Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Electric Nature: (Re)Constructing Wilderness in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Electric Nature: (Re)Constructing Wilderness in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Article excerpt

New awareness of and concerns for the earth's environment helped define the 1960s. Bookended by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the first Earth Day, the decade witnessed the rise of numerous new voices and perspectives regarding the environment and related roles of humanity. While many such statements were expressed in documentary, nonfiction form (similar to Carson's work), imaginative writing also interacted with the environmental fervor. Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? represents one such interaction.

Dick's novel participates in this environmental discourse by paralleling crucial ecological statements of the 1960s such as Carson's Silent Spring and Wallace Stegner's "Wilderness Letter." Set in 2021, in the aftermath of World War Terminus, Dick's narrative echoes Carson's apocalyptic vision. His characters--Rick Deckard, his wife Iran, and John Isidore--struggle to retain some sense of home and work while living in toxic and decaying apartments and traveling through disintegrating urban and rural landscapes. Each must navigate these environments that remain exposed to fresh waves of nuclear fallout and thereby descend into greater ruin each day. Rather than relinquish all hope under these conditions, however, these characters look toward wilderness, as Stegner does, for assurance in a ravaged world. Participating in a form of religion known as Mercerism, Rick, Iran, and Isidore enter a virtual wilderness-like setting of a barren desert where they find relief from their fears and doubts.

By juxtaposing both visions--environmental apocalypse and wilderness hope--Dick's novel also contributes to the 1960s cultural conversation about environment by way of critique. Countering Carson's dystopia, Dick's narrative responds with a persistent expectancy that renewal remains possible. Yet in presenting wilderness as a human construct and as a limited simulation, the novel also questions the extent to which Stegner's version of wilderness offers such opportunities for restoration and hope.

This environmental work of Dick's novel consists of two moves. First, the narrative encourages awareness of settings and environments. Throughout, the novel assigns significant roles to locations and landscapes, granting them a prominent position within the narrative and directing attention toward them. Second, the novel presents these places as constructs defined and produced by humanity, setting up a context for its presentation of wilderness. As the narrative emphasizes human presence and impact in its setting, so it also interprets wilderness as a site contingent on human culture. Highlighting an interrelation between humanity and wilderness, Dick's narrative ultimately argues for a shift in environmental thinking by presenting wilderness as a product of current and immediate environmental conditions rather than as a remote place of escape.

Attending to Environs

The novel raises awareness of and supports a mindfulness of setting and environment as physical locations become more than mute and inert backgrounds whereupon characters act. The novel's settings, from broad to specific--from West Coast America, to San Francisco and the outlying areas in northern California, to abandoned apartment complexes--not only provide temporal and geographic coordinates for the story, but also bear a presence and wield an influence that exceeds the nominal roles of backdrop and context.

The empty apartment buildings throughout the narrative manifest a character-like presence and influence on the merely human characters. Early in the narrative, Iran and Rick discuss how the vacant apartments converge upon their awareness and perception to the point that they crowd out other thoughts. "I heard the building, this building," Iran explains to Rick, who in turn also admits to a similar experience, to hearing the empty apartments at night (5). Throughout this early scene, the setting registers aurally within Iran's and Rick's consciousness, resulting in their verbal acknowledgment of its presence as they grant it prominence in their conversation. …

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