Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968)

letmetellyou“Let me tell you about my mother.”

I wrote earlier that every culture revolves around a certain central idea, which is best expressed in a single word, thus allowing one to see that culture in sharp focus. I gave several examples, with the notable omission of American culture. Maybe now we can fill in this missing piece. The theme of American culture is destruction.

Please understand me correctly. I am not going to impose upon you with complaints about uncouth Americans or the alleged vulgarity of American culture. On the contrary — Americans created a great culture, which captured the imagination of the entire world for a time. Analogously, it was the sophistication and charm of French culture that made it the standard for every European court in the 18th century (War and Peace opens with spoken French). This kind of influence cannot be achieved only with money or military force. Whatever the future of American culture may be, its past will remain with us forever, especially its 20th-century peak. As for its vulgarity, one can just as easily see that as a sign of greater humanity, an effort to speak to everyone — although, really, that same strain also runs through Rabelais, Cervantes, and Mozart’s operas.

Nor I am going to claim that American culture is somehow uniquely violent among others. Every nation has a rich tradition of violence, it is omnipresent throughout history and therefore always has great cultural significance (tales of glorious battle and sacrifice, odes to the fallen). Japanese culture even made violence into an object of aesthetics. But, even so, that still does not mean that violence is central to Japanese culture. The violent content of American culture may be a consequence of its central idea, but it is not the source of it.

And, certainly, I do not plan to paint Americans as somehow being more predisposed toward destruction than anyone else. On an individual level, Russians are far more willfully destructive than Americans, as evidenced by the fact that they voluntarily participated in national self-immolation twice within a hundred years (although we might see someone else catch up on that score). But that is not the central idea of Russian culture. On the contrary, virtually every work of Russian culture is devoted to the creation of an ideal, a home to yearn for. Nabokov insisted that he was writing about a world that had perished, but in so doing he was forcing it back into reality. Russian culture elevates a savage people; when Sts. Cyril and Methodius first went to preach to the Slavic tribes, their listeners were wild, unruly, irascible, having been settled barely long enough to start building roofs over their heads, but they bowed their heads and wept. In comparison, the typical American may be (or may have been) intrinsically far more moderate, charitable, and tolerant. But we are talking about culture, not individuals.


American culture explained itself, with clarity and eloquence, in Apocalypse Now. In form, this film is cosmopolitan, borrowing heavily from European art-house cinema (the surreal jungle scenes owe a lot to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God) as well as European literary and cultural traditions, down to the use of a British novel as the source material. (But not quite British — Josef Korzeniowski, an outsider looking into British culture, was in the same position as the film-maker.) Even the military focus of the film is more European than American. Although American society glorifies the military, and produced its share of patriotic material over the years, surprisingly little of this had much lasting cultural impact; if anyone still remembers John Wayne, surely it is not for his war films. American culture is much more comfortable with the crime epic: The Godfather is the true American version of the European aristocratic romance (The Three Musketeers or Le Morte d’Arthur). But Apocalypse Now seems to have been intended as a dialogue with European culture. In fact, Coppola filmed a literal dialogue, included in the “Redux” version, with the European side represented by a handful of surviving French colonists.

I have always seen this episode as the symbolic core of the film. There is some visual suggestion that the Frenchmen are not real — their plantation, which remains miraculously intact, materializes out of opaque fog. They preserve their family routine apparently through sheer force of will; their servants still wait on them, wearing spotless livery and serving fine food on ornate tableware. We are seeing the ghosts of a dead civilization — it is easy to imagine that, when the fog clears, a lifeless ruin will be revealed. But, real or not, the Frenchmen are filled with purposeful, articulate rage. They are arguably more bloodthirsty than any American in the film, but they see this land as their home and have resolved to fight for it “until we are all dead.” They hate the Vietnamese, but also have a grudging respect toward them, and see them as subjects rather than objects, able to formulate their own principles and fight for them: “The Vietnamese are very intelligent. You never know what they think. The Russian ones who help them, ‘Come and give us money. We are all Communists. Chinese, give us guns. We are all brothers.’ They hate the Chinese! Maybe they hate the American less than the Russian and the Chinese. I mean, if tomorrow the Vietnamese are Communists they will be Vietnamese Communists.” Ironically, in their view the Vietnamese have much more self-awareness than do Americans: “We want to stay here because it’s ours — it belongs to us. It keeps our family together. I mean, we fought for that. While you Americans…you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.” Martin Sheen’s taciturn Cpt. Willard has no answer to this challenge; perhaps the director thought that Willard’s manly vitality suffices for an answer, but unfortunately that is not something that can last long, in historical terms.

In any case, immediately after the encounter with the Frenchmen, Willard reaches his destination, where Col. Kurtz, a decorated veteran who is the closest thing to a military aristocrat in American society, has stumbled into absolute power. He commands an army of fanatical Vietnamese and Cambodians, but also some Americans, including one former soldier who had previously been sent to assassinate him. All of these people worship him as a living god. There is plenty of activity in his compound, consisting mainly of executions (disfigured bodies are everywhere) and other violent ceremonies, but Kurtz himself appears to take little notice of any of it, and has no greater plan or vision to offer his followers. Willard even points out the apparent aimlessness of Kurtz’s rule, telling him, “I don’t see any method at all, sir.” Kurtz broods in his chamber, in the ruins of an ancient Cambodian temple, muttering to himself about “the horror,” quoting T.S. Eliot, with Frazer’s Golden Bough on his table.

It is well-known that Coppola had great difficulty deciding on an ending for the film. He asked Marlon Brando to improvise on camera, hoping that the mere presence of an American cultural icon would solve his dilemma somehow. This means that Apocalypse Now does not fully understand what it is saying — that is why, for a long time, it seemed maddeningly incomplete, even to the director, who felt compelled to return to it years later. Its brilliant symbols are the product of intuition, not any conscious intellectual program, and because they obviously exceed the director’s own ability as a thinker, they appear to know much more than they say, as if they concealed the answer to some great mystery, even if very little is ever actually said. But now, we don’t need to ask what they mean; these ruins are everywhere, we live among them, and we do not need to go to Vietnam to see them.

apocalypsenow2The American century.

Kurtz’s reign is the final result of 50 years of American global dominance, prophesied when this period was only beginning. For years, Kurtz’s behavior seemed strangely passive, especially to European viewers, but in fact he does not need to do anything — his work is already done, and the “society” he has built in the jungle is his cultural ideal. Apocalypse Now shares some superficial elements with the antiwar popular culture of the sixties and seventies (like the rock-and-roll songs), but it was written by John Milius, director of Red Dawn, known for his consistently militaristic views throughout his entire life. He stayed completely true to himself here; there is no antiwar sentiment to be found anywhere in Apocalypse Now. Yes, it shows that war is hell, but to the true American elite — not the plebeians on the boat, but aristocrats like Willard, Kurtz, and Col. Kilgore — that is precisely what they want, and every one of them dreads the notion of having to go back to life in peacetime. No one seems to have understood the ending that Coppola finally settled on, including the director himself. Willard completes his mission and leaves the jungle, thus resisting the temptation of taking Kurtz’s place, but all this really means is that he is carrying “the horror” back home with him. Sooner or later, the elite will tire of having to go to these distant places to fulfill their dream.

During the Vietnam War, a famous news report by journalist Peter Arnett quoted “a United States major” as having said, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Even if Arnett had maliciously fabricated this quote in order to influence popular opinion, it takes a deep understanding of American culture to invent something so believable. Again, it may very well be that British, French, German, Japanese, and Russian people all have a much greater capacity for brutal violence and murder than Americans — Kurtz even complains that Americans, unlike Vietnamese, lack the stomach for the level of violence that he believes to be necessary. But only an American would ever claim the salvific effect of killing as its justification. For all other cultures, destruction is a tool, more or less unpleasant, for accomplishing some other program. For American culture it is the program. Many people mistook it for imperialism, but we see now that Americans intend to run themselves in the same way.

The word “freedom,” omnipresent in American consciousness, really denotes a kind of nihil. Even the religious tolerance of American society, which undoubtedly once seemed like a reprieve from the strict hierarchies and labyrinthine restrictions of European culture, ultimately turned the United States into a spawning pool for every possible variety of destructive sect, lovingly cultivated and later unleashed upon the rest of the world. As a consequence, American culture, uniquely in all of history, is deeply ambivalent and distrustful toward culture itself. Again, Apocalypse Now is its mirror: Coppola intends to show Kurtz as an intellectual, for whom cruelty is a conscious philosophical choice, but simultaneously turns him into a parody through the addition of Dennis Hopper’s gibbering journalist. Here is a man who has just discovered the concept of philosophy and is in utter shock: “This is dialectics. It’s very simple dialectics. One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions…you can’t travel in space, you can’t go out into space, you know, without, like, you know, with fractions…what are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That’s dialectic physics, OK?” Kurtz himself is not much better, searching for philosophical validation in Frazer’s pop-paganism and Eliot’s affected nihilism; The Waste Land, the high point of a mediocre body of work, achieves its effect by stringing together a fragmented jumble of cultural allusions, creating the impression that all culture is broken beyond intelligibility and thus, implicitly, not worth saving. To Kurtz, culture is just such a pile of shattered alien wreckage; he barely notices the Cambodian ruins that he has turned into execution grounds, just as the real-life Kurtzes never noticed the museum in Baghdad or the ancient Orthodox churches in the Balkans.

The logical conclusion of this attitude is to turn inwardly, on itself. American culture is also unique in how easily it contemplates its own destruction (just as Kurtz sits and waits to be killed), best seen in the apocalyptic fascination of American science fiction. This is again a distinctly American attribute. European science fiction, dating back to Jules Verne, is rooted in 19th-century positivism, with its obtuse optimism and blind faith in the power of reason, and generally focuses on exploration and technological invention. The plot in a story of this type tends to emphasize some sort of original, dazzling intellectual problem for the reader, such as the alien intelligence in Lem’s Solaris. This worldview is also present in a part of American science fiction (most notably Star Trek), but far more predominant is a kind of half-conscious horror of the future, which by now has seeped out of the confines of the science fiction genre, even into what passes for “literary” fiction (the otherwise inexplicable career of Cormac McCarthy). In a certain sense, there is more wisdom in the American view. Americans would never have invented “transhumanism” on their own. They never believed for a moment that the abandonment of humanity would result in some bright future or higher plane of existence, unlike the European occultists whose fantasies were articulated in 2001 and Childhood’s End. Americans know very well that dehumanization leads only to nonbeing. Unfortunately, that is the only future they can envision.

Fr. Seraphim (Rose) wrote in Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future that, “Science fiction in general is usually not very scientific at all, and not really very ‘futuristic’ either; if anything, it is a retreat to the ‘mystical’ origins of modern science — the science before the age of the 17th and 18th-century ‘Enlightenment’ which was much closer to occultism.” This must become your starting point before you can hope to understand anything about the phenomenon. Science fiction is a form of religious writing, and moreover, the specific religious mentality that it embodies is archaic. However far humanity may have come in the “futuristic” worlds of science fiction, reason and progress are confined to certain boundaries, beyond which lies a terrifying and chaotic universe, in which unimaginably powerful elements run free and can be mastered only by magic of comparable power. That much, at least, is shared by both the European and American variants. In European science fiction, “science” is only needed long enough to reach a mystical out-of-body experience, whereupon one “evolves” beyond one’s self, as in the end of 2001. In American science fiction, “science” is only needed long enough to explain why civilization has been destroyed and how the survivors regressed to more primitive forms of social organization. Either way, humanity is robbed of its future.

Page numbers from these two Library of America collections.

The irrational power of science fiction, and the destructive American cultural ideal, found their most complete synthesis in the work and person of Philip K. Dick. Where other writers might be said to be masters of their created worlds, disposing of them in whichever way best served their aesthetic objectives, Dick’s worlds were his tyrannical masters. Like every proper American, he was self-made — he was very widely read, with impressively broad intellectual interests (a deep knowledge of Yeats and Beethoven), but followed no system whatsoever in acquiring this knowledge, had virtually no formal education, and recognized no mentor or authority. The inevitable consequence was that, however much he valued his independence, he was utterly helpless against intellectual and spiritual assault, the kinds of ideas that burn out one’s mind far more effectively than any of the drugs that he abused and wrote about. His volatile, obsessive personality — easily infatuated, emotionally vulnerable, philosophically labile — sealed the deal. He was the ultimate spiritual blank slate. But he was also a brilliant writer, and so, even if he was unable to identify or understand the forces that assailed him all his life, he nonetheless gave form and voice to them. We are just as powerless before them as he was, and so his tragedy becomes ours; in his novels we hear our own weak cries for help.

In Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), an American astronaut, Walt Dangerfield, is launched into space following a grand media spectacle, but later that same afternoon, nuclear war begins. The world ends almost in a single instant; there is no protracted combat, the entire government simply vanishes, and what remains of the military can only ineffectually rain down leaflets from hot-air balloons onto the ruins, exhorting anyone who might still be alive to travel (how?) to some distant base. Dangerfield is stranded in orbit. Several years later, he uses his satellite’s equipment to become a kind of disc jockey, reading radio messages from Earth out loud and playing records on request.

‘Hoode hoode hoo,’ Walt Dangerfield chanted into his microphone, using the transmitter which should have carried his voice back from millions of miles, not merely a couple hundred. ‘Things you can do with the timer out of an old RCA washer-dryer combination. This item arrives from a handy in the Geneva area; thanks to you, Georg Schilper — I know everyone will be pleased to hear you give this timely tip in your own words.’ He played into his transmitter the tape recording of the handyman himself speaking; the entire Great Lakes region of the United States would now know Georg Schilper’s bit of lore, and would no doubt wisely apply it at once.
‘Hoode hoode hoo,’ Dangerfield said to himself… He snapped on his microphone, cutting out the tape-in-progress. ‘Remember those old ads?’ he asked his darkened, unseen audience below. ‘Before the war — let’s see, how did they go? Are you building more H-bombs but enjoying it less?’ He chuckled. ‘Has thermonuclear war got you down? New York, can you pick me up yet? I want every one of you within the reach of my voice, all sixty-five of you, to quick light up a match so I’ll know you’re there.’

Dr. Bloodmoney, Chapter VII (II/317-319)

The dream of space travel, which so fascinated humanity and inspired such optimism at the time the novel was written, has been totally forgotten. The technology that was supposed to fulfill it — the triumph of scientific progress — is now stopped up with the parasitic language of advertisements, talk shows, and self-help booklets, none of which now have any function even hypothetically (“tips” for an audience that does not exist or has no way to receive the transmission). But these same worthless bits of cultural detritus now appear tragic and profound to the survivors. They never had any other kind of culture, and to them these are the last remaining scraps of human warmth:

After all, he had personally radioed a request to Dangerfield just the other day, from the transmitter out in the mudflats in West Richmond. He had asked for ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight,’ an old-fashioned favorite which he remembered from his childhood. It was not known if Dangerfield had that tune on his miles of tapes, however, so perhaps he was waiting in vain.
As he walked along he sang to himself,
Oh I heard the news:
There’s good rockin’ tonight.
Oh I heard the news!
There’s good rockin’ tonight!
Tonight I’ll be a mighty fine man,
I’ll hold my baby as tight as I can
It brought tears to his eyes to remember one of the old songs, from the world the way it was… I mean, that’s practically sacred music. Out of our past, our sacred past… The past belongs only to us genuine human beings.”

Dr. Bloodmoney, Chapter IX (II/343)

With deliberate irony, Dick’s musical selection here is completely incongruous with the tone of the passage. But he is right — as civilization strips itself of humanity, an old pop song, however hackneyed its phrasing and sentiment, can sometimes suddenly give the impression of great wisdom and understanding. The jolt of recognition, when encountering even a semblance of real human feeling, is now strong enough to set off a long chain of memories and associations. The depth of this experience gives a certain comfort. The past still belongs to us, for a while longer.

Dick’s science fiction has turned into realism. In Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), society collapses in a different way, through a “Second Civil War” that turns the United States into a military dictatorship ruled by “pols” (police) and “nats” (National Guard). An odd, darkly funny quirk of this setting is that all universities have been destroyed, and their ruins have become exclusion zones populated only by lawless and violent “students.” That is, the word “student” in this world is used as a synonym for “savage” without any connection to its former meaning. A cowed citizen might cry out in alarm, “I don’t mean to be impolite, but I’m really scared. You hear about hunger-crazed students who somehow get through the barricades around the campuses,” (II/808) or one might refer to “the rabbit warrens of Columbia University, along with all the smelly, bearded students kept subsurface lifelong by the pols and the nats…who ringed every campus[.]” (II/677) To Dick, of course, these “students” are rebels against the government, a logical development of sixties radicalism, though with a strong hint of parody — in the epilogue, he sneers, “in 2004, as a pilot model, Columbia University was rebuilt and a safe, sane student body allowed to attend its police-sanctioned courses” (II/856-857).

But what have we really been shown? After all, Columbia University still exists; only its old function has been abolished. Universities in Flow My Tears have been made into breeding grounds for violent fanatics. (Compounding the irony, this is not so different from early 20th-century Europe.) The government keeps them isolated, ostensibly to protect the rest of the populace, but this also ensures that they remain feral and dangerous. Any ordinary person is completely defenseless against “some unregistered student who has sneaked across from a campus burrow just last night” and who could “chop your hand off at the wrist and run away with it, both your hand and your flashy money,” (II/676) no doubt goaded by social media. I only wish Dick had thought of making the citizens of his dystopia pay “tuition” to keep the “students” at bay — but then, in his day, Berkeley was free, so it might have seemed too far-fetched.

Dick may not have intended his work to suggest these layers of meaning, but it is his genius as a writer that it does. This quality is so valuable that one can easily overlook all of his literary flaws — a hyperactive excess of unnecessary detail, agglomerated in one scene and totally forgotten in the next; incoherent and illogical plotting; too much time spent on uninteresting “mystical” contrivances, to the detriment of much more substantial aspects of the plot. All of these defects are certainly present in Flow My Tears. In the first chapter, the protagonist is attacked by a venomous alien monster, “The gelatinlike Callisto cuddle sponge with its fifty feeding tubes,” (II/680) and barely survives, but not only is the creature never mentioned again, there are virtually no other references to any form of space travel or alien life. Immediately thereafter, a completely different type of conflict begins, where the protagonist, a wealthy entertainer, suddenly wakes up in a parallel universe in which he never existed. Dick’s development of this theme is among his best literary accomplishments — dark, understated prose crawling with the protagonist’s confusion and fear, which gradually change into a deep sense of loss partially offset by unexpected second chances. But, as the book goes on, the author feels obliged to present an explanation of how all this happened, and he paints himself into a corner with a long and complicated account of reality-altering drugs that had been ingested by a minor character and somehow made the whole thing happen by coincidence. The ending is a failure.

But it is wrong to expect perfection from Dick. In the mercenary science fiction market, one had to be prolific to stay afloat. And Dick’s approach to writing was just as impulsive and messy (sleepless nights and amphetamine binges) as everything else about him. But, even in failure, his writing (in Flow My Tears as well) can still be agitating and unnerving. At its best, it has an austere clarity, and Dick’s visions of the future (which, in his books, is always the near future) take on conviction and authority. This is best seen in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the peak of his work.

Do Androids Dream is also Dick’s best-known novel, due to the success of the film adaptation. But it is widely understood that Blade Runner has little in common with the source material. Actually, the film follows the plot reasonably closely, and most of the liberties it takes are inevitable — again, Dick’s writing is crammed with detail, much of it spurious, and there is simply no way to include all of it in two hours. Blade Runner diverges from the novel not simply by omitting Dick’s invented religion, or the subplot with brain-damaged radiation victim John Isidore, but much more fundamentally.


Blade Runner depicts the world as an overpopulated slum, a common science fiction setting which has a surprising mass appeal. Life in such a world is grimy and dangerous, but comprehensible — there is always something to do for people of all backgrounds and abilities. There is nothing “futuristic” about it at all; rather, it is a simple redressing of pre-modern life, with merchants, warriors, craftsmen, intellectuals, aristocrats and other niches, and the entire audience can easily believe that they would find a place for themselves and even succeed in such a world. For that reason, this kind of dystopia is a good setting for video games, where one can choose one of these roles.

On the other hand, the world in Do Androids Dream is empty:

‘I was sitting here one afternoon,’ Iran said, ‘and naturally I had turned on Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends and he was talking about a big news item he’s about to break and then that awful commercial came on, the one I hate… And so for a minute I shut off the sound. And I heard the building, this building; I heard the–‘ She gestured.
‘Empty apartments,’ Rick said. Sometimes he heard them at night when he was supposed to be asleep. And yet, for this day and age a one-half occupied conapt [A common Dick neologism meaning “apartment.” -FL] building rated high in the scheme of population density; out in what had been before the war the suburbs one could find buildings entirely empty…or so he had heard. He had let the information remain secondhand; like most people he did not care to experience it directly.”

(Dick, I/436)

This time, the cause of civilizational collapse is again nuclear war. But, unlike in Dr. Bloodmoney, the technological level of society has not regressed much. One cannot stay outside too long because of the radiation, and nature has been damaged beyond repair, but otherwise one can have a reasonable middle-class standard of living, at least for a while. There is entertainment on TV, and productivity-improving technology like the “Penfield mood organ,” which can induce any emotional state one desires. Operas play at the theater, customers visit repair shops, salesmen sell products, the police function efficiently. The world has even settled into a state of peace. The Soviet Union exists, but there no longer seems to be any antagonism between the nations — in fact, Soviet and American police even cooperate to catch escaped androids. It is just that there are very few people left to do all of these things. Do Androids Dream is not about a hardscrabble life full of struggle in post-apocalyptic ruins; that is a completely different genre. It is about completely normal, ordinary life, but in a depopulated world where such a life no longer serves any purpose. The survivors are left alone because there are so few of them that it doesn’t matter.


The greatest technological advance of this society is “the humanoid robot — strictly speaking, the organic android… Under U.N. law each emigrant [To the colonies on Mars. -FL] automatically received possession of an android subtype of his choice, and, by 1990, the variety of subtypes passed all understanding, in the manner of American automobiles of the 1960s.” (I/444-445) Androids are used as slaves, and so many of them escape from Mars to Earth that an entirely separate profession, the “bounty hunter,” is required to apprehend and kill them. Androids are very similar to humans, even being constituted of very similar organic matter, but can be identified using various physical and psychological tests. Recently, however, the multinational corporation that produces androids has developed a new and exceptionally lifelike model with superior intelligence: “androids equipped with the new Nexus-6 brain unit had…evolved beyond a major — but inferior — segment of mankind. For better or for worse. The servant had in some cases become more adroit than its master.” (I/455) As everyone who has seen Blade Runner knows, the plot is primarily driven by bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s mission to kill several newly escaped androids of this type. Early on, Deckard visits the “Rosen Association” and demonstrates that the Nexus-6 can be detected using one of the standard tests. This leads to the following exchange, much later:

She opened her eyes and glared at him ferociously. ‘Do you know,’ she said, ‘why I really came here? Why Eldon and the other Rosens — the human ones — wanted me to go along with you?’
‘To observe,’ he said. ‘To detail exactly what the Nexus-6 does that gives it away on the Voigt-Kampff test.’
‘On the test or otherwise. Everything that gives it a different quality. And then I report back and the organization makes modifications of its zygote-bath DNS factors. And we then have the Nexus-7. And when that gets caught we modify again and eventually the association has a type that can’t be distinguished.’

(Dick, I/568-569)

Dick offers no explanation, but from a purely corporate point of view, there would seem to be no reason for this fixation on producing a perfectly lifelike android. First, not that this is a big deterrent, but it is illegal; we are explicitly told that “if [the test] doesn’t work we’ll have to withdraw all Nexus-6 types from the market.” (I/465) Second, if androids are to be used as slave labor on Mars, it does not make sense to give them advanced intelligence to begin with; one could make perfectly satisfactory android laborers, butlers and concubines without going to all this trouble. The corporation has willingly imperiled its own profit, seemingly for no reason, which can only mean that profit is not its true objective. Evidently, the purpose of the androids is not to assist humans, but to replace them. The remnants of humanity on Earth are tolerated because they are still useful for refining the process. Bounty hunters are inadvertently helping the Rosen Association to perfect the design, and (since androids have no qualms about killing humans) will naturally disappear along with the other survivors as soon as that task is complete. By the way, I don’t think Dick intended to go this far, but there is no evidence that the Martian colonies exist at all — they are only shown in TV reports, and at least one popular TV personality is revealed to be an android.

In that case, it is especially important to understand who the androids really are. Here we find the most fundamental difference between Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream. The heart of the film, which every viewer remembers, is android leader Roy Baty’s dying monologue (largely improvised by Rutger Hauer, as if to emphasize the film’s departure from the novel), which turns his demise into high tragedy. Baty is no mere escaped slave now, but an elite warrior, a noble Germanic hero straight out of Völsunga saga, mourning, “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” Commoners like us cannot hope to understand this refined sorrow; all we know is that we are watching the death of a superior being, whose life meant something, unlike ours.


A popular topic of discussion regarding the film is whether Harrison Ford’s Deckard might be an android himself. This reading is a consequence of the film’s sympathetic portrayal of the androids. Making Deckard an android, within the logic of Blade Runner, is like conferring knighthood upon him. Indeed, he shares many of Baty’s qualities — both are strong and stoic, ready to kill and die if necessary. Although it is Deckard’s job to hunt down androids, he behaves like a man who is more motivated by duty than money.

Well, one could certainly tell that story too, but it has nothing to do with Dick’s novel. In Do Androids Dream, the Voigt-Kampff test, which bounty hunters use to detect androids, works by measuring minute physiological reactions to descriptions of uncomfortable situations. Many of these involve the killing of animals, which is even more emotionally distressing in the book’s world than in ours; most animals have gone extinct in the radioactive aftermath of the war, and subsequently have become objects of near-religious reverence among humans. Androids can simulate human reactions, but only as a conscious act and not a reflex, which brings about a slight delay that gives them away:

‘In a magazine you come across a full page color picture of a nude girl.’ [Deckard] paused.
‘Is this testing whether I’m an android,’ Rachael asked tartly, ‘or whether I’m homosexual?’ The gauges did not register.
He continued. ‘Your husband likes the picture.’ Still the gauges failed to indicate a reaction. ‘The girl,’ he added, ‘is lying face down on a large and beautiful bearskin rug.’ The gauges remained inert, and he said to himself, An android response. Failing to detect the major element, the dead animal pelt. Her — its — mind is concentrating on other factors. ‘Your husband hangs the picture up on the wall of his study,’ he finished, and this time the needle moved.
‘I certainly wouldn’t let him,’ Rachael said.
‘Okay,’ he said, nodding. ‘Now consider this. You’re reading a novel written in the old days before the war. The characters are visiting Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. They become hungry and enter a seafood restaurant. One of them orders lobster, and the chef drops the lobster into the tub of boiling water while the characters watch.’
‘Oh god,’ Rachael said. ‘That’s awful! Did they really do that? It’s depraved! You mean a live lobster?’ The gauges, however, did not respond. Formally, a correct response. But simulated.”

(Dick, I/468-469)

‘My briefcase,’ Rick said as he rummaged for the Voigt-Kampff forms. ‘Nice, isn’t it? Department issue.’
‘Well, well,’ Rachael said remotely.
‘Babyhide,’ Rick said. He stroked the black leather surface of the briefcase. ‘One hundred percent genuine human babyhide.’ He saw the two dial indicators gyrate frantically. But only after a pause. The reaction had come, but too late. He knew the reaction period down to a fraction of a second, the correct reaction period; there should have been none. ‘Thanks, Miss Rosen,’ he said, and gathered together the equipment again; he had concluded his retesting. ‘That’s all.’

(Dick, I/475-476)

The android capacity for mimicry, and the absolute emptiness beneath it, are starkly demonstrated much later. Having lost most of their group, Roy Baty’s remaining followers gather in a decrepit apartment building whose sole remaining human inhabitant is John Isidore, a “chickenhead” (pejorative indicating brain damage caused by radiation) and therefore an outcast from what remains of society. Baty is a crude and brutal man, rather less aristocratic than Rutger Hauer’s version. On the other hand, his android wife Irmgard (excised altogether in the film) is well-mannered and could easily fit in at a lawn party in an upscale neighborhood. Unlike the other androids, she acts welcoming toward Isidore from the moment she meets him — “Her smile, different from Pris’s, provided simple warmth; it had no veiled overtones.” (I/544) She even rebukes the other android woman in the group for mistreating Isidore:

‘The chickenhead,’ Pris said, ‘likes me.’
‘Don’t call him that, Pris,’ Irmgard said; she gave Isidore a look of compassion. ‘Think what he could call you.’
[Pris] shrugged, then nodded to Isidore. ‘Okay, J.R. I’ll move in with you and you can protect me.’
‘A-a-all of you,’ Isidore said immediately.
Solemnly, in a formal little voice, Irmgard Baty said to him, ‘I want you to know we appreciate it very much, Mr. Isidore. You’re the first friend I think any of us have found here on Earth. It’s very nice of you and maybe sometime we can repay you.’ She glided over to pat him on the arm.”

(Dick, I/547-548)

Just a short time later, Isidore finds a live spider in the debris of his apartment. Even such a creature is rare enough to be worth serious money, but Isidore is a particularly devout believer in the principle that “Even animals — even eels and gophers and snakes and spiders — are sacred.” (I/549) He is awed by the spider, and feels bound to cherish and protect it at all costs. The following then happens:

‘I’ve never seen a spider,’ Pris said. She cupped the medicine bottle in her palms, surveying the creature within. ‘All those legs. Why’s it need so many legs, J.R.?’
‘That’s the way spiders are,’ Isidore said, his heart pounding; he had difficulty breathing. ‘Eight legs.’
Rising to her feet, Pris said, ‘You know what I think, J.R.? I think it doesn’t need so many legs.’
‘Eight?’ Irmgard Baty said. ‘Why couldn’t it get by on four? Cut four off and see.’ Impulsively opening her purse, she produced a pair of clean, sharp cuticle scissors, which she passed to Pris.
‘Please,’ Isidore said.
Pris glanced up inquiringly. ‘Is it worth something?’
‘Don’t mutilate it,’ he said wheezingly. Imploringly.
With the scissors Pris snipped off one of the spider’s legs.”

(Dick, I/580-581)

Even in our world, this sadistic curiosity, in grown adults, would be unnerving. In the world of Do Androids Dream, it is a horrifying moral offense. Perhaps androids have good reason to hate humans, but this shows that they really hate all living things. To some extent, they are killing the spider as a way of hurting Isidore, but they truly do not understand why it disturbs him. “[Irmgard] peered up expectantly at Isidore. ‘What’s the matter?’ Touching his arm she said, ‘You didn’t lose anything; we’ll pay you what that — what’s it called? — that Sidney’s catalogue says. Don’t look so grim… Hey, answer.’ She prodded him anxiously.” (I/584)

At the same time, on some level the androids do understand what they are. This also emerges from the same remarkable scenes in Isidore’s apartment. Dick’s writing was uneven in general, but here his prose is simple and spare, and his dialogue is full of deep, layered irony. He, himself, was both Isidore and the androids at the same time — eager for contact, but fearful of his own inability to read others; highly intelligent, but simultaneously emotionally stunted and self-absorbed.

‘You’re intellectual,’ Isidore said; he felt excited again at having understood. Excitement and pride. ‘You think abstractly, and you don’t–‘ He gesticulated, his words tangling up with one another. As usual. ‘I wish I had an IQ like you have; then I could pass the test, I wouldn’t be a chickenhead. I think you’re very superior; I could learn a lot from you.’
After an interval Roy Baty said, ‘I’ll finish wiring up the alarm.’ He resumed work.
‘He doesn’t understand yet,’ Pris said in a sharp, brittle, stentorian voice, ‘how we got off Mars. What we did there.’
‘What we couldn’t help doing,’ Roy Baty grunted.
At the open door to the hall Irmgard Baty had been standing; they noticed her as she spoke up. ‘I don’t think we have to worry about Mr. Isidore,’ she said earnestly; she walked swiftly toward him, looked up into his face. ‘They don’t treat him very well either, as he said. And what we did on Mars he isn’t interested in; he knows us and he likes us and an emotional acceptance like that — it’s everything to him. It’s hard for us to grasp that, but it’s true.’ To Isidore she said, standing very close to him once again and peering up at him, ‘You could get a lot of money by turning us in; do you realize that?’ Twisting, she said to her husband, ‘See, he realizes that but still he wouldn’t say anything.’
‘You’re a great man, Isidore,’ Pris said. ‘You’re a credit to your race.’
‘If he was an android,’ Roy said heartily, ‘he’d turn us in about ten tomorrow morning. He’d take off for his job and that would be it. I’m overwhelmed with admiration.’ His tone could not be deciphered; at least Isidore could not crack it. ‘And we imagined this would be a friendless world, a planet of hostile faces, all turned against us.’ He barked out a laugh.”

(Dick, I/550-551)

thedamned“The damned,” Liza Lou, 2004.
The sculptor meant to express defiance of religion,
but, as often happens, said something quite different.

If you have ever wondered what Christianity means by hell, and what it is like to be there, now you know. Being damned is like being an android in Do Androids Dream, with Roy Baty’s bitter self-awareness and self-hatred. Androids imitate human friendships and families, but they cannot even empathize with each other, to say nothing about any other form of life. They are brought together only by their shared fear of death and rage against humanity, and even these bonds are short-lived — they have great difficulty agreeing on a course of action (which allows humans to pick them off one by one), and are utterly unable to stand firm in the face of danger, especially in unfavorable situations. Rachael Rosen offers to help Deckard against Baty’s group, and Baty himself flees into the back room when Deckard arrives, leaving Irmgard to die. In fact, deep down they do not believe that their own lives are worth preserving; Rachael unexpectedly begs Deckard to kill her, even telling him the most efficient way to do it. On some level, androids feel that they should not exist, that their existence is inherently wrong, a cruel mistake. Androids hate humans, not for having oppressed them, but for having created them, exactly like the damned in hell hate God.

And, also in the same way, their damnation becomes a twisted point of pride. Deckard refuses to kill Rachael, and she reacts with venomous contempt: “Assurance returned to her; the litany of her voice picked up pace. ‘You’ve gone the way of the others. The bounty hunters before you. Each time they get furious and talk wildly about killing me, but when the time comes they can’t do it. Just like you, just now.'” (I/577-578) When he finally returns home, he finds that Rachael had already stopped by for the sole purpose of killing his animal before his wife’s eyes: “I saw her very clearly…we called the police, but by then the animal was dead and she had left. A small young-looking girl…she made no effort to keep us from seeing her. As if she didn’t care.” (I/596) Just as with Isidore’s spider, the only way in which androids are able to communicate with the world is by destroying life — human or not, it makes no difference.

Blade Runner did not entirely fabricate the theme of confused identity; Do Androids Dream also considers borderline states in which a human might be mistaken for an android or vice versa. At one point, Deckard meets a fellow bounty hunter, Phil Resch, who is uncertain of his own humanity. Deckard also suspects that Resch might be an android, precisely because of his apparent lack of empathy: Resch appears to derive far more than professional satisfaction from killing his targets. In Deckard this elicits immediate and strong moral revulsion: “The way you killed Garland and then the way you killed Luba. You don’t kill the way I do…I know what it is. You like to kill. All you need is a pretext. If you had a pretext you’d kill me.” (I/533) Resch defends himself, but agrees to undergo the Voigt-Kampff test; he hates androids so much that he is willing to die if he turns out to be one.

But Resch passes the test. His psychopathic accentuations notwithstanding, he still has greater capacity for empathy than any android. And, of course, the entire scene implicitly proves, beyond all doubt, that Deckard is human. The contrast between his own growing compassion toward androids and Resch’s cold cruelty is only a reflection of the much greater gulf that separates him from Roy Baty’s group. In this way, Deckard is able to retain his humanity despite the callous brutality inherent in his job. Confronting Luba Luft, an android who had tried to kill him just a short while ago, he feels compelled to comfort her somehow, and oddly she even seems to understand and appreciate his futile, but sincere gesture:

At the end of the corridor near the elevators, a little storelike affair had been set up; it sold prints and art books, and Luba halted there, tarrying. ‘Listen,’ she said to Rick. Some of the color had returned to her face; once more she looked — at least briefly — alive. ‘Buy me a reproduction of that picture I was looking at when you found me. The one of the girl sitting on the bed.’
After a pause Rick said to the clerk, a heavy-jowled, middle-aged woman with netted gray hair, ‘Do you have a print of Munch’s Puberty?’
‘Only in this book of his collected work,’ the clerk said, lifting down a handsome glossy volume. ‘Twenty-five dollars.’
‘I’ll take it.’ He reached for his wallet.
Phil Resch said, ‘My departmental budget could never in a million years be stretched–‘
‘My own money,’ Rick said…to [Luba] and Phil Resch.
‘It’s very nice of you,’ Luba said as they entered the elevator. ‘There’s something very strange and touching about humans. An android would never have done that.’

(Dick, I/529-530)


Do Androids Dream shows the ultimate end of the quest to perfect humanity through scientific and social engineering. At long last, the grand vision of the new age is on the verge of total victory. Humans are finally on their way out, with their distasteful retrograde biology, their energy inefficiency, their obsolete social structures, their overall uselessness. The long-anticipated superior beings are already here, pending a few final improvements…only these superhuman masters of the universe are wretched, miserable homunculi, crude parodies of people. They hate themselves and each other, they hate life itself, yet they cower in fear of a single man, “a medium man, not impressive…like a clerk in a bureaucratic office.” (I/590) And there is nothing for the androids to do with their arbitrary existence — they inherit a dead and empty world, blanketed in radioactive dust. Virtually every aspect of “progress” is reflected in Do Androids Dream as a cruel and senseless waste, a parody of itself. Instead of building advanced societies, androids are capable only of hollow imitations of human behaviour. The extinction of animals preemptively refutes any claim to “perpetual balance with nature.” Even the dream of immortality through technology is turned inside out: the lifespan of a “superior” android, we learn, is four years.

Dick’s critique is impossible to answer, because Do Androids Dream is written in human language, not the stunted android language of “progress.” Even in violent conflict, the last humans still cannot help seeing and eagerly reacting to traces of humanity in their adversaries. Like Deckard, the author feels compassion for these unhappy creatures, and does not hold their inability to respond in kind against them. But that also has another side — it is easy for Dick to understand the androids because he has already accepted the world of Do Androids Dream. He is not trying to “warn” us about our future, or shock or frighten us; he is ready for it. In a certain sense, the android view of the future shares something with his own. After all, there is nothing left for humans at the end of Do Androids Dream, either. Deckard completes his mission, burned out and exhausted; all he can do is go to sleep. The unspoken question is, why wake up again? As Isidore explains, “Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.” (I/480) Then what’s the point? In the background, American culture also asks: why keep trying to maintain a complex society, with culture, education, science and infrastructure? Doesn’t it make more sense to just let it all go?

To be continued.

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