What makes us human? What is the single most important aspect of humankind that separates the man from the animal? After all, we can think – but so can monkeys. Thinking, or rational thought, rather, therefore could not be the key. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, famed science fiction writer Philip K. Dick connects that the key to humanity is not rational thought, but empathy.
Empathy – the capacity in which a person can feel what another is feeling – is the key component that is used to distinguished the human from the android in Dick’s dystopian future. In it, the main character Rick Deckard, a police officer from San Francisco administers something called the Voight-Kampf test to distinguish the robot from the man. Decker’s job is to find the androids (called Andy’s), and retire them if they fail the test. Retiring, by the way, involves using a laser tube to destroy them.
There’s a lot of allegory within Dick’s novel, and it says more than one may realize before getting into the novel. This is anything but your standard science fiction tale. Fans of the movie may (or may not be) surprised to find that it is much more enigmatic than Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaption. Dick uses metaphor and thematic elements throughout to raise a discussion on the nature of humanity and more through the story. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the journey is much, much more important than the destination. In fact, there’s not much of a destination at all.
The book all takes place over the course of one day – hands down the most eventful day of Deckard’s life. While Deckard remains on earth, most of the population has emigrated to Mars. Few humans are left behind by choice; “specials”, or those with mental disabilities, for example, are not welcome on humanity’s new home. They stay behind on the dust covered post-apocalyptic world that was destroyed by man himself during World War Terminus. The status of a human living on earth can be determined on the animals he owns. But if you can’t afford one, you can always buy an electric one. The electric ones are almost indistinguishable from the real things, but only almost. Just like the Andy’s. Extravagant amounts of money are spent on buying real, live animals to keep and to take care of. To Deckard, obtaining a real animal is the sole motivation for being successful in his career. After all, with all of the Andy’s that he is tasked with retiring, he would most definitely be able to afford one.
These androids, by the way, are targets because they are escapees. They are not content with the services they are forced to work on Mars, and in turn, decide to conspire against their human masters and escape to earth. On earth, maybe, they can have a sense of freedom.
And what hurt, anyway, are they doing to anyone on earth? It’s mostly abandoned. Why is there an insatiable need by the police department to destroy them? Is it out of fear? Is it out of a superiority complex? This is a question that is left for you to ponder; it is never answered in a straightforward way. Which is one of the things that makes this book so deep.
Adding to the abstract nature of the book is the whole concept of Mercerism. The humans, by grabbing hold of their empathy box, fuse emotionally with a man named William Mercer on an ever climbing journey to the top of a mountain. Along the way, rocks are thrown at him. The road is rough and dangerous; while fused with the empathy box, all humans share their emotions. Their joy, their pain, their sadness. But is Mercer real? And if he is not real, what are these people even experiencing?
For a book about androids, it’s an incredibly human book. It almost works as a Voight-Kampf test itself, testing your empathy and asking you to feel it, not only read it. The book is an emotional and interpretive journey, as only Philip K. Dick could write. A true classic.