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Do androids really dream of electric sheep?

By / October 30, 2017 / no comments

Blade Runner: The Final CutBlade Runner 2049The other day, we linked to a post that talked about how the title, Blade Runner, originally came from an obscure novel by Alan E. Nourse.

I was reminded of that when I came across a review of Blade Runner 2049 in The London Review of Books. It’s a pretty good review in general, more measured than some I’ve seen. But at one point the critic, Michael Wood, compares the two Blade Runner films by saying:

We could say the two films offer different answers – or different angles on the same answer – to the title-question of the Philip K. Dick novel on which both are based: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The first says: Of course not, they dream of a removal of the fail-safe device, a technical modification that will allow them to continue in existence a little longer. The second says: No, they dream of real sheep, or their human equivalents, they feel deprived because they are made, not born, as a character says in the film.

To which my immediate response was: no, that’s wrong!

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: SF MasterworksLet’s go back to the title. That post we lined to is pretty good at explaining where the title Blade Runner comes from. It’s not so good at explaining why the film simply didn’t re-use Dick’s original title. There are basically two reasons for that: the first is that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is pretty clunky as a title, not the sort of thing that film makers might envisage on the cinema marquee. The second reason is that the title has nothing to do with the film.

There are huge amounts of the novel that were unceremoniously dumped for the film. The whole thing about Mercerism, for a start; and Deckard’s wife; and the way that people, in their blasted, post-apocalyptic landscape, make up for the absence of animal life by keeping robot pets. This last is the overt reason for the novel’s title.

Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential WritingsBut there’s another, less obvious reason for the title that goes back to an essay that Dick wrote at about the same time. The essay is called “The Android and the Human” (if you want to read it, it has recently been reprinted in the anthology, Science Fiction Criticism, edited by Rob Latham, which we also mentioned recently) and in it Dick argues that as androids tend to become more human in their manner and in their desires, at the same time humans tend to become more machine-like. If Dick were still alive today, he would see how more and more of us have electronic devices that talk to us, while we are seemingly permanently immersed in social media, and he would consider that his point has been proven.

With this crossover between the human and the machine in mind, the answer to that title question is clearly meant to be a decisive “No!” Androids dream of real sheep, because androids tend towards life; it is humans that dream of electric sheep, because humans tend towards the machine.

So, although Wood is right that the answer to the question is no, he is wrong about why that is the case. He is also wrong about the meaning of the question. But, given that the second film takes us a stage further on than the original, another step in the interchange of android and human in Dick’s imagination, Wood could well be right in his conclusion to the review:

Perhaps electric sheep, weary of mechanical physicality and borrowed memories, dream of phantasmagoric androids, and humans don’t make it at all into the final cut.

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