The Empathic Gift in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


Philip K. Dick might be one of the most significant authors of science fiction. His Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, published in 1968 for the first time, made a high impact on the genre. Dick discusses many issues through the prism of the atomic war threat making an accent on the human empathy gift. He contrasts indifferent androids and emotional people who, however, need a tool to generate concrete feelings. In the paper, a semiotic analysis of the book will be made with a focus on the theme of empathy.

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Summary and Plot of the Novel

The author gives the readers a terrifying view of the post-war Earth. The narration takes place in 1992, a few years after the “World War Terminus” devastated a significant part of the Earth (Dick 5). After the War, the UN began to promote emigration to extraterrestrial colonies to protect humanity from the harmful effects of radioactive dust. As an additional incentive, each emigrant was provided with a free android (derogatorily called Andy).

Many of these robots escape, killing their owners, and go to the Earth to free themselves from their slavish status. Androids are completely biological creatures and physically almost indistinguishable from humans. Due to the fact that the cells of their bodies are not able to divide, androids live no more than four years. “Bounty hunters” track and “put to sleep” runaway androids who are hiding on the Earth (Dick 7). The main character of the tale is a bounty hunter himself, and his hunting is the central plotline of the story.

Mercerism is the religious-philosophical movement of the future widespread on Earth. It is based on the legends of Wilber Mercer, a man who lived before the War. The followers of Mercerism squeeze the handles of an electric device called the “empathy box” and look at its screen, the collages on which do not make sense to an outside observer (Dick 10). When in contact with the box, the consciousness of the viewers perceives Mercer’s world, where they merge with him and with everyone else who is using the device at the moment.

People live in half-abandoned cities, where radiation contamination causes severe diseases and genetic abnormalities. All animals are either extinct or are threatened with extinction. Therefore, the possession and care of an animal are considered a virtue, almost a duty of everyone, and the type of pet largely determines the social status of its owner. Many people, who cannot afford a real pet, buy an artificial robot animal. The protagonist, Rick Deckard, has a sheep that died of tetanus and was replaced by an electric analog to create the vision of animal ownership.

Industrial giants, such as the Rosen Corporation, are making tremendous profits, making the life of immigrants more bearable. After all, everyone who agrees to leave the Earth receives an android assistant, practically indistinguishable from humans. There is only one point: it is not a real human. A machine that is not able to experience feelings cannot be treated as a person by its owners.

Characters and Themes of the Book

The story has three characters whose fates intersect and drive the events of the book. Rick Deckard is the protagonist whose personality develops before the readers’ eyes, transforming their inner convictions with every chapter. He walks a long way to feel empathy for androids. The storyline with the hunt for robots is the main engine of the novel. John Isidore is a “special” person who, nevertheless, is able to work as a technician of electric pets (Zimmerman 81).

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He fells empathy without the box; Zimmerman states, “the reader may wonder which character is … more fully human – who develops his empathy [Rick] or … who simply and unconsciously possesses it [John]” (81). Wilbur Mercer is a spiritual mentor who people depend on due to the usage of the empathy box. He reconciles Deckard’s empathy with the obligation to destroy androids.

Plenty of questions that arise in the readers’ minds remain unanswered. The author might be interested not in the logic of the narrative or in the consistency of the picture he creates, but in how the protagonist will resolve the ethical conflicts that appear. That is why some of the settings introduced by the author seem unnatural and even far-fetched. For example, one of the points of the novel is that an android needed to kill its owners to escape from Mars. The book does not explain to the readers why androids should act in this cruel way. But the subsequent hunt for “poor Andi” becomes fully justified because each of them is a killer (Dick 78).

The creation of such collisions might be the author’s goal. Dick masterfully develops the story and increases tension to lead the protagonist to catharsis. Moreover, Moghadam and Porugiv state, “Dick’s novel is symptomatic of the ideology of global capitalism and multiculturalism, and the rise of racial tensions at their core” (13). The readers can find a plethora of discussed issues that accompany the main one.

Central Issue of the Story

It might seem that the central question of the novel is whether a person can, in principle, extend an empathic feeling to androids and whether they can feel at all. The situation concerning electric animals, at first glance, gives a negative answer: zoomorphic mechanisms are acquired purely to throw dust in the eyes of neighbors. Even vans delivering broken electric animals for repair are disguised as veterinary. That is why the very fact that someone’s pet is a machine is a terrible and shameful secret. Rick Deckard is so frustrated that his sheep is not alive, that he is ready to do anything to replace it with the original.

However, the text quite clearly shows that the difference in relation to real and electric animals is artificial and far-fetched. People who do not know what exactly is in front of them experience empathy for the object – and only making sure that in front of them is “it,” an inanimate imitation, refuse empathy. It is especially noticeable in the situation with the owl Scrappy, which Deckard considers as a real one.

It is not surprising that, gradually, Rick, due to professional deformation, begins to experience feelings for his clients that are far from purely professional duty. He sincerely admires the vocal performance of Luba Loft, the star of the San Francisco Opera. Deckard does not hesitate to kill her, making sure that she is one of the androids escaped from Mars, becoming another thousand dollars closer to the cherished dream of a real animal. Nevertheless, the absence of hesitation does not mean the lack of regrets.

As soon as the readers stop to blame it all on the pursued runaways, Pris Stratton, picked up by John Isidore, cripples a spider. John, to his misfortune, decides to shelter a group of androids. Not only does unfortunate arthropod suffer from tortures; Isidore himself cannot stand the torment of his accidental pet and does not believe that his “new friends” can do such things (Zimmerman 82). Then, the thesis that androids are not people, but soulless killers again ceases to seem unacceptable.

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The cynicism of the situation is aggravated by the fact that despite android slaves being declared illegal on Earth, their more successful brothers make brilliant careers, reaching heights to which no bounty hunters can climb. Such is the leadership of a fake department that is endowed with the real capabilities of the police. Even the TV star Buster Friendly, the host of the most popular round-the-clock talk show, is an android. It is significant that he reveals that the older man climbing the hill of stones, who empathized with the majority of the remaining earthlings, is an ordinary actor. The landscape is just a crudely painted back of the shooting pavilion.

The readers may ask whether it is the revenge of the androids, the pursuit of rating, the competition of the media, or something else. There is no sure answer in the book, but it might be not as important as it seems. For the people who inhabit the Earth, feelings that each of them experiences while sharing Wilbur’s way are far more critical than the authenticity of the Wilbur figure. Perhaps, human feelings are the only reality that is impossible to doubt.


It seems reasonable to claim that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick is an intriguing, exciting, and relevant novel that keeps the readers’ attention till the last pages. The issue of empathy is clearly highlighted as the core problem. Dick makes the readers think about what feelings mean to a human and gives no direct answer. Throughout the story, he constantly distinguishes and erases the line between apathetic androids and empathic humans and maybe tries to say that the dimension of feelings is the foundation that makes people who they are.

Works Cited

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. Web.

Moghadam, Nima Behroozi and Farideh Porugiv. “Quiet Refusals: Androids as Others in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Advances in Language and Literary Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, 2018, pp. 10–18.

Zimmerman, Michael E. “Authenticity, Duty, and Empathy in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Horizons of Authenticity in Phenomenology, Existentialism, and Moral Psychology, edited by Hans Pedersen and Megan Altman, Springer, 2015, pp. 75–95.

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"The Empathic Gift in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" StudyCorgi, 29 June 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "The Empathic Gift in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" June 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "The Empathic Gift in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" June 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "The Empathic Gift in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" June 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'The Empathic Gift in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'. 29 June.

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