About Dehumanized Humans and Humanized Androids
The Question of Humanity in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
written by Ulrich Schaeffer (M.Ed.) in February 2015
“Science Fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe […].”
(Brian Aldiss qtd. in Cuddon)
The fact that hundreds of science fiction titles are annually published and an equally remarkable popularity in the film and computer games industry indicates the significance of this genre within the realm of popular culture despite some elitists debasing SF as mere “pulp fiction”. These scholars, however, fail to appreciate the thematic depth that many SF narratives provide. Although the term “science fiction” has been in use for some time, and almost everyone somehow or other knows what to make of it, finding an adequate definition does not seem to be a straightforward issue. SF potentially deals with topics, concepts and ideas of considerable variety: it may be set in the present, future or even past, it often encompasses utopian or dystopian elements, and it regularly stretches the reader’s imagination by dealing with technological development, scientific experiments, miraculous inventions, alternative worlds, space travel, alien beings and so forth. Despite the conceptual range of this genre, the initial quote by Brian Aldiss, a renowned expert in the field, offers a common ground for further elaboration. Provided that Aldiss’s concise definition revolves around the thematic core of SF, then Philip K. Dick belongs to one of its outstanding advocates since the question of humanity (i.e. what it means to be human) is amongst his most thoroughly explored themes. Androids, better known under its loosely based cinema adaptation Blade Runner, again remains paramount in this quest, for the literary pursuit of the characters’ powers of empathy gradually obscures the boundaries between what the reader would naturally expect: humane humans in contrast to inhuman androids. This socio-critical theme evolves through the portrayal of both androids and human beings in conjunction with the author’s most prominent stylistic device: the use of irony.
Dick’s dystopian SF novel is set in a sparsely populated and already partially degenerated post-nuclear-war world in which the last remnants of mankind are left with the only choice between emigration to Mars or gradual degeneration on Earth. In this near and gloomy future, San Francisco policeman Rick Deckard hunts down illegal humanoid androids after their escape from Mars. With every execution worth $1000 bounty, the fulfilment of Deckard’s personal dream that equals a definite leap up the social ladder draws nearer: he longs for a precious living animal to supplant his electric sheep. The novel also follows a secondary plot about the mentally retarded John Isidore as he encounters and aids three of the wanted androids with whom he sympathises. Both storylines gradually interweave during the further progression and eventually amount to Deckard accidentally running into Isidore an instant before he “retires” the last fugitive androids.
Underneath the apparent plot, however, the central quest for humanity is implicitly revealed between the lines with the effect that the boundary between man and machine dissolves by degrees. Here, the title of Androids already subliminally creates an obscuring effect. Formulated as a question and not as a statement, it brings about notions of androids’ states of mind by inquiring into their general faculty for dreaming, an ability normally exclusively ascribed to humans. Deckard himself wonders later in the novel: “Do androids dream? […] Evidently; that’s why they occasionally kill their employers and flee here. A better life, without servitude” (184), and by doing so he responds to the question himself. What is more, the concept of ‘electric sheep’ refers to the fact that almost all animal life has been wiped out from Earth during the ongoing aftermath of the nuclear holocaust whereupon some species were replaced by manmade simulations. The substitution of animals by engineered lookalikes symbolizes the process of biological supersession and is equally paralleled with androids as “ersatz” for Homo sapiens.
Yet the major contributing factor constitutes the explicit and implicit depiction of humans and androids throughout the novel. Homo sapiens, naturally considered to be human, undergo a process of dehumanisation by way of their portrayal. Most inhabitants of Dick’s terminal world appear to be rather robot-like, superficial, numbed and soulless as is the case with Deckard’s wife Iran. Deckard himself realises during a soliloquy that “… [m]ost androids I’ve known have more vitality and desire to live than my wife. She has nothing to give me” (94). Iran symbolises the ordinary emotional torpidity of mankind in this doomsday atmosphere where people depend on “mood organs” (5) to generate artificial emotions. Over and above, most believers must apply an “empathy box” (21) for enhancing sympathy with the Christ-like suffering of Wilbur Mercer as part of their religious experience, another evidence of the masses’ mental lethargy.
A strong contrast to “normal” people in Androids provides the second protagonist John Isidore. He possesses the ability to empathise with all beings (i.e. humans, androids and animals) and thus appears to be more humane than his fellow citizens. When, for instance, a fugitive android Isidore shelters begins mutilating a spider by cutting off its legs, he is suffering great agonies and eventually drowns the spider in the kitchen sink to put it out of its misery (211). In spite of all this, Isidore only survives on the margin of a society that stigmatises him as a “special” (19) because he belongs to a minority of degenerated mutants with subnormal IQ. This sole fact justifies public authorities to prohibit him from marrying, having children or even leaving the planet.
Androids, on the other hand, are initially and superficially portrayed as being inhuman. Witness the following advertisement at the outset of the novel:
Either as body servants or tireless field hands, the custom-tailored humanoid robot – designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS; FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE – given to you on your arrival [on Mars] absolutely free […]. (17)
This way of advertising reduces androids to mere commodities and consequently depersonalises them. Furthermore, the citation subliminally suggests a notion of denying these beings even the most fundamental basic rights. All they are is artificially manufactured robots for manifold conceivably inhumane purposes – from sex slave to workhorse – without the prospect of any individual appreciation, presented to the prospective owner for nothing. During the androids’ obvious commodification, however, Men simultaneously undergo a process of dehumanisation as their lack of empathy towards ‘Others’ becomes evident again.
Correspondingly, an unequivocal distinction between Man and androids does not bear close scrutiny as the plot unfolds. Since it is only feasible to clearly distinguish humans from androids by a prolonged examination of the bone marrow, American bounty hunters conduct the so-called “Voigt-Kampff” empathy test (48) to identify potential androids although the test is not thoroughly reliable. Rachael, a specimen of the latest android model, almost passes the test (48-59) whereas mentally disordered people, especially schizoids, would probably fail the investigation. More importantly, however, her character does show some very empathic and hence human traits, e.g. by feeling sympathy for another hunted female android, or when she confesses her love to Deckard during a bedroom scene (227). Eventually, Rachael takes revenge on Deckard by killing his recently acquired and very expensive Nubian goat after he had refused her love whereupon she had complained about him loving his goat more than her. She proves her being capable of jealousy through this deed and thus acts out a very human character trait.
These impressions become more and more explicit while the omniscient narrator conducts the reader through the novel with an alternate focus on two differing points of view. One either accompanies Deckard’s or Isidore’s deeds and thoughts while following one of the two plot lines. Deckard, first and foremost, symbolises an intellectual, unfeeling self; Isidore, on the other hand, characterises an empathising intuitive being. The fact that both of them are actually members of mankind contributes to the growing indistinctness of humanity, especially by the distorting irony therein: while Deckard ranks among accepted members of society, people ostracise the “chickenhead”. Another sample of this kind is connected to Wilbur Mercer, the alleged spiritual messiah, whose suffering true believers seek to re-enact by means of an “empathy box”. Yet Buster Friendly, an attention seeking TV star, unmasks the saviour of so many by exposing his past life as a drunk pre-war bit part actor whereas Friendly himself turns out to be an android (226). The irony therein is based on the delicate truth that Mercer and Friendly, both celebrated public figures of considerable importance for the mental equilibrium of the people, are uncovered as inglorious confidence tricksters.
The complex question of humanity in Androids is even more relevant nowadays than when the novel was first published in 1968. In an age of robotics, genetic engineering and reproductive cloning, mankind’s attitudes and actions, not nature or even God, decide the fate of our world. Yet the more we meddle either in nature’s or AI affairs, the more significant this issue becomes for our society as a whole. Scientists’ decisions may turn out to be irreversible or, in the worst case, fatal. Therefore, the question of “what it means to be human?” first and foremost implicates an ethical message on the choices Man makes. It is, however, not only scientists and “the upper crust” that determine our destiny. We all must make up our mind about what to do and what not to – everyday and everywhere. When it comes to our seemingly petty all-day decisions, John Isidore sets an example. Although being mentally retarded, he has maintained the very thing that renders us human: the ability to empathise and to feel compassion towards other beings, regardless of who, what or how they might be. To show compassion and empathy towards ‘Others’ we might regard as an issue of minor importance in our mundane life; yet if we all were reflecting on our own social behaviour at least now and then, a more humane world would inevitably evolve: not in the slightest a lesser issue, wouldn’t you agree?
Cuddon, J[ohn] A[nthony]. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theor y. 4th ed. London: Penguin, 1999.
Dick, Philip K[indred]. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. 1968. New York: Del Rey, 1996.