Android Dreams: Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott's Replicant Futures
“The electric things have their lives too,” concludes Rick Deckard, the android-hunting hero of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? For two hundred-odd pages, he’s struggled over the morality of his profession, and in the book’s closing scene, he begins to feel true empathy for his inhuman victims, and thus becomes fully human himself.
Dick once described himself as “a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist.” He saw his works as explorations of two primary questions: “What is reality?” and “What is human?” Androids enthusiastically tackles the second question, skillfully fusing its ideas about cruelty and empathy into a compelling detective story. Other works in his oeuvre explore the question as thoroughly--for instance, the novel We Can Build You and the speech “The Android and the Human.” But none do so in so entertaining a fashion as Androids.
A lesser novel would pale in comparison to so impressive a film adaptation as Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of Androids casts a long shadow, but there’s no question that the growing cult success of Blade Runner had an impact on Dick’s own posthumous success. With hindsight, it’s almost ironic that Dick’s relationship with the film and its producers was so contentious. He was left out of the pre-production process, and wasn’t even told when the project entered production. Dick so hated an early draft of the script that he began disparaging it both privately and publicly. He joked to one interviewer that, had he visited the set, it would have ended in violence: “I would just leap across that special effects set like a veritable gazelle and seize [Harrison Ford] by the throat and start battering him against the wall...And I’d be screaming, ’You’ve destroyed my book!’”
Dick’s opinion improved after he read a revised script (“one of the finest screenplays I have had the pleasure to read”), and he was enthusiastic about a reel of effects footage he saw in December of 1981. He was excitedly awaiting the film’s opening when he died of a stroke on March 2nd, 1982. Though the film was not a success on its initial release, its influence has steadily grown, and it is now widely considered one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. The film’s success has given Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a broad reach into many media, inspiring toys, video games, comics. Its influence even extends into Dick’s other successes: the television program Total Recall 2070, based on Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of a Dick story, draws most of its themes, mood, and inspiration from Androids and Blade Runner rather than the high-octane action film from which it nominally grew.
In a letter to his agent, Dick wrote: “We are going to harvest the yield from Blade Runner for years to come, perhaps as long as I live.” It’s surprising that so skilled a writer of science fiction could be so short-sighted: the impact of this novel and its adaptation have gone far beyond its author’s lifespan.