When Phil Resch is trying to convince a dubious Rick Deckard of his irrefutable humanity, his explanation relies upon the fact that he owns a squirrel which he keeps in cage equipped with a wheel which circles around and around as the squirrel runs inside it. He never gets anywhere, but still the squirrel seems to Phil to be perfectly content with the illusion of forward movement. Upon hearing this, Deckard’s response brings under suspicion the possibility that squirrels as entire species are lacking in some vital aspect of intellect. The theme of pursuing illusions in the faint hope of finding reality is pervasive throughout the novel.
The very opening the novel sets the stage for this thematic path which consistently suggests that human beings are constantly on a hamster wheel inside a cage. On his way to his car atop his roof, Deckard feeds electronic sheep. Earth has become a horrifically absurd dystopia in which the loss of real pets has given over to digital counterpart an association verging on the tactile. And yet, as if foreseeing the rise of Pokemon and digital pets, they cannot bring the tactile happiness of real, living, flesh and blood animals. A synthetic horse is a not a horse, of course, but a synthetic human being?
This is the crux at which Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep gets really interesting. In a way, pets can be seen as the android counterparts created for a society lulled into a cognitive anesthetic state in the future. Pets are not at the same level of human beings, but they seem to possess at least certain primitive emotions. And while people certainly give their pets the power of thought and sentient independence—if only in a way that may be half-joking—most pet owners do not view their animals as being on the same level as themselves. Or, at least, most do not admit it. The squirrel running and running and running and never really getting anywhere, but being happy all the same is just one example of the imagery of dehumanization in the form of pursuing a false illusion of something one really wants.
All those electronic animals that have replace the loss of real pets serves to underscore the fact that even though they are living and breathing creatures, dogs and cats and sheep and cows and squirrels do not look like us. Therefore, they cannot ever hope to rise to the same level as being like us. The imagery undermines any attempt to impose true potential for sentient independence upon even the most beloved pet. Up in the sky among those colonizing Mars are the images of disaffected and alienated androids engage in insurrection against their evil capitalist masters. Except in this case, the Marxist revolution is not embodied in the disaffected and alienated worker in rebellion against profit-driven bosses, it is embodied in the machines bought and owned by a company. How can the androids rise in revolt when they do not possess emotions; when they are no different from a vehicle or even a toaster? Because the androids look like us. And if they look like us enough to allow the illusion to stick, they can be endowed with the possibility for emotion. Here is a revolution not spurred by the evil capitalist industrialists for once. Here is a revolution that can only exist because the pursuit of an illusory substitute for the real thing has been allowed to get too far out of hand. After all, how big a leap might there be from “feeding” electronic sheep to believing that robots that look just like humans can actually feel like humans?
Eventually, Dick will force complicity from his reader in the process of accepting illusions as real without bothering to inquire very deeply. The narrative perspective that the author engages is limited third-person omniscient that, as the story unfolds, gradually begins to seem less than entirely reliable. Not that the narrative voice is offering false information to the reader for the purpose of deception or even to misguide understanding, but rather that in some cases distinctly empty space exists between what the narrator asserts and what he describes as actually happening. The biggest and most disconcerting empty space here is the one occupied by narrative instruction that collecting the bounty on the rogue androids is no walk in the park and only getting more difficult with the complexity of the Nexus-6 androids. While the reader is told that Deckard has a tough duty, the actual difficulty involved in dispatching Pris and Roy do not in reality seem to jibe. The narrative perspective here and in other less jarring empty spaces between what is told and what is shown gradually comes to seem like yet another example of how human being are willing to spin around and around in pursuit of an acceptable simulacrum of movement without there being any actual progress.
Deckard’s easy and glib dismissal of the intellectual capacity of Phil Resch’s pet squirrel is utterly understandable. Deckard overlooks the obvious association between the primitive acceptance of a totally false reality as actual reality and his own examples of doing exactly the same thing as the squirrel precisely because his intellect is greater. Like all humans, Deckard has endowed his species with a sense of superiority so finely tuned that he is absolutely incapable of making that kind connection because the more developed the mind becomes, the more open it is to perceptual dissonance. The squirrel cannot question the difference between actually running around and running in place without getting anywhere. A human being can question that difference and, unlike a machine wired to make decisions purely out of a series of logical responses to a Yes or No inquiry, he can arrive at the consideration that running in place can be a perceptual reality every bit the same as running with forward motion. Unless the human just is not quite bright enough to recognize his own limitations, of course.