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Three-Book Review: Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; A Scanner Darkly; The Man Who Japed

Updated on March 11, 2016
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

First up is Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The version I'm holding in my hands is a paperback of 242 pages, not including the introduction. This is a Del Rey Book published by The Random House Publishing Group, in 1968 under the copyright of Philip K. Dick. The introduction was written by another science fiction writer, who collaborated with Dick on one of his books, a man called Roger Zelazny; copyrighted by him in 1975.

The summary on the back cover of the books reads like this:

"By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction an sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn't afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacra: horses, birds, cats, sheep...

"They even built humans.

"Emigrants to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn't want to be identified, they just blended in.

"Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to "retire' them. But when cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results."

I would say that this trio of novels---Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, A Scanner Darkly, and The Man Who Japed---are among Philip K. Dick's darker, moodier, more contemplative, and even more somber. I would even go so far as to use the term heartbreakingly sad, in application to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly.

You may know that the "Androids" book was the basis for the movie starring Harrison Ford, called Blade Runner. The thing you need to read the book carefully to learn---something that subtly alluded to like a passing wind---is the fact that the human-looking androids were used as slaves on Mars; and the fact that they are returning to Earth is do to a bloody slave revolt on Mars, led by one of the human simulacrum.

However, what they seem to want to do most is to live like human beings and simply be free. The violent fear of them exhibited by the human authorities seems paranoid. But anyone familiar with Philip K. Dick's science fiction, knows that paranoia is a familiar emotional register in Mr. Dick's literature.

This particular generation of androids this story introduces us to are able to pass for real humans perfectly well. This desire to "pass" instead of declaring their android nature, loudly and proudly---reminded me of the way very light-skinned African-Americans elected to "pass" for white, in decades past.

The androids can be tripped up into revealing their true synthetic nature through the means of very advanced psychological test. When an android takes the test, he tries his utmost to convince his examiner that he is truly human. They go to great lengths to infiltrate the most prestigious human communities, be it the arts, entertainment, even law enforcement.

It is as if they are saying: "Look at me! How can you think I'm a robot; I'm a captain in the police department, for heaven's sake; or, I'm this country's premier opera singer ---- for example.

But, of course, in this novel that police captain and that opera singer---despite how natural, downright organic they seem to be---indeed, turn out to be androids.

I say this because it reminds me of how, again in decades past, white-looking African-Americans sought to "pass"; and whenever a white-looking black person came under suspicion of being black---as you know America is the land of the "one-drop rule"---he would often tend to dig in his heels on his insistence on his "white" identity, and emphasize all of the props of race and class, proving his place in the American social order: a white, reasonably affluent place (race and class often intersect and overlap in America).

There is one crucial difference between this history of American race relations I have alluded to and Philip K. Dick's novel. The androids have a total lifespan of only four years.

There are a few other things I need to say here. First of all, it is often the case in a Philip K. Dick novel or short story, that we find ourselves looking at a world order built out of the ashes of a previous world order, which had been swept away by a great war, some near-species-annihilating war.

The powers-that-be put together a new world order with an eye toward correcting the weaknesses or deficiencies that allowed the great war to come to fruition. This is a top-down, elite "never again" deal.

Then a repressive order is put into place that compels people to rebel against it.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep there has been a great war that has wiped out a lot of the Earth's population, and America's population. In this novel, the moral lesson in terms of political philosophy does not present itself in the usual way for Philip K. Dick.

In this novel there has been a great war; and a good deal of the world's population---and America's population---has been wiped out. The American government moves forward with its plans to colonize other planets. But because so many people have been killed during the great war, there is a labor shortage.

More hands are needed to make foreign planets livable for humans. That is where the androids come in. They are built to help with that work. Somewhere along the way, these latest generation of very advanced androids were literally reduced to slavery. They revolted against their involuntary servitude, quite bloodily.

Its not stated that way explicitly; like I said you have to read between the lines to get this. Dekar and the other bounty hunters are "retiring" the androids out of vengeance. Otherwise, why not just let them live out their measly four-year life spans?

There are two more small items.

1. It seems that in this world, the middle-class homes, at least have a device known as a "mood organ." You can use it to program any mood for yourself---the presumably flesh-and-blood human being---that you desire.

If you desire a state of, say, accusatory self-recrimination, or something, than you can program your mood organ to infuse you with that mood.

Here's the thing. If you feel like programming "accusatory self-recrimination" for yourself, as a mood on your mood organ, aren't you already in a state of accusatory self-recrimination without having to recourse to inject it artificially?

In one sense, this reminds me of the Wizard of Oz. Remember the Scare Crow spent the entire movie wishing he had a brain---the one he kept using to figure out ways of getting the troupe out of various tight spots?

Remember how the Tin Man wished he had a heart---the one he displayed such sympathetic feeling with?

Remember how the "Cowardly" Lion wished he had courage, mistaking it for a total absence of fear?

On the other hand, this "mood organ" business reminds me of something else. There is a Slovenian philosopher called Slavoj Zizek. Dr. Zizek has a theory about why there is the laugh track on many network sitcoms.

He says that its purpose is NOT to make us laugh in the Pahlovian sense. He says that its purpose is to make us feel relieved as if we have laughed.

It works something like this, according to Dr. Zizek. You come home from a hard, long day, at, say , six o'clock in the evening. You take off your coat and tie, pour yourself a drink, and switch on the T.V.

Something inane like Friends or Modern Family comes on. Here's the important part: You, yourself, may or may not actually physically laugh; but even if you do not actually physically laugh, the television, with its laugh track, laughs for you.

The television laughs for you! You are laughing by remote. The "laughter" inside of you is expressed elsewhere.

Why on Earth would we need a device to laugh for us?

Here is my own short answer, my own conceptual intervention upon Dr. Zizek's idea.

What if the "laughter" Dr. Zizek refers to is not the immediately reactive laughter at hearing something funny?

What if the "laughter" the doctor refers to is the feeling of joy and euphoria at feeling like you, the viewer, are at least temporarily, by virtue of the boob tube, a part of the glamorous, fabulous, sparkling world that you see on the screen; a world without race or class divisions; a world without sickness, unemployment, and want; a perfect world in which everybody always looks fabulous and always says just the right thing, at just the right time, in just the right cadence?

Even if that is true, why do we need the T.V. to laugh it out for us?

My short answer is this: Again, we're talking about a different kind of laughter. We are not talking about the kind of laughter that is specifically reactive to something funny. We are talking about the laughter of euphoric joy. If someone else in the house were to hear you laughing like that, they would probably think you were crazy. Therefore it is safer for your reputation to have the television do that kind of laughing for you.

I suppose I should also mention a sometimes feature of the science fiction of both Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury: fully viewer-performer interactive television. You could be home watching Jerry Springer, for example, thousands of miles away; and you could say something to your screen, and you would be acknowledged by name and responded to by the folks in the program; or what you said would be directly incorporated, quite suddenly.

2. The above still doesn't quite explain the mood organ. But there is a sense in which the people are struggling to remain human. In addition to the mood organ business, we see a number of characters, including Dekard, who have an obsession with owning and keeping an animal. Dekard has a sheep, an electric or android sheep. You see, there just aren't very many more dogs, cats, and the like anymore.

It is revealed that most people---who remain on Earth, anyway---have pets that are "electric" or android. It is also revealed that even if you find an animal, "in the wild," the chances are that its an android. People are always fooled in this way, into believing that an "electric" animal is organic.

The novel is prescient in this sense: Some cultural commentators talk about how we, in 2016, are fusing more and more with our various devices, becoming ever-more dependent on them. I understand that some people prefer E-pets, if you will; they are much cleaner than their organic counterparts.

The title of this novel is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But do we?


A Scanner Darkly

This novel is a paperback, published by Vintage Books (a division of Random House, Inc.). The first Vintage Books edition was put out in December of 1991. It was originally put out in 1977 under Philip K. Dick's copyright. We're looking at 273 pages.

From the back cover

"Cops and criminals have always been interdependent, but no novel has explored that perverse symbiosis more powerfully than A Scanner Darkly. Bob Arctor is a dealer of the lethally addictive drug called Substance D. Fred is the police agent assigned to tail and eventually bust him. To do so, he has taken on the identity of a drug dealer named Bob Arctor. And since Substance D---which Arctor takes in massive doses---gradually splits the user's brain into two distinct, combative entities, Fred doesn't realize that he is narcing on himself."

Let me just say something about the Substance D effect, which is supposed to "gradually" split "the user's brain into two distinct, combative entities." Frankly, I think this effect was better executed in Stephen King's novel, The Dark Half, or Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In this novel we are given to understand that police agent Fred's use of Substance D, created, within himself, two opposing personalities, that worked at cross purposes, against one another. In one of the few critical remarks I will probably ever make about Mr. Philip K. Dick's work, I have to say, for me, the effect was not quite pulled off.

The idea behind the novel is this: Police agent Fred is sent in to investigate a group of drug addicts---think "Friends" on dope. They are mostly just white, privileged, slacker types. The police want Fred to hang out with them, undercover, thereby keeping an eye on them, with the aim of working up the chain to somebody big, somebody connected to the source, somebody worth arresting.

Fred's undercover identity is that of a so-called drug dealer called Bob Arctor. Apparently, Fred actually comes to view "Bob Arctor" as someone other than himself. There is an intervening device which was meant to make this scenario work: the "scramble suit."

The scramble suit is a suit one wears, which "scrambles" the face of the wearer. That is to say, that all anyone else can see is vibrating blur; features are absolutely indiscriminate.

Now, when the undercover police agents check in at HQ to report on the progress of their investigations, they always wear their scramble suits to absolutely protect their identities.

Obviously, police agent Fred does not wear his scramble suit, when he is being "Bob Arctor," hanging out with the targets of his secret investigation. When he checks in at HQ, he wears the scramble suit, his face a whirling blur.

The targets of Fred's investigation are all white, privileged, "slacker" types as I mentioned. All of them live together in an apartment. There is an attractive young woman---herself a small-time dealer---who is also part of the clique, but does not live with the others.

Surveillance devices are set up around the apartment. Like other undercover police agents, Fred goes back to HQ to review them, to see if his targets did anything even more suspicious than usual.

There comes a point when Fred looks at surveillance recording of the targets. These include Bob Arctor. There is one scene in the book where Police agent Fred demonstrably seems to lose touch with the fact that he is Bob Arctor and that Bob Arctor is he.

Now, the clinical people back at HQ had been concerned about Fred for some time, as it turns out. They had suspected that his personality was undergoing some kind of divergence, as though the left and right hemispheres of his brain were no longer working together; as though each hemisphere of his brain was going off and doing its own thing.

The result of all this was the emergence of two separate and contending personalities, working at cross purposes.

However, in my opinion, the two spheres were not drawn evenly. That is to say I didn't feel the polarity. Substance D was supposed to be splitting Police Agent Fred's personality into two "distinct, combative entities."

One of those should have been the law and order, no-nonsense part. The other should have been the slacker, drug user and pusher, criminal type. This kind of clear-cut moral polarity is not presented here. I never got the sense that Fred was "narcing on himself."

The situation felt, to me, like a police officer who had gone deep undercover, and had thereby come to identify with the targets of police investigation. In other words, Fred had clearly come to be sympathetic with the point of view of the drug user.

But his whole personality had come under the sway of this "slacker" point of view. I never got any sense that a part of him had remained Mr. Law and Order, clean cut; which battled against the other part that had identified sympathetically with the drug-taking counterculture.

You know how this book ends? You know what eventually becomes of Fred?

Let me put it this way: Do you remember the sitcom Taxi with Danny DeVito, Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza, and Marilu Henner, centered around a New York cab company.

Now, there was a character called "Jim," played by Christopher Lloyd. Those of you who know the series know that Jim is kind of... ---what's the word I'm looking for?---spaced out, if you will. He's a head case, so to speak. He's bug-eyed and tottering.

Those of you who remember the show, know that about "Jim." Some of you may also remember that there was an episode that told us how Jim got to be that way. Once upon a time Jim was a very smart, very ambitious, very clean cut college or graduate student, I think.

One day he was given a brownie laced with marijuana, I believe, and this turned him inside out. You see, this earlier version of Jim had never taken controlled substances of any kind. He went downhill from the first marijuana brownie he ate, and so forth....

Something like this will happen to police agent Fred, due to his prolonged use of Substance D. With Fred, though, it will seem like his mind was snatched out of his body; and that it was replaced by the mind of, say, a six-year-old.

The Man Who Japed

We have here a 168 page paperback, published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. The first Vintage Books edition was put out in November of 2002, having been originally published in 1956 by A.A. Wyn, Inc.

From the back cover

"In The Man Who Japed, a world that has survived a nuclear holocaust has given way to a rigid system of oppressive morality. Highly mobile and miniature robots monitor the behavior of every citizen, and the slightest transgression can spell personal doom. Allen Purcell is one of the few people who has the capacity to literally change the way of the world, and once he's offered a high-profile job that acts as guardian of public ethics, he sets out to do precisely that, but first he has to deal with the head in his closet."

As I have said before, there is a recurring theme in Philip K. Dick's novels and stories. The reader finds himself entering a world that has recently come out of a great war of some kind---usually involving the thermonuclear annihilation a great many of the planet's people, along with a great deal of property and infrastructure.

We should not be totally devoid of sympathy for the powers-that-be, the ones who arise from the ashes to rule the new, post-war order. We find that they have put together a world order, which they hope will inherently prevent another global, catastrophic, thermonuclear war from happening again.

It usually happens that world peace seems to have been bought at the price of gross social and economic inequity, against which popular revolutionary energy begins to be mobilized.

Another feature is this: Responsibility for administering tends to be taken out of human hands and placed in the hands of "thinking machines," or highly advanced computers. The important thing here is that human reason is no longer trusted by the ruling authorities.

In The Man Who Japed, the conclusion, apparently reached by the powers-that-be, was that insufficient morality on the part of human beings had caused the great war. To insure that a similar failure of human morality does not cause another great war, the responsibility for keeping human morality in check has been externalized into machines.

Small, highly mobile, somewhat tubular devices known as juveniles, keep an eye out for infractions. The important thing to say is that this system obliterates discretion, judgment, and nuance. The "juvenile" sees what it sees, and that's it; and that "it" carries real, punitive consequences for the offending individual.

In some ways the novel was of its times and in others it was prescient. For example, we hear, today, of so-called mandatory sentencing laws, which takes discretion out of the hands of judges. We hear of California's "three strike" law, which also takes discretion out of the hands of judges---the third strike can be a "felony" conviction of something paltry, which can get somebody thirty-years for something like, say, possession of a small amount of marijuana, or something like that, if it is the "third strike."

If you take a look at the documentary film---which I believe you can find on YouTube---called The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (3 hours) by Adam Curtis for the BBC, you will discover another way Philip K. Dick's book concept was both of its time and ahead of its time.

What I'm talking about is what seems to be a reliable human response to frustration: externalization and quantification.

There is a part in the documentary that talks about the movement of externalization and quantification that psychiatry underwent in the sixties.

Basically, what set the dominoes falling, according to the documentary, was a researcher with the Rand Corporation, who created game theory. This was a kind of conceptual model meant to be used to predict Soviet behavior in the midst of the Cold War. The film A Beautiful Mind featured Russell Crowe, playing a scientist based on the real life researcher.

Various disciplines adopted the cynical view of so-called human nature, which was seemingly advocated by this game theory, with certain interesting consequences. The idea we get from the inventor of game theory is that it took off like a runaway herd of buffalo, being put to uses it had never been intended for... yada, yada, yada, as they say on Seinfeld.

But there's no use closing the barn door after the horses have taken off, and all that. Game Theory was applied to the fields of human relations. A bizarre view of normal family dynamics emerged, for example, one in which each member was in relentless, conniving competition with each other.

Anyway, it came to pass that suspicion grew against the clinical mental health sciences, like psychiatry, for instance. There was this journalist who got it into his head that psychiatry really didn't know what it was doing. He sent a bunch of people in to pretend that they were psychologically disturbed, and thus gain admittance to the mental health recovery institutions.

After some time he was able to have a big laugh about this, the way his decoys had fooled the establishment, and all that. One institution issued a challenge to this journalist; they asked him to try his experiment again, saying that this time they would spot the fakes.

After some time passed by, the institution said "Ah ha! We've found all eighteen of your fakes." But this time the journalist said that he had not sent anybody. Of course, this means that the hospital had prematurely released genuinely disturbed people.

This scandal sent the field of psychiatry into a tizzy, a tailspin, if you will. They lost "faith" in human judgment and retreated to quantification and externalized diagnosis to a descriptive code of what certain psychological problems are supposed to look like. There came onto the market a lot of different medications which purported to address these maladjustments.

The conclusion of experts consulted, some of whom appeared on camera was that, what ended up happening was that, basically, the human condition itself was rendered clinically unhealthy. That is to say, normal human sadness, despair, anxiety, and the like were problematized in a way that had never happened before.

Here's the point: This search for absolute certainty, in the face of understandable human failure, amounts to a search for God by other means. If we cannot find "Him," we will create "Him." There is no Heavenly Book on Proper Human Physical, Mental, Psychological, and Emotional Functioning. The externalization and quantification movement undergone by psychiatry, in the sixties, along with the extensive menu of medications it produced to combat the human condition, amounted to a bizarre attempt to create a God, and then forget we had created Him. Then we can refer to Him as the all-knowing, but more importantly, objective authority.

Does that make sense?

My point here is that religious dogma is one of the things that has caused revolution in human history.

Okay, we'll leave it there. Thank you so much for reading!


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      2 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thank you, Frank. I do try to entice the reader to pursue the works I write about; and I find the late, great Philip K. Dick an easy writer to praise.

      Take it easy!

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      2 years ago from Shelton

      I always say you do Book reviews right.. I enjoy reading your reviews my friend :)

    • Eldon Arsenaux profile image

      Eldon Arsenaux 

      2 years ago from Cooley, Texas

      Will do dude, will do!



    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      2 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Eldon Arsenaux. What's up, guy?

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I do not have any special talent in reading and dissecting Philip K. Dick's works. First of all, as you know, his novels are quite short and concise by today's standards, often running less than two hundred pages. I like that!

      Secondly, his intent is pretty straightforward. As a "fictionalizing philosopher," as he called himself, Dick was interested in a handful of core themes: What is reality? What does it mean to be human? How do we know God Exists? The dangers of ceding human reason and judgment to machines.

      That's basically it. His ability to take that and weave fantastic tales was second to none!

      Take it light, Eldon! :D

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      2 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thanks again, Arachnea! Take it easy.

    • Arachnea profile image

      Tanya Jones 

      2 years ago from Texas USA

      @wingedcentaur, well thank you. My pleasure to visit. I'll have to check out that last title. I've not read it.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      2 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Hi Arachnea! How's it going?

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Out of the three novels I've reviewed here, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," is certainly my favorite. I think Philip K. Dick's all-time best novel is still probably "The Man in the High Castle."

      Thanks again.

    • Eldon Arsenaux profile image

      Eldon Arsenaux 

      2 years ago from Cooley, Texas

      Yeah man, my godparents own an E-dog. As it has aged, it has become less agreeable to strangers, and that is rather strange.

      I've been keeping up with your reviews of the Philip K. Dock novels. If this is any indication with how fast you're able to read and comprehend, my own wanes in comparison. I sip books, but sometimes I'd like to chug one down.

      I've read the Dark Half and Dr. Jekyl... as well. Have yet to read A Scanner Darkly but in the movie the division of his 'hemispheres' is less clearly stated in a split, moreso in the sense of split-brain functioning (losing senses), something to do with the corpus collosum. The scramble suit, I think, is a brilliant bit of fiction in and of itself.

      My comment proves I need to return once I've read these books, so I can give better commentary. Anyway, your reviews have renewed my interest in this author's work, which I only experienced via-film.

      Good point on the 'creation of God'. I recently read the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and got the same feeling from his perspective of Ken Kesey's gang of Merry Pranksters. Oddly enough, I read it in conjunction with Foucault's The Archaeology of Knowledge. But I do not do book reviews, I leave that to you, since you do them well!


    • Arachnea profile image

      Tanya Jones 

      2 years ago from Texas USA

      I enjoyed Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" tremendously when I read it a number of years ago. My curiosity was a result of my love of the movie which was based on it, "Blade Runner."


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