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“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by D. K. Philip Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Oct 14th, 2021


The way Philip K. Dick in his magnum opus has discussed the ‘android’ concept in context with the moral and ethical dimension; no other American author has been able to focus his personal thoughts on a particular issue among science fiction in such an intuitive manner. What he discusses is the concern of being human, what it means and feels to have all humanistic senses and capabilities, and what happens when a replica is created devoid of such emotions or feelings.

He discusses humanity throughout his novel by exploring the opposition between ‘authentic’ human beings and various ‘artificial’ beings made to imitate humans (Vint, 2007). The reader can easily analyze that Dick has presented complete research work in the form of a story by introducing two types of characters before us; one that is real and the one that is unreal. Deckard, Dave Holden, and Rachel Rosen are the characters that Dick has shaped to fulfill readers’ expectations in the scenario of an imaginary planet but which can be perceived as real.

With every human being and animal so electrical and artificial, Dick has presented every artificial organism in isolation, where it seeks some empathetic relationship with the other being but is unable to fulfill such relationship since artificialities are named by Dick as ‘androids’. Deckard when sending to search for the most advanced androids of the Nexus-6 models, he is actually seeking specific answers to matters that have been raised by the planet as a statement.

Deckard’s efforts have been constituted by the feeling of an ‘emotion’, the making of an intellectual connection, the speaking of an utterance, the passing on of a story in the real world beyond it, or the completion of another type of action in the physical world. What distinguishes this advancement from any other literary one is the self-conscious perception that readers formulate about empathy in relation to some concerns that are discussed below.

Throughout the novel, the question of what it means to be human, to be a real person, is raised on a variety of levels. But the answer emerges in relatively simple form i.e., empathy. The main character in the novel, Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter with the San Francisco police department who specializes in ‘retiring’ androids, reflects on the workings of the Voigt-Kampff test, this futuristic society’s index to distinguish between androids and humans. Basically, the test measures involuntary responses to questions about the killing of an animal or human life (Yoke, 1987, p. 194). What is obvious in the novel is the recognition that although androids surpass several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence, they do not possess an empathic personality, they do not respond.

Empathy in context with replication

The novel accepts both the artificial and real, which is evident from the significance that the real and fictitious characters uphold. However, despite so much advancement and achieving acceptance as ‘real’ phenomena, all characters except the genuine humans are replicated one way or the other. Through this, Dick has shown the lack of barrier which must have been present in the world in order to differentiate the real and unreal.

That of course has alleviated all the differences that it takes to understand ‘empathy’. So much advancement and a lot of radiation poisoning and gene damage have created over-engineered brains, which may have empathy for the rightness of even a very abstract model, but requires that training for which human claims himself to be human.

The beginning of empathy is the truth that the ‘real’ planet is a largely artifactual display with no separate parts, like humans. Every human possesses artificial replicators and is bound to pass a test in order to prove his or her existence in context with some empathy. That means if one is heavily invested in the solidity of the ordinary, to understand just how artefactual the display is, or to see a phenomenon that appears to violate the ordinary rules of the Voigt-Kampff test.

Deckard, the android hunter, and the runaway androids all have their short life-spans running out, wanting only to live, but lacking any human sense of Caritas, having absolutely no concern for any life other than their own. If they ruthlessly kill humans to survive then the humans, in the form of Deckard, are also engaging in exactly the same moral behavior in regard to them. The question upon which the story then revolves is that of who is the human and who is the android, and Dick’s criterion is a moral one. A human is a being possessed of morals and values; we define our humanity by our ability to see the mirror of that humanity in others.

That means duplications are present in the human gene which though stalks destruction but still works on androids. An android is a sentient being devoid of emotions and morals, a psychopathic creature of pure survival mechanism, incapable of empathy.

Empathy linked with Mercerism

Dick’s novel has a whole post-catastrophe world, a religion, wonderful minor characters, and humor, which is not faithful to the novel. In this perception lies either the solipsistic madness of total psychic relativity or transcendent wisdom, and the greatness of Dick as a writer, what makes him by far the greatest metaphysical novelist of all time, is that having opened the door to this ultimate spiritual, perceptual, and metaphysical chaos, he leads us through it to true wisdom along a moral vector (Spinrad, 1990, p. 89). What ultimately makes the androids in ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? less than human is not their synthetic origin, but, their lack of morals and their inability to empathize with the existential plight of other life caught in the same universe.

Mercerism is the religion Dick has presented in his novel, which collects the remnants of human culture and by providing an opportunity to practice religion through empathetic fusion, the religion makes use of the empathy box. In other words, the quality of empathy that distinguishes humans from androids appears in a variety of contexts and at the broadest level, Dick has created a religion in this society called ‘Mercerism’. Subscribers to the belief possess a small, handled box, called an ‘empathy box’, which enables empathic communication to pass through all of those currently in connection. This experience is denied to androids since they do not have empathy.

Mercerism has obvious affinities with Christianity which range from the death and resurrection of the religion’s namesake, Wilbur Mercer, to the infliction of wounds on the figurehead and the concept of fusion with the founder which is seen in Christianity through the sacrament of communion and Mercerism through fusion via the empathy box. The point of Mercerism in the structure of the novel is not that Dick is calling for a return to Christian mysticism, but rather that Mercerism is opposed to the force represented by Buster Friendly, the omnipresent media star.

For it is revealed late in the novel that the reason for Buster’s antagonism toward Mercerism is that he is an android. Early in the novel, J. R. Isidore, a human ‘special’ who is a radiation-contaminated, inferior human and who likes both Buster and Mercer, concludes that the two are in competition for their minds.

Both are fighting for control of their psychic selves. Although this realization on Isidore’s part is not further delved into by Dick and as readers can visualize that Mercerism has not given them any choice to maintain empathic contact with fellow-creatures, or by giving them over to the media manipulations of Buster Friendly, therefore they are cut off from humanity (Yoke, 1987, p. 195). It seems to be a choice between the empathy box and the idiot box.

Human relationship in context with empathetic connection to animals

On a more specific level, the idea of empathy appears in the relationship between humans and their animals. Animals as presented in the novel are sacred to the religion of Mercerism and the culture in general. Empathy arises in context with the social status when caring for an animal is considered as a symbol for expressing one’s humanity. Androids devoid of empathy do not care for other animals or androids and this inability to feel empathy is what sets them apart from humans and justifies their enslavement and execution.

Animal life is nearly extinct in this post-holocaust world, and the possession of real animals is not only a status symbol among the people of the novel but also a sign that human androids do not have pets. Part of Rick Deckard’s motivation for killing the androids who have returned to the earth is to get enough money to buy a large pet. He eventually buys a female goat which not only brings out empathic responses in him but begins the regeneration of his marriage which is on rocky ground at the novel’s start.

Empathy also appears in the form of Deckard’s attraction to Rachael Rosen, a Nexus-6 android, and his distaste for his job in the face of killing the female android, Luba Luft. Deckard and Phil Resch, another bounty hunter, corner Luba at a museum, and as a kind of the last request, she asks Deckard to buy her a reproduction of an Edvard Munch painting. Deckard does so, spending his own money for which Luba thanks him, remarking that “there’s something very strange and touching about humans, an android would never have done that” (Dick, 1967, p. 53).

Dick’s concern with emotional issues, with the metaphysics of science fiction compared to its physics, has some unfortunate by-products. One of these might be called his ‘paranoid’ vision, for what we see by the novel’s end is not simply that Rick Deckard must hunt down and kill a number of androids, but that androids are omnipresent, from electric animals to an alternate police department virtually run by robots, to the most famous media personality in the world.

Basically, the narrative thrust of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” revolves around maneuvering Rick Deckard ever closer to his essential humanity. Deckard is first introduced as alienated from himself and from his wife, Iran which is depicted in the first scene of the novel that Deckard and Iran argue over the various settings of a mood organ. Empathy evolves here when Iran refuses to set the organ by saying that while realizing how unhealthy it seems to sense life without reaction. Empathy is the subject of the whole story when it refers to the population depletion of the earth due both to the war and to the emigration off-world by many healthy humans.

Empathy at various stages in the novel refers to different losses, for example, Deckard, when uses the mood organ, an index of his loss of emotional self-control and goes to his rooftop pen to care for his sheep, he founds the sheep is fake which is another index of Deckard’s loss of humanity.

Another empathic phase occurs when Deckard progresses with his assignment to kill six androids and the process of emotional regeneration occurs, first as he meets Phil Resch, then as he experiences sympathy for Luba Luft, and finally when he is erotically attracted to Rachael Rosen. Deckard is ultimately brought to full empathic consciousness with the help of Wilbur Mercer through a kind of transmigration with the religious figure. As the novel closes Deckard’s life and marriage have been regenerated, reborn, and out of the ashes of nuclear war, an irradiated atmosphere, a depleted population, and an increasing tendency toward emotional disinvolvement, Deckard has found a way to give meaning to life genuine, a human meaning.

Work Cited

Dick K. Philip (1967), Do androids dream of electric sheep? Ballantine Books.

Spinrad Norman, (1990) Science Fiction in the Real World: Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale, IL.

Vint Sherryl, (2007) “Speciesism and Species Being in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” In: Mosaic. Volume: 40. Issue: 1.

Yoke B. Carl, (1987) Phoenix from the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World: Greenwood Press: New York.

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