Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Materiality and Realism in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick constructs a vivid and convincing reality in his post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, yet he inexplicably lacks an awareness of materiality and realism in crucial areas. These missteps compromise the novel’s verisimilitude and complicate its themes of humanity, empathy, and technology. As engaging as the novel’s plot, characters, and ideas might be, the reader still must overcome significant hurdles to suspending his or her disbelief.

Wilbur Mercer's March to Death
Image posted on The Holistic Genome by Jonathan Holt
Living animals are sacred in Mercerism as well as societal status symbols (13-4), yet Deckard and his neighbors keep their animals on the roof where they are exposed to radioactive dust (8). Why wouldn’t they be safeguarded from the radiation? Even if the radiation wouldn’t quickly kill them, it would certainly affect their long-term health as well as their offspring.

Dick is also vague on the androids’ materiality, leaving the reader with many questions. If Polokov’s “brain box burst” and “blew into pieces” in Deckard’s hovercar (93), then why is a bone-marrow test necessary? Why doesn’t Deckard insist that Officer Crams verify his claims by examining Polokov’s android remains (110)? Given Deckard’s suspicion of Crams, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t force the issue.
Later, Pris Stratton says that Isidore’s groceries are “wasted” on her, but she tries a peach anyway (147-9). Is she programmed to be able to eat but not taste and enjoy food? And if that’s the case, then why does Irmgard Baty seem pleased to have peaches? Aren’t they the same model of Nexus-6 with the same programming? Though a minor detail, it raises perplexing questions about the “rules” of this fictional world and thus its realism.

As self-interested villains go, the androids Polokov, Luba Luft, Officer Crams, and Garland are progressively less believable. Polokov intends to kill Deckard and could have shot him immediately; instead, he has a conversation about his laser tube (92). Luft could have easily shot Deckard to protect herself but instead calls Officer Crams to arrest him (106). Either Crams or Garland could have killed the unarmed Deckard and the initially-unsuspecting Phil Resch. Garland has an entire building of rogue androids at his disposal but doesn’t utilize them (120-2).

One could argue these androids have consciences as well as consciousness. However, they lack empathy by design/nature and have previously demonstrated the inclination to murder for their benefit. I see no reason why they would cringe at killing Deckard. As Roy Baty says of John Isidore, “‘If he was an android,’” then “‘he’d turn us in about ten tomorrow morning” (164). Androids care about themselves but not others, not even other androids. In writing each android’s failure to kill Deckard and thus protect itself, Philip Dick completely ignores the “box” he wrote himself into when he created these characters.

While I am enjoying Androids, I think Dick could have written an even more compelling and intriguing novel if he had fleshed out the materiality of his dystopia and his androids’ actions and bodies. As Katherine Hayles points out, information must “‘always be instantiated in a medium’” and therefore can “never do away with matter or the body” (qtd. in Gane and Beer 113). Even the fictionalized information of a novel finds expression in the reader’s mind as imagery and concepts. Though expressed as thought, these thoughts are based on the experience of concrete realities, e.g. “brain” and “box.”

Considering the themes of Androids, Hayles’ arguments take on extra importance. If the reader is to believe that Nexus-6 androids are nearly identical to humans, then the reader must believe in the realism of the materiality of their information-processing, output (emotions, words, decisions, etc.), and physical structures and functions. The novel's blurred line between humanity and technology becomes more defined as its verisimilitude diminishes. Despite my fascination with the novel's themes, it’s often a challenge to suspend my disbelief and enter the post-WWT world.

Works Cited

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Ray, 1968.

Gane, Nicholas, and David Beer. New Media: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008. Print.


  1. I like how you flesh out a "problem" to connect the text to our theoretical reading. I also love the alt-text for the image (go Mercer, go go). :-)

  2. I was also wondering about the rules of androids. When the peach comment came around it had me wondering if androids had to eat to survive. They are technically machines, but some of them don't even know it. Are they capable of eating but it's not required for their survival? Also, the novel posses an interesting question: what does it mean to be accepted as a human? Besides the technical differences between androids and humans (machine vs. flesh) if the androids acted like humans (and in some cases don't even know that they aren't human) then what's to say they can't live out their lives just like humans?

  3. In general, I found your post refreshing because you pointed out a number of apparent holes in the DADoES story. In particular, I had also wondered about the conditions in which some of the supposedly treasured and rare live animals were kept in DADoES. Not only were animals kept on roofs being fully exposed radioactive fallout, but they were also kept in other unsuitable habitats such as small cages. Yes, humans empathize with other living beings, and perhaps that’s part of what makes it human, but I felt like the humans’ treatment of animals was some kind of dark situational irony that pointed out the limits that humans have when it comes to truly empathizing with and being attuned to the needs of other living species. Therefore, it makes me think if humans have limits to their empathy, then can we really use empathy as a measure of what it means to be human?

    I was excited to see thay you referenced Katherine Hayle in your blog post, as I am currently reading her book How We Became Post-Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999) for the Canonical Books Assignment. If you are interested in reading more about issues related to the “embodiment of information,” I definitely recommend it.

  4. Eric--I love that you point out the contradiction in the way the animals are treated versus they way they are revered. I guess I never even thought about it as I read. It seems though that only livestock would have been treated in this manner though, right? Cats were kept inside it seems, as would the toad be. I wonder if this has something to do with the material conditions that everyone is living in. If I were living in tall apartment building, as everyone seems to be in this novel, I wouldn't have space of my own to keep any livestock. I almost think that the roof protects them from being in the streets and is really the only space they have available to them. However, as we know from the fate of the goat in the end, the roof wasn't exactly a safe space. In the end I think the nugget we have to hang onto is that the humans would at least try to keep animals safe because of their empathy for them. However, the androids, as we see in the spider scene are not processing in the same way. They are deeply analytical but not compassionate. They want to solve puzzles about the way things work, perhaps as a means of understanding their own limitations, but they don't understand the cost of doing so. I think they just don't appreciate animals in the way we do.

    To respond to Laura's great post above, I would say that I'm not ready to discount empathy as a sign of humanity because humans have limits to their empathy. The important part is that they have some beginnings to it.

    Of course--one thing this has me thinking about is how mistreatment of animals is often an early sign of psychopathic behavior. The lack of empathy is seen at an early age and escalates. What's interesting is if you look at Hare's Psychopathy Checklist ( you'll see that many of the characteristics that are attributed to psychopaths describe the Androidds from DADES quite well. Hmmmm.