The Universe of do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
In, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip Dick a post human world is shown in which after a catastrophic war most humans have emigrated to Mars and those who remain on Earth live in a radioactive environment. Dust is described as covering everything, damaging the health of the humans and causing extinction for many animal species. This post human world is based on the matter of empathy. Humans are all pressured into owning animals, even if those animals are fake robotic ones, to care for. Their religion, Mercerism, is also based on feeling empathy for others and Mercer himself.
The book follows two characters, Rick Deckard and Isadore. Isadore is considered a “special” due to the radioactivity affecting his brain. Rick is a bounty hunter whose job it is to hunt and “retire” androids that have escaped from Mars in hopes to be able to earn enough money to buy a real animal rather than his electric sheep. In order to find the androids, he must administer the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test to determine whether or not they are an android since these androids look so similar to humans. Rick falls for an android which makes him question his whole job. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip Dick argues empathy is not a defining human trait but is selective and based on interactions, experiences and cultural norms.
How it works
Empathy is not a definitive human trait. The whole society is based on empathy, from their religion, to the empathy box, to how animals are required (real or fake) to be cared for and the tests bounty hunters use to differentiate between human and android. Society and governing figures are trying to ensure and emulate empathy, especially after a devastating world war which just about diminished the planet. Empathy is forced not only to differentiate humans and androids but to ensure a peaceful existence between humans. We see a complete lack of empathy from the character Phil Resch who is another bounty hunter and enjoys killing for killings sake.
Phil Resch describes to Rick a previous encounter in which he had sex with an android but still killed her after. Rick starts to doubt if Phil Resch is human due to the fact he can so coldly kill for killing sakes and starts to suspect he could be an android because of this. ‘If I test out android,’ Phil Resch says, ‘you’ll undergo renewed faith in the human race. But since it’s not going to work out that way, I suggest you begin framing an ideology which will account for it'(Dick 138). If Phil were to not pass the test it would renew Rick’s faith in humanity that in fact humans are an empathetic species while androids have no empathy for life. After the test is administered Rick discovers Phil is human and the line begins to blur around the distinction between humans and androids. This exemplifies how humans are not defining empathetic beings. On the other side Dick reiterates this by showing the empathy that androids can have.
Even when Rick Deckard begins to show empathy towards the androids it’s obvious that he sees them as attractive or carrying some sort of ability he admires. He starts to feel bad about Lena Luna because of how she is such a wonderful Opera singer ‘I’ve had enough. She was a wonderful singer. The planet could have used her. This is insane’ (Dick pg.). For Rick, Luba Luft started to feel alive and not an artificial life. Rick’s empathy only seems to come from seeing a value that he admires. If Luba was not an opera singer would we have seen the same guilt after her death? Although Rick is beginning to become a more empathetic person, it is still very subjective.
Society and cultural norms play a role in who is “deserving” of empathy and compassion. In the novel androids, the society has dehumanized those who have been effected mentally by the dust and who cannot pass an intelligence test. These humans are called specials and are “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” (pg. 14). The dust caused by the war caused many to become mentally deficient and which resulted in them being considered second class citizens. This quote illustrates the false structures of hierarchy that humanity set up for itself which allowed mentally deficient people and androids to be classed as less than human. The irony of that Dick seems to make is that Isadore couldn’t pass an intelligence test but is arguably the most empathetic character in the novel and shows true empathy to animals, the humans who degrade him, and even the androids. Humans are not empathy driven beings but selectively choose who and how to give empathy and Dick investigates the way human beings can de-humanize others and the way we struggle to imagine or delegitimize the lives of people who are different from us.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was written in 1968, a height in the civil rights movement when people discriminated against people of color. Dick tries to correlate the hypocrisy of Rick Deckard and other characters discriminating against specials, even though they are the most empathetic (a defining requirement among this society), to America supposedly being the moral leader of the world yet discriminating against other human beings. The book asks the question is there a substantive difference between android and human empathy or is that a generalization? Bringing this back to the 1960’s when the book was written a similar question can be posed, is there a substantive difference between people of different races and ethnicities? By the end of the novel, Dick answers that question that androids have hopes and desires start to feel empathy towards each other just like humans can.
What makes something or someone feel is not heritage or genes but rather experience and that empathy is not purely a human trait but can arise in anything that can interact and experience. The humans emulate what society deems necessary but are not truly feeling or experiencing empathy. The humans in this society simply discuss empathy but do not experience empathy. By the end of the novel Rick begins to sympathize with the androids and questions if what he is doing is right. Although he still ends up killing the remaining androids on his bounty list we see his growing empathy after he finds the toad and Iran discovers its mechanical panel board.
‘The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are (Dick 239). Rick is resigned to the falseness of the animal, but after all his experiences his new empathetic capacity allows him to begin to appreciate this type of false life compared to before when he had absolutely loathed his electric sheep. He can see a new value on electric living things because of finding empathy for the androids. “Yet Rick could not have had this realization without the full benefit of his bounty-hunting experience, an experience that has taken him again and again into close proximity with the androids he has been assigned to kill. Only having had this contact can he feel compassion for the ostracized android in ways that make him sensible that that creature compromises his self-is human ego” (Pg. 426).
The society in Do Androids went to great lengths to ferret out feeling machines (the empathy box) and to take care of animals real or fake to try to emulate empathy. “He must rather submit himself to a phenomenological experience-an experience that teaches him an empathy that is unmistakably real, insofar as it grows out of his understood intimacy with his technological environment” (Pg. 427). Empathy cannot be discussed or emulated, connection and experiences drive empathy, so even though Rick killed all the androids in the end without doing so he would not become a truer empathetic character.