In the irregular light the bounty hunter seemed a medium man, not impressive. Round face and hairless, smooth features; like a clerk in a bureaucratic office. Methodical but informal. Not demi-god in shape; not at all as Isidore had anticipated him.
About 3 years ago, a friend of mine was surprised and delighted to find out that I had not watched Blade Runner—which provided him the opportunity to pop my cherry for Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic. I was treated to an intimate viewing of the film from his Blu-ray collection in his own private theatre, and I proceeded to break his heart when I fell asleep several times throughout the film. So, to this day, all I possess is the sketchiest of ideas of what the film is about (something about Deckard possibly being a replicant?). I want to blame its soporific atmosphere, but its 2017 sequel shares its pace and tone but still held my rapt attention.
If there is one thing Mr Scott did right by this book, it is in translating its dreamlike mood. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a 1968 sci-fi novel set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco on an earth blighted by nuclear holocaust leaving most animals endangered and extinct, and its human inhabitants sickly and/or mentally-reduced. The main plot is centred around bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s mission to “retire” (i.e. kill) six escaped Nexus-6 androids which had violently rebelled and escaped from Mars to Earth. What I was most surprised to find out is that the “electric sheep” in the title is not metaphorical. There really is an electric sheep in the story.
In a future in which the line between human and androids are increasingly blurred, performative acts of affirming one’s empathy became vogue. Many subscribe to Mercerism, a cult revolving around a Sisyphean figure called Mercer who gets pelted with rocks as he ascends a hill, and its followers are able to access a virtual reality of collective suffering using “empathy boxes”. Caring for live pets becomes a status symbol, akin to having an ostentatiously big house or a fast car, as the dwindling numbers of live animals on the planet made them prohibitively expensive to own. Those who can’t afford an actual animal would have to make do with extremely lifelike robot animals, which is considered an embarrassment. One wonders what Mr Dick would think about Tamagotchis, but alas, he passed away a decade before their advent.
The reason why demonstrating one’s empathy become such a big deal is because androids in the book are supposedly deficient of it, and that makes them uncanny, monstrous and unloveable. One of the central conflicts that Deckard faces in the novel is his development of empathetic feelings for androids, which isn’t suppose to happen because they are “things”—a struggle I cannot identify with because it makes perfect sense to me for humans to feel for supposedly unfeeling things. I wonder if Mr Dick ever owned a cat and watched it torture a smaller animal. Yet, in spite of this, cats are beloved across the internet. He might have vastly underestimated the human race’s capacity to relate. As Jeff Winger in the pilot of the sitcom Community put it so cleverly:
You know what makes humans different from other animals?… We’re the only species on Earth that observes Shark Week. Sharks don’t even observe Shark Week, but we do, for the same reason I can pick up this pencil, tell you its name is Steve, and go like this! [snaps pencil in two as the others reacted in discomfort] And part of you dies, just a little bit, on the inside. Because people can connect with anything. We can sympathize with a pencil, we can forgive a shark, and we can give Ben Affleck an Academy Award for screenwriting.—Pilot (2009), episode 1, season 1 of Community
Even if it is true that androids lack true empathy, wouldn’t their capacity to feel suffering (hence their escape from servitude in the harsh environment of Mars) and their drive to survive (hence their evasion of bounty hunters) be reason enough to raise concerns about “retiring” them with extreme prejudice? Perhaps that is the point Mr Dick was making since the androids are essentially escaped slaves and Deckard is a slave catcher. I’m sorry. It is what it is.
And it is also incredibly concerning that Deckard’s authority to kill someone relies on the administration of the Voight-Kampff test that supposedly detects empathy by looking at measures of physiological reactions akin to a polygraph, and we know how reliable polygraphs are (not at all). And even in the book, it was stated that humans with impaired empathy, such as patients with schizophrenia and presumably sociopaths, are able to fail the Voight-Kampff as well so a margin of error does exist. I think the novel is at its most brilliant when it started examining what a bounty hunter has to be in order to hunt and kill androids, and how the gulf between androids and human are being closed from both directions—y’know, like what Nietzsche said about having staring contests with abysses. What measure is a human, when a human is willing to kill creatures that look like them, who are averse to suffering and wants to live, in order to earn a living? Whether it was intended or not, Do Androids Dream is a parable of police brutality, racism, and the dehumanisation of an entire class people. It brought to mind that video earlier this year of George Floyd’s final minutes, suffocating under the knee of a law enforcement officer who was neither empathetic nor concerned enough to release the pressure killing him in spite of seeing clear outward signs of distress. What can turn a human being who has the ability to “connect with anything” into someone so completely disconnected?
Of course, whenever I dive into an older work of sci-fi and fantasy, I always prepare myself to being bombarded by outmoded ways authors write women, and Mr Dick definitely delivered on that front. In fact, I discovered that one of the most quoted passages used as an example of male authors writing women poorly originated from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,
“I’ll sit in the hotel room,” he said, “and watch Buster Friendly on TV. His guest for the last three days has been Amanda Werner. I like her; I could watch her the rest of my life. She has breasts that smile.”
And how Mr Dick describes Rachael Rosen made me more than a little uncomfortable too when he used words like “childlike”, “resemblance to adolescence”, and “definitely that of a girl, not a woman”, all within the same paragraph to paint a picture of her body. Some critics have also brought up Mr Dick’s unflattering portrayal of every female character in Do Androids Dream, though to be fair to him, none of the men (with the exception of Isidore) were portrayed very charitably either. There are also hints of racism in Roy Baty’s description as someone with “bright, small eyes” and “flat, Mongolian features which gave him a brutal look.”
While reading the first half of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I was quite hooked by the paranoia-fueled confusion that permeates the story when every character started questioning their own identities (as characters are wont to do when false memory implants are a thing), and I wish the novel would explore this more deeply. And aside from inspiring one of the most well known sci-fi films in cinema history, I can also trace the ancestry of artificially intelligent, emotionally-manipulative female androids that both attracts and repulse us like Dolores from Westworld and Ava from Ex Machina to Mr Dick’s Rachael Rosen—who is as memorable as she is problematic. The increasing levels of pop mysticism towards the end of the book, however, was a turn-off for me. Still, there are reasons why this book endures as one of the lasting classic of speculative fiction, and one of it is that it posed very interesting, very relevant questions about humanity, even if the answers Mr Dick offered are rather garbled.