Philip K. Dick is one of the crucial figures in modern science fiction. He was too prolific for his own good, churning out dozens of novels for cheap paperback publication, often in such haste that their conclusions tend to be their weakest part. He was obsessive, disorganized, and in his later years paranoid. Yet his conceptions were often brilliant, and he has come to be looked on as one of the masters, though only a small fraction of his work is in print at any one time. His titles are often wonderfully surrealistic, as in the striking Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said; and Blade Runner was originally titled (for reasons that will become apparent as you read it) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
When Ridley Scott made his 1982 film based loosely on the novel he eliminated the electric sheep (along with much else), and Dick’s title no longer made sense (nor would it have been very effective on a marquee). The film company bought the rights to another novel by a different author and threw away everything but the title–Blade Runner–a term which occurs nowhere in the book. The film eventually gained great fame, and the novel was eventually re-titled to match. Since then others of his works have been filmed (“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” was turned into Total Recall), “Second Variety” became Screamers, and an opera has been based on Valis, all after his death shortly following the release of Bladerunner. (His non-SF novel,Confessions of a Crap Artist was also made into an obscure French film in 1992 as Confessions d’un Barjo.)
He came out of a generation of 50s SF writers who took as their task the criticism of American mass society. As a result, certain themes recur frequently in his works: the threat of nuclear war, the evil effects of rampant capitalism and marketing, and the influence of mass entertainment media, especially television. But another theme which pervades Dick’s work is more personal: an obsession with the blurring of reality, dreams and waking confused together, mechanical replicas indistinguishable from their originals, drug-induced hallucinations more real than reality. His books are often structured as a series of unexpected trap doors: you think you know where you are and who is whom, then suddenly the bottom falls out and your certainties are thrown into doubt. He loves to play games with his readers, keeping them constantly off balance. The film version, on the other hand, was shaped along the lines of a mean-streets detective novel by Raymond Chandler. In it the pervasive confusion is a puzzle to be solved, not an exercise in mind-bending.
The film turned out to be one of the most influential pieces of SF in recent decades. Without Bladerunner it is hard to imagine Max Headroom or the whole cyberpunk phenomenon. Yet almost none of its influential elements are present in the novel, which has quite different concerns. (The influential visual style of the film was largely derived from the style of French cartoonist Moebius in Heavy Metal comics.) This is not to say that one is bad and the other is good: each is an outstanding example of its own kind and should be judged on its own merits.
A word of warning: Dick’s specialty is straight-faced satire. If parts of this book strike you as absurd, they’re supposed to.
Why is Rick Deckard in so much better a mood than his wife? How does Dick satirize Americans’ dependence on television? The mention of lead codpieces as a common item of apparel introduces one of the major themes of the book: widespread sterilization as a result of nuclear fallout in the wake of a war. How crowded is the city in which they live? What are the main causes of the current level of population density? “Terminus” suggests the war was an end of things; but the end is more gradual than other SF writers have imagined. In the early sixties there was widespread anxiety about the effects of fallout from nuclear bomb testing which subsided in the wake of the signing of the atmospheric test ban treaty; yet Dick continued to be concerned about the danger of nuclear war at a time when most people were ignoring it. According to Greek mythology, the Thracian Mares of Boreas were impregnated by the wind. We are introduced here to the artificial mass-media religion of Mercerism, which will play an important role later in the novel. It is characteristic of Dick’s fiction that people who live in an advanced technological culture understand little of it and resort quickly to superstition and cultism. What do you think of this view of modern civilization?
Why does Mercerism consider it a moral duty to breed and raise animals, even in the city?
We learn that the setting is San Francisco. Why do you suppose the film was set in Los Angeles instead? The Rand Corporation has been the major government-financed “think-tank” whose main job was imagining various nuclear war scenarios in order to justify the building of more and more powerful bombs and missiles. What effect does it have on you to learn that no one knows who started the war or why it was fought? (This is true of the overwhelming majority of fictional nuclear wars.) The first dead animals to be noticed were owls. What is the traditional symbolism of the owl, and why are they significant here? Dick here anticipates the “nuclear winter” theory in a striking way. What effect has the war had on the atmosphere? The term “android” was invented by science fiction writers to denote an artificial human made mostly of organic parts, in distinction to a robot, made of purely mechanical parts (though Carl Capek, from whose work the term “robot” comes, actually depicted androids). It comes from the Greek word “andros” meaning “man” and the ending “oid,” meaning “similar to.” George Lucas’ untraditional use of the term ” android” to designate purely mechanical robots who could be like R2D2, not at all man-shaped, has hopelessly confused the terminology ever since. What sales angle is being used in television advertising to promote the sale of androids? What is a “special?” Sloat is the name of J. R. Isidore’s boss, but it’s also the name of a major street in San Francisco. “Mors certa, vita incerta” is Latin for “Death is certain, life uncertain.” Why does the silence have such an impact on Isidore? “Kipple” is defined in Chapter 6. Mercerism is based on the same principle as the kind of Catholicism illustrated by the Stabat Mater: emotional identification with the suffering of a martyr. What effects might such a religion be expected to have on its followers? Why does Mercerism incorporate the belief that resurrection has been outlawed?
How are escaped androids distinguished from humans? The book makes clear the purpose of the weird questions that are used in the test at the beginning of the film. Why has Mercer’s law that “You shall kill only the killers” not led to a more humane world? Frank Merriwell was the atheletic hero of a series of books for boys early in the 20th century.
“Flattening of affect” (pronounced “AFF-ect”) means lack of emotion. What is the significance of the possibility that some humans experience extreme flattening of affect?
What kinds of responses are considered normal on the Voigt-Kampff test? If only a bone-marrow test can distinguish an android from a human, there can be little difference between the two. This underlines a major theme of the novel. Why is it in the interest of the Rosen Corporation to prove that the Voigt-Kampff test is invalid?
“Buster Friendly” is a sort of non-stop television show that provides an alternative reality for many people. Dick repeatedly treated this theme in other stories and novels like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. What ominous qualities does Pris have? Why does she tell Isidore at first that she is Rachael Rosen?
Milt Borogrove’s name comes from the opening of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky“:
Twas brillig, and the slithey toves
did gyre and gimbel in the wabe;
all mimsey were the borogroves,
and the momraths outgrabe.
“Mitteleuropäische” is German for “central European.”
How does Dick begin to multiply the confusion in this chapter? What typically Hollywood change was made in Luba Luft’s occupation in the movie?
Pamina’s song means “If every brave man could find such little bells, his enemies would be made to vanish without any trouble.” Entropy is the principle in physics which says that on the largest scale, over time, order tends to disintegrate into disorder. “Derain Associates” are named after the French artist André Derain, who painted human figures composed of machine-like forms. How does Luba Luft turn Deckard’s logic against him when he tells her what defines an android? This chapter is classic Dick. What characteristic discussed in the introduction to these notes is illustrated here?
The first sentence speaks of “baroque, ornamented spires; complicated and modern.” At the time the novel was written, the “international style” of rigid geometrical shapes shorn of all decoration was triumphant. Clearly Dick anticipated a reaction, though so-called “postmodern” architecture has not gone so far toward a neobaroque style as this suggests. But here is the source for the film’s memorable architectural style. Dick continues to play with the reader here, but more is going on than mere obfuscation. Think about what Rachael, Luba Luft, and these policemen have said about Deckard. Even if he is not an android, what evidence is there that could cause him to be mistaken for one?
What argument does Phil Resch offer at the end of the chapter to try to convince Deckard that he is human?
The painting hanging in the opera house is Edvard Munch’s famous “The Scream” (1893). Note how Resch’s example continues to blur the lines between androids and humans. Besides creating suspense, what is Dick trying to accomplish by increasing the confusion? Munch’s “Puberty” is a typically harrowing adolescent nude. How does Resch seem to show Luba that she is right about him? What signs are there that Deckard is beginning to have doubts about his profession? How does the outcome of Resch’s test further blur the lines?
What slip does J. R. Isidore make that makes Pris think he is like an android? What is the function of science fiction in this period? What kind of comment is Dick making on SF?
What is ironic about Deckard’s using his new money to buy an animal? How has he changed? What lesson about life does Mercer try to teach him?
Note the line “Do androids dream?” which was reflected in the original title of the novel. Why do you think Dick put his title into the form of a question? How does Rachael say she feels about Pris? Why is this significant? How about her feelings for Deckard?
What important and tragic fact about androids do we learn only at this point? Why has Dick postponed giving us this information? What is Rachael’s real motivation for getting involved with Deckard?
What effect does the revelation about Mercer have on the novel? How does it fit with the novel’s themes? “Al Jarry” is a tribute to the wild French writer Alfred Jarry, much admired by the Dadaists, author of Père Ubu and other plays. Why does Pris look so much like Rachael? Why is Roy Baty’s reaction to the death of his wife significant? Has he proven Rachael wrong about him by carrying out the “retirements?” What else has he proven?
How does Rachael take vengeance on Deckard?
Why is it appropriate for Deckard to fuse with Mercer now?
Does this story have a happy ending? Explain.
More Science Fiction Study Guides
- H. G. Wells: War of the Worlds
- Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles
- Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the Dystopian Tradition
- Walter M. Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz
- Stanislaw Lem: Solaris
- Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed
- Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
- William Gibson: Neuromancer
- Selected Stories from The Norton Book of Science Fiction
Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020. Copyright Paul Brians 1995
Version dated October 7, 1999.