Empathy is the key theme in Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, and not only does it differentiate humans from androids, it also characterises the relationships that protagonist Rick Deckard – a human bounty hunter whose job is to retire fugitive androids who have fled Mars for Earth – has with his depressed wife Iran, with his animals, with his police counterparts, and ultimately with the androids he is tasked to hunt down. As such, the focus is less on Deckard’s mission, but more on his experiences and thoughts after interacting with these fugitive robot servants who are designed to be identical to humans, especially the notion of android intelligence and its relationship to empathy.
The book is set more broadly in a post-apocalyptic Earth, where humans are encouraged to emigrate to off-world colonies with the incentive of free personal androids. It is from these conditions of servitude that Deckard’s six targets have been forced to flee, and the way the bounty hunter can discern these androids from humans is to administer the Voigt-Kampff test, during which hypothetical questions involving the harming or killing of an animal are posed, and the taker’s reaction – more specifically, his or her eye-muscle and capillary reaction – is then measured. Yet, as Deckard advances further with his mission, he develops empathy for the androids and starts to question his profession. These developments are contrasted with his relationships with his wife and with his animals, which are supposed to promote empathy.
A slight quibble in this vein, in an otherwise engaging book, is that “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” does not necessarily detail the links between humans and their animals – since in the face of extinction ownership of a live animal is a status symbol, whereas realistic-looking electric ones are poor substitutes – or the Penfield mood organs which are supposed to induce any desired mood. And the connections to the technology-based religion Mercerism seemed inconsistent at parts. Even so, there are plenty of “what would you do” prompts and moments to keep the reader thinking, and plenty of meaningful plot development to keep the reader engaged.