior to get the drop on Deckard and hold him at laser-point.
  • Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap: Animals are a luxury, as many died out or became extinct due to fallout from World War Terminus. This results in owning an animal being a sign of wealth or status, which in turn means people buy fake, robotic animals to make themselves look more important. In the beginning of the book, Deckard owns an electric sheep. He mentions to his neighbor that the ersatz animals can easily be almost as expensive to care for as the real thing, because they require so much maintenance for their sophisticated mechanisms.
  • Passion Play: Despite Buster Friendly's claims that Mercerism is a swindle because the scene in the Empathy boxes is staged, it is heavily implied to be a form of this for Mercerism instead.
  • Protagonist and Friends: An in-universe example in Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends
  • Ridiculously Human Robots
    • Too ridiculous, as in these robots can actually pass for human. The people of Earth are aware of this trope, much to their annoyance, since they're the ones who have to track down renegades who have escaped from Mars. Multiple times they've requested the Andies' manufacturer to make the Andies less human-like. The book also insinuates that the Andies are made so realistically because the Mars colonists are using them as a replacement for human intimacy (including sex).
    • There are also Ridiculously Animal Robots, robotic animals that have been programmed to act like animals even when malfunctioning (so other people don't realize they are robots). In one scene, a character who works for a robot animal repair shop has someone call him to help their cat... and he doesn't realize that the cat is real until it dies and he can't find any wires.
  • The Reveal: Buster Friendly claims towards the end on his show to have evidence of Mercer being a harmless old fake. This is when Pris reveals to Isidore that Buster and his co-stars are all androids, explaining why Buster was so desperate to prove Mercer a fraud. Averted when Isidore rushes to his Empathy Box to confirm the truth, where Mercer reveals that it doesn't matter if he's real or not, only that Isidore and millions of others just rushed to their Empathy Boxes to maintain their faith in him.
  • Sleeping Single: Rick and his wife Iran.
  • The Sociopath: Humanity believes all androids to be this; it's supposedly the primary thing that separates androids from humans. As mentioned above under Lack of Empathy, humanity's own lack of concern for androids (particularly given their deep veneration of less sentient life forms) is one of many ways that the two groups are painted as being similar. What's more, the humans don't act so empathetic, either - Deckard despises "the chickenhead", at least until he's met John Isidore in person, and the owner of that poor cat didn't get close to it, allegedly for fear of the cat dying. Deckard and Iran trade some pretty insensitive barbs, too, and they spend very little time with the goat.
  • Standard Female Grab Area: Deckard uses this on Luba Luft. When previously cornered by the bounty hunter, she outsmarted him and managed to hold him at laser point. However, once he puts his hand "laxly onto her upper arm" she ceases all struggle.
    • "I can't stand the way you androids give up".
  • The Vamp: Rachael and Pris.
  • Title Drop: A partial one comes when Rick ponders about the thought, philosophy and emotional capacity of the escaped androids, and what it would take for them to want to come to earth. The full title, however, postdates the manuscript; Dick wanted to call it either Do Androids Dream? or The Electric Sheep. It was his publisher who decided to mash them together.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Garland reveals that Resch is an android. For several chapters after, Resch is left to wonder whether this is true or not. It's not.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: The book follows two protagonists: Rick Deckard and J.R. Isidore.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Deconstructed the What Measure Is a Non-Human? trope before Blade Runner widely popularized it.
  • Unholy Matrimony: Roy and Irmgard Baty, though they're more of an Anti-Villain example.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Despite Deckard's lengthy ranting about androids being incapable of empathy, Irmgard Baty clearly shows an emotional response to Isidore freaking out over the dead spider. She has no idea why he's suddenly acting like this; she just wants him to stop. Because we do not see her internal monologue, her reaction can be interpreted in multiple ways, but regardless of her motives, she genuinely attempts to comfort him, thus raising the question of whether an artificial gesture of empathy from an android can be distinguished from genuine empathy and, if so, how. In any case, the human characters routinely suggest that androids "don't exactly cover for each other in times of stress", as Deckard puts it, let alone for humans; but it's clear that this is wrong, given that Rachael explicitly states that her purpose in sleeping with Deckard was to get him to retire from bounty hunting - not that she's successful in doing so - and the androids do genuinely attempt to assist one another at several points in the novel.
  • Villain Protagonist: In honesty, Rick Deckard is this, or at least an Anti-Villain Protagonist or Punch-Clock Villain Protagonist, though he doesn't actually realise it. This is significantly at odds with The Film of the Book, where he's more of an Anti-Hero, and it's one reason readers who are new to Dick and are coming to the novel from the film frequently misinterpret the novel.
  • Vision Quest: Rick Deckard receives one of Wilbur Mercer at the end of the book, and receives a live toad- something even his wife can't believe as they're supposed to be extinct- as his reward.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?:
    • The book answers — it's Weltanschauung, the cultural framework each side exists in. Humans believe androids don't feel empathy, while androids believe empathy is the opiate of the masses. Dick stated he was inspired by reading the journals of Gestapo officers while researching The Man in the High Castle and couldn't believe they were human because of the dehumanizing atrocities they carried out. Many of Deckard's rants deliberately echo Nazi paranoia about the supposed Jewish-Bolshevik menace, such as their callous atheism and lack of empathy, their desire to supplant the "authentic" human, and their inability to be part of the Aryan racial soul (Mercerism). But despite that, the book itself shows he's clearly full of it, as evidenced by Irmgard Baty empathizing with Isidore at the conclusion.
    • Human society loves and treasures animals, yet ruthlessly terminates androids because they "can't feel empathy". The androids complain that humanity wants to exterminate them, yet when presented with a living spider they gleefully "experiment" like children by pulling its legs off and seeing what happens, to the point Isidore is physically revulsed at the violation of his cultural mores and norms. This is another layer of the novel's allegory for Nazi spirituality vs. Judeo-Bolshevik materialism; the Nazis both loved animals and despised the kind of anti-spiritual, supposedly "Jewish" atheism that breaks life down to its constituent parts—even as the doctors in the concentration camps were gruesomely vivisecting prisoners to learn more about human biology.
  • World War Whatever: World War Terminus, which destroyed most of the earth.
  • You Are What You Hate: Collective guilt over the nuclear war is implied to be why humanity loves and cherishes animals, even artificial ones, yet consigns artificial humans to slave labor and kills them without a shred of empathy.