Deidre Matte, The Octopus and the Electric Sheep

Deidre Matte

Wai Chee Dimock

ENGL 433

26 April 2015

 

The Octopus and the Electric Sheep:

Investigations of Humanity through Technology in Naturalism and Science-Fiction

On the surface, naturalism and science-fiction seem to be entirely different genres.

Naturalism is a movement that originated in nineteenth-century Europe and quickly spread its

influence to the American literary scene. Born out of the profound socioeconomic changes set in

motion by the industrial revolution and the growth of capitalist practices, naturalist novels tend

to be rooted in determinism and realism as they explore the struggle of humans against the forces

that shape their circumstances and behavior as a society. Science-fiction is much more difficult

to define given that the genre is not firmly entrenched in a particular historical period, although it

certainly became more popularized during the twentieth century as the public became more

interested in space exploration, the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life, and technological

advances like robotics, all of which are popular features of science-fiction novels. Although

many works of science-fiction are very socially conscious, they are not constrained by the level

of realism that naturalist works strive for.  Writers of science-fiction therefore have more

freedom to exercise their imaginations and explore the hypothetical impact of large-scale,

deterministic forces on specific aspects of the societies they are influencing, including the

philosophical, emotional, and ideological preoccupations of mankind. Rather than dwelling on

the forces shaping humanity, science-fiction novels can more freely examine the nature of

Frank Norris’s The Octopus and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,

works of American Naturalism and science-fiction, respectively, initially seem like they could

not be any more different. Set within the context of a real dispute that occurred between the

Southern Pacific Railroad and a group of wheat farmers in 1880, The Octopus tells the story of

ranchers that band together in an effort to put an end to the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad’s

stranglehold on economic and political affairs. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes

place in Earth’s future and tells the story of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is charged with

“retiring” androids that are hiding among humans. Norris’s novel is inspired by actual events and

allows for an in-depth exploration of the real impact they had on society, while Dick’s narrative

deals with hypothetical extremes that may not lend themselves to a social commentary that is as

obvious as one typically provided by a novel steeped in realism.

Despite their radically different settings, plots, and levels of realism, these novels are

surprisingly similar when they are stripped of the trappings of their respective genres. The most

prominent point of comparison for these works is their interest in technology. The Octopus

explores the effects of the expansion of the railroad, which is imagined as an octopus spreading

out its tentacles and encroaching on the landscape, while Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

examines the implications of replicating life with machines in a world that has been ravaged by

war and radioactive contamination. Both novels explore how certain technological advances

change how humans are interacting with their environment and with each other. However, they

analyze these changes on different levels. The Octopus uses the railroad as a tool for examining

forces such as nature, the rise of the corporation as a powerful entity, and the economics of

supply and demand. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on the other hand, focuses more on

abstract notions of what it means to truly be human as characters attempt to cling to their

humanity in the novel’s post-apocalyptic landscape.

These differences in their respective applications of technology suggest that the

conventions of American naturalism may be better suited for Norris’s analysis of large-scale

forces that govern the world, especially since the genre was born in a period of history that was

shaped by tremendous social upheaval. While plenty of science-fiction novels, including Do

Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, address broad social issues within their imaginative

narratives that can be applied to the real world, the extraordinary situations enabled by the

genre’s conventions give Dick the ability to move beyond his own social context so he can have

more freedom to focus on how the social, political, and economic conditions he has imagined for

his novel may hypothetically operate on a character level. Dick’s novel is dominated by

characters that struggle with questions of morality and with ideologies concerning what

constitutes “human” behavior as their world becomes increasingly mechanized and the

distinction between real versus artificial life becomes less concrete.

Both the railroad and electric animals are intrinsically linked to the changing relationship

between mankind and the natural world. However, the roles these pieces of technology play in

the process of this change highlight differences in the novels’ thematic concerns regarding the

scale of technology’s impact. In The Octopus, the railroad is described as “the leviathan, with

tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster,

the Colossus, the Octopus,” (Norris 32). This monstrous creature that is encroaching on the

landscape is a catalyst for the changing relationship between mankind and the natural world, and

Norris chooses to examine the large-scale implications of these changes in his narrative. Mastery

over the land is the primary goal for a majority of the novel’s characters, and the presence of the

railroad has a tremendous impact on their success. The ranchers come into conflict with the

Pacific and Southwestern Railroad when their attempts to purchase the land they lease are

thwarted by the company, which is charging burdensome rates for land and freight in its own

attempt to increase its land holdings. The conflicts surrounding the use and possession of land

highlight the powerful economic force of supply and demand that is at work in the novel. The

growth of the railroad increases connectivity over land, which facilitates growth of markets with

needs that must be met. As Shelgrim, the president of the corporation, explains to Presley, “the

Wheat” must be carried to “the People” in order for the system to work and for the world to be

fed (Norris 371). The railroad is a crucial part of the economic forces at hand because it acts as

the conduit between the supply and the demand. The changes the railroad makes in the nature’s

physical landscape are therefore indicative of larger changes occurring in society’s economic

The railroad certainly exemplifies mankind’s attempt to master the environment and is a

major contributor to the growth of powerful economic forces, but it also serves to emphasize the

immense power the natural world holds over mankind despite its technological advances. The

railroad is directly linked to nature through various pieces of imagery that appear throughout the

novel. When Annie Derrick looks out over the land, she feels the immense power of nature and

She recognised the colossal indifference of nature, not hostile, even kindly and

friendly, so long as the human ant-swarm was submissive, working with it,

hurrying along at its side in the mysterious march of the centuries. Let, however,

the insect rebel, strive to make head against the power of this nature, and at once

it became relentless, a gigantic engine, a vast power, huge, terrible; a leviathan

with a heart of steel, knowing no compunction, no forgiveness, no tolerance;

crushing out the human atom with soundless calm, the agony of destruction

sending never a jar, never the faintest tremour through all that prodigious

mechanism of wheels and cogs. (Norris 115)

This passage recalls the end of Chapter I, which describes the railroad as a “symbol of vast

power, huge, terrible”, a “leviathan”, and an “iron-hearted Power” (Norris 32). Using similar,

and in some cases identical, imagery creates an obvious bond between the railroad and nature

within the text. The railroad seems like a monstrous force that the ranchers have very little

control over, and through describing nature in a similar fashion the narrator suggests that their

goals to master the land will also be unattainable. Annie Derrick’s view of nature also becomes

strangely mechanical at the end, indicating that the mechanization of society as exemplified by

the expansion of the railroad is affecting how humans perceive their surroundings.

This relationship between technology and the environment highlights the novel’s

exploration of the powerful forces that govern mankind. In the novel’s conclusion, the narrator

claims that “forces rather than men had locked horns in that struggle,” (Norris 420). Many

characters come to this realization, especially as they come to accept that individual efforts to

halt the railroad’s progress are pointless. Shelgrim’s philosophy about the nature of the railroad’s

expansion is an elaboration of the narrator’s claim and it explains why men like Magnus Derrick

are better off joining the railroad rather than opposing it. Shelgrim boldly claims that “Railroads

build themselves” because they operate according to forces that are out of man’s control (Norris

371). Much of his explanation has to do with the force formed by the laws of supply and

demand, but the natural world is intrinsically linked to this economic viewpoint. Nature, a

powerful force in its own right, is cooperating with the economic laws that are transforming the

world’s markets, making these forces even more unstoppable. The railroad is crucial for this

system because it facilitates the relationship between these forces through the transportation of

nature in the form of wheat. The railroad’s link to the forces governing society therefore makes

this particular technological development the perfect tool for the novel’s investigation of

technology’s broader impact on mankind.

While the railroad contributes to a changing landscape within The Octopus, the electric

animals in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are developed for an environment that has

already been irrevocably altered. The radioactive fallout from World War Terminus has ravaged

the landscape and is gradually diminishing the health of those who remain on the planet (Dick

15). The novel pays particularly close attention to the widespread extinction of animals and how

society has adapted to the scarcity of various creatures. Everyone seems to own a copy of

Sidney’s Animal & Fowl Catalogue, which keeps subscribers updated on the population of

animals and their market value (Dick 10). Those who cannot afford a real animal can purchase

an electric substitute, which still have to be carefully maintained and can often pass as real

animals due to the high level of detail that goes into making them. When Mr. Pilsen’s cat dies,

his wife opts to buy an electric cat in the hopes of replacing the pet without her husband noticing

(Dick 81) and Rick Deckard’s neighbor does not realize that Rick’s sheep is electric until the

control panel is revealed to him (Dick 11). The engineers of these electric animals were clearly

striving for authenticity as they worked to replace the creatures lost to environmental disaster.

However, the development of electric animals is much more than a response to the effects

of environmental change. In the case of the cat, Mrs. Pilsen is initially resistant to the idea of

purchasing an electric replacement, but she eventually gives in and orders an electric cat (Dick

81). As evidenced by his persistent pleading for his neighbor’s colt, Rick clearly wants a real

animal of his own (Dick 11). Alas, he has settled for an electric sheep in the meantime. The fact

that people would rather have a fake animal than no animal at all highlights their need to have

something to care for in a world that has become so desolate. The environment of the novel is

physically isolating; Isidore lives in a “deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited

apartments” (Dick 20), and the radioactive dust contaminating the planet has caused many

people to migrate to Mars (Dick 18). More importantly, the world is emotionally isolating. There

is a notable lack of children, presumably due in part to the effect of the dust on fertility, and Rick

and his wife, Iran, rely on mood organs to artificially regulate their emotions (Dick 3). As

demonstrated by how Rick and Iran’s eventual acquisition of a real goat supposedly cures their

depression, owning and caring for an animal is emotionally satisfying (Dick 172). Although they

are not perfect substitutes, electric animals are created and purchased out of a desire to simulate

this emotional connection between humans and the creature they care for, which would be

particularly appealing in a world where procreation has been hindered.

This emotional implications of caring for an animal, whether it is real or electric, is

intrinsically linked to the definition of human behavior that is propagated throughout the novel.

The defining characteristic of humanity is empathy; Mercerism, society’s primary ideology,

stresses the importance of empathy and even involves a routine fusion of mankind’s thoughts and

emotions through a special machine known as an “empathy box” (Dick 21). The test Rick

administers in order to determine whether or not a person is actually an android is the “Voigt-

Kampff Empathy Test”, which is considered effective because it is widely believed that an

android, “no matter how gifted as to pure intellectual capacity,” cannot understand the fusion

experienced by followers of Mercerism via the empathy boxes (Dick 30). Since caring for

another creature is one of the best ways to demonstrate one’s empathy, it is crucial that everyone

has an animal of some kind so this essential trait can be cultivated.

Although the emotional satisfaction of the individual is a major reason why electric

animals are so popular, the broader social implications should not be discounted. Barbour’s

reasoning for why he will not share the true nature of Rick’s sheep with the neighbors is very

enlightening about the values upheld by this post-apocalyptic world:

But they’ll look down on you. Not all of them, but some. You know how people

are about not taking care of an animal; they consider it immoral and anti-

empathic. I mean, technically it’s not a crime like it was right after W.W.T., but

the feeling’s still there. (Dick 13)

Keeping up appearances is a crucial part of owning an animal and is yet another reason why an

individual would choose to buy an electric version if he or she could not afford a real one. In

order for Rick to be a functioning member of this empathy-centric society, he must give the

impression that he is dedicated to caring for another life, even if looking after an electric sheep is

While electric animals are linked to a widespread preoccupation with demonstrations of

empathy aimed toward preserving humanity in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the

railroad is more closely related to how individuality and interpersonal relationships built on traits

like empathy are gradually giving way to the goals of the various collectives formed in The

Octopus. The most dominant group entity that emerges in this novel takes the form of the

corporation. The activities of the railroad are overseen by the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad,

a corporation that has come to dominate most of region’s economic and political activities. Since

it controls the land leased to the ranchers and it determines the freight rates charged to the

ranchers that ship their wheat to other areas to be sold, the corporation plays a large role in the

ranchers’ inability to make their business more profitable. The corporation seems to have a hand

in everything, and it does not show any sign of slowing down its expansion. S. Behrman, a

prominent agent for the railroad, demonstrates very little empathy for the ranchers; he fails to

demonstrate an understanding of how the actions of the corporation he is relentlessly promoting

is ruining the livelihoods of a group of his fellow human beings. Rather than dwelling on the

suffering of his neighbors, he instead chooses to focus on how the railroad will benefit society on

a larger scale. Unfortunately for Behrman, his ideology of the “greater good” and his lack of

empathy get turned around on him. Since the corporation is much larger than the actions and

intentions of a single man, Behrman’s death at the end of the novel will probably have little to no

effect on the operations of the corporation. In a similar vein, Shelgrim’s unexpected

demonstration of kindness toward the struggling employee will also have very little influence

over the corporation’s reputation as a profit-mongering company that does not care about the

needs of individual people. The goals and actions of the group eventually come to overshadow

those of the people that compose it, a process that may unfortunately extinguish basic human

characteristics such as empathy, sympathy, and demonstrations of friendship that once defined

The ranchers realize that they cannot take down the powerful corporation down as

individuals, so they form the League in an effort to combat the railroad’s widespread influence.

The ranchers discover that the land they lease from the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad is

being sold at a much higher price than originally promised; the corporation will profit more in

the long run if it can continue to supervise the activities of this land, and its access to the

property will also make it easier to expand the “tentacles” of the railroad. Tired of seeing the

ranchers oppressed by the encroachment of the railroad and the entity that owns it, Osterman

delivers an impassioned call to action. “‘Organization,’ he shouted, ‘that must be our watchword.

The curse of the ranchers is that they fritter away their strength. Now, we must stand together…I

call for the League,’” (Norris 177). Osterman recognizes that the men will be much more

powerful if they pool their strengths and resources into a group, an idea that has allowed the

corporation to accumulate so much influence over the region’s affairs. The similarities between

the founding principles of these two groups are highlighted by the metaphor used to describe the

entity suddenly created by the ranchers. The League is “a vague engine, a machine with which to

fight,” (Norris 177). Likening this group of people to an engine and a machine echoes the very

force they are trying to combat: the “terror of steel and steam” that is increasingly infringing on

their land and their livelihoods.

In its fight against the railroad for what it perceives to be the good of the collective, the

League does exactly what it demonizes the corporation for doing. It puts the interests of the

group above the welfare of individual lives, no matter the cost. Osterman calls for a “vast

organisation, banded together to death,” and unfortunately this is exactly what happens (Norris

177). The conflict turns violent and many of the ranchers lose their lives in a shootout with

members of the railroad (Norris 336). Despite this loss, the League persists in its fight against the

railroad, leading to yet another demonstration of the collective being championed over the

individual. Ignoring any empathy for his desperation or any feelings of friendship they may have

for him, the members of the League publicly force Magnus Derrick from his leadership position

(Norris 361). A man who was once so highly respected by his fellow ranchers has been deemed a

liability now that the underhanded nature of his political dealings has been made public, so he is

cast out in an effort to remove the stain of scandal from the collective actions of the League.

Much like the workings of the forces of nature, the economy, and Shelgrim’s self-building

railroad, the operations of groups like the League and the corporation move beyond the control

of individual men; they themselves become inhuman forces as their quests to achieve their goals

force their members to become less concerned with demonstrations of humanity and morality

As demonstrated by the contrasting thematic concerns that dominate their respective

novels, Philip K. Dick and Frank Norris investigate different issues concerning humans and the

world they live in through the lens of technology. Norris provides an in-depth look at the

deterministic forces shaping society as well as the formation of groups that are dedicated to

preserving their own interests in the face of the changes brought on by these forces. However,

naturalism’s dedication to realism and determinism places some constraints on the narrative of

The Octopus. In its preoccupation with large-scale, machinelike forces, the novel sacrifices the

analysis of abstract ideological and philosophical concerns that are evident throughout Dick’s Do

Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Dick’s novel is certainly shaped by natural, economic, and

social forces similar to those that are at the forefront of The Octopus, but the narrative moves

beyond an exploration of these forces and examines how they have influenced abstract ideas

concerning the nature of humanity that are being dealt with at both the individual and the societal

level. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? concerns itself with what it means to be human in

the face of such dramatic environmental, cultural, and technological change. The Octopus, on the

other hand, champions an investigation of what is driving the change over an analysis of

mankind’s moral and ideological response to change. The juxtaposition of the freedom to deal

with abstract philosophical issues in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep with the realism and

determinism that shape The Octopus demonstrates how the significance of a concept, such as the

theme of technology that is so prevalent in these two novels, can be dramatically altered

according to the generic conventions governing a narrative.

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