Essay by Ted Gioia

I could tell you that the anxiety-ridden hunt for human-like androids
in this book represents the queasy quest for authenticity of the late
1960s. I could tell you that the "othering" of the androids, who are
hunted and killed as threats to society, reflects
a critique of the Vietnam War from the perspective
of Berkeley, California—where the author lived in
1968, when
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
was published. I could even tell you that Philip K.
Dick wrote this novel for the money, anticipating
the sweet movie deal that would turn his book into
Blade Runner.

I could tell you this, and many other impressive
things about Mr. Dick and his most famous story.
But I'm not sure whether any of them would be true.
I've seen this book discussed in works of philosophy
and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, celebrated
as a high point of 1960s campy escapist entertain-
ment.  For some, it is the harbinger of cyberpunk,
for others it anticipates Jean Baudrillard's
and Simulation. Or perhaps Dick even inspired
Lionel Trilling's Norton lectures—suspiciously
written almost at the same time as the appearance
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
and later published under the intriguing title
Sincerity and Authenticity.

Who can say? Did anyone think to administer a Voigt-Kampf
Empathy Test—that ultimate measure of sincerity and authenticity
—to Professor Trilling?

See these related essays
VALIS by Philip K. Dick
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
Ubik by Philip K.Dick

Alas, none of these grandiose claims has, I fear, much bearing on what
Philip K. Dick actually put into this book.  We need to remind ourselves
that our esteemed author wrote his novel in a state of personal crisis,
and any obsessions he revealed about sincerity and authenticity
were personal ones, anxieties that Dick lived through each day,
and didn't need to find described in a book of philosophy or a
classroom lecture. The power and vibrancy of Dick’s work from this
period has little to do with the concepts at play (although many concepts
are at play), but derives from their immediacy, their felt reality no matter
how unreal the unfolding plots.

Of course, all of the high-flung praise came after the fact. After
Signet released a cheap paperback edition of
Do Androids Dream
of Electric Sheep?
in 1971, a full 11 years passed before Ballentine
made the novel available again, although it was now dubbed
. Even at this stage, the book was hardly considered a literary
classic; rather part of the promotional efforts behind a big budget movie.
The rehabilitation of the novel as
novel (not a movie tie-in) and its
emergence as a classic literary text came only gradually, over a
period of decades. Dick is now considered a seminal figure of the
1960s, but only with the benefit of hindsight.

Few writers experienced more vividly the long, strange trip of the
1960s than Philip K. Dick.  Finding a suitable natural habitat in
Berkeley, the epicenter of the zeitgeist, he experienced altered
states of consciousness, some fueled by drugs others of his own
creation. Dr. Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD, even made a
fan phone call to Dick in 1969, but the sci-fi author wasn't especially
loyal to acid. He was also familiar with the effects of mescaline,
pot, lithium, valium, stelazine, dexamyl, sodium pentothal and PCP
as well other active agents that came without brand labels or lists
of ingredients, but could be procured in the neighborhood.

Then there were dreams and visions. Around the time he was writing
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick "was working all night,"
according to his wife of the period Nancy Hackett (the fourth of five
spouses), "and when he came to bed he was talking like a different
person. He’d had some kind of experience while writing and thought
he was someone else or somewhere else."

This quest for clarifying the basic issues of identity and reality
emerged as the central theme in novel he was writing. The protagonist
Rick Deckard (even the name resonates with the same consonants
as the author's) must track a group of escaped androids and retire
—or kill, depending on your perspective—these fugitives from justice.
The latest generation of androids, the Nexus-6, are indistinguishable
from human beings, which makes their identification and elimination
challenging. Even the androids themselves might not be aware of
their true identity, perhaps believing that they are human beings.
The authorities, however, have developed a diagnostic tool, the
Voigt-Kampf Empathy Test, which can distinguish between real
and ersatz homo sapiens. So far, no android has been able to
pass the test.

The plot proceeds from this point along the familiar lines of the
police procedural, with the investigator tracking down the guilty
and meting out appropriate 'justice'. But the key milestones the
story are almost dwarfed by the eerie, unsettling atmospherics,
and subplots. The specifics of Deckard’s tense domestic life might
seem like throwaway details. And the same goes for he and his
wife's desire to own a real pet animal—which is thwarted because
of the prohibitive cost. After Deckard's real sheep died from tetanus
he was forced to settle for an electric one. These, and other elements
casually introduced into the narrative augment the pervasive sense of
dread that can be felt viscerally by the reader of this work.

Despite the unreal sense of techno noir that permeates these pages,
science is catching up with Dick's outlandish premise. The question of
whether machines can attain to the status of person-hood, and how that
leap can be tested and verified, might once have been issue left for
philosophers or, occasionally sci-fi writers. But this is increasingly
a matter for empirical testing and, perhaps soon enough, regulation
and litigation. When the Supreme Court eventually rules on android
rights, I fully expect that Dick's novel will be cited in decisions handed
down from the bench.

Even so, the essence of this book will always remain beyond the
realm of science, no matter how broadly defined. With Dick’s work
of this period, there is always the story at hand (in this instance, a
hunt for androids), and the larger story that is always knocking at
the door. That larger story can be summarized in five words:
is what it seems
. This is a concept that tends to resist novelization,
can never be described concretely, because it is the opposite of the
concrete. Yet give credit to Dick for tackling it again and again, and
living up to its conceptual demands. Indeed, what image does a better
job of conveying unreality than that of an android's dream? There,
where the unreal meets the even more unreal, you find the intersection
at which Philip K. Dick repeatedly asserted his squatter’s rights. He owns
this type of story…and for the worst possible reason: he was forced to
live it.  

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book,
a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: September 16, 2014
conceptual fiction

Do Androids Dream
of Electric Sheep?

by Philip K. Dick
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