Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? | Study Guide

Philip K. Dick

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? | Context

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In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick blends his lifelong interest in the nature of reality with influences from the political sphere.

World War II

Philip K. Dick had researched Nazi Germany for his 1962 alternate history novel, The Man in the High Castle. The Nazi Party (a shortened form of the name National Socialist German Workers' Party) came to power in Germany in 1933 under the leadership of Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Hitler remained in control until his death in 1945. During Hitler's totalitarian regime, the Nazi Party murdered millions of "undesirables" who included Jews, gay people, and nomadic Roma or gypsies. Dick had read accounts of Nazis who served in the concentration camps where the party's targets were confined and killed en masse, and who complained that crying children were keeping them awake at night. Their lack of empathy struck Dick on a profound level: these men seemed no longer human.

The Cold War

Dick was 16 when American forces dropped atomic bombs on two cities in Japan—Hiroshima and Nagasaki—on August 6 and 9, 1945. While the mass destruction caused by these bombs brought an end to World War II, it also opened the possibility of world war with nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb four years later in 1949, making the nuclear arms race an integral part of the "Cold War." The nonviolent Cold War was a state of political hostility and threats waged between the Soviet Union and the United States after World War II. Its height was 1948–53, but tensions between the factions remained into the 1960s.

Philip K. Dick published his first story in 1952, and his writing career paralleled the Cold War's nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many science fiction writers wrote works set during a nuclear war or in the aftermath of one. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of these, and readers can see it as part of a larger cultural anxiety over nuclear war. In the novel, nuclear war is the reason so many species in the novel are extinct and the world is so depopulated: World War Terminus killed many people and gave others the incentive to migrate to other planets.

The Vietnam War

When Dick wrote this novel, the United States was fighting the Vietnam War (1954–75). North Vietnam's communist government and its allies fought South Vietnam's government, which was aligned with Western politics and backed by the United States and other countries. Coverage of the controversial war and its high number of casualties dominated the news and tarnished America's self-image as a wholesome, ethical nation. Dick claimed that American action in the Vietnam War left him wondering about the differences between good and evil, and the ability to distinguish between the two. In the novel, the character Rick Deckard embodies this concern. His job involves distinguishing who is human and who isn't and terminating those who aren't.

Science Fiction

Early science fiction novels such as H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895) usually began in the known world and introduced a new or alien reality. However, by the time Dick was writing, science fiction was a much more mature genre with an established market made up of loyal and sophisticated readers. In contrast to the standards of early science fiction, Dick launches into his future reality immediately, creating a fast pace and changing reality in multiple ways. This style allows Dick to set the novel in a postapocalyptic world with interstellar travel, lifelike androids, and a bounty hunter with a laser pistol.

Dick's brand of science fiction often incorporated two themes. First, he used fiction to work out his complicated views on the nature of reality, humanity, and knowledge. Second, his fiction commented on the world around him, often in profound ways. Renowned Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem called Dick "a visionary among the charlatans." Although Lem didn't excuse Dick's pulp style of quickly written, sensational prose, he did see profound philosophical importance in his work and drew parallels between Dick and Franz Kafka (1883–1924), a German-language novelist and short story writer of visionary fiction.

Robotics and Cybernetics

Robots and robotics—the technology of constructing and operating robots—have been a key element of science fiction for decades. Philip K. Dick was aware of this tradition, and his writing was partially a response to it. The tradition includes stories about love affairs between humans and robots or androids, such as Lester del Rey's well-known 1938 short story, "Helen O'Loy," in which a female robot falls in love with her creator. By the time Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published, many works had speculated on robot psychology, human–robot relations, and on whether robots could—or should—be considered human. Isaac Asimov, for example, had published nine short stories during the 1940s that were collected in one volume in 1950 as I, Robot. Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" helped shape other science fiction that featured robots. The three laws are as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Dick drew on a wider array of influences in addressing the possibilities and implications of cybernetics, the science that compares human automatic control systems (such as the nervous system and brain) to those in machines. Readers can see this in his 1972 lecture, The Android and The Human. In the lecture Dick discusses writings by thinkers such as Benedict de Spinoza (1632–77), a Dutch-Jewish philosopher who believed God existed within nature; and Norbert Wiener (1894–1964), the American mathematician who invented the term cybernetics,a scientific field concerned with the regulatory systems and communications of machines and living things. He argues that as technology advances, the human and the machine will become more like one another. Machines will become more human, and humans more machine-like. This concept is at the heart of the conflict in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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