Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Blade Runner (1968)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

The movie Blade Runner is one of my favourite movies. I liked it so much that I never re-watched it but the mood and the atmosphere and some of the pictures stayed with me. I always meant to read the book it was based on but always forgot about it. After reading Danielle’s review a while back (here) and Brian’s insightful commentary a few weeks ago (here) I thought I really need to do it now. I also did a much more daring thing, I re-watched the movie. Luckily my courage wasn’t punished. It’s still one of my favourite movies of all time. Maybe I even like it more than before.

Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  is set in San Francisco, in a bleak post-war society. Only those who cannot afford to leave Earth and emigrate to Mars, stay on. These are people who have either been too damaged by the fallout, the so-called specials or chickenheads, or those who lack money. Plants and animals have been badly damaged and there are hardly any living animals on Earth anymore. It’s a sign of prosperity if you can buy yourself an animal, any animal, a toad, a sheep, a goat.

Rick Deckard is a cop, or rather a bounty hunter assigned to hunt and “retire” androids who have escaped and turned against humans, starting to kill them. A new generation of androids, the Nexus 6, look and act exactly like humans but they don’t feel like humans that’s why a test which measures the emotional response can detect whether someone is an android or not. What complicates matters is that some androids have received false memories and don’t know that they are androids.

Deckard’s salary isn’t high but he receives a bonus for every retired android. 6 of these Nexus androids have escaped and need to be hunted. Some of them are quite dangerous. He hopes retiring them will allow him to finally buy a real animal and not just an electric sheep.

I thought it was extremely interesting to read this book and I didn’t expect it to be the way it was. To some extent it’s an almost straightforward noir novel, of course with a sci-fi twist, but it still works like many other bounty hunter or PI novels. But that is only one part, the part that was kept for the movie. The other part is more philosophical and at times a bit confusing. The people in the novel can use an empathy box and also use mood altering devices. The empathy box lets them experience what Mercer, a god-like figure, experiences. Empathy is the key word in this novel. What differentiates the humans from the androids is empathy but even the humans lack it and need to be reconnected to the empathy box. At least that’s how I understood it. What makes a human human is another important question. While the humans call destroying androids “retiring”, the androids see it as getting killed. They feel a real horror of death. It is Deckard’s dilemma that he can no longer pretend that he feels as if they were just machines.

Ridley Scott used the noir elements and turned them into something that has been called cyberpunk. His movie is set in a LA that looks like Hong Kong in which it is constantly night and raining. It’s quite a melancholic movie. The hunter and the hunted are both losers, the characters are much more complex than in the book.

I didn’t expect book and movie to be alike but I didn’t expect them to be this different. I absolutely love the movie but I didn’t love the book. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it but it’s pale in comparison. I found it much colder, and it lacked the mood and atmosphere of the film. The androids in the movie seem more human while some of their acts in the book made me despise them.

Brian has written an in-depth analysis in which he focusses on the philosophical aspects of the novel. I’ve read the book for the first time and certainly didn’t get all of it. So if you’d like to know more about those aspects here is the reviw. And here another review from Anna.

69 thoughts on “Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Blade Runner (1968)

  1. I didn’t realize so many years now had passed since I read the book–I had to go back and read what I wrote about it–and your post, too, brought back the story. It looks like I had some problems with it as well, though it might have simply been I tried to rush it through at the end of the year. I have never seen the whole movie, so now I am curious about it–I really do need to watch it sometime. It’s interesting that the movie is so much more visually stunning than I recall the book being. I’d still like to read more of his work, but haven not quite gotten around to it….

    • Me neither, I was convinced you wrote about it last year and then I lokked for your review and so how long ago that was.
      I think we both didn’t really get the whole philosophical aspect.
      It’s not a visual novel at all, is it? It’s interesting and I thought the electric animals were quite special – you will notice how he uses that in the movie. If I hadn’t read the book I wouldn’t have noticed. So they do complement each other.

  2. I saw the film first and it went straight on my list of favourite movies, so I approached the book with trepidation – but found that I liked the book even better, and that it was rather more subtle (that thing about the women looking alike, for instance, which the film lost). I do want to see the film again now!

    • I guess both reactions are possible. Rachael is a more interesting character in the book, I’d say and that she sort of exists twice enhances this. The movie goes a totally different way. It still made more sense.
      I found Rutger Hauer’s charcater more interesting in the movie. He’s a bit pale in the book.

  3. I disagree utterly and completely with this statement — the exact OPPOSITE is the case — “Don’t get me wrong, I liked it but it’s pale in comparison. I found it much colder, and it lacked the mood and atmosphere of the film.” Do you remember the scene when the androids pull the legs off of the spider as torture for the “chicken head”? That scene is emotionally devastating… And the realization that the androids are actually MORE emotional and more productive members of society than the humanity left behind. He is torn when he has to kill the opera singer… The emotion is lacking from the film due to the fact that so much of the background is absent — as in the animals explained etc.

  4. Caroline, What’s happening? First it was Simon Green and now Philip K Dick. Just yesterday, I read him for the first time (a pretty surreal story about a cuckoo clock) and now here you have a review of his! :)

    • That’s interesting, Amritorupa.
      I’ll make sure to read your review, I’m curious but it won’t chnage my opinion. Blade Runner is not just any film for me.

  5. Nice review, Caroline! I enjoyed reading your comparison of the book and the movie. I also enjoyed reading the interesting debate in the comments – people have so many different opinions :) I have seen ‘Blade Runner’ and loved it. It was highly recommended when I was in school, but I got to see it only a few years back. I saw the Director’s Cut and somehow for me, the ending seemed incomplete. Then I checked in YouTube and saw the original ending and liked it more. It is definitely one of the most beautiful movies ever made. I also liked your comment about re-watching a movie spoiling the original experience. Sometime back I watched some movies which I had seen when I was in school and which I had loved at that time. Some of these movies didn’t work for me now and I was actually disappointed with them. But some of the scenes which were my favourites when I watched them for the first time, continued to be my favourites. Re-watching a movie again is a landmine :) Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • I so agree with, it is a landmine. I was really thinking that I shouldn’t do it. I’ve spoilt movies like this before.
      I liked the Director’s Cut Ending but I can’t remember the other one and couldn’t find it. I thought that this one, the so-called “tears in the rain” ending was the better one but I really don’t know.
      Opinions are divided on this one. I suspect that many for who Böade Runner is a special movie will not like the book equally. Brian said it in his review, we shouldn’t compare which is probably true.

  6. The title in itself makes me want to read it. I had absolutely no idea what it was about.
    I’ve had it on my mind for a while but, well, it’s SF, so I’m a bit wary.

    • It has elemenst that were difficult or didn’t interest me all that much but a lot read like a noir novel set in a dystopian society. It’s certainly a classic and reminded me a bit of Fahrenheit 451.

  7. I grew up watching this movie and finally read the book several years ago. I agree with you – the book was interesting, the movie brilliant. Perhaps I would feel differently if I had grown up reading the book and eventually saw the film…but, eh…how can you turn down Harrison Ford and Edward James Olmos?

    • I wonder if all those who like the book so much didn’t first read it. Often I find the book much better but in this case, they movie spoke to me, and touched me while the book, although interesting left me a bit cold.
      It has a great cast, that’s for sure.

  8. This boo really generates such fascinating commentary and conversation. I totally agree Caroline that Dick’s writing is uneven. At times it even seems rushed. At other times I think that he is capable of great eloquence.

    I thought that the coldness that you allude to was counterbalanced by the character of J. R. Isidore. At times I found the portrayal of him very moving.

    • Every time I write about a Sci-Fi novel it generates a lot of discussions, which is interesting. I suppose these are books that really engage and are thought provoking.
      I found J.R.Isidore very moving as well but I didn’t find any of the androids moving while I thought they were, there pain about dying after only four years touched me whil in the book it didn’t.
      Nowadays Dick’s writing would be tightened up which, in a way would get rid of some of its charm as well. It’s uneven but you can feel the inspiration it. Not sure if you know how I mean it.

  9. I had no idea that Blade Runner was based on this book! From your description of the book, I wouldn’t have guessed you were describing the same plot. ‘t sounds quite different – almost two different interpretations. It’s been years and years since I’ve seen the movie. I think it’s time I watched it again!

    • They are very different. I was very surprised to see that. I can understand why some people like the book better but I enjoyed the more visual and atmospherical approach of the movie much more.

  10. I haven’t seen the movie, but honestly after disliking the book quite so much, I don’t know how much it makes sense for me to watch it. I know it’s a taste thing, but I just don’t like Dick’s writing. And the noir elements seemed to overwhelm whatever other mood Dick had hoped for. I had so many issues with the story and the storytelling and the characters and everything… I can understand why it’s a classic, but… not for me.

    • I didn’t dislike it as much as you but it’s not a book I could love. Like you I see its importance though and it was a quick read.
      The book and the movie are so very different. I’d say, you could risk it. Of course, I don’t know your taste in movies at all. It’s very dark, futuristic, constant rain and an eerie setting.
      I love it.

  11. Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies too. I’m glad you re-watched it because I think it’s one of those movies that’s really held up to time. Still visually gorgeous and I love the soundtrack. I’ve been grappling with reading this book too. Basically because I haven’t read a whole lot of Philip K Dick books – do I really want this to be my first one? And because I know I won’t like it as much as the movie. How odd that it’s usually the reversal – books are usually better than the movie.

    • It did hold up. I was afraid it wouldn’t. I’ve watched a few 80s movies recently and they all didn’t age well.
      But Blade Runner is an exception. I’d say it’s a perfect movie even. Visually, the story, the acting, the music, mood, atmosphere.
      I know a lot of people think that “The Man in the High Castle” is the best Philip. K. Dick. So maybe that’s a better starting point?
      It’s one of those rare cases in which the film director really turned his material into a masterpiece but as some comments show, not everyone agrees.

  12. One of my lasting memories of cinema is seeing the opening sequence of Blade Runner when it was released, back in the ’80s. Extraordinary. The whole film blew me away.

    I prefer the director’s cut, but the theatrical release is still exceptional. People tend to forget that it was that which audiences fell in love with. Without the theatrical release being so good there would be no director’s cut.

    I was at the same time a big Philip K Dick fan (and still am I suppose). The two for me share almost nothing in common. It’s not actually my favourite Dick, though it is one of my favourite titles by Dick. The film isn’t the film of the book, it’s a film vaguely inspired by the book but with some common themes.

    For me the book is very much a novel of ideas, the film has some of those ideas but for me is very much a film about image and atmosphere.

    Interesting review and debate, as always.

    • I wish I could compare the two versions now. I’m not always keen on the Director’s Cut. I liked it very much but since I don’t remember which one I saw first, it’s hard to compare.
      I certainly agree with you. The book is a book of ideas while the movie has this haunting atmosphere that is hard to top. I actually like this approach a lot, when a film director is inspired but doesn’t stick too closely to the book.
      While Brian mentioned that they are different, I didn’t really expect them to be this different.
      I can see myself pick another Philip K. Dick novel in the future. Would also recommend The man in the High Castle?

  13. Forgot to add, as a child I remember watching a Doctor Who serial in which the enemy turns out to be a self-aware computer. At the end The Doctor taunts it that it’s just a machine, then goes on to deactivate it.

    It was a killer, so I wasn’t too bothered about it being destroyed. That’s how it goes for Who villains. What bothered me was that to me, as a child but still now, it was evidently a person. Inorganic, yes, psychotic certainly, but just because it was a machine didn’t make it not a person. It thought, it felt, it had ambitions. I couldn’t understand why it’s death was categorically different to the other deaths the show portrayed. I couldn’t understand why the show seemed to be arguing it wasn’t a death at all.

    We other things. We tell ourselves that we are categorically different to other animal species, which then somehow justifies say factory farming them – a process so horrific we hide it from ourselves lest we put ourselves off eating the product of it (I don’t except myself there). We tell ourselves that people with our skin colour are categorically different to people with another skin colour, then kill and enslave that other. There are tons of other examples, based on gender, sexuality, gender identity, the list goes ever on. We put others into boxes, and then use the fact they’re in a box as justification for mistreating them.

    That for me is what I remember this novel about. It’s not about the androids lack of empathy, it’s about ours.

    • That is a very good point, Max. I got a bit caught up in comparing book and movie but still, I felt empathy was the main point. It’s certainly Rick’s dilemma. He cannot kill as easily anymore.
      I remember when studying warfare at uni we looked at some of the newspaper articles produced during the Vietnam war and quite often the Vietnamese were equaled to anymals and therefore killing them was justified.
      While taht is plain wrong, it’s also wrong that we as a species have authorised ourselves to kill anything that isn’t human without questioning it.
      There was this huge debate in Switzerland not too long ago whether there should be animal lawyers and I’m glad to say the first exist now, defending animal rights, individual and for the species as a whole and the law will have to be chnaged accordingly. Sure – it’s still murky territory (youre not allowed to kill a dog but you may kill a cow?) but at least questions are asked.
      In a way one could then say the book is also about human supremacy? Seen that way it’s interesting.

  14. The Man in the High Castle isn’t a bad place to go, it’s actually not one of my favourites but it’s widely regarded as among his best books.

    Probably my favourite, leaving aside his pulpier novels, is A Scanner Darkly. I consider it the best depiction of drug addiction I’ve read, regardless of genre. Drugs were extremely prevalent in the community I grew up in and it’s a book that could I think only be written by someone with that kind of direct knowledge.

    He is a patchy writer. When he’s good he’s brilliant, but he’s not consistently good. Definitely not across his vast output, and not even always within his individual novels. I think he’s a major talent, but not a flawless one.

    Then again, my favourite SF novel (and one Joachim will know well) is probably Alfred Bester’s The Stars my Destination which is horribly flawed in particular in its depiction of gender issues. A book can have huge impact and yet still have huge problems after all.

    Doblin, in Berlin Alexanderplatz, has a section on how we treat animals which is pages long and genuinely challenging reading. Questions of animal rights are tricky, but I’m glad we’re finally starting to have that debate in a serious way.

    • I’ve seen the movie A Scanner Darkly but while I liked it, I didn’t love it , so wouldn’t be drawn to compare too much. Thanks for the suggestion.
      I know what you mean with falwed but still a major talent. I think it’s a sort of raw energy that I appreciate to and which, sadly, is tamed by so many creative writing courses these days.
      I was think while rdading Do Androids…? how he would have written it if he had had an MFA. It’s a flawed book as well, uneven at still, I think I’m glad that it is that way and not polished. If you know what I mean.
      The Stars my Destination rings a bell. Maybe there is a movie too?
      I’m planning on finally reading Berlin Alexanderplatz. For some reasons I wanted to read Dos Passos first and now I’m stuck in the middle of Manhattan Transfer. It’s quite amazing but not a book to read in one go. At least not for me.

  15. the movie is on my list and I watched it two years ago. I didn’t really like it the first time, but my friend who loves it made me watch it again with him. After talking about it I changed my mind. The book is on my 1001 list, but I haven’t read it yet. I wonder if I’ll have a different reaction since I didn’t like the movie the first time around.

    • That could be. It’s much more idea driven and focusses a lot on animals, which should appeal to you.
      You will see, they are very different but it’s interesting to see how someon got inspired by a book and tunrned it into something entirely his own.

  16. I tried this experiment too a few years ago, having seen the film quite a few times before.

    One of the things that always seem lost in sci-fi films based on books are the ideas, and I think it’s very true of Bladerunner: it takes a few ideas from the book (all the android / human stuff) but leaves a lot behind. All the stuff about people having fake pets, which is gone from the film, I thought was really good; but yes, all that stuff about Mercer just gets so tedious.

    I didn’t think Dick did very well on plot either; the thriller element is much better handled in the film.

    • Well that’s why you can call him a patchy writer. But I thought the ideas with the electric animals was interesting. I iked it how it was used in the movie, the one agent or what he was, driver, folding the origami animals and leaving them everywhere. It enhanced the Asian elemenst in the movie which were absent from the book as well.
      I seem to mix J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick up a bit. I think Ballard is the more even writer of the two but I could be wrong

  17. I saw the movie ages ago and have forgotten all the details. Too bad you don’t like the book equally…but it’s quite understandable because sometimes the one you see/read first has better impact than the later. It’s like Ringu, the movie and the book are so different but I like them both…but maybe I wouldn’t like the movie if I have read the book first, because it was so diferent.

    • It certainly influenes the reaction whether you watched the movie first or read the book first. But mostly directors try toi stay somehwta closer to the book. Occasionally you wonder why they even bother as it’s so similar.
      I wasn’t aware that Ringu is base on a book. I just watched The Ring and must admit i liked it very much. At least part I. I wasn’t keen on part II.

      • I prefer movies that stayed close to the book tho, especially if I love the book.

        Ringu book and movie are totally different, the book is more about thriller than ghost story. I only like Ringu and Ring 0, the second and third were too much.

        • It really depends, I don’t like it when they stay true to the book but chnage something significant, then I’d rather they chnage it all and are just inspred by it. What’s Ring 0? I found Ring 1 at work and took it home. I thought I’d hate it but it’s well done, more melancholic than creepy.

  18. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t realise this was the book the movie was based on. I wonder whether the movie is better precisely because the book is flawed? The director may have been able to fillet out the ideas and turn them into a dramatic visualisation without feeling obliged to remain true to every event in the novel. The complexity of a book is often what brings a film to grief.

    • He carved out themost interesting bits and turned them into a visual feast. It’s really the atmosphere and the mood that make me love this film so much. Rain and darkness, a bit gloomy for sure. That’s totally absent from the novel. Still, it was interesting reading it and I wouldn’t mind giving the author another try.

  19. How interesting that you reviewed this now! I just finished reading it for my book club and will be posting my thoughts next week. I haven’t yet seen the movie, but I have heard it’s quite different. I’m not big into sci-fi, so I was surprised I enjoyed this one as much as I did, though I didn’t love it. It certainly gives you a lot to think about and made a great discussion book.

  20. Electric Sheep is one of his best, but I think he’s written a couple that are even better. There’s Ubik, which I do recommend – Inception ripped off quite a bit of stuff from that book. The Penultimate Truth and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are two of my other favourites – they are both brilliant books.

  21. Pingback: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick | Book Around The Corner

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