Metaphors of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
By Carl Santavicca
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Philip K Dick presents a dystopic future world where humans and technology interact at almost every turn. During his life Philip K Dick battled with schizophrenia and drug addiction in a time in American history that was filled with new technological advances as well as social paranoia and political turmoil. I intend to show the correlation between the world created by Philip K Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and that of his life in the 1950’s and 60s’ as well as its correlation to today’s society and technology and how it is more relevant than ever.
To understand how Dick writes we must first understand how he thinks; at a young age Dick lost his twin sister when they were only a few months old; this was a psychologically traumatic event when he learned of it later in life (Sutin). This coupled with the onset of paranoid schizophrenia, a disorder often causing delusions or auditory hallucinations, would often cause him to have trouble differentiating illusion from reality (Phillipchalk & McConnel). This difficulty differentiating what is real and what is not, is one of the main themes behind Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Throughout the book Deckard is trying to differentiate human from android using the Voigt-Kampff test to look for a lack of empathetic response: “‘This records fluctuations of tension within the eye muscles. Simultaneous with the blush phenomenon there generally can be found a small but detectable movement of’ ‘And these cant be found in androids?’ Rachel said. ‘They’re not engendered by the stimuli question; no. Although biologically they exist potentially (Dick 46).’” Deckard continually struggles with his perception of what it is to be empathetic and is at one point doubtful whether he could pass the same test he administers to the androids. Also other characters such as Phil Resch and Rachael Rosen struggle with their reality. When we first meet Rachael she is certain of her humanity until she fails Ricks test; it is later revealed that this version of Nexus 6 android had false memories implanted and was also programmed to make an attempt at empathetic response. Resch is unsure if he is in reality an android and uses his owning and caring for a squirrel to justify his reality. The human trait of empathy can be seen very evidently in the desire of humans to own and care for an animal; this is evident when Rick is talking to his neighbor about his horse and Rick’s desire to own a real animal (Dick 8-10). Sometimes the humans can even be empathetic to those who cannot show empathy in return. Both Deckard and Isodore care for electric animals; they also show affection toward some androids they encounter, Rick toward Rachel and Isodore toward Pris. This supposed lack of empathy in the androids is also considered a trait of residual schizophrenics; they often display a lack of emotion, show inappropriate responses to social situations, or even social withdrawal (Philipchalk & McConnel 497).
Next we delve into Philip K Dick’s frequent drug use and how it can be seen throughout Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Throughout his life Dick often used amphetamines and other mind-altering drugs that were prevalent in the 1960s (Prophets of Science Fiction). Drugs like amphetamines, also known as speed, cause the brain to increase synapse response and overuse could result in symptoms similar to that of paranoid schizophrenia (Philipchalk & McConnell 166). Other mind altering drugs such as marijuana and LSD can cause changes in mood and perception. These effects are remarkably similar to those experienced by the characters of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep when using their empathy box or Penfield mood organs. First we see the humans in the book use their empathy boxes to feel one with Mercer; this use of an outside influence to gain a feeling of “oneness” or completeness is very similar to the use of psychedelics by Native Americans in religious ceremonies (Philipchalk & McConnell). We can also see the use of the Penfield Mood Organ by Rick and Iran to change the state of mind they are in: “we’ll dial a 104 together and both experience it, and then you stay in it while I reset mine for my usual business like attitude…There, at her console, he dialed 594: pleased acknowledgement of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters” (Dick 7).
Next we should consider the rapid advancements in technology that Philip K Dick would have seen in his life and how those are represented throughout the novel. Lets first illustrate one of the more direct correlations; that is the development of the atomic bomb and the threat of nuclear war. During his life Dick witnessed the construction and use of atomic weapons. He definitely saw the destructive force of these weapons, and he lived during a time when paranoia about the use of these weapons was always present. This is represented in the book not by any one thing however; it is seen in the desolate setting of the novel after World War Terminus. This is a world which is ruined and abandoned due to the fact that it is covered in radioactive dust; fallout no doubt from the use of multiple atomic weapons during the war. The escape from this world, into outer space, is also something Dick would have witnessed. Dick witnessed manned flights into Earth’s orbit and the race between two countries to put a man on the moon. Dick takes this a step farther with the colonization of mars and ultimately the use of androids to help attain this feat. One of the most notable technological advancements would be that more and more people watched these events unfold on their televisions. Television would have gained mass appeal during the life of Philip K Dick and this is not something he would have been ignorant of. While the television is still directly represented in the novel I believe that is not its only representation in the novel. Humans in the novel are programmed how to feel by the mood organs and empathy boxes; previously I related this to drug use and indeed the television of the 60s could be seen as a kind of drug. More and more people would be sitting down to watch their television “programming” and getting their fix from an electronic device. This adaptation into everyday human life by technology is also well represented in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by the fact that the humans are becoming more and more machine like. Phil Resch is an example how humans are becoming more like machines, his lack of empathy toward killing androids takes him to the point of him having to convince Deckard, and himself, that he is human because he cares for a squirrel. “I own an animal; not a false one but the real thing. A squirrel. I love the squirrel” (Dick 128). Another example is Rick and Iran’s relationship toward one another. Their relationship is very programmed and non-empathetic. “If you dial,” Iran said, eyes open and watching, “for greater venom, then I’ll dial the same. Ill dial the maximum and you’ll see a fight that makes every argument we’ve had up until now seem like nothing (Dick 4).” The entire interaction between Rick and Iran is saturated with irony, and symbolizes the robotic reaction they have toward one another despite the fact that they are supposed to love each other. Later in the novel though they do eventually show more empathy toward one another almost as Philip K Dicks was of saying that there is hope for humanity. Not only would Dick have witnessed humans becoming more robotic, he would have also seen machines and technology becoming more and more adaptive to human life. This “fitting in” of new technologies in to the mainstream of life is not only represented physically in the book by the androids being a visual replica of humans; it is represented ideologically by these androids developing the empathy that they were once thought not to have. We see this on a few occasions one of which is when Isodore makes a comment that endears him to Pris Stratton:
“ ‘What’s that white stuff? Not the cheese.’ she pointed. ‘Made from soybean whey. I wish I had some’ He broke off, flushing. ‘It used to be eaten with beef gravy.’ ‘An android,’ Pris murmured. ‘That’s the sort of slip an android makes. That’s what gives it away.’ She came over, stood beside him, and then to his stunned surprise put her arm around his waist and for an instant pressed against him.” (Dick149)
Lastly, during his life, Philip K Dick would have witnessed large amounts of political unrest and turmoil. This would have started as a young man during the strife caused by World War II. It is not a coincidence that WW2 was considered the war to end all wars, which in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is not true; World War Terminus would take that role. While on the topic of WWII, we should also note that the original design of the androids was as “synthetic freedom fighter” during the war (Dick 16). Making a race of perfect fighters is remarkably similar to the same attempted feat by the Nazis during WWII; Hitler attempted to create the so-called perfect Aryan race in order to dominate Europe during that time period. In the post war 50s and 60s Americans were focused on another political threat, the threat of communism. The constant paranoia of this age is well represented in the novel by consistent threat of androids. Deckard is always trying to determine if androids are among regular society; this represents the distinct fear of this time period that communism had infiltrated American society and these communists look just like everyone else. Related to the communist movement is the constant battle between communism and capitalism. The representation of capitalism is very prevalent in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Products with specific brand names, such as the Penfield mood organ of Mountibank lead codpieces signify the importance of brand in the capitalist society. The Rosen Corporation, most likely run by androids, which produces androids, is the quintessential self-sustaining capitalist economy. Throughout the novel androids can be seen as representatives of a capitalist society; their repurposed use was as an incentive to sell the humans on why they should colonize Mars. The battle between communism and capitalism can be see most clearly in the ongoing battle, in the book, between Buster Friendly and Mercerism. Mercerism is similar to communism or socialism in its predication of a group mentality; it links all humans together via the empathy box in order to share feelings of joy and despair to maintain a sort of group mood. This can be seen when Iran wants to share feelings of joy via the empathy box after Rick brings home a goat: “I want you to transmit the mood you’re in now to everyone else; you owe it to them. It would be immoral to keep it for ourselves” (Dick 175). Buster Friendly is a favorite of the androids and he represents the capitalist society trying to discredit the socialist mentality of Mercerism which one would thin may happen when Buster Friendly reveals Mercer as a fake, however this does not dissuade people from believing in Mercerism.
Lastly we must examine whether or not these metaphors from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep are still relevant in todays much more technologically advanced society. Lets start with paranoia; it is there today more than ever. Paranoia over communists and how to uncover them has been replaced with the paranoia over terrorism and the complicated matter of racial profiling. This concern over terrorism has led to a society paranoid over its government constantly watching, in an Orwellian manner, all of its communications via newer high tech methods such as email or social media. Paranoia; check! Next move on to drug use and how it is represented. Ask anyone who has seen the show Breaking Bad if amphetamine use is still rampant today. New forms of drugs are emerging daily in order to provide better highs; this is however the more extreme circumstance. To relate the Penfield mood organ to more daily, and widely accepted, drugs we must consider caffeine, nicotine, and painkillers. How many Americans today could not make it through their workday with out some form of these (i.e. coffee, energy drinks, cigarettes, or a Tylenol)? Drugs; check! The metaphor of integrated technology and its relevance today is next. As I type this essay on a laptop computer only to upload it to the Internet for viewing by multiple people simultaneously in an instant I think an argument for seamless integration of technology may be a little obvious. Lets look how today’s humans are becoming more robotic and reliant on technology as an example. We can examine a day in the life of the average white collar American; he wakes to the sound of an automated alarm, checks the Internet or his phone for weather, traffic, and other relevant daily info. He hops in his car to travel to his job, which probably deals with some form of technological advancement or another, communicates with his friends via social media or his smart phone, and comes home to watch television or browse the Internet. The average person does this with little to no actual human interaction and is dependent on their technology to lead their daily lives. Technological integration; check! Lastly we can examine the battle between political entities. Again, in the midst of a government shutdown designed by one political party to gain an advantage over another this argument is also a quite obvious. The political parties and their vested interests represent the battle between group mentality and individualism. Democrats would typically be considered more liberal, more vested in the group interest, and more socialist (i.e. Mercerism); while the Republican establishment is typically more concerned with doing what is best for the individual or singular corporate entity (i.e. Android). Political strife; check!
It has been shown that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep can be seen as a metaphor for the struggles of Philip K Dick himself, and the life of the average human in that time period. However the book should also be seen as a representation of today’s society, as well as a foreshadowing of what could be in store for a rapidly advancing technological society such as ours.
Dick, P. K. (1968). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep . Toronto, Ontario: Random House.
Philipchalk, R. P., & McConnel, J. V. (1994). Understanding Human Behavior (8th ed.). (T. Bucholz, Ed.) Fort Worth , TX, USA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
Prophets of Science Fiction. (2011). Science Fiction Channel.
Sutin, L. (2005). DIvine Invasions: The life of Philip K Dick. New York, NY, USA: Caroll & Graff Publishers.