Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? A metaphysical detective story
Adrian McKinty marks the 50th anniversary of the classic by Philip K Dick, who died 36 years ago this month
Philip K Dick in December 1982. Photograph: Philippe HUPP/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
March 2018 marks the 36th anniversary of the death of science fiction writer Philip K Dick whose most iconic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was finished fifty years ago this spring. All of Philip K Dick’s novels are back in print, there is a current Amazon TV series (Electric Dreams) based on Dick’s writings, this Sunday Blade Runner 2049 (the sequel to Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s Electric Sheep) will almost certainly win the Academy Award for best cinematography and there are at least a dozen TV and movie adaptations of Dick’s works in the pipeline.
Add to that the number of knock off PKD movie and TV adaptations out there (*cough* Black Mirror) and it’s obvious that we are living in a Philip K Dick saturated world. This is a pretty amazing turn around for a writer who died broke and in near obscurity (his hasty obituary in the New York Times was a scant three paragraphs long and riddled with errors).
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was written during the period 1966-1968, probably the two most turbulent years America has experienced since the second World War. Assassinations, riots, Vietnam, hippies, drugs, counter-culture, scandals and the Cold War were the context for Dick to write a book which is basically a pretty straightforward detective story set in a nightmare future. The McGuffins are different but we’re in the same world as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler: missing people, a shot partner, a femme fatale, trouble with the local cops and a bleak cynical universe from which no hope is expected and none is given. Perhaps it’s not even that big of a coincidence that when the movie version of Electric Sheep was filmed - as Blade Runner - the cameras rolled on the same set where they shot the Maltese Falcon forty years earlier.
Post-apocalyptic San Francisco
The plot of Electric Sheep is complex but basically we follow the story of detective Rick Deckard in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco as he tracks down runaway androids (who as slaves are forbidden to come back to Earth from the off world colonies), deals with his Virtual Reality-addicted wife, and keeps up the pretence that his electric sheep is in fact real. The latter storyline is the most interesting thematic element of the novel.
After World War Terminus, real animals are rare and caring for and protecting any kind of a real creature gives one incredible status. For someone with low self esteem in a job he hates, Deckard hopes to fool everyone, including ultimately himself, about the sheep; perhaps if he pretends hard enough that his sheep is real and that he is a decent man these things might actually come true. The eco disaster theme was largely dropped from Blade Runner but was developed again in Blade Runner 2049.
Deckard meets up with the beautiful and deceitful Rachael, who turns out to be an android, and later in one fantastic scene he is taken to a police station where he either has a mental breakdown or else he sees the world for what it really is: everyone in this precinct appears to be an android - it’s the humans that are unusual and in this place it’s Deckard himself who is the fake like his sheep. Shaking off this strange vision he pursues the final runaways, becoming more disillusioned than ever as he realizes that cracking this case will bring not happiness but only further existential crises. Where is he going? What is he doing with his life? What are any of us doing with any of our lives? Like Sam Spade at the end of The Maltese Falcon Deckard has no solutions. He wonders what all of it means and comes up with nothing.
I’d rather be a living dog, than a dead science fiction writer,” he once said
Philip K Dick doesn’t give us any answers either except for the vague but possibly deep idea that the meaning of life is to be found in the search for the meaning of life. The best we can do is to strive for the truth, although we are constantly reminded to be wary, for falsity is everywhere: the Maltese Falcon is a fake, the electric sheep is a fake and Deckard himself is the biggest fake of all. This is an idea that Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 flirt with throughout both films.
Like his near contemporary Philip Larkin, Dick increasingly became obsessed by and wrote about death. Dick wondered what being alive really felt like and whether death would kill that state of consciousness; sometimes he believed that death was merely a transition between states and other times that it was the final destination. Perhaps he hoped it was the former but knew it was the latter. “I’d rather be a living dog, than a dead science fiction writer,” he once said. Electric Sheep explores various aspects of dying and consciousness and asks if it is possible to be a good person whose job it is to track down and kill sentient creatures who just want to be left alone.
Dick’s death obsession began early. Born in Chicago in 1928, his twin sister Jane Charlotte Dick died when he was only a few weeks old. All his life Dick felt Jane’s absence and her loss is frequently referenced in his fiction. Jane was buried in a lonely grave in the bleak Colorado plains town of Fort Morgan with, morbidly, a space left on the headstone for baby Phil. The grave awaited Dick for five decades and when he died in 1982 sure enough the twins were reunited in death. In middle age, after years of amphetamine abuse, Dick even flirted with the idea that in a parallel universe he was the one that had died and Jane had survived - he was already buried in the grim Fort Morgan cemetery, next to Interstate 76, and Jane was the science fiction writer living in California. (This idea was further developed in the playful novel Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff.)
In our universe, after Jane’s death, Dick and his family migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area. He went to the same high school as Ursula Le Guin and after a brief period at UC Berkeley he dropped out and quickly began selling science fiction stories to magazines and newspapers. Dick’s adult life was fragmented to say the least. He moved often, was married five times and even though he wrote constantly he was not good at keeping money. His default paranoia was exacerbated by his experiments with drugs, his dealings with local street thugs, and his anti-government activities during the Nixon era.
Under the influence of speed
Many of Philip K Dick’s stories were written hastily under the influence of speed and are of dubious quality, but the books that he took trouble over - Electric Sheep, The Man In The High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, Flow My Tears The Policeman Said - are all well-crafted novels often with a cop protagonist.
Dick’s final years were spent in an increasingly eccentric investigation of the true nature of God and the cosmos. In a March 2nd 1980 diary entry, Dick predicted that because he was close to uncovering the secrets of the universe, God would pull the plug on this version of Philip K Dick; two years later, on March 02 1982, the plug was literally pulled on a brain-dead Dick as he lay in a hospital after a stroke.
No one would argue that Dick was a great stylist or an inventor of an American idiom, like, say, Hammett, but he was the purveyor of brilliant concepts and visions that were uncannily ahead of their time. Philip K Dick’s paranoid world view distrustful of government, computers, purveyors of information and even our own inner view of reality seems radically in step with our contemporary world. Lovers of big concept science fiction will enjoy Dick’s better novels and will judge him not by his prose but by his gift for originality and his ability to convey extraordinarily prescient ideas in even more extraordinary worlds.
Adrian McKinty is an Edgar Award winning crime writer from Carrickfergus, Co Antrim