Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep And Blade Runner

-Science Fiction author, Philip K. Dick, died in 1982. In honor of his distinguished writing career and influence on the Science Fiction writing community, the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society established the annual The Philip K. Dick Award in 1983. Each year, an original published work of science fiction from the United States receives this honor at Norwescon.

I’ve always wanted to learn my about Philip K. Dick and am especially excited to share this original piece from contributor, Ren Zelen.

More Human than Human

Philip K Dick, as his interviews, letters and essays make clear, enjoyed film and television. In 1981 he had the opportunity to talk with Ridley Scott, the director of the film adaptation of his novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep‘. He read and was pleased by the final screenplay of the movie, entitled Blade Runner, and was able to view 20 minutes of footage which caused him to ultimately embrace the altered cinematic adaptation. Less than 2 months before his death, he told an interviewer “The opening sequence is simply the most stupendous thing I have ever seen in the way of a film”. Dick never lived to see the premiere of the movie, nor to enjoy how it has earned its place as a milestone in American Science-fiction cinema.


This tragedy prompts readers of Dick’s fiction to wonder how he would have judged the many movie adaptations that have come after: Total Recall (1982 and again in 2012) Confessions d’un Barjo (1992) Screamers (1995) Impostor (2002) Minority Report (2002) Paycheck (2003) A Scanner Darkly (2006) Next (2007) The Adjustment Bureau (2011). Fans of his work would like to think that Philip K Dick would have had requested some involvement  in these later films, although he had wryly commented in 1980, “You would have to kill me and prop me up in the seat of my car with a smile painted on my face to get me to go near Hollywood…” As it turned out, Hollywood came to him, or at least to his body of work – and kept on coming.


After the release of Blade Runner, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ became Philip K Dick’s best known and most referenced work. The book is a good example and a paradigm of Dick’s recurring preoccupations, ideas and motifs: the enigmatic and shifting nature of reality, the difficulty of distinguishing between the real and the artificial and a constant underlying sense of unease and paranoia. The most obvious difference between Blade Runner and ‘Electric Sheep’ is that the movie had to compress Dick’s 240 page novel into 2 hours of film narrative. This required that Ridley and the screenwriters, Fancher and Peoples, exclude many of the novels events and characters to trim the story into a manageable cinematic length. Dick himself accepted this necessity. He explained in an interview, “The book had about 16 plots going through it and they would have had to make a movie lasting 16 hours, and it would have been impossible…this is not how you make a movie out of a book.”

The movie reduces the quirkiness and fantastical elements of Dick’s novel, losing the  central Religion/Philosophy of Mercerism, the almost non-stop TV talk show, and indeed, the electric sheep itself. The movie chooses to concentrate on the figure of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who has to track androids or ‘replicants’ masquerading as humans, and eliminate them. Six of the most advanced models, the Nexus-6, are at large and Deckard is employed, somewhat unwillingly, to ‘retire’ them. Use of the Voigt-Kampff test is supposed to differentiate the androids from the humans by exposing their emotional inexperience and underdevelopment, but as Deckard pursues the Nexus-6 androids, his observations and experiences call into doubt both the value of the test and the differences between the androids and the humans.

He finds himself drawn to Rachel Rosen, introduced as the niece of Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the head of the Tyrell Corporation, but who it transpires, has unwittingly been implanted with the niece’s memories, imagining herself ‘human’ and thus making it necessary for a much more rigorous empathy test to be performed before she can be identified as ‘not human’. To quote Tyrell himself, the motto of the corporation is to make androids ‘More human than Human’. Deckard is conflicted by his growing feelings for Rachel, and begins to doubt the morality of his task as assassin.

In Dick’s novel, the androids are exposed as being little more than cold and pitiless automatons. Deckard’s sexual encounter with Rachel is an empty and false imitation of intimacy and the story ends with his degeneration into a spiritual and emotional numbness. Blade Runner revises this bleak conclusion by blurring the differences between the human and the artificial and presenting the replicants as dynamic beings on a fervent quest to confront their ‘creator’ and question him regarding their shortened term of existence and to try to persuade him to extend it. They feel the sting of prejudice and bondage and hope for  the chance to further explore ‘human’ sensations and gather experiences – they have the, not unreasonable, wish to live an authentic life. Whereas the androids in ‘Electric Sheep’ seek maliciously to demolish the tenuous religious system that supports the sad inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic culture, Blade Runner’s replicants ask questions about life and spirituality that might shake the complacency of the human residents of a hyper-industrialised and technologically dependent society.

Deckard is a loner, who in the early scenes of the movie, behaves much like an emotionally distant automation himself, but as his sexual attraction to Rachel surfaces, he is forced to confront rising hopes and feelings that he had buried long ago. Their hunger for life and experience makes the replicants of the movie appear more ‘alive’ than the jaded humans – or as Tyrell had unwittingly asserted, it makes them ‘more human than human’. One of the final scenes of the movie, the replicant Roy Batty’s death scene, (beautifully played by Rutger Hauer) emphasises this point. As Batty’s short four year life-span comes to a close, he utters the most famous speech of the film, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”   It evokes the memories, experiences and passions that have driven Batty and his fellow replicants to seek more out of their lives. At the last he has a respect for all life – he reacts to save Deckard from falling to his death. The reason why he saves Deckard’s life’s remains ambiguous. In his last moments, gently holding a white dove, Batty resembles a  fallen angel – at odds with and cast out by his ‘creator’, but his final act of mercy to his antagonist shows a spiritual transformation – the replicant appears more compassionate than his pursuer – at the end he is a more ‘human’ man than Deckard. If indeed, Deckard is human…

There is a school of thought regarding the ending of the movie which has led some viewers to consider whether Deckard himself is not also an advanced ‘Nexus 7′ replicant with implanted memories, in the way that Rachel is. Gaff, second-in-command to Deckard’s replicant-hating boss, has some enigmatic last words as he leaves after inspecting Batty’s dead body on the roof. As Gaff turns to go he declares over his shoulder, “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does.”

It is specifically the presence of the tiny silver origami unicorn that is discovered in the corridor outside Deckard’s apartment during his hurried escape with Rachel, which indicates that Gaff has been there and has seen Rachel asleep inside. The unicorn happened to be a feature of Deckard’s dream and Gaff’s parting origami gift suggests he may have had access to those dreams, or implanted memories? (Viewers who are unsure of such a conclusion should watch the movie again and note whether Deckard’s eyes ever ‘glow’ like those of the replicants when seen in semi-darkness, and then make-up their own minds).

In general the movie, despite its changes to the novel, is considered to be a successful adaptation of the book. Philip K Dick himself supported this point of view: “If you start off with the book. Then you can go to the movie, and then you get more material…The book and the movie do not fight each other – they reinforce each other”. The success of the movie is not simply due to the stunning visual representation of the future world presented by Ridley Scott and the haunting soundtrack by Vangelis, but also in its willingness to embrace the ambiguities  of morality, identity and the fragile nature of spiritual fulfilment that make life so complex and uncertain in a twenty-first century world.

Copyright held by Ren Zelen (2013)

Have you seen Blade Runner or read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Please share your comments below.

If you’re a fan of Philip K Dick, you may also want to read our review of ‘The Man In The High Castle.’

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About Reviewer, Ren Zelen
REN ZELEN describes herself as “a writer, academic editor, reviewer, pop culture junkie, movie buff, rock music enthusiast, science nerd and Sandra Bullock lookalike”. Her fiction and past reviews can be found on her own website: Lethal Lexicon.

Her post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel ‘The HATHOR DIARIES’ is available from Amazon in both the UK and USA.

Her book/film/TV reviews can be found on various sites on the web. Information and contact on twitter.

  • OL Wilson

    Great review, very informative. I loved the film and it’s interesting to read how it compliments the book. It’s funny, my phone is called a Nexus 7!