According to Gopnik, the other overarching question of Philip K. Dick’s fiction is, “What is real?” In the futuristic version of the U.S. in which Do Androids Dream is set, that question is almost impossible to answer. Powerful corporations manufacture electric animals and people who seem to be “alive,” but aren’t. To make matters worse, nearly everyone in the future uses drugs that blur the line between reality and hallucination—even Rick Deckard, a police officer, uses a kind of “snuff” while he’s on the job. For this reason, as the novel nears its end, it becomes almost impossible to tell which parts of the novel are “really” happening, and which parts are merely imagined. For all intents and purposes, it could be argued that a hallucination is “real,” at least as far as the person who hallucinates it is concerned. This prompts a whole series of questions about the relationship between perception and reality. In effect, Do Androids Dream poses a futuristic version of the old Zen mantra, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around, does it make a sound?”—if a character is an android, but nobody knows it, is he human? In other words—is perception reality?
As far as the characters in Do Androids Dream are concerned, the answer to this question is a resounding “No.” Even if something in the novel seems to be real in every way—even if it’s almost indistinguishable from reality—it can be dismissed as a “fake,” a simulacrum of the truth. For this reason, bounty hunters like Rick Deckard hunt down androids posing as real humans—even though, in the end, the only way to truly confirm that they’re androids is to test their bone marrow. By the same token, residents of the United States spend large sums of money on “real” pets, even though it’s much cheaper to buy a fake pet that looks, sounds, and even smells like the real thing. In the future, precisely because it’s become so easy to mimic the real, reality is a priceless commodity, and a source of power.
This leads us to one of Dick’s most important points about the nature of reality: things are only real if enough people—or enough powerful people—say that they’re real. The futuristic law enforcers of San Francisco, to name only one example, assert their power by testing humans to determine whether they’re real or fake. Their only real source of control over their suspects is a test designed to distinguish reality from the mere perception of reality. Maybe the best example of this idea is the mood organ that Rick’s wife, Iran, uses. The mood organ can control human’s emotions: there’s a setting on the organ for the emotion of optimism, for the desire to watch TV, etc. Even though these so-called emotions seem less “real” than emotions as we think of them (i.e., the emotions that we feel without the aid of a mood organ), they’re real by virtue of the fact that a powerful corporation develops them, names them, and sells them to customers. In fact, the mood organ’s emotions may be more real than natural emotions (as far as society is concerned), because they’ve been validated by a big, powerful business and millions of consumers. My sense of optimism is fragile and indefinable, but the mood organ’s sense of optimism is the “real deal”—something everyone can (supposedly) agree upon.
In this way, Do Androids Dream suggests that reality might be perception, after all. This helps to explain the book’s ambiguous ending, in which Deckard stumbles upon a toad (an incredibly rare animal) in the middle of the desert and has a semi-religious experience. The fact that the toad turns out to be a machine makes no difference: Rick’s experience in the desert is the same. If power is the ability to classify what’s real and what’s not, then reality is just a fable that’s been agreed upon.
Perception, Reality, and Power ThemeTracker
Perception, Reality, and Power Quotes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Examining the schedule for January 3, 1992, he saw that a businesslike professional attitude was called for. "If I dial by schedule," he said warily, "will you agree to also?" He waited, canny enough not to commit himself until his wife had agreed to follow suit.
"My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression," Iran said.
"What? Why did you schedule that?" It defeated the whole purpose of the mood organ. "I didn't even know you could set it for that," he said gloomily.
He found himself, instead, as always before, entering into the landscape of drab hill, drab sky. And at the same time he no longer witnessed the climb of the elderly man. His own feet now scraped, sought purchase, among the familiar loose stones; he felt the same old painful, irregular roughness beneath his feet and once again smelled the acrid haze of the sky — not Earth's sky but that of some place alien, distant, and yet, by means of the empathy box, instantly available.
Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet. Because, ultimately, the emphatic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated. As in the fusion withMercer, everyone ascended together or, when the cycle had come to an end, fell together into the trough of the tomb world. Oddly, it resembled a sort of biological insurance, but double-edged. As long as some creature experienced joy, then the condition for all other creatures included a fragment of joy. However, if any living being suffered, then for all the rest the shadow could not be entirely cast off. A herd animal such as man would acquire a higher survival factor through this; an owl or a cobra would be destroyed.
Evidently the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator.
"Babyhide," Rick said. He stroked the black leather surface of the briefcase. "One hundred percent genuine human babyhide." He saw the two dial indicators gyrate frantically. But only after a pause. The reaction had come, but too late. He knew the reaction period down to a fraction of a second, the correct reaction period; there should have been none.
"Thanks, Miss Rosen," he said, and gathered together the equipment again; he had concluded his retesting. "That's all."
"You're leaving?" Rachael asked.
"Yes," he said. "I'm satisfied."
To Eldon Rosen, who slumped morosely by the door of the room, he said, "Does she know?" Sometimes they didn't; false memories had been tried various times, generally in the mistaken idea that through them reactions to testing would be altered.
Eldon Rosen said, "No. We programmed her completely.”
“But I think toward the end she suspected." To the girl he said, "You guessed when he asked for one more try."
Pale, Rachael nodded fixedly.
Maybe Buster is jealous, Isidore conjectured. Sure, that would explain it; he and Wilbur Mercer are in competition. But for what?
Our minds, Isidore decided. They're fighting for control of our psychic selves; the empathy box on one hand, Buster's guffaws and off-the-cuff jibes on the other. I'll have to tell Hannibal Sloat that, he decided. Ask him if it's true; he'll know.
"An android," he said, "doesn't care what happens to any other 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," she continued, "Your job is to kill them, isn't it? You're what they call — " She tried to remember.
"A bounty hunter," Rick said. "But I'm not an android."
"This test you want to give me." Her voice, now, had begun to return. "Have you taken it?"
Garland said, "That damn fool Resch."
"He actually doesn't know?"
"He doesn't know; he doesn't suspect; he doesn't have the slightest idea. Otherwise he couldn't live out a life as a bounty hunter, a human occupation — hardly an android occupation." Garland gestured toward Rick's briefcase. "Those other carbons, the other suspects you're supposed to test and retire. I know them all." He paused, then said, "We all came here together on the same ship from Mars. Not Resch; he stayed behind another week, receiving the synthetic memory system." He was silent, then.
Or rather it was silent.
Preoccupied, Phil Resch drove by reflex; his progressively more gloomy train of thought continued to dominate his attention. "Listen, Deckard," he said suddenly. "After we retire Luba Luft — I want you to — " His voice, husky and tormented,broke off. "You know. Give me the Boneli test or that empathy scale you have. To see about me."
"We can worry about that later," Rick said evasively. "You don't want me to take it, do you?" Phil Resch glanced at him with acute comprehension. "I guess you know what the results will be; Garland must have told you something. Facts which I don't know."
"Maybe they did just what we're doing," Roy Baty said. "Confided in, trusted, one given human being who they believed was different. As you said, special."
"We don't know that," Irmgard said. "That's only a conjecture. I think they, they — " She gestured. "Walked around. Sang from a stage like Luba. We trust — I'll tell you what we trust that fouls us up, Roy; it's our goddamn superior intelligence!" She glared at her husband, her small, high breasts rising and falling rapidly. "We're so smart — Roy, you're doing it right now; goddamn you, you're doing it now!"
In addition, this android stole, and experimented with, various mind-fusing drugs, claiming when caught that it hoped to promote in androids a group experience similar to that of Mercerism, which it pointed out remains unavailable to androids.
The account had a pathetic quality. A rough, cold android, hoping to undergo an experience from which, due to a deliberately built-in defect, it remained excluded. But he could not work up much concern for Roy Baty; he caught, from Dave's jottings, a repellent quality hanging about this particular android.
"No, it's that empathy," Irmgard said vigorously. Fists clenched, she roved into the kitchen, up to Isidore. "Isn't it a way of proving that humans can do something we can't do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared, group thing. How's the spider?"
"Rick," she said, "I have to tell you something. I'm sorry. The goat is dead."
For some reason it did not surprise him; it only made him feel worse, a quantitative addition to the weight shrinking him from every side. "I think there's a guarantee in the contract," he said. "If it gets sick within ninety days the dealer — "
"It didn't get sick. Someone" — Iran cleared her throat and went on huskily — "someone came here, got the goat out of its cage, and dragged it to the edge of the roof."
"And pushed it off?" he said.
"Yes." She nodded.
"Did you see who did it?"
"I saw her very clearly," Iran said. "Barbour was still up here fooling around; he came down to get me and we called the police, but by then the animal was dead and she had left. A small young-looking girl with dark hair and large black eyes, very thin. Wearing a long fishscale coat. She had a mail-pouch purse. And she made no effort to keep us from seeing her. As if she didn't care."
It would have been rewarding to talk to Dave, he decided. Dave would have approved what I did. But also he would have understood the other part, which I don't think even Mercer comprehends. For Mercer everything is easy, he thought, because Mercer accepts everything. Nothing is alien to him. But what I've done, he thought; that's become alien to me. In fact everything about me has become unnatural; I've become an unnatural self.
I'm a special, he thought. Something has happened to me. Like the chickenhead Isidore and his spider; what happened to him is happening to me. Did Mercer arrange it? But I'm Mercer. I arranged it; I found the toad. Found it because I see through Mercer's eyes.
"Do you want to use the mood organ? To feel better? You always have gotten a lot out of it, more than I ever have."
"I'll be okay." He shook his head, as if trying to clear it, still bewildered. "The spider Mercer gave the chickenhead, Isidore; it probably was artificial, too. But it doesn't matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are."