Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Philip K Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (novel): Bounty hunters on trail of run-away slaves

Quote from the novel titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K DickWith a plot like that, I wonder how this book acquired the reputation of a genre classic! Some really good PR work by publishers, probably. I have a feeling the main claim to fame of this book might be the Hollywood movie "Blade Runner" that is based on this story; I have not seen the movie.

Story summary.

Story is set in early 1992; its events take place over a couple of days.

The story is mostly set in Northern California - generally San Fransisco area. It often talks of the state of the world where "world" normally means Northern California, occasionally other parts of US, sometimes USSR, never any other place. So I always mentally replaced "world" with Northern California.

It's a post-nuclear-war society - following WWT (I suppose World War Three; there is a reference to something called "World War Terminus" but I don't know what to make of it). Most dust is still lightly radio active. Most humans have emigrated to other planets in Sol - name of Mars keeps recurring. Sparsely populated earth mostly holds the losers.

This society has peculiar attitudes towards animals - a variant of those held by Jains. Most non-human animals, birds, & insects are extinct; the ones that exist are very valuable. People get creeps thinking of the deaths of even small animals, though they don't think twice before picking up animals in the wild for pets!

Having pets is a status symbol. Since there are not enough natural animals, most people keep robot-animals as pets. Robot technology is very advanced - you can have a robot normally indistinguishable from any animal, including humans!

Androids, also called andys, are human-like robots. Normally indistinguishable. And the recent ones from a company called Rosen Association are fitted with "Nexus-6 brain unit" - that makes them smarter than "several classes of human specials"! But their bodies cannot regenerate cells; so androids live only about 4 years.

These androids are used as slaves by Martian colonists. Because they are sentient & have a survival instinct, they don't like slavery one bit. They keep running off to earth, sometimes by killing their owners. Such a gang had recently arrived on earth - 8 of them; their hunt & killing ("retiring") is the main plot of the story.

Since androids are indistinguishable from humans & can easily mix, how does a bounty hunter identify one? Here we are introduced to a rather extreme version of "empathy" - humans in this society are said to feel empathy for all carbon-based life forms, while androids don't. So "Voigt Empathy Test", originally "devised by the Pavlov Institute ... in the Soviet Union", is given. It involves carefully measuring involuntary facial reactions when questions about animal killings or mutilation are posed to subject. It's only through author's grace that humans giving the test to unwilling androids normally come out alive!

Title of the story comes from this idea of empathy. You are a human because you feel empathy towards all carbon-based life. Can the definition be extended to androids who feel empathy towards a robotic sheep? Story briefly touches upon this interesting philosophical question, but that is just to complicate the character of the protagonist rather than offering anything to the debate on the subject.

Oh - and this human empathy has its exceptions. Like other humans with low IQ that are shunned by so called normal folk! It's a very casteist society.

Story also has a liberal sprinkling of religion & futuristic gadgets - like hovercars & automatic mood changers. Dominant religion in these parts is empathy-centric Mercerism, with Wilbur Mercer as religious leader.

Main plot revolves round Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter with San Francisco Police Department, who will hunt & kill 6 of these 8 android robots in a single day; other 2 were already killed by his senior, Dave Holden. Dave was badly hurt by a quarry during his hunt. Every killing fetches $1000, presumably from local government.


  1. The story uses the word "kipple" to mean "entropy"; "nonkipple" is orderliness.

See also.

  1. All stories by Philip K Dick.

Fact sheet.

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", novel, review
First published: 1968
Nominated for 1968 Nebula Award in novel category.
Hollywood movie "Blade Runner" is based on this story.
Rating: B