|Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?|
|Timeless - Literature|
|Saturday, 14 June 2008|
"An android doesn’t care what happens to another android. That’s one of the indications we look for”.
"Then you must be an android."
Or was he? That was the question that was never answered. Rick Deckard, the main character of the book, the bounty hunter paid to "retire" the androids could have been an android himself. This was just one of the many themes that was toyed with in the cult cyber punk novel, which was made into the film "Blade Runner" staring Harrison Ford, and directed by Ridley Scott...
Politics of Representation and Diagnostic Critique
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was written in 1966 and first published in 1968 and told the story of a bounty hunter paid to eliminate humanoid robotic replicants, who posed a threat to the society. In the story Philip K Dick plays with issues of human nature in a very classist system. When one delves deeper into these issues, more complicated themes such as class, slavery, ethics, fear of the other, intelligence and self acceptance were woven into the story of Rick Deckard and his task of “Retiring” the androids. It was the mixture of these themes that made the book a cult classic.
Class and importance
Due to the occurrence of World War Terminus (WWT) and the state of Earth as described by Dick, the natural order of things and class system had been upset. In the world of Rick Deckard, Animals were the most important, because they had been all but wiped out by the effects of the war. They symbolized Mother Nature, and to look after the animals was to help heal the Earth. Next in importance would be the humans who also faced extinction, but were more numerous and could make a difference in healing the plight of the Earth. Last in importance were the replicants, who were created by the humans to act as servants or more accurately, slaves, to do the jobs the humans were unable to, or didn’t want to do.
Within the order of importance could be found another more in-depth class system. At the top were humans who were subdivided between those who looked after or could afford to look after real animals. As the animals were at the top in order of importance, to look after one was seen as a noble deed, and would bring respect as one who was helping to heal the Earth and replace the natural order of things. Those who could not afford the near extortionate price of owning and catering to the needs of a real animal could purchase an electric animal. These people were next in the order of class. As the task or past time of tending to the needs of an electric animal did not contribute to the healing of Mother Nature, it was not as important, and thus owning an animal whether authentic or electric could be seen as a recreational activity also. A “Special” was the third division of human. This was a person who had suffered from the radioactive effects of the nuclear fallout of WWT. They were seen as impure examples of the human race, and thus were not desirable in replenishing the Earth.
“… classed as biologically unacceptable, a menace to the pristine heredity of the race. Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history. He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind.” (p. 16)
Finally, beneath the specials in class were the humanoid replicants. They were not classed as human because of their inability to feel empathy towards another thing. Thus they could not look after animals, and help heal the earth in that way. Thus the animals here were not only a status symbol, but were also used as a sign of human nature.
“…Duplicates the halcyon days of the pre-Civil War Southern States! Either as body servants or tireless field hand…” (p. 17)
This helps to explain the plight of the humanoid replicants when compared to the plight of African American slaves. Their fights for freedom can be equated with each other if the issue of humanity of the replicants is overlooked. However, this issue and the question of “What makes a human human?” is played out quite intensely in the novel, and is difficult to ignore.
As the replicants are unable to empathize, an empathy test, called the Voight-Kampff test is used to differentiate between them and humans. One could read into this as Dick’s suggestion for a marker for human nature, how much one can empathize with another. Although, like IQ and other similar tests, the use of this would be open to scrutiny. In reality, language and culture would get in the way of the test. Those that had not been brought up in that environment, or those whose language was different to English would not be tested accurately due to misunderstanding.
Other themes expressed in the book are the Fear of illegal aliens, as expressed in the following quote
“This is necessary. Remember: they killed humans in order to get away. …we’re acting defensively; they’re here on our planet – they’re murderous illegal aliens…” (p. 136)
and Self acceptance of class position, expressed by the character Phil Resch who is willing to kill himself when he thinks that he himself may be a replicant, are all representative of real life, modern day themes. Even the idea of the “specials” parallels with people living with disabilities, and I liken the situation in the book directly with that of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, where most of the victims developed disabilities as a result of the after effects. Many view those living with disabilities as second class humans, or even worse, which seems to be the case when looking at society at large, and considering the lack of representation of people with disabilities in the media.
I would say that the novel closely follows and describes the issues of modern day life. When considering all of the issues discussed it seems that the seemingly far fetched, cyber punk world of Philip K Dick, is in fact closer to reality than we may think, and within the last 40 or so years since the book was written, humanity has not become any more humane.
One thing that I have not been able to portray is the interesting pace of the book, and how dick develops the characters in the book, especially the androids themselves. The book came with many cover versions, all very artistically designed, some of which can be seen displayed here, all of which come highly recommended. If you liked the film, you'll love the book. You can check out the very interesting and indepth wikipedia article which explains the themes in more detail, andlists the differences between book and movie.
[Sources: Pictures from pkdickbooks.com]
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