Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a complex novel that could be considered postmodernist. To a varying extent, it raises the issue of gender, its structure inevitably exerting a considerable influence over how this theme is conveyed.
Dick’s novel is open to a variety of interpretations from a range of disciplines. However since its emergence in the latter half of the twentieth century, it is the ideas that loosely revolve around the banner of ‘postmodernism’ that have become a popular means to define this novel. On account of its bewildering and diverse complexity however, postmodernism as a movement is very difficult to describe. By the mid-1980s there was an academic shift towards postmodernism, in part as a reaction to modernism, although it could be viewed as a response to Marxism as well. Whereas Marxism tended to view people collectively, postmodernism stressed the role of the individual, putting an emphasis on the consideration of a person’s gender, race and sexual orientation, subjects that are apparent in Dick’s novels.
Several prominent thinkers have highlighted certain tendencies that they believe characterize the postmodern. Jean-Francois Lyotard stresses postmodernism’s scepticism regarding metanarratives. A metanarrative is an ideological structure that grants the legitimacy of certain actions, examples include Christianity, science, feminism and Marxism. Marxism as a metanarrative would view the eventual overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat – however capitalism’s resilience justifies postmodernist scepticism with the metanarrative of Marxism. It is ironic however that this distrust of metanarratives could be considered in itself a metanarrative. Fredric Jameson defines postmodernism as the outcome of an age of post-industrial capitalism, with multinational corporations now beyond the control of national governments. Jean Baudrillard meanwhile discussed the way in which image has come to dominate over substance. He highlights the pollution of the real by the ‘simulacrum’, the copy with no original.
The ideas of Lyotard, Jameson and Baudrillard all feature within the narrative of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Lyotard characterizes postmodernism by a mood of uncertainty and doubt, a mood which pervades Dick’s novel, escalating as the story continues, and perhaps climaxing at the revelation that the supposedly divine Mercer was just some drunken bit actor. Jameson’s ideas on the predominance of multinational corporations are apparent in the Western and Soviet governments’ inability to legislate against the Rosen Association. The androids – Roy, Irmgard, Max, Luba, Pris and Rachael – could be seen as Baudrillardian simulacra, copies without originals, and these might distract us from appreciating the human characters, such as Rick, Iran, Phil and John.
There is a pressing ambivalence between the real and the unreal in Dick’s novel, evident in the notion that the central theme of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is an exploration of the response of an individual to the universe in which he must live. Unable to remain whole, the protagonist Rick Deckard splits and occupies the schizoid half of his divided self, operating instead like a machine through the denial of his emotions, as if he were an android, while his schizoid self responds emotionally to his environment, yet still experiences intense anxiety.
In relation to this figurative ‘splitting’ of character, several other inhabitants of Dick’s novel, including the androids, are depicted as being doubles for various facets of Rick Deckard’s personality. From an economic basis, Rick is shown to be the breadwinner in his relationship and his partner, Iran, is portrayed as a housewife. However, in terms of any possible differentiation between masculinity and femininity in the novel, it is more fruitful to look at the relationship between Rick, the government assassin of androids (and presumably the story’s hero) and the android opera singer Luba Luft. Rick begins to question his own humanity when confronted by Luba, who points out that in his remorseless killing of androids, he himself could be considered an android, especially how he believes that the defining quality of an android is lack of empathy, ‘”Then,” Miss Luft said, “you must be an android”‘ (p.86). In contrast to Rick, Luba is portrayed as gentle and artistic – she sings Mozart beautifully and has a fondness for Edvard Munch, ‘Luba Luft… stood absorbed in the picture before her’ (p.113). Luba is murdered by Rick and Phil Resch, another assassin who also represents a facet of Rick’s character. The protagonist initially presumes that Resch is an android as he has encountered an individual with a complete lack of empathy. The irony however is that Resch is actually human.
One quality Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? possesses is that it doesn’t present any overriding opinion. Dick’s reliance on literary doubling and heavy use of metaphor ultimately mean it is very difficult to identify any superseding assertion in his novel, certainly one relating to gender, which as a theme is somewhat marginalized in the novel. In this case, masculinity is better understood if it is juxtaposed with its polar opposite, femininity. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the character of Rick Deckard appears to draw on a very particular masculine image, although due to the metaphorical dividing of his personality, and its various manifestations in other individuals throughout the book, it is difficult to arrive at any definitive statements on Dick’s part in regards to gender.