Phillip K. Dick’s sci-fi classic delves into a futuristic world where Earth has been ravaged by radiation from the fallout of the so-called “World War Terminus”. He explores the notion of humanity’s struggle for survival in this diminished environment and incorporates their interaction with the bio-synthetic andriods which serve as mere human slaves in the off-world colonies. This essay will attempt to explore how this author has raised questions into what it exactly is to be ‘human’ and how the humans portrayed in this novel can be seen as ‘un-human’ when compared to their android and sub-human counterparts.
The setting and scene of this novel is of a dystopian world, where many of the human inhabitants go to live in Off-World colonies such as New New York, and avoid the radiation cloud that has infested Earth. The existence of outlawed androids who seek refuge on Earth, are indistinguishable from humans and can only be identified as an android by composing certain ‘tests’ such as the Voight Kampff empathy test or a bone marrow examination. This gives the feeling that humans cannot tell who their enemies are when their enemies are among them, a notion that follows the paranoia of the cold war period that xisted at the time Dick wrote this novel.
The radioactive fallout has caused not only the people to emigrate out of Earth, but have made the genes of some humans to deteriorate. When this decay has passes a certain level, it is detected by a mandatory testing from the state and people who do not manage to pass this test is deemed as “specials”. They are looked down upon as sub-humans and are restricted from emigrating out of Earth in fear of “poisoning” the gene pool of the new colonies. Thus, there are three distinct groups in Dick’s society, being that of humans, specials and androids.
The specials and the androids are seen as inferior to the humans due to their lack of “humanness”. The specials, who were once humans, have essentially lost their rights to do human things such as emigrating, voting and even starting up a family of their own, all due to the fact that their genes have been tampered by radiation. Similarly, the androids who are physically identical to humans and simulate the way humans act to a point where it is indistinguishable, are still considered non-humans due to the fact that they were created by humans only for the purposes of slavery.
The protagonist Deckard, journeys through the struggle to survive and quite fittingly represents the overall human struggle to find solace in an unforgiving world of “kipple”. Equipped with his lead codpiece, which protects him from his genes to deteriorating, Deckard is employed to retire androids, which have illegally escaped to Earth. By undertaking this mission, he is essentially doing a very “human” job although it does require the slaughter of sometimes-innocent androids that pose no threat in any way.
The “threat” may be of humanity’s fear of androids overcoming their built-in age limit of 4 ears and become a super-race to rival humankind. Since the androids have no empathy and do not hesitate to kill humans, the humans hunt down the androids that have escaped to Earth and kill them before they themselves get killed. Thus, it can be seen that to preserve humane values like empathy, the humans have to resort to murder without remorse like the androids in order to avoid being killed by them. Initially it is clear that between the two main characters of the novel, Deckard and Isidore, which one of the two is considered more human. There is no doubt that Deckard is more human than Isidore ccording to the distinctions that are placed within the society.
Deckard is the human, who has the ability to emigrate and to reproduce, works for the police department and although owns a fake animal, takes care of this fake animal nonetheless in order to evoke empathy towards “nature”. Isidore on the other hand does not have the rights that Deckard and other humans have, does not have an animal of his own whether real or fake and lives in an isolated building surrounded by kipple. To make matters worse, Isidore is not only a special but has also been branded a “chickenhead”.
This may imply that, although Isidore seems culturally enriched and sophisticated due to his vocabulary and his ideologies towards himself, humans and Mercer, he lacks common sense as evident when he mistakes a real cat for an android during his work as a delivery man. However, throughout the course of the novel there is a gradual role reversal between the two individuals. It can thus be seen as a whole, that the portrayal of humans, specials and androids do not fit in with their original levels of humanity. The humans are shown as lacking the human values through the acts of Deckard.
The specials, originally humans but genetically decayed and considered sub-human, still show their possession of humanity through Isidore, and sometimes convey more humanness than the humans themselves. Lastly, the androids that are non- humans that have been built by humans still display some of the characteristics that define humanity although also displaying a lack of these same characteristics at other times. The distinctions between the three categories seems to blur due to the changing perceptions of the specials and the androids, throughout the novel.
One of the most important elements of humanity which is conveyed in Dick’s novel is empathy. The Voight-Kampff test, which is employed by Deckard to distinguish from humans and androids, is in fact an empathy test and the importance of empathy as a human characteristic is further emphasised by the use of empathy fusion boxes reoccurring throughout the novel. This empathy box allows fusion between the artificial “God” in Wilbur Mercer and functions as a combination of recreation and religion, used to prove to the users themselves that they are able to empathize with another person. This trait is omething that androids are unable to simulate as seen in Roy Batty’s failed attempts of fusion.
It is rather ironic that humans rely on machines to become one with their human self, at the same time detesting androids from existing among them. As the novel develops, Deckard is shown drifting apart from his wife Iran, the only person to whom he seems to have any real relationship with. This is significant since Deckard is portrayed as the ultimate loner, an image similar to that of detective Phillip Marlowe in his noir genres. When he is speaking with his neighbour, his attitude is a mixture of a desire o get rid of him and a desire to show off. On the whole, Deckard seems somewhat lacking when it comes to emotions. At times he seems to have no emotions at all while other times he seems uncertain to know what to feel. Isidore, on the other hand, shows a longing to interact with others and rid of his empty loneliness that has plagued him ever since he was deemed as a special.
When he realises that he has finally received some new neighbours, he immediately takes a cube of margarine, the most suitable thing he could think of, as a welcoming gift to his fellow tenants. Although the reluctant android Pris hinks little of this “chickenhead”, Isidore tries his best to help her and her friends as best as he can, letting Pris to move in with him so he can “take care of her”. Throughout this whole experience, Isidore empathises with the loneliness that he feels that his new friend must be suffering from, just like he himself does. He does his best to get Pris and her android friends as comfortable as possible, unlike Deckard who has little to no feelings for anyone besides himself. It can obviously be seen, the role reversal between Deckard the human and Isidore the special is taking place.
Isidore is, in fact, the person in the novel who displays the largest portion of the characteristics that are considered “human”. He immediately reacts as if it is his responsibility to be a helpful and comforting host to his new neighbours and he empathizes with the androids when told that they are being pursued by a bounty hunter. Initially, Isidore believes that these androids are regular humans beings and that the bounty hunter is some cruel monster machine, but when he later realises that his new friends are the androids themselves, his feelings of friendship and empathy towards them does not hange, even with this knowledge. That is friends are androids does not alter his perception, and has no relevance to his attitude towards them; only their relationship with him is all that matters to him.
This may be due to the fact that since he has being isolated for such a long time, he does not care whether his friends are “fake”, or maybe it is because he is a “chickenhead” and is too nieve to see that his friends are actually outlaws and pose a potential threat towards the society. However, the fact that he does not consider someone to be worth less or to be less human just because they happen to belong to a articular “race” shows that he has a genuine feeling of understanding of others when being discriminated against. The only time he does not seem to empathize with his new android neighbours is when Pris pulls off the legs of a real spider they have found. It can be seen that not only does she show her lack of empathy and inhumanity whilst performing this act, she also seems to enjoy seeing Isidore’s anguish.
Thus Isidore shows that he has strong empathy for whomever or whatever gets hurt, be it man or spider. From the actions of Deckard, whether it be that he does not use his empathy box as often as he should, is growing frustration and unemotional relationship with his wife or his act of sleeping with the android Rachel while contemplating to kill her shows his total lack of humanness for a person who is supposed to epitomise humanity in this novel. When compared to the actions of Isidore and his regular sessions with his empathy box and genuine concern and empathy towards his android neighbours when hearing that they are being hunted by a bounty hunter, he seems much more in touch with human qualities even when being classified as a special and a chickenhead.
When Deckard is compared also with some of the raits that the androids show, it may be said that androids value and undertake human characteristics more than humans themselves. Roy Batty, the leader of the escaped Nexus-6 androids, has tried to achieve fusion both for himself and others so he can gain the sense of belonging and assimilating into this society. Luba Luft has an unbelievably talented singing voice and appreciates such cultural things as the opera and the arts, while being intrigued by the realist paintings in the theatre as she can see that it mirrors the sufferings of her own life. Even Deckard himself realises that this android does not deserve o die as she is a wonderful performer and is doing good rather than harm towards the society.
The Rand Corporation’s “daughter” Rachel is supposed to be incapable of emotions but claims to love Deckard and is prepared to do Deckard’s dirty work in order for him to love her back. There does exist a contrasting factor, since she offers to kill one of her fellow Nexus-6 so it reverses the original perception that she is totally innocent of being inhumane. It is also seen that she may have merely seduced Deckard for her own ends, as instructed by her creator, Rand. Nonetheless, when compared to
Deckard, who is considered human by society but is very cold and unfeeling with people such as Isidore and Rachel, who are considered sub-human and non-human respectively but display much more emotion, the roles of each class and the way they ought to act seems contradictory. On the whole, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep conveys a sense that the characteristics that define a human being can be present in both androids and supposedly, deteriorated humans. In the same way, humans that are considered “real humans” by society may be lacking these characteristics. Thus the boundary between human and non-human seems to be very vague.