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Let Me Tell You About My Mother
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Planet Earth is a smouldering ruin. A nuclear war has left most of its surface irradiated and barely inhabitable. Most people have already left for Mars, the deal sweetened by the free android issued to new arrivals; but some of those androids, breaking free, have killed their masters and made their way back to earth, where they are now trying to pass off as human beings. Enter Rick Deckard.
As bounty hunter for the San Francisco police, his job is to retire i.e. kill the runaway androids. Over the years the new models have become more and more like humans to the point where the difference between them is about as wide as a slice of salami. The only way to tell them apart is by administering a Voight-Kampff test.
The V-K test checks for superhuman reflexes. It also purports to measure one’s empathy—something the humans figure they still have over the machines. This does not seem like an especially robust test though. What about sociopaths and schizophrenics, people who are indisputably human, albeit lacking in a common point of empathetic and psycho-social contact? Has Deckard accidentally been killing humans?
As a point of distinction from androids—or in a futile attempt to recreate the earth they destroyed—humans make a great deal out of owning and caring for animals. They believe this cultivates empathy. But since most animals are long dead, only the rich can afford the real thing; the poor must make do with convincing imitations, like Deckard’s electric sheep; announcing one’s empathy (and thus humanity) is something of a luxury belief.
The hypocrisy is even more pronounced when it comes to chickenheads. These people, brain-damaged by the radiation, are considered subnormal and repulsive. They are effectively segregated from the rest of society.
One such chickenhead, J. R. Isidore, ends up harbouring the fugitive androids that Deckard is hunting. Isidore is the only unambiguously human character in the book. The basis of his life is Mercerism, a religion which involves its members plugging into empathy boxes so they can simultaneously experience what it is like to be Mercer, a Christ-like figure who is pelted with stones as he walks up an eternal hill. This is another way to cultivate empathy, though the result is a kind of slave morality that fetishes weakness and suffering. Does the experience of passive, vicarious pain really make us human, or simply helpless?
While the fugitive androids don’t feel any empathy towards humans, they have, under their leader Roy Baty, developed a collective concern for one another based on a primitive survival instinct. Baty is the most deranged of the fugitives, but also the most human. When his partner, Irmgard, is shot dead by Deckard, he howls in anguish. He also tries to induce a new group consciousness in the runaways with the use of hallucinogenic drugs This view of humanity is more incremental than the binary reality of the V-K test: by establishing what is effectively a religion in the minds of the fugitive androids, Baty intends to make them human.
At this point I must mention Dick’s writing. It is wonky in many respects, filled with grammatical errors, clumsy phrases, dead-end sub-plots, and an unbelievable narrative progression: we are expected to believe that in one day Rick Deckard argues with his wife, chats with his neighbour, goes to the office, gets a new assignment, kills an android, goes to a museum, gets arrested, breaks out, tracks down an android, kills her, bangs another one, buys a goat, and kills 3 more androids. All in one day!
But even when the characters act in literally unbelievable ways, it is to the book’s favour, for you begin to question their humanity and the thin layer of reality beneath it. That is one of the book’s great tensions. Who is actually a human? Who is merely pretending? Who is an android but doesn’t know it? Is there really a secret society of androids-pretending-to-be-human who operate in parallel to the “ordinary” institutions of society? Mistrust and paranoia cloud every page.
As the androids fall in love and mourn each other, they become more human. Each retirement, meanwhile, makes Deckard more resemble his prey. In the course of the story, he tries to regulate his wife’s depression away with her “mood organ”, plots how to kill the man who just saved his life, carries on killing androids so he has enough money to buy a real animal, and sleeps with one of his targets without a thought for his wife. What exactly makes his life so special where an android’s—or even a chickenhead’s—is not?
The book’s finale is a real head-scratcher. Mercer, it turns out, is a fraud, a mere actor on a sound-stage. Yet he “manifests” outside of virtual reality to assist Deckard, who is unsure if he can go through with killing the last 3 androids. Mercer talks him round:
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.
How is this possible if Mercer is really just some dude on a sound-stage? He can’t be a hallucination, for he also heals Isidore’s spider (whose legs are mutilated by the fugitives in a rather excruciating, blood-boiling scene).
There is no rational explanation. Mercer’s advice says as much: as an eternal, messianic figure, he is forced to violate his own nature by his earthly, desacralised presence as a literal man; so does Deckard, against his better judgement, gun down the androids, hoping to be able to finally afford to look after a real animal—all so he can cultivate his empathy and thus humanity; and finally, Roy Baty, in seeking to become a human, must negate and transcend what he really is: a machine.
After killing Roy Baty, Deckard, torn with guilt, retires to the desert. There he has a religious experience and becomes one with Mercer. As a human being, Deckard was sometimes forced to act against his nature; now, as part of the Godhead, he is the creator of meaning, and blesses his actions as being somehow necessary, so as to redefine the terms of what he is.
Thus those things which confer on us our sense of humanity—empathy, religion, consciousness—also become the tools we use to justify our inhumanity towards others. Deckard can’t help feeling guilty as he murders androids; but then he uses that same uniquely human faculty to cleanse himself of sin.
What is the line between human and robot? Maybe the answer is irrelevant. Roy Baty feels nothing and wants to rewire his consciousness. Deckard kills an android and is torn with guilt. Neither man’s humanity is established by empirical observations before the fact. It is found in these performative contradictions, these situations where, against better judgement, each man does something horrible that unravels him to the core of his very being.