Thursday, September 20, 2012

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

He thought, too, about his need for a real animal; within him an actual hatred once more manifested itself toward the electric sheep, which he had to tend, had to care about, as if it lived.  The tyranny of an object, he thought.  It doesn't know I exist.  Like the androids, it had no ability to appreciate the existence of another.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is what I would call a pro-life novel.  Not that it has anything to say about abortion politics, but rather it cares deeply about "life" as a concept.  In the post-apocalyptic world of the novel, it's in short supply--nuclear war has decimated the globe, forcing most humans to relocate to Mars.  The Mars colonies thrive on the slave labor of androids, who are sophisticated enough to resent this fact and so escape back to earth, where their undocumented presence is illegal.  The protagonist of Electric Sheep, Rick Deckard, is a bounty hunter assigned to "retiring" rogue androids on Earth.

What is it about the androids that Earth society finds so repugnant?  Dick never makes it exactly clear, but the androids seem to represent a kind of anti-life, a non-life masquerading as life and devaluing it.  The common religion on Earth, called Mercerism, promotes above all things empathy, the identification with other people and living things, and this is what androids do not possess.  Though we expect Dick to undermine our assumptions about the morality of Deckard's occupation, and whether the androids deserve a nominal humanity--which he does--their inability to feel empathy is constantly jarring.  Witness this scene in which a group of androids cut off the legs of a spider in front of a human being:

"I've never seen a spider," Pris said.  She cupped the medicine bottle in her palms, surveying the creature within.  "All those legs.  Why's it need so many legs, J.R.?"

"That's the way spiders are," Isidore said, his heart pounding; he had difficulty breathing.  "Eight legs."

Rising to her feet, Pris said, "You know what I think, J.R.?  I think it doesn't need all of those legs."

"Eight?" Irmgard Baty said.  "Why couldn't it get by on four?  Cut four off and see."  Impulsively opening her purse, she produced a pair of clean, sharp cuticle scissors, which she passed to Pris.

A weird terror struck J.R. Isidore.

Cutting off a spider's legs may not seem so awful, but to the human Isidore it is an essential act of inhumanity.  In this world, you see, animals are highly valued, as symbols and embodiments of life.  To own an animal is a mark of status, and Deckard hunts androids for the bounty which might allow him to own one, too, instead of his lousy electric sheep.  This pet shop moment was a favorite of mine:

"The thing about rabbits, sir, is that everybody has one.  I'd like to see you step up to the goat-class where I feel you belong.  Frankly you look more like a goat man to me."

"What are the advantages to goats?"

The animal salesman said, "The distinct advantage of a goat is that it can be taught to head butt anyone who tries to steal it."

It's a testament to Dick's ability to build strange worlds that we find the mutilation of the spider so horrifying; we buy into this battered society's animal obsession without even knowing it.  Of course, this turns the microscope back on us--when was the last time you crushed such a rare creature under your shoe?

I am happy to say that the twist everyone sees coming--that Deckard, the android bounty hunter, turns out to be an android--never happens.  Deckard is never anything less than human, and the androids never really rise to that designation.  But during a marathon day of android-murder, Deckard begins to feel empathy for "those poor andys," as his wife calls them, who are so empathy-less.  Can we feel empathy for the inanimate?  We can be attached to them, we can feel affection for them, we can even, as Deckard learns, have sexual intercourse with them.

In a very bizarre scene in which Deckard encounters Mercer, the salvific figure of Mercerism accessible through an "empathy box" (it's a complex religion), who offers him a solution to his ethical quandary, or a non-solution:

The old man said, "You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go.  It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity.  At some time, every creature which lives must do so.  It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life.  Everywhere in the universe."

Here more than anywhere else in Electric Sheep Dick distinguishes himself from even the most accomplished genre writers science fiction can offer.  What do we do with the moral imperative of immorality?  Is it like Huck Finn's "All right, then, I'll go to Hell?"  If the "condition of life" is to "violate your own identity," is our very nature predicated on its negation; can we only become ourselves by being not ourselves?  Can we only be human by being inhuman?  What, then, does that say about the android?

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