Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968): Dick’s Environmental Vision

I suppose I am one of those people who thinks that what is best about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is missing from the subsequent film Blade Runner.  The film does take one one of Dick’s themes from the novel, the nature of artificial intelligence, but does so in an inverted way.  While in the novel, the androids are schizoids, the film plays with the idea of their humanity.  It strikes me that perhaps the film should have been based on We Can Build You, which does experiment with the idea that androids could be more capable of empathy and human feeling than some human characters.  Interestingly, the film holds true to the failure of androids to pass the “empathy test” but still wants us to sympathize with them.  But for the most part, I am not interested in fooling around with this conflict.  Enough has been blogged and written about this theme in both the book and the film.  I will focus on a few other themes, most importantly the environmental problematic as defined by Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  It proves to be the most clear description of his environmental pessimism, a question that is often there in other works but easy to miss as it is not emphasized.

androids1 androids2

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the earth is depopulated due to World War Terminus and the ecological catastrophe is left behind.  The vast majority of humans have emigrated to outer colonies.  Most of Earth’s animal life has been destroyed and that which remains has been denaturalized and transformed into commodities.  Late capitalism is doing this aggressively now, without a war.  The totality of the devastation is apparent from the depopulation.  That animal populations have not benefited from the near extinction of humanity on Earth suggests that humans created permanent, unrepairable damage.  We do not need a war to envision a future death of the natural world.  In the novel, a catalog lists the prices of animals (including many prices for animals that are not in stock due to low populations).    What at first might seem to be a simple function of the supply and demand curve, is the logical consequence of capitalist expansion and a foreshadowing of things we see now.  Despite the total death of nature, people sustain a very intimate and emotional relationship with animals.  Animals are not merely a status symbol due to their high cost.  People long to have animals in their life, and no matter what their social status, some animal life is in reach.  For the rich, ostriches, owls, and horses.  For the poor, crickets, frogs, and cats.  Our hero, Rick Deckard wants a real, live sheep to replace his electric one.  A sheep seems to be a good investment for a middle class family.

Sentiment does cross over to status climbing, but the sentimental attachment to animals is richly expressed throughout this very emotional novel.  Deckard and his wife wake up in the first chapter in total misery.  To get through the day, most people use a mood organ, which injects chemical cocktails to create in people an artificial mood.  Often, it is necessary to get through the day in a bleak, artificial and devastated city.  The lack of nature is certainly a part of people’s perpetual moodiness.  Deckard desires a real animal to replace his electric one, not merely because he worries about how the neighbors look at him.  He misses animals.   When he purchased a goat, his android lover later kills the goat, devastating Deckard.  He is later crushed when he finds a frog in the mud and learns it is electric.  The “empathy test”, used to determine if the test-taker is an android or not relies mostly on questions about human abuse of animals.  The very idea of leather shoes or eating meat – even crustaceans – is supposed to bring to people an empathetic response, something androids are incapable of.  By this logic the rampant misuse or animals as food, clothing, entertainment, and science experiments transforms us into psychopathic monsters.

“Kipple” is the name J. R. Isidore gives the the expanding realm of death that surrounds humans.  More than simple garbage, “kipple” is the the expansive equivalent of nature.  While nature will tend to expand organically into new areas, “kipple” expansion is seemingly organic and uncontrollable able well.  Its essential difference is that it is dead things, dead labor, dead capital, wasted goods.  Even the remaining people on Earth have been “kipplized,” lacking a natural context for their life, living artificial emotions, unable to reproduce themselves due to extensive nuclear fallout.  “No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”  Isidore, in this quote, sees kipple as a form of entropy, when in fact it is a an expanding realm of the dead that inexorably includes the remaining humans.



In the realm of the religious, the divide between empathy and nature contrasts with the logical consequences of consumerism.  If there is any optimism in this book, it is in the fact that the dominant religious remains quite human and the stale, consumerist fails to take off.  The major religion is Mercerism.  It is first explored in the short story, “The Little Black Box.”  In this religion, people experienced the suffering of Wilber Mercer as he climbs a hill in a natural setting (I think it was a mountain).  Everyone holding onto the handle bars of a black empathy box will feel the suffering of Mercer.  Mercer shares with the rest of humanity a deep appreciation for the natural world and a longing for connection to animals.  It is a shared experience, representing a declining space for real humanity.  In contrast, the second shared experience “Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friend” is the kipple of television.  The show argues against Mercerism and encourages the incorporation of androids into human life.  For if humans are mere consumers, why not include the androids who can perform that function just as well.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a devastating and powerfully emotional novel.  This may account for its popularity as much as the success of the film Blade Runner.  It is certainly touching on the environmental consequences of mass consumer culture and late capitalism’s war on nature.  Dick is reminding us that we will not likely miss nature until we have finished destroying it.  Nature will be dead and gone but it will be us who suffer its absence.

13 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968): Dick’s Environmental Vision

  1. Pingback: Philip K. Dick, “Introduction” | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. Love PKD! So speaking as a lover of PKD and me being a voluntarist I’m adding your blog to read right now.

    I’m not going to read your entire blog (not right now any way), so I’ll say if you haven’t read them yet, you really need to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein) and The Unincorporated Man (Dani Kollin, Eytan Kollin)

    • Thanks Kendra. As you can see, this is part of an entire series I am doing, blogging thirty of his novels. I did blog on one Robert Heinlein novel earlier, but I typically (PKD being an exception) work on the Library of America, who knows when I will get to it. I did read Stranger years ago.

      Thanks for your recommendations.

  3. The point is,that Mercer and Mercerism actually exist within the pages of the novel.The political system that created it and is discredited by the android DJ Buster Friendly,who cannot understand or feel the experience of empathy and translation with Mercer,is exposed as a hoax,but this doesn’t remove the fact that what is fabricated and belived,doesn’t exist.It seems truth and faith,at least in the PKD universe,are but different sides of a coin.

    Wilbur Mercer comes to John Isodore in his despair that he has been exposed as a “fake messiah”,causing time to run backwards and resurrect dying forms of life.Rick Decard undergoes a transcendental fusion with Mercer,that enables to appreciate or at least accept all forms of life,even artificial ones such as the toad that turns out to be an electric gadget.This reminds me of the fabricated world of Delmark-O in “A Maze of Death”,in which the Intercessor,a real character in a nightmare fugue who is also the Walker-on-Earth and actually speaks to Seth Morley, comes to him,who has the strongest faith,to take him away from his miserable existence:

    “Walker”,Seth Morley said.

    “No”,the figure said.”I am not the Walker-on-Earth.I am the Intercessor.”

    “But we invented you!We and Tench 889B.”

    Mercer then,like Ubik in the novel of the same name,is the counter force to entropy, that threatens the ecology of a devastated Earth,that is made worst by the rank capitalism that creates Kipple and leads to decaying entropy.It seems a balance must exist between actual decay[once again the Form Destroyer in “A Maze of Death”]and a restorative force that this time is embodied in the figure of Mercer.If not actually perceived,it must be invented and at the same time exist as a matter of moral fact.

    • That is all cool. I am not sure what to say to all of that. This blog is about anarchist themes in American literature. This is probably all better put in my new blog on Dick. Maybe you want to guest blog there, writing an essay on entropy.

  4. Prehaps even anarchist themes can contain metaphysical issues.It would be nice to write an essay on that subject,but at the present time,I’m interested in making money,and unless there’s some financial gain,I don’t want to participate at present.Sorry about this.

    • Funny how the pursuit of “financial gain” can make someone unlikable almost instantly. Well, not that funny. It is the tragedy of our civilization. Well, good luck.

  5. Very sorry to have said this.You have to understand that at present I’m not in work, and also not signing-on for employment benefit,but receive an income of another kind due to my current “condition”.The truth is I’m not in the mood to do it at the moment because of my situation,but if you can keep the offer open,I’ll consider it if my mindset improves.

    Sorry if I offended you at all.

  6. Hi there.

    Your invitation to be on a guest blog writing about entropy,is not closed…..not sure I don’t want to do it now.Mind you,it will take quite a bit of reading and time.Do you want it in a hurry?

    Thank you.

    • Take your time. THat PKD blog is still getting started, probably because I am still messing around with the stories, which not to many people actually care about. I is doing good on followers but not yet on hits.
      I hope once I start getting into the novels and some of my essays (one will be Top 10 Underrated PKD Works, but there will be some more analytical ones as well) it will get more respect. I figure I will be done with the stories my mid-June, I will then start on the novels, about one a week, each with around 3-5 essays as well as a general introduction. It should make what I said on this blog kipple in comparison.

      Anyway, my point is that there is no hurry.

      • Oh good.Ok.It will take quite a bit of time.Could you recommend you think the best books of PKD to reread on the subject?I’ve got a good idea,but I can’t read all of them in a hurry.

        Hopefully my mindset will improve soon and I’ll get going.

      • Not sure where to start. It is such a common motif. This novel, of course. I think lots of the frontier stuff has it. I am always a real advocate for the stories. I am actually thinking of writing a book just on the stories sometime in the future (2 volumes: 1 for 1947-1955, the other for 1955-end)

        I think he says lots about entropy in the Exegesis. I have not really thought much about it, as I have mostly been interested in the general banality of late capitalist society and culture (maybe that is the same thing).
        In that sense, the “bibs” in The Crack in Space is a perfect example of entropy.

  7. Ok.The obvious ones I suppose,are “DADOES,Ubik,Galactic Pot-Healer,A Maze of Death,Martian Time-Slip,Dr Bloodmoney,The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,Counter-Clock World”.I think “The Man in the High Castle” could be added to those I suppose.I would also like,for more interest,to include many of the themes you discuss.Anyway,those books would be good to begin with….I’ll decide where I want to go next after I’ve read them.

    The only stories that spring immediety to mind are “Faith of Our Fathers” and “Apon the Dull Earth.” I suppose “The Electric Ant” too.

    I haven’t read the “Exegesis” for the reasons I’ve already mentioned elsewhere.I think you’ll know what I mean.I have read “valis” though,and suppose that’s also good source material for the entropy theme.

    The only work of non-fiction I’ve read of his,is the “Dark Haired Girl”.I think there is some material for the subject there.

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