Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review 93: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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

I have kind of a weird confession to make. It's not really a confession as such, since you only confess things that you're ashamed of or that you feel you have done wrong. But this is something that I believe people may find a little odd, so I suppose it's the best word under the circumstances.

I don't kill cockroaches.

Fortunately, I live up on the tenth floor in a nice modern apartment building, so they're not really a problem for me. But even in my old place, where they'd turn up from time to time, or walking about in the city, where you're bound to see them, especially after dark, I feel no desire to do what everyone else seems to do - freak out and jump on them with both feet. After all, why should I? They're just being what they are. They're just doing what millions of years of evolution have programmed them to do. They don't act out of malice or with the intention of trying to harm me, so I say live and let live.

Oh, don't get me wrong - I don't let roaches stay. I'll capture them, take them out to the riverbank or somewhere and let them go. I'll put down deterrents to roaches around the house. I may be kindly-disposed towards all living things [1], but I'm not an idiot. My point is, I feel a certain empathy towards those little guys, just trying to make their way in a hostile, anti-cockroach world.

And that's how I know I'm not an android.

When we talk about things like computer intelligence, one of the questions that comes up is how we would tell an artificial intelligence apart from the real thing? For a computer-bound AI, there's the Turing Test - a conversation with a human wherein the human cannot tell that she's talking to a computer. And that's good, as far as that goes. But what if we start putting them into physical bodies? What if we make these AIs in our image? Fleshy, sweaty, hairy robots that look and behave just like humans do? How, then, would we be able to tell the difference between a made being and a natural-born human?

Philip K. Dick's answer is empathy, and it is at the core of this book.

Dick is kind of like science fiction's mad mystic. He explores the hidden inner worlds of the people involved in the story, peeling apart issues of identity and psychology and reality itself, forcing the reader to ask him or herself what's really going on.

In other words, reading his work can be something of a head trip.

This novel introduces us to a near-future America, one which is greatly different from the one we know today. After a devastating nuclear war that wiped out countless species of plants and animals, the planet is being slowly emptied out. Those who are young, healthy and fertile are allowed to emigrate to off-world colonies. With them go the androids as servants, workers and slaves. Some people stay on Earth for reasons of their own. J.R. Isadore, for example, is a "special," one who doesn't make the genetic grade to leave the planet. Rick Deckard, on the other hand, is a bounty hunter, a man whose duty is to hunt down and destroy androids that come to Earth. Deckard has been handed a special assignment - six androids of the latest model, Nexus-6, have landed nearby. They're strong, intelligent, almost indistinguishable from humans, and Deckard has to "retire" them all before they get away.

Like many people, I first encountered this story in the movie Blade Runner, which followed much the same path. And, probably like a lot of people who saw the movie first, I was a bit thrown by the difference between the two. Rick Deckard in the book is not the morose lone wolf that he is in the movie. He has a wife here, and an electric sheep that he keeps on the roof (though he'd never admit to his neighbors that it was electric.) He has an interest in animals - the keeping of which is a mark of true status in a world where so many species have gone extinct. He's a more interesting character, with more depth and inner conflict than we see in the film. On the other hand, Roy Baty, Deckard's adversary, is far less interesting. He's intelligent and cruel, yes, but with so much less visceral power than Rutger Hauer gave him.

The major themes are different as well. In the movie, one of the overriding themes is the desire to live, the instinctive need that humans have to keep surviving even for just one more second. It's what keeps Deckard hanging on the edge of the roof when Roy's already broken his fingers. It's what sends Roy to Tyrell's home in the middle of the night with murder on his mind. The replicants in the film, despite being made beings, want what we want: more life.

The book follows a different path, though. The book looks at the difference between human and android, the Born and the Made, especially where it comes to that elusive quality of empathy. It is a capacity that only humans are supposed to possess, and indeed there is a whole religion founded around it - Mercerism. By using "Empathy Boxes," a person can become one with the iconic Wilbur Mercer, and share the joys and pains of everyone else connected to him at the same time. Life in all its forms becomes utterly sacred, and the destruction of a living thing is one of the greatest sins one can commit.

The androids, on the other hand, know nothing of empathy. They would gladly give up one of their own to die in their place. In one rather vivid scene, the android Pris starts snipping the legs off a spider, an act so monstrous that it drives J.R. Isadore to betray her and the other androids, people he believes are his only friends. The androids can pretend to feel empathy, but a simple test of involuntary physical responses show that they cannot truly feel it.

So, in a world where life has been scythed clean, respect for life is the highest virtue. The androids have no respect for life, and must therefore be kept off the planet, eliminated if they set foot on it. But what happens when they get more complex? What happens when the androids are so good, the humans begin to empathize with them? How can you destroy something when you can imagine its pain as your own? And if you can refrain from killing a lowly cockroach because you have empathy for it, how can you then turn around and kill thinking, self-aware android?

It's the kind of logical and moral conundrum that Dick excels at. The capacity for empathy cannot be what makes one creature worthy of protection and another not. After all, cockroaches don't feel empathy any more than androids do, yet they would be cherished in this world. It must then be the ability to generate empathy in others that is important, and in this book we see the androids cross that line. Deckard realizes that he's beginning to feel for the things he has to kill, and cannot reconcile that feeling with his job.

The theme of Born versus Made is reflected all through the book, especially where animals show up. There are animals that are presented as real, which later turn out to be androids. Others which the characters think are androids, but turn out to be real. Some characters can't even say with certainty whether they are not androids. All throughout the book, people find themselves in the position where they can't tell the difference between biological life and constructed life, which then raises a whole new question - if you can't tell the difference, then is there any difference at all?

It's the kind of question best discussed over a cup of coffee at Denny's with your friends in college.

Even today, people look down on science fiction as being less substantial than "real" fiction. Stories of androids and bounty hunters and off-world colonies, they think, can't compete with tales of single mothers raising kids in the inner cities or soldiers fighting and dying in a pointless war. To those who think there's nothing to grab on to in science fiction, I submit this book. It'll stay in your head, keep you up at night, and make you ask the kinds of questions that you'll never be able to answer.

If that's not quality writing, then I don't know what is.

"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."
- Mercer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

[1] Well, almost all living things. There's still Ann Coulter....

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick official site
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on

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