It ain’t dark yet

Rex Dunn reviews: Philip K Dick, 'Do androids dream of electric sheep?' Free download:

Sheep: real or replicant?

Given the present conjuncture, a period of rising instability and uncertainty about the future, when everything appears to be turned upside down, a return to this classic, written in 1968, is not out of place. Philip Dick may not have a great prose style, but what he lacks stylistically he more than makes up for when it comes to ideas. Dick imagines what the earth might be like 30 years later and, as we all know, he has a dystopian view of the future (as many sci-fi writers do). To this end, Do androids dream of electric sheep? rests on two main themes.

The first introduces the idea that humanity is in danger of destroying the earth’s environment - that is, from the standpoint of most living things. This is remarkably prescient for someone writing in the 1960s, when we consider the present state of the planet. Not only is global warming proceeding at an alarming pace, but humanity is certainly endangering many forms of life, as well as our own, via habitat destruction, or piling up mountains of plastic waste, which are not bio-degradable. The earth is our domain; but, as homo sapiens, the most intelligent of all the primates, we humans are supposed to behave rationally: ie, understand the necessity of living in harmony with the rest of nature. If we look after it, the earth will look after us. But if we continue to abuse it, we do so at our peril. It is clear from reading Androids that Dick cares about the environment and other species almost as much as he does humans - from our primate ‘cousins’ right down to spiders and insects.

The second theme raises the question of whether post-war capitalism, the new technologies of mass production, mass consumerism, combined with the mass media and mass entertainment, has a dehumanising effect, characterised by a loss of individuality and loss of empathy, which leads to a decline in moral responsibility: ie, the belief that there are no limits to the concept of the human. For any student of Marxist theory, such a dystopian outcome would mean that the world revolution - which began with the events of October 1917 - has been defeated. It would mean that the revolutionary class - all those who are forced to sell their labour-power in order to live - are no longer capable of understanding that a fundamental revolution is necessary. But, to succeed, the revolution must also be able to overthrow the barriers of sex, race, ethnicity and nationalism, as well as the state. As Marx pointed out in the Communist manifesto (1848), the revolution is international or it is nothing.

Arguably Dick refers to the class struggle indirectly, by placing an incipient revolt by robots at the centre of his story. Perhaps by so doing he is implying that the class struggle against the system needs to be revived? Of course, he is not a theoretician of any sort, let alone a Marxist one; nor is he obliged to be. Rather he chooses to be a creative writer, specialising in sci-fi literature. He found this more satisfying - besides it allowed him to appeal to a much wider audience. It also meant that he is not obliged to explain anything: in particular, why the world is in such a sorry state (although he does to some extent).

Dick and Lukács

Nevertheless, there is an uncanny parallel between Dick’s ideas about human consciousness and those of the Marxist theoretician, György Lukács. Both are aware of the fact that we do not always see our fellow human beings as such. We live in an instrumental world, in which the end justifies the means. Does it matter, as long as you can get what you want? Dick might attribute this to a fatal flaw in human nature, whereas Lukács is a historical materialist. He understood Marx’s dictum: “Men make their own history, but not under conditions of their own choosing.”1 (Hence, contrary to popular opinion, Marx never argued that the social revolution is inevitable.) In 1921, for example, the world revolution had entered a period of downturn. Following the shockwaves of imperialist war and the October revolution, capitalism was able to restabilise itself (at least for a while).

But why did the revolution not spread to the more advanced countries, where it had a better chance of success: ie, Germany, Britain or the United States? In History and class-consciousness, Lukács tries to answer the question. By so doing, he abandons the Leninist theory of revolution - the notion that in a period of acute capitalist crisis the proletariat is able to organise itself into a revolutionary movement with the help of the vanguard party, which leads to the overthrow of capitalism and the transition to socialism. By so doing, Lukács replaced the subjective/objective dialectic with objectivism, which is undialectical: ie, he brings to the fore the role of the commodity form (the basic cell of the capitalist system) as a major impediment to true consciousness. In other words, Marx’s theory of alienation is a ‘one way street’.2

Thus Lukács arrives at his theory of ‘reification’, wherein the commodity form structures the human subject, so that the social relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a “phantom objectivity”, an “autonomy”, which is “all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental [human] nature”.3 Ultimately, however, if the impediment is not removed by a successful social revolution, then Lukács’s theory is in danger of becoming a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. Be that as it may, it is not technology which is the problem; it is alienated humanity and what it does with the technology it creates: ie, it turns it against itself. To argue otherwise would be a good example of Lukács’s theory of reification in practice!

But in the 1930s Lukács made a volte-face, when he reconciled himself with the Stalinist regime. Therefore he embraced the nostrum that it is possible to build ‘socialism in one country’. Meanwhile the world revolution had to be put on hold. The Third International, to all intents and purposes, was made redundant. In this case, we have the subjective/objective dialectic in reverse, with subjectivism uppermost. History has proved that Marx was right: socialism in one country is impossible. But the cost, in human terms, was incalculable, and it has left a semi-permanent stain on human consciousness. At the same time, the door was pushed open for the rise of the United States as a capitalist superpower, characterised by mass consumerism, advertising and news management, combined with mass entertainment or the culture industry; the manufacture of false needs - ie, distracted consumption - which it proceeded to export to the rest of the world.

Bear this in mind.When Androids opens, the capitalist world has survived a nuclear world war. The planet might be devastated, but we still have the market and the technology to produce things on a mass scale. There are machines which are designed to massage the consciousness of the individual, as well as create an ‘unreal’ real world, which makes one feel safe. Other machines are able to alter mood, so that people can get up in the morning and carry on, etc. À la Lukács, these machines have acquired a “phantom objectivity”, an “autonomy”, which is “all-embracing”, whilst in the real world people treat each other more and more like things.

Rogue androids

In Dick’s ‘tomb world’, here represented by California, there is a permanent cloud of nuclear dust which cuts out sunlight and pollutes the atmosphere. A great deal of planetary life has been obliterated - not just two thirds of the human race, but even lower forms of life as well. Real toads or spiders, for example, are so rare, they are worth thousands of dollars. As for a sheep or an owl, they are worth a great deal more. The environment is so devastated that humans have had to colonise other planets, starting with Mars. But now most work ‘offshore’ is done by slave robots or androids, supervised by human slave masters. Some of them, however, manage to escape back to earth. If more are able to escape, they could easily start a slave revolt. (cf the Spartacist revolt against ancient Rome). Therefore these rogue androids have to be hunted down and destroyed before things get out of hand. Agent Rick Deckard is assigned to do the job.

The most advanced android is called the Nexus-6. But they can only ‘live’ for about two years, since they cannot replace their body cells; so they age very quickly and die. They are made of synthetic tissue that resembles human tissue, and can be easily destroyed with a conventional gun or a laser - whereupon they simply disintegrate into a heap of waste material. Otherwise they are highly intelligent and stronger than humans. This gives rise to a paradox, which could not be more profound: the more advanced technology becomes, the more sophisticated androids become; they become humanoids or human ‘replicants’. The one real human quality which they lack is empathy for others. But they are already conscious of their own mortality. They suffer when one of their own dies. Maybe they will acquire an empathy for other living things as well?

Deckard’s humanity is also called into question. He has become the modern version of a bounty hunter from the old wild west. For every android he ‘retires’, he can claim $1,000. At least he is obliged to administer an ‘empathy test’. The suspect is required to show appropriate emotion to a set of questions, designed to show how much it cares about living things. Somehow a quality can be turned into a quantity (cf human social labour!). If the suspect fails the test, Deckard knows that he has a ‘replicant’ on his hands, which must be disposed of. The problem is that the test may not work, because the more advanced androids can simulate the quality of empathy. In other words, they are beginning to acquire human characteristics - whilst human beings are losing theirs!

Rachael Rosen is the ‘daughter’ of the head of the Rosen corporation, which makes Nexus-6, as well as replicants of many different kinds of animals. Deckard pays a visit to Rosen in the hopes that he might learn more about his prey. At their first meeting, Rachael shows him an owl. (Note the symbolism here: the proverbial ‘owl of Minerva’ emerges at close of day; it is a metaphor for the idea that knowledge is based on reflection, as well as observation. Is the owl there to comment on what is happening?) At first he believes it is real, before being informed that it is a new Rosen product. He begins to toy with idea that, if the simulation is good enough, it is almost as good as the real thing; so why not be satisfied with that?

To make matters more complicated, it soon transpires that the Nexus-6 androids are more widespread, popping up everywhere, even as opera stars. For a brief moment Deckard wonders why it is necessary to ‘retire’ a creature with such a beautiful voice. But he carries on with the job anyway. The escapees are also clever enough to masquerade as police officers, brought in from as far away as the Soviet Union to help in the hunt! (Somehow the USSR has survived a nuclear war too, but now the cold war is over.)

If Nexus-6 androids show little or no emotional awareness, what about the next generation? Deckard soon realises that the beautiful Rachael is not really Rosen’s daughter. She herself is a Nexus-7, a very sophisticated humanoid robot. After being introduced to him, she offers to take the empathy test. Even though she fails, she is the exception to the rule: ie, she is owned by the Rosen Foundation and so cannot be ‘retired’! Deckard refuses Rachael’s offer of help to track down the escaped androids, because he needs 100% of the bounty money, so that he can buy a real sheep for his wife, Iran, as opposed to the electric one they currently own. Both husband and wife desire to own a real animal of some description; partly to ‘keep up’ with their richer neighbours; partly to make them feel more human. Nevertheless Deckard feels a sexual attraction for Rachael. A colleague tells him that it is OK to have sex with a female android before killing it. “Make love with an andy, then kill it!” he says. Eventually Deckard gives in to Rachael’s offer of help. Sure enough, before their final operation, they go to a hotel, where they have sex.

After the operation is over, Rachael kills the black goat which Deckard has been given as a bonus for his work. Here we have another metaphor - a fairly obvious one this time - for a scapegoat. By so doing, is she merely exercising her desire for revenge against the ‘murder’ of her own ‘kith and kin’? If so, at least she is able to empathise with her own kind. Or does she kill the sacrificial goat because she feels guilty about her complicity? She certainly shows that she has human qualities. And, without her help, Deckard would not have been able to ‘retire’ the last of the android escapees.

Deckard becomes a paradigm for the state of the human, but to what extent is a bounty hunter human anyway? He might be ‘retiring’ androids, but how should he deal with human androids or replicants? What is happening to his own human capacity for empathy? Human androids are able to do his job just as well - indeed they have already done so. Where is the dividing line? Is Deckard himself an android?

With hindsight, of course, the 90s were not as bad as Dick predicted. But, as the (reluctant) 2016 Noble prize winner for literature, Bob Dylan, says in a famous song, “It ain’t dark yet; but it’s gettin’ there!” Maybe we will make the planet uninhabitable for civilised life before we reach the android state and so become indistinguishable from humanoid robots. But, to borrow the title of another famous book, this is a Catch 22 question, isn’t it?


1. K Marx The eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte (1852), Moscow 1977.

2. K Marx Capital Vol 1, chapter 7, London 1992.

3. G Lukács History and class-consciousness (1923), London 1990.