Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep…or of a Blade Runner?

Upon receiving the syllabus for a course, I quickly scanned the book list and noticed one particular book: Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I was instantly intrigued by this title. Aren’t androids robots? And if they are robots, how would they dream, and why of electric sheep?

Cover art by Bruce Jensen
Cover art by Bruce Jensen

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was first published in 1968. Set in the year 2021, the novel chronicles the journey of Rick Deckard, an android bounty hunter. A majority of Earth’s population has immigrated to Mars in the aftermath of World War Terminus. Those who stayed behind on Earth were struck with illnesses due to the devastating pollution and radioactive environment. Animals have become extremely rare, and since most people can’t afford real animals because of their rarity, they buy electric ones instead.

After the war, androids were placed on Mars. The Nexus-6 androids are the newest and smartest androids. However, like the androids created before them, the Nexus-6 androids have one fatal flaw: they are unable to feel or experience empathy. Rick Deckard is assigned the job of capturing and retiring— that is, killing—six Nexus-6 androids that escaped Mars and returned to Earth.

During his hunt, Deckard develops a relationship with Rachael, one of the Nexus-6 androids. Their relationship challenges his views on the world, for Deckard is unable to understand how he can be attracted to someone that isn’t capable of true human emotions. Deckard begins to feel guilty for retiring the other Nexus-6 androids, but he eventually realizes that nothing can come out of his relationship with Rachael. However, rather than retire her, he opts to spare her life and tells her to return to where she belongs instead.

I enjoyed reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because of its deeper implications and the philosophical aspect that ran through it. Rick Deckard is a deeply conflicted character who questions his beliefs on everything. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? left me with more questions than answers, and perhaps that is Philip K. Dick’s intended purpose, for there are no concrete answers in life, and nothing is completely certain.

Poster art by John Alvin
Poster art by John Alvin

Blade Runner, the film adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? differs greatly from its novel counterpart. Blade Runner was directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1982. It stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard and Sean Young as Rachael.

The main difference between Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner is that there isn’t really any emphasis on animals in the film. Blade Runner is the kind of film that has inside information that only those who have previously read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? would be able to understand. In his first meeting with Rachael, Deckard is endlessly fascinated by the owl that she owns. This slight reference to the importance and rarity of animals is never mentioned again. It made me think that other film watchers would wonder why it would even be important to mention the owl in the scene.

Deckard and Rachael’s relationship is also immensely different in Blade Runner. Rachael has been implanted with memories of a real person, in order to give her emotionality. When Deckard reveals to her that none of her memories are actually hers, she bursts into tears and leaves his apartment. I found this to be particularly striking because I didn’t consider the fact that androids could cry. Maybe they aren’t supposed to, just as robots aren’t capable of doing so. Deckard is also more forceful towards Rachael. There is one scene where she tries to leave after resisting his advances, and he physically restrains her and makes her kiss him. This was slightly disturbing to watch and not in any way romantic.

In Blade Runner, Deckard doesn’t have any issue retiring the androids. I tended to view the androids as just robots, but when they were retired, they actually bled. That was surprising, and I wonder if that directorial decision was to add emotional depth to the scene. I thought that because of their human-like appearance, Deckard would be more sympathetic—but he isn’t.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner have their pros and cons, but both work well. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? focuses more on the ethical implications of what it means to be human, whatever being human means. Blade Runner focuses more on the complicated relationship between Deckard and Rachael because she was a Nexus-6 android. I enjoyed both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner.

By the way, there is going to be a sequel to Blade Runner. I wonder what an old Rick Deckard will be up to. I can’t wait to find out!

-contributed by Liana Ramos

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