Entering the Yin-Yang Fractal Funhouse

The original Rick Deckard wasnt an android, but maybe Philip K. Dick was.


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     A beautifully designed cover for the novel  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  (1968) by Philip K. Dick. This cover was designed by Justin Mezell as part of  The Fox Is Black  blog’s awesome “ Re-Covered Books ” series, which invites designers and artists to reimagine the covers of famous books.  There were many stellar entries for this classic .

A beautifully designed cover for the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick. This cover was designed by Justin Mezell as part of The Fox Is Black blog’s awesome “Re-Covered Books” series, which invites designers and artists to reimagine the covers of famous books. There were many stellar entries for this classic.

“An android,” he said, “doesn’t care what happens to another android. That’s one of the indications we look for.”

“Then,” Miss Luft said, “you must be an android.”

That stopped him; he stared at her.

“Because isn’t it your job to kill them?”

* * *

“The electric things have their lives too. Paltry as they are.”

* * *

“When I used the word ‘human,’” Roy Baty said to Pris, “I used the wrong word.”


—Excerpts from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


Philip K. Dick wrote a whole boatload of material in his lifetime (Wikipedia — glory be upon it — lists 44 novels and 121 short stories). Probably his most famous work is the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is based.

I suppose a big SPOILER ALERT siren is warranted here, but c’mon! 1968 and 1982!

Still, if you’ve seen the film but haven’t read the novel, have read the novel but haven’t seen the film, or have done neither, yet still would like to do either (or both), here’s your chance to bail.

(For any interested Angelenos out there: As part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s film series, LACMA will be showing Blade Runner on Valentine’s Day — because everyone loves rom-coms where murderous, rebelling android slaves are hunted down and “retired” by police bounty hunters!)

It might seem strange to be talking about a 47-year-old novel and its 33-year-old movie adaptation, but in Philip K. Dick’s case it’s appropriate, because we are finally catching up to him.

The ideas running through Electric Sheep, and much of Dick’s dazzling science fiction, are still captivating people today. Hollywood routinely raids his material for films (not just Blade Runner, but Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, The Adjustment Bureau and a smattering of others are also based on his work). Also, his novel The Man in the High Castle is currently being adapted into an Amazon Original Series (the pilot premiered in January). Oh, and guess what’s in the works? Blade Runner 2, starring Harrison Ford.

Why are his stories so captivating? Because they’re uncompromisingly weird and thought-provoking and awesome, that’s why. But to understand the unique storytelling gifts that set him apart, a close reading of Electric Sheep reveals much of the magic that runs through his approach and the profound questions he returned to again and again. It also fun to revisit the work to answer one of the questions fans have been debating at least since the film version was released: Is Rick Deckard an android?



Who Are You Calling a Replicant?

I recently came across this passage in an essay on the delusions of schizophrenics (fans of Dick’s will understand why his life and work might be relevant to such an essay):


[Dick] died in 1982, just as his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) was being adapted into Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner [sic], its storyline soft-pedalled by a studio that believed audiences would reject the climactic revelation that its protagonist was himself an android.


Whenever either work is discussed in print or in conversation, this same idea inevitably pops up. “Was Deckard an android?” or more commonly, “Deckard was an android!” Google around and you’ll find plenty of people with pretty strong feelings about it. As the quote above shows, even casual references usually now state that Deckard was an android in both the book and the film. It’s seeped into our pop culture consciousness (Dick would cherish the irony).

But is it true? To be honest, hearing the theory would always make me feel like an idiot. When I read the book, I never picked up on that possibility. It never crossed my mind. And perhaps because of my own interpretation of the novel, I also never questioned Harrison Ford’s character’s humanness in the film version.

Yet time and time again, this crucial question is presented to be the crux of both works. How could I have missed it?

The quote from that essay above was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was time to reread the novel to seek out all the textual evidence I had missed, then read up on the film too, to see once and for all who is right.

Here is what I found.

Surprise One: I’m not insane. (Well, not about this.) In the novel, Rick Deckard is human. 100%. There are times the reader might raise his or her eyebrows at the possibility (especially having already seen Blade Runner — more on why in a bit), but by the end of the novel there is zero ambiguity about this. In fact, the story wouldn’t even make sense if he were an “andy,” as they’re called. In the book, one of the only remaining surefire ways to discern humans from the most advanced “Nexus-6” models of androids is a standardized empathy test. Not only has Deckard passed that test, but his very real human empathy becomes an integral factor in the plot and the very meaning of the entire work. In fairness, most of the debate seems to center on Blade Runner, not the novel. Still, you’d expect the film to have stuck pretty close to the original story on this major point, or at least I did. And the confusion that really started with Blade Runner has since permeated into misinterpretations of the novel.

Surprise Two: Hampton Fancher, Blade Runner’s screenwriter, has explained that, in line with Dick’s original creation, he wrote Rick Deckard as a human being — though he left open the possibility that the character might be an android (or “replicant” in the film’s parlance, a term that never appears in the book). Though it’s true that he embraces the ambiguous interpretation of the character, when asked flat out whether Deckard was a replicant, he said, “No.” Likewise, Harrison Ford insists that he played his character as a human all along, and even admitted that the question “was a main area of contention” between him and director Ridley Scott, who is the main source for the doubt. Scott has repeatedly stated his interpretation that Deckard was in fact an android. To further the confusion, the film as originally released purposely dialed up the ambiguity, while the longer director’s cut actually establishes implicitly that Deckard was an android and not a human. So, to recap: he’s a human in the novel, a maybe-android in the theatrical release, and a definite android in the director’s cut. Hence the debate, the participants of which are often talking about different versions altogether. Scott’s insistence that Deckard was a replicant seems to have encouraged the idea that it’s also true in the novel — to the point where some believe the film might even have “soft-pedaled” the idea, as in the essay quoted above.  

Surprise Three: A close reading of the novel is a master class in fiction writing.


The Master Architect

I don’t want #3 up there to be taken the wrong way. It shouldn’t be that surprising. He was obviously brilliant, his imaginative powers awe-inspiring. But that’s just it: even among his ardent fans, Dick is mostly known as an ideas guy. It’s the ideas in his stories, his penchant for dreaming up ingenious technologies and vivid futures and alternative realities, that are the main draw. His writing is not what you would call belletristic. The dialogue can be a bit campy, the pacing a bit spotty, the phrasing at times a bit cringe-inducing, like in these random examples from Electric Sheep:


“He felt his arms grow vague.”

* * *

“He rocked back and forth on his heavy heels, his face wise with profundity.”

* * * 

 “He finished undressing her. Exposed her pale, cold loins.”


Vague arms? A profundity-wise face? Loins?

What I found is that these sorts of haughty quibbles over his style are worse than ungenerous. They’re entirely beside the point when considering his effectiveness as a writer. Sure he’s not Henry James, but who is? There are people who are harshly snobbish toward him, and they are wrong. Dick was a master craftsman. It’s not just the scintillating ideas powering his stories that are impressive. It’s the way his stories are carefully constructed, as if they had organically crystallized instead of being written.

The effect of his fiction calls to mind a carnival funhouse: nothing is ever as it seems, perspectives are always twisted, reality can never be trusted. But what he’s up to is much more precise, more scientific, than those randomly distorting funhouse mirrors. Electric Sheep is designed like a yin–yang — two opposites fused together, each half reflected by its proportional opposite, each half also containing a smidgeon of its opposite, with the united whole so carefully calibrated as to be utterly dependent on the integrity of each half.

The closer you look at his work, the more instances of this yin-yang effect pop up. In fact, this quality holds true at the highest thematic levels and echoes sharply in the stories’ superficial minutiae. In that way his work is more than a yin-yang — it’s a yin-yang fractal, where the smallest parts precisely and proportionally resemble the whole.


Try to Keep It Real. (Good Luck.)

What is true and what is false? What is reality, and what is merely a trick of our perception? On the grandest scale, these are the questions Dick obsessed over. (Think Total Recall.)

His novel The Man in the High Castle offers a vivid example. The story presents a nightmarish future world in which the Axis Powers had won World War II. But in this counterfactual world, a dangerous banned book is circulating throughout the American underground — a book that envisions what would have happened had the Allies prevailed. The integrity of this dichotomy holds true even on an emotional register: Just as the dark reality of Dick’s counterfactual story proves terrifying to us in the real world, the counterfactual novel within that novel (which mirrors our own reality) is a source of hope to the fictional characters he created. He gives real people terror, and fictional terrorized people hope.

A similarly elegant structure coheres in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The story is set long after World War Terminus has devastated much of Earth and all forms of life on it. At the time the story picks up, most surviving humans have already fled to planetary colonies, with many of the people left behind proving too old or too compromised physically and/or mentally to leave. The world is choking on a layer of radioactive dust, the lethality of which has weakened over time, but not before killing many people and harming many of the survivors.

To ensure humanity’s survival, people have colonized other worlds. Colonists are lured with an offer of complimentary androids to serve them. Androids are also used for intensive labor like mining and other servile functions on the colonies. They are slaves.

Post–World War Terminus Earth (well, we only really see San Francisco) sounds horrible enough, but there’s another growing problem. The Rosen Corporation (in the film, it is the Tyrell Corporation — their motto might be familiar to you: “More Human Than Human”), which designs and manufactures humanity’s androids, is continuously getting better at making them smarter, stronger, and more convincingly human.

As this progress in android technology continues apace, the humans left behind on Earth are degrading. The radioactive dust has already killed off the weakest people and is compromising the cognitive abilities and genetic makeup of many survivors. It’s that yin-yang effect all over again: In an eminently Dickian twist, we have real humans losing their humanity, just as artificial androids are steadily approaching a humanity all their own.

Naturally, as the androids evolve, so does their sense of free will and their claim to individual rights. Some of the latest models — the Nexus-6 types — are starting to rebel, murdering their overseers and escaping undetected to Earth to pose as real humans under assumed “synthetic identities.” Outside the police departments tasked with tracking down and destroying the androids, humans on Earth are unaware of the interlopers in their midst. Reality escapes them.

This complementary devolving-human / evolving-android yin-yang is repeated all throughout the book.

One of the androids Deckard is hunting is posing as a cognitively compromised “special” — an instance of the highest form of ever-improving artificial life actively mimicking a degraded form of ever-deteriorating real human life.  

Another android on Deckard’s hit list is posing as a human opera singer. Seeking her out, he enters the concert hall to catch part of what he calls “a slightly miscontrived rehearsal” of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. This is an ingenious turn: A human hunter of androids stumbles into a “miscontrived rehearsal of a performance of one of the highest achievements of human artifice in history, one that is itself largely concerned with truth, lies, false identity, love, and the search for enlightenment (not to mention forced captivity), which in this instance features an android singer performing both the lead role and the role of the person performing the lead role.

As if all that weren’t meta enough, during the rehearsal, the chorus mistimes its cue, making the production just ever-so-slightly off, mirroring how the sophisticated Nexus-6 android models are just ever-so-slightly inhuman. In a further stroke of brilliance, Dick reminds us that in The Magic Flute the chorus is a group of slaves, calling to mind the escaped android slaves Deckard has been sent to retire once and for all.


 An alternate poster of the movie featuring the last owl on Earth (which is a robot because all birds are extinct).

An alternate poster of the movie featuring the last owl on Earth (which is a robot because all birds are extinct).


“It’s not the same.”

“But almost….”

This game of opposites and uncertain authenticity is played throughout the novel (and in its title) with Dick’s use of animals.

In the story, another dire result of World War Terminus is that many species of animals are extinct — there are no more birds, for instance — and even the smallest form of life is sacred. Animals also happen to be extremely valuable. As such, they have become a status symbol, and there is a booming business for real and synthetic ones.

Time and again animals serve to illustrate the problem of discerning reality from illusion:

  • Deckard owns a sheep. It is not real, though it’s virtually impossible to tell (except when it occasionally goes on the fritz). His neighbor owns a horse that he claims is real, but may or may not be.
  •  The Rosen Corporation, producer of the androids he hunts, tries to bribe Deckard with an owl — a species thought to be extinct. (“A major manufacturer of androids,” he said thoughtfully, “invests its surplus capital on living animals.”) The owl turns out to be a remarkably convincing fake.
  • Another bounty hunter, suspected by Deckard to be an android but who turns out to be human, owns a very real squirrel.
  • In one scene, John R. Isidore, a “special” whose cognitive abilities have been compromised by the radioactive environment, makes a house call for the veterinary office he works for — itself a front for a shop that deals only with fake animals. The house call is for a malfunctioning artificial cat, but back at the shop, they realize that the cat is very real and that it is now very dead. The office then arranges to have a fake version made in its image.
  • Toward the end of the story, Deckard uses the bounty he’s earned from “retiring” androids to impulsively purchase a live goat — only to have an android push it off his roof out of spite. (Before the female android murders his goat, she sleeps with Deckard. They also share some rare “authentic” bourbon, so authentic that it causes him to feel false gratitude. He has difficulty swallowing the bourbon. The android does not.)
  • In another pivotal moment, Isidore discovers a spider, a sacred and pricey treasure he is ecstatic to save — only to helplessly witness an android mercilessly tear off four of its legs as an “experiment.”
  • And in the novel’s final pages, as a perfect mirror image of that spider episode, our hero Deckard finds a toad in the rubble, an unheard of discovery in the barren wasteland that northern California has become. He brings it home, only to see his wife flick open its circuit board. The story ends with her ordering artificial flies for the electric toad to feed on.


All the World’s a Stage

For the people of this war-ravaged world, solace is found in Mercerism, a quasi-religion that through a sort of virtual-reality system nurtures a species-wide empathic connection and the heartfelt belief in the sanctity of all life. The fugitive androids are part of a plot to take down Mercerism by revealing it to be based on a lie: the vivid experience shared by adherents is proved to be footage shot long ago on a Hollywood sound stage. Yet the empathy induced by the experience is very real, so real that the android plot fails to collapse the system. That it’s all based on a false construct turns out to be inconsequential; the genuine empathy shared by human proponents of Mercerism, the very empathy the androids cannot experience and therefore underestimate, is all that matters.

And on and on it goes. At every turn there is both hope and bleak despair, warm humanity and cold bloodlessness, life and death, each reflecting back at the other and intermingling.

In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, Isidore discovers that he is no longer the only tenant in his massive deteriorating apartment building (the fugitive androids are squatting on another floor). Delighting at the sound of other people where for so long he had been alone, he struggles to remember neighborly rituals from before the war. What was it that neighbors did? What is it that he should do? He recalls something about bringing gifts…

Isidore doesn’t yet know that his new neighbors are androids when he goes to his fridge to select the best gift he has to offer: “A dubious cube of margarine.” Because we are in a world created by Philip K. Dick, where even fake butter is extra-dubious.

This small instance well captures the overarching obsession of his writing. Throughout his many fictional worlds, people long for the power to reliably discern what is real and what is fake, and long to attain only what is real, all while counter-intuitively (and selfishly) longing for the ability to pass off the artificial as reality to those around them — only to watch helplessly in anguish as all three longings remain forever impossible to wholly realize.

Sort of like in real life.


Posted on February 12, 2015