THEME IN A FICTION STORY is why writers write. It represents the subject that they are passionate about, whether it’s something as uplifting as love conquers all or as downbeat as there’s no winners in life. Writers need theme to ignite their passion, and there’s one writer whose thematic passion was so prolific that he wrote forty-nine novels and hundreds of short stories, all returning in a round-about way to the same theme – what does it mean to be human? So let’s take a look at how he developed his theme in one of his most famous and successful novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
First published in 1968, Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a story of great thematic and ideological beliefs that even today still resonates with absolute power. Its voice, instead of decaying with time, has grown stronger and is now at that pinnacle where it has simply become self-sustaining.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the novel, but I prefer to discuss the novel because, in my opinion, it is by far the superior of the two works.
Throughout most of Dick’s works, and Androids is no exception, he seems distracted with the question, What is reality? Most Dickians will know that this theme comes from his ravaged days as an LSD lover, which fuelled his growing paranoia, but with Androids he also focuses his themes to analyse and exhibit the human penchant for destruction.
Set far in the future, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the story of Rick Deckard, who is a Blade Runner – a specialised bounty hunter hired by the police to hunt down and kill escaped androids. He’s tasked to kill six that have escaped to Earth from their Mar’s colony, but they are the Nexus 6, the newest model, hard to discriminate between their human counterparts, and very dangerous. The only distinction is the android’s lack of empathy, but to distinguish this, Rick has to get close to his prey and give them the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test before he can identify them as androids, and kill them.
Androids has a seemingly limitless wealth of philosophical themes and ideologies, of which a whole encyclopaedia could be, and probably has been, written. However, for the benefit of this article, I just want to concentrate on its main theme to show how Dick constructed its strand throughout the novel and, most importantly, gave it meaning.
It is a complex theme that highlights humanity’s predilection for the persecution of people based on ethnic difference. The fact that the androids in the novel are exterminated because of their classification as non-human is the story’s prevailing statement, which already begins to exhibit certain parallels with the Nazi decrees against the human rights of the Jews during the Second World War. Is this what Dick is trying to show? If so, how does he lead the reader to this conclusion? How does he create and develop the theme of the novel?
Simply, he does it by comparing his story, which is set far in the future, with events that occurred twenty years (at the time of writing) in the past? The mechanics he uses is the novel’s structure, that is, the events of the story, and the associated imagery of those events, which, as you will see, really do have powerful parallels with the past. The setting of the story is a future Earth ravaged by a past nuclear war. Due to the radioactive fallout, the genes of all humans are deteriorating, and when the decay passes a certain level it is detected by compulsory monthly medical testing. The humans who fail this testing become known as ‘specials’ and are forbidden to leave the planet because of the government’s desire to preserve the healthy gene pool of other human colonies.
“Loitering on Earth potentially meant finding oneself abruptly classed as biologically unacceptable, a menace to the pristine heredity of the race. Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history. He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind.” (p. 15, SF Masterworks version, 2004).
Already these events echo Hitler’s devotion to the creation of the Master Race. Yet, in the eyes of the reader this in itself would not be enough to automatically parallel the extermination of the Jews during World War Two, and their subsequent ‘drop out of history’, their ‘ceasing to be part of mankind’, as Dick puts it. Dick has began his comparison with the past that he feels so passionate about, but there is not yet any explicit connection to draw the reader’s attention towards it; he needs something more to bring out his theme, so he employs a number of devices that can be associated with that past, strengthening the connections.
For Rick Deckard to determine what is human and what is android, he uses the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test. Clearly the name Voight-Kampff is German, and is also structurally similar to Adolf Hitler’s manifesto title, Mein Kampf. This immediate association subtlety prompts the reader of the crimes against humanity which the dictator perpetrated twenty or so years before Dick wrote this novel. The enslavement and murder of androids in the story is justified because of what Rick constitutes as non-human, in this instance, the androids’ lack of empathy, just as European Jews were classified as subhuman by the Germans because of their difference in ethnic and genetic origins.
In order to expound and reinforce the theme that Dick wanted to drive at with this novel, he employed further imagery associated with Nazi crimes. One of Rick’s android targets is an opera singer called Luba Luft, who, most notably, is originally from Germany. Rick tracks her down to an opera house where she is practising for a show. Rick sits in a seat in front of the stage and listens to her, even enjoys her singing, then traps her in her dressing room to kill her.
Dick purposefully wrote this scene to echo the stories he’d heard about German officers forcing Jewish opera singers to perform before sending them to the gas chambers. The event in this scene parallels those events in the past, but Dick is not only clarifying his theme with this imagery, he is also comparing Rick Deckard to those Nazi officers. Why?
Because he’s questioning humanity. The Nazi’s clearly had no empathy for the Jews (Dick actually believed that the lack of empathy demonstrated by the Nazi’s proved that they were not human), so by comparing Rick Deckard with these cruel officers he is demonstrating his lack of empathy. To be human is to have empathy for others, and androids are incapable of empathy, that’s why Rick has to use the Voigt-Kampff test. Yet Rick has no empathy for androids. The very fact that he watched Luba Luft’s performance before moving in to kill her demonstrates his lack of empathy. On the surface this may suggest that Rick is actually an android, but I feel it goes much deeper than this, suggesting that to be human is to have failings, just like the androids: therefore they are identical to humans because of their failings, so doesn’t that make them human? If so, do they really deserve to die? And because this story compares itself with the atrocities of World War Two, it’s therefore asking the same question of the Holocaust: did the Jews deserve to die because of their ethnic origins? The answer to both is obviously no.
This overall thematic thread is a simple case of ‘signposting’ – placing events and images at certain stages throughout the story, each building on the last to achieve some kind of ‘hidden’ meaning. Obviously it’s assumed some knowledge on the reader’s part regarding the past events that Dick compares his story to (and even if not, only a little research is needed to gain an understanding), but even without that knowledge the events do not detract from the story because they are the story; they work on many different levels, showing a story unfolding whilst simultaneously giving it thematic meaning. Yet signposting is the easy part; giving the events and images thematic meaning is where the art of the writer comes into play, it’s what separates the greats, the true geniuses, from the everyday amateur throng.
What Dick achieves so far then, is to contrast events and images of this future world with the events and images from the past, therefore connecting them, binding them, but other than that this theme has no real meaning… or has it? What Dick does to bring meaning to this theme is to brilliantly utilise one simple device:
He sets the story far in the future.
By doing this Dick gives the theme meaning, and ultimately turns it into an ideological message – by comparing events from the past with events from the future he’s saying that humanity is still the same, that it has not learnt, that it cannot learn, that even after all this time it has not changed, cannot change; that ultimately it is destined to continually carry out the same terrible mistakes.
Clearly I have only looked at one element of Androids, and it may appear that I have not done it justice. There are undoubtedly other ‘signposts’ throughout the discussed theme that I have chosen to omit; as I said earlier, one could write volumes about this particular novel, and although I would love to, I simply do not have the time at present to write what really would be an encyclopedia.
Got any questions about this? Just add them to the comments.