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 Simulacra and Simulation. Or perhaps Dick even inspired Lionel Trilling's Norton lectures—suspiciously written almost at the same time as the appearance of 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?
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 Blade Runner. 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: nothing 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.