What the hell is "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" trying to say?
June 11, 2012 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Alright guys. I just finished Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

I think ten years ago I would have read this and pretended like I understood exactly what it was all about but now I'm just going to admit: I need some help. How in the hell does the last third of the book relate to and tie up the rest of the novel? If there's a better place to talk/read about this, please point the way, but when I looked for answers on the Internet, the best I could find was "DECKARD WAS AN ANDROID" or "DECKARD WAS NOT AN ANDROID." I don't care about that, I'm just not sure how to put the Deckard, Isidore, Nexus-6, Mercerism pieces together. I've see this book come up a lot on the green, so any insight you have would be much appreciated!
posted by Tevin to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I really messed up the formatting for this - any way to delete it and start over?
posted by Tevin at 1:15 PM on June 11, 2012

I don't know if the novel is all tied together on any level. I do remember than when I got to the Mercerism religious experience part I had a realization that I should probably put the book down, wait a week or so and start over with the knowledge that Deckard's world was a couple orders of magnitude weirder than I had been allowing for.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:19 PM on June 11, 2012

Contact the mods and let them know how you wanted it formatted.
posted by griphus at 1:22 PM on June 11, 2012

It's been quite a while since I read it but I remember that a kind of remarkable thing was that he never explains how there are two completely separate police departments in the same city that don't appear to have noticed each other. So yeah, I would also vote for "it doesn't actually all tie together."
posted by XMLicious at 1:35 PM on June 11, 2012

Response by poster: sio42 I get THAT part of it. I think I'm mostly struggling with Mercerism and Deckard's - I dunno - encounter with him at the end.

Mercer, Buddy Friendly and Mercerism all, really, sort of seem out of place.
posted by Tevin at 1:37 PM on June 11, 2012

I have considered the main theme of the novel to be that empathy is what defines us as humans. This is seen in the animals (one has to own and care for an animal to be complete) and the Voigt-Kampff test itself, which measures reactions.

The novel presents several characters that prove the rule. The bounty hunter Phil Resch is human, but with lower than normal empathy. He is treated as subhuman but J. R. Isidore is still very empathetic and thus, in PKD's world, still very human.

The Nexus 6 androids are new and test the rule from the other direction; they are not human, but can they show empathy? Rachel and Pris appear to show empathy but it comes out that they are just being manipulative, faking. Same with Wilbur Mercer.

Everything gets confusing, though, as PKD also loved to have us off-guard, questioning reality.
posted by mountmccabe at 1:43 PM on June 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I read the book many many times when I was a kid (well before I ever saw the movie Blade Runner) and one thing that it took me a while to really think about, was the whole thematic element that the title brings up, about real animals (priceless, mega status symbols, endangered, rare) and electric animals (status symbols, expensive). And that the whole acquisition of electric animals of varying magnitudes of expense is this very human keeping up with the joneses kind of covetous tendency which Deckard is often engaging in when he wonders how much a given animal would cost or how much someone else paid or his astonishment about the owl, etc. So in that light, the litmus test for androidism isn't so much whether or not he would harm an animal, but whether or not his programming allows for this kind of pointless egocentric status seeking (that humans are all engaging in) via dreaming of electric sheep or camels or whatever is more impressive.

So I guess the whole Mercerism/Buddy Friendly thing is kind of a commentary on this fundamental human consumerist drive which can in fact be encouraged and promoted by beings that are not human themselves (so, possibly Deckard himself), so to what extent is anything fundamentally human?
posted by Aubergine at 1:44 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh and also of course that empathy being the basis for humanity vs. non-humanity is called into question by the fact that Mercer himself is non-human. So this collective empathizing, genuine though it may be on the end of the people engaging in it, is as productive as caring for an electric sheep.
posted by Aubergine at 1:46 PM on June 11, 2012

Response by poster: "So I guess the whole Mercerism/Buddy Friendly thing is kind of a commentary on this fundamental human consumerist drive which can in fact be encouraged and promoted by beings that are not human themselves (so, possibly Deckard himself), so to what extent is anything fundamentally human?"

OK, so that makes me think:

maybe the books is looking at 'what it means to be human' through different systems.

We have government (that decides what is and isn't human by way of testing and execution), commerce (how you put a price on life), religion by way of Mercerism, and -perhaps- a non-system (Buddy Friendly and His Friendly Friends).

And then in the end Deckard realizes that none of those systems can really answer the questions he has about his own existence because he can never be sure of them himself. Or something?
posted by Tevin at 2:06 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mercer, Buddy Friendly and Mercerism all, really, sort of seem out of place.

Most of Philip K. Dick's novels are not really cohesive in terms of having an overarching plot that resolves itself. He started his career writing dozens of short stories as fast as he could for pulp magazines, and that necessitated a sort of frantic writing style that he stuck with for the rest of his career. It gives his work more of a stream of consciousness feel with a lot of interesting elements jumbled together rather than a more rigid narrative structure with a solid conclusion. Expecting the main character to learn something important at the end of a PKD novel is probably not wise because in most of his novels the protagonist ends up feeling vaguely confused and dissatisfied without really resolving their core problems, even if the main external problems in the story are resolved.

It's been a while since I've read the novel, but in terms of how the Mercerism aspects tie in with Deckard's experiences with androids, I think mountmccabe is correct above that empathy is a sort of unifying theme. Androids are said to have no empathy, and humans in the story value empathy as a virtue. Deckard is troubled because he finds himself empathizing with machines, and that conflict is unresolved at the end with the final scene involving the mechanical toad. Isidore has the same "problem" in that he has trouble identifying the cat as real and empathizes with the androids.

Meanwhile Mercerism is basically the ultimate form of empathy, in that by using the empathy box people are able to literally feel what Mercer feels and experience his pain. Buster Friendly's show is framed as being directly opposed to Mercerism, which aligns it more with the android empathy-less mentality. The attempt by Buster Friendly to prove that Mercer was fake is meant to prove the androids correct about empathy, but the fact that the empathy boxes still work even though people know that there is no actual metaphysical truth underlying it proves that empathy is a core aspect of being human. Deckard and Isidore empathize with fake people for the same sorts of reasons that people in general empathize with the fake Mercer.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:20 PM on June 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

I took Mercerism to be almost a fake religious experience, because people were sharing or using other emotions outside of themselves.. Animals were fake and people cared for them, people had sex with "fake" people and in some cases cared for them, they cared for the trials of a fake religious prophet (of sorts).

The book to me was about at what point does it stop mattering if these things are fake or not real, what is the point where if something feels real it is by definition real. If Decker thinks he's a person is he a person, and at some point does it matter anymore, if everyone treats him like he is a person and has all the hopes and dreams of one and there is no way to tell if he isn't. I never got the big deal about knowing if he was or wasn't an android as that ambiguity was kind of the point of the whole story to me. The thing is how do any of us know we are real.

Anyway that's my take on it, the best part about books is that there is no right answer and it means to you what it means to you.
posted by wwax at 2:23 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: "the best part about books is that there is no right answer and it means to you what it means to you."


In general I have a very high tolerance for ambiguity (I had no trouble with Ubiq or A Scanner Darkly) but for some reason I just couldn't wrap my mind around this one so I couldn't even come up with my own answer.

I'm going to chalk it up to general fatigue and enjoy seeing all the wonderful answer from you great people.
posted by Tevin at 2:26 PM on June 11, 2012

Dick is probably my favorite sf writer, but I've always mentally sorted his books into "I get it" and "I don't get it" categories.

Androids, along with The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, have always fallen into the latter category for me, even after rereads. They're entertaining, thought-provoking books, but the subtext is pretty opaque.
posted by neckro23 at 2:43 PM on June 11, 2012

I thought the ambiguity was "the point." Everything in the book is debatable as to its meaning\reality, and it's all independent; X being false doesn't relate to the fundamental truth of B. It takes an intentional effort to write a story like that. If I had to some up the message of that book it'd be that perception is faulty.
posted by Gygesringtone at 2:54 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Marcerism is an attempt to create a shared experience, and empathy between all humans. burnmp3s is spot on that even though everyone knows it is fake, it still works. It is not an experience anyone ever had, it is totally synthetic. What happens if all your memories are fake? If human existence can be chalked up to a series of memories what would it mean if none of your memories are real?

This is the central point in almost all of Dick's work. Almost like "If a tree falls and there is nobody around .. " Dick constantly asks, what if your memory was erased , as in Paycheck, could it be said to have never happened? In Paycheck Dick concludes that yes, even if your memory is wiped the events create changes in the world that are possible to reconstruct. In We Can Remember It For You Wholesale Dick asks if fake memories are distinguishable from real events.

Androids takes all this a step further and asks whether a shared experience and connection to humanity is what makes us human, and if such experiences can be faked and be indistinguishable for real experiences, can androids in fact be human.

I think the point Dick was making was that androids can be human, and humans can be androids.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:06 PM on June 11, 2012 [9 favorites]

One of my favourite P. Dicky books! For me, DADOES is all about humanity, and the quest to find meaning. Like a lot of his books, I feel like a central question propelling the narrative is, "In an insane world, acting sane is just as crazy as acting insane - so how do you act sane in an insane world?".

The answer, to simplify, is love, is connection, is meaning - and I feel like the book charts the different attempts of people to do that.

I always feel that kipple is too often neglected in DADOES. In many ways, I feel its central to the book - as is correlates like 'gubbish' are central in Martian Time-Slip and similar substances appear in other novels of his.

For me, kipple represents the loss of meaning, the breakdown of signifier and signified, symbols are stripped of their meaning and become junk - but not even junk because junk is associated with rubbish, disgust, waste etc. Kipple isn't even that, it's nothing. You can see the process of "kipplisation" at work through all other kinds of elements in the book, right from the opening scene where characters order up the emotions they want via a machine. When you can order any emotion a la carte, how much meaning can it have? The loss of significance is essentially turning the marriage into kipple, and the sense of ennui is rife through the other characters.

In this respect, the androids are interesting firstly because their lives can have a sense of existential urgency the others lack. Their existence makes the other characters question, "fuck, if my life is just as/more meaningless than a robot - how much meaning can it have?" The answer, I would argue, is a lot. The book charts Deckard's realisation towards that.

It's interesting, comparing DADOES to Bladerunner. Where Bladerunner is all about the difference between android and human, DADOES is about the difference between being and nothingness. It's a luminous, compassionate, affirming book, and one of Dick's best.
posted by smoke at 3:44 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try this syllogism:

- The androids are capable of complex behaviour but ultimately are just following the rails of their programming. Ask them the right set of questions in the right order and it becomes clear that they're only simulating consciousness with a set of rote answers and heuristics.

- Androids are more or less indistinguishable from human beings. "Did you ever take the test yourself?"

- Therefore, human consciousness is an illusion.

You’re in a megacity, hovering along when all of the sudden you look down, and you see a android, Kid Charlemagne. It has a four year lifespan, but it loves life and craves for more, struggles for life, risks everything for it, but it is on its back, Kid, suffering accelerated decrepitude, and we're not helping. Why is that?

Androids? It's too bad they won't live, but then, who does?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:50 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think the folks above me have covered all the bases on how Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends, as well as Mercerism, are alternate reflections on humanity and empathy and emotions.

This may be stating the obvious, but it's also helpful to read all of Dick's novels in the light of schizophrenia and the disconnection of the narrator from normal human emotional empathy. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is relatively coherent for a Dick book, it's no Valis, but you can still read a lot of his personal emotional disturbance into the book. I'll also add the Mood Organ in as another element of the story that reinforces those themes of emotional alienation.
posted by Nelson at 3:56 PM on June 11, 2012

PKD has talked about this book in interviews I've read years ago. Long story short PKD doesn't write standard plots, he likes to explore philosophical ideas. In this book he played a great deal with real vs fake. Human compassion vs programmed robotics. The struggles of real life humans fighting to make it on earth vs the lazy comedic ramblings of radio immortals. The real spiritual experience of understanding humanity vs the fake experience of plugging into a religion machine. The real experience of owning a pet vs having a fake one, etc.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:16 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

My takeaway from the end was that the androids are designed to turn themselves into humans; Deckard's experiences in the book are part of a program designed to help him make the mental leap into self awareness.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:04 PM on June 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers. I definitely have a better idea about what PKD was trying to get across.

Thanks again!
posted by Tevin at 9:10 PM on June 11, 2012

It's been a while since I read it, but I remember the androids being very excited about exposing Mercerism, presenting Mercer as a drunk hobo used to film the experiences that everyone tuned into to share. Mention was made that the host of talk show where Mercerism was outed as fake was also an android (I might be wrong about that).

To me, the Mercerism was an attempt by all those who couldn't/wouldn't emigrate to the offworld colonies to remain human, even though the fallout hinted at was kipple-ing human beings as well, with required IQ tests and such. While they might be slowly being broken down and turned into subhumans, there was still Mercer, who loved all and every. Through Mercer, even the imbecile could feel again.

The androids hated Mercer, and wanted to rip open the illusion. They wanted to show that what made humans 'real' was nothing but a dillusion, and that even if androids hadn't become fully emotional beings, they were at the very least equal to the humans hunting them.

Again, it's been a while.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:34 AM on June 12, 2012

This may be stating the obvious, but it's also helpful to read all of Dick's novels in the light of schizophrenia and the disconnection of the narrator from normal human emotional empathy.

This was my take on the book as well: it only makes sense as a book-length journey into the onset of schizophrenia. Have you ever read anything by a paranoid schizophrenic? The rambling discursive style, the strange (but sometimes insightful) leaps between apparently distant ideas, the emotional flatness, the alienation, the sense of persecution, the certainty that things or people are fakes engineered by a hostile intelligence - it's all there. In relatively coherent form, true, but the signs are unmistakable.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:11 AM on June 12, 2012

it only makes sense as a book-length journey into the onset of schizophrenia.

Only? You can't enjoy or learn from the story on its merits?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:06 AM on June 12, 2012

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