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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the relationship between the androids and the rest of society is more complex than that between the monster of Frankenstein and the society that the monster tries to live in. This has two reasons.

The monster in Frankenstein is one of a kind, at least so far, and society at large has had no chance to get used to the existence of another race more or less similar to human beings. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? there is a large number of androids present, so the concept of an android is well-known to everyone. No-one has to be afraid of the androids just because they are something new, a humanoid race to challenge the supremacy of man. The relationship between humans and androids is more established and mature than that between humans and monster. The androids have been on the scene for much longer than the monster has. We never see anything of the initial reaction of the humans to the androids, just the fully developed relations. We do know, however, that the androids were originally constructed as ``Synthetic Freedom Fighters'' and therefore must be considered a product of the entire society, not as in Frankenstein, one man's work.

The other difference is that the androids have two different modes of being, so to speak. The original idea is that every human who leaves Earth for some other planet will get an android as a servant. In this capacity, the androids are considered a valuable part of society and of great service to humans. Not all androids are content with this life in servitude, however. They escape from their masters and go to Earth where they are treated as dangerous fugitives, hunted down and killed. Thus, the same android can be either a useful servant or a menace to society, depending on where it is and who (if anyone) controls it.

In Frankenstein, the conflict is between the monster on the one hand and everyone else on the other. Things are not quite so simple in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There is a similar dichotomy here with human beings on one side and androids on the other, but there are other distinctions as well. Due to radioactive fallout after a major war, the genes of some humans have started to deteriorate, and when this decay has passed a certain level it is detected by mandatory periodic testing. The humans who fail this testing are henceforth termed ``specials.'' These specials are no longer considered real humans by those who are still able to pass the tests. They are looked down upon as sub-human and are no longer allowed to emigrate from Earth to avoid further radiation damage. Thus we have three distinct groups in Dick's society: humans, specials, and androids. Both the androids and the specials are considered less than human by those who qualify for ``humanness.'' While the specials are humans who have deteriorated by having their genes partially destroyed by radiation, the androids are indistinguishable from humans or even physically superior. They are still considered subhuman because they are created by humans. As we shall see, the distinctions between androids, humans, and specials are not clear-cut.

The narrative of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? consists of at least two different plot threads that are gradually woven together to meet in the end. The primary one concerns Deckard and his search for the escaped androids. There is also a secondary plot thread which concerns Isidore. We are introduced to both these characters early on in the novel, and are told at the start what ``class'' of ``persons'' they belong to and what this means. Both of them dwell a bit in their thoughts on their respective situations, together with their ``class.''

Deckard, the bounty hunter, is a human who might be said to epitomize the struggle that humans on Earth are caught in, at least mentally, at this time. By wearing a leaden codpiece he protects his genes from deteriorating in the radioactive fallout. If he didn't do this, he might fail the mandatory test and thereby lose his humanity. He is employed by the police department as a bounty hunter, tracing and ``retiring'' (killing) escaped androids. This is, in a way, a very ``human'' job even though it requires doing unpleasant things like shooting down androids. The androids act like human beings, look like humans at least on the surface and don't present an immediate personal threat to the bounty hunter. Still, society considers them a threat, probably at least partly because of fear that the androids will overcome their built-in age limit of a few years and become a new race to rival humankind. Since the androids have no empathy and thus don't hesitate to kill humans, the humans hunt down the androids that have escaped to Earth and kill them before they themselves get killed. Thus, to preserve humane values like empathy, the humans have to become murderous and unfeeling like the androids in order to avoid being killed by them.

At the outset of the novel we see Deckard tending to his fake sheep and wishing for a real one, just like so many other humans. Since the war that caused the radioactive fallout, real animals have become very scarce. At the same time, it has become almost required by custom for people to have a pet to take care of. This has at least two reasons: since so many animals have died out, having an animal means that you have a considerable amount of money. Animals have turned into status symbols. The other reason is that caring for an animal means displaying empathy towards the animal. This is something that androids are not able to do, and thus signals that people with pets are not androids.

Isidore has a much lower position in society than Deckard because of the fact that he is a special. Not only has he failed the test of his genes but he has also been unable to pass the ``minimum mental faculties test'' which makes him what is commonly known as a ``chickenhead.'' In his profession, he takes care of artificial animals (androids in sheeps' clothing, as it were) that have broken down and drives them to be serviced. Even though the artificial animals are kept by humans as pet substitutes, his work can be seen as helping a primitive kind of androids and thus his profession is a humane counterpart to Deckard's.

At the beginning of the novel, it seems clear to us which of these two main characters is the more human. Likewise, there is no doubt that Deckard is more human than Isidore according to the definitions and values of the society that they live in. As in Frankenstein, however, a number of situations arise which gradually reverse the original positions of these characters. There seems to be a reversal between the humanity that Deckard is supposed to represent and the substandard, decayed, no-longer-humanity of Isidore. As in Frankenstein, there are several passages where the three types of people (androids, specials, and humans) act in ways that don't seem to fit in with their original level of humanity. I will try to show that the question of what defines humanity is equally open in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as in Frankenstein. The questions, however, are somewhat less clearly stated here than in Frankenstein since there are three types of persons. First, we have the real humans whom we see risk losing their humanity, at least partly. Second, the specials; originally humans but genetically decayed and considered subhuman but nonetheless obviously in possession of humanity. Third, the androids who are nonhumans built by humans but who still display some of the characteristics that define humanity- and also display a lack of these same characteristics at other times. The whole situation is made yet more complicated by the fact that our perception of the androids varies as we read through the novel:

in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? we can at one point be led to see the androids as anti-social, pathological creatures preying on society, at another to see them as pathetic victims exploited by society, but then at a later time to see them again as simply cruel ``killers.''

To begin with, an important thing in the novel is the test that Deckard administers to persons that he suspects of being androids. At the beginning of the novel there is some doubt whether the old type of test that Deckard is using is still valid for the new and improved Nexus-6 model of android. He tests the test with the assistance of the Rosen Association, the android manufacturers. Naturally, they are interested in the test results so that they will be able to build even better androids in the future. After having detected that Rachael is actually an android and not a human as he originally thought, he decides that the test is valid. The fact that he only has tried the test once on the Nexus-6 androids ought to create some uncertainty, both concerning the validity of the test and his own interpretation of the results. There might be a case where he misreads something and lets an android get away which should not be so emotionally trying, but there is also the constant possibility that he might test a human being with a result that causes him to designate him as an android and shoot him. None of all this seems to affect Deckard who calmly administers his test without any misgivings about its accuracy. It might be argued that he knows, both intellectually and emotionally, that the people that he is shooting are not human beings even though they look human. It is still a fact that all the weight of determining whether someone is human or not falls upon Deckard himself.

One of the most important criteria for humanity in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is empathy. The Voigt-Kampff test that Deckard uses to detect androids is actually an empathy test and the importance of empathy as a human characteristic is further emphasized by the recurrence of empathy boxes in the narrative. An empathy box is a device through which a person merges, empathizes, with a person or entity called Mercer. It functions as a combination of recreation and religion and is used at least partly to prove to the users themselves that they are able to empathize with another person, something that androids are considered unable to do. In the course of the novel we see Deckard drift further and further away from his wife, Iran, the only person to whom he seems to have any real attachment. She also accuses him of not using their empathy box as much as he ought to. On the whole, we don't see him interact much with human beings. When he speaks to their neighbor, his attitude is a mixture of a desire to get rid of him and a desire to show off. On the whole, Deckard is, just like Frankenstein, somewhat lacking when it comes to emotions. At times he seems to have no emotions at all while at other times he seems uncertain what to feel.

Isidore, on the other hand, likes to feel that he is close to other people and uses his empathy box regularly and often. When he realizes that he no longer is the only person living in his building he immediately takes a cube of margarine, the most suitable thing he can think of, to offer as a gift of welcome to his new neighbor. Pris, the android neighbor, at first does not want to have anything to do with him, but soon she realizes that he might be useful. She lets Isidore help her and her two android friends. They move into his apartment instead of hers and he tries to take care of his three new friends as best he can. Throughout this episode, Isidore empathizes with the loneliness that he feels that his new-found neighbor must suffer from, just like he himself does. He does his best to get her and her friends to feel as comfortable as possible. When he gets to know about the bounty hunter that is stalking Pris and her friends, he is horrified:

He had an indistinct, glimpsed darkly impression: of something merciless that carried a printed list and a gun, that moved machine-like through the flat, bureaucratic job of killing. A thing without emotions, or even a face; a thing that if killed got replaced immediately by another resembling it. And so on, until everyone real and alive had been shot.

In this passage we can see clearly the role-reversal that is taking place. Isidore is, in fact, the person in the novel who displays the largest portion of the traits that are considered ``human.'' He feels that he ought to welcome his new neighbor and he immediately empathizes with the androids when he hears that they are pursued by a bounty hunter. At the start, Isidore thinks that the three are humans and that the bounty hunter that is after them is some kind of evil machine, but when he later realizes that his new-found friends are actually androids it doesn't alter his feelings toward them. He knows them as nice people. That they happen to be androids has no relevance to his attitude; only their behaviour towards him matters. He does not consider someone to be worth less or to be less human just because they happen to belong to any particular ``race.'' In fact, the only time that he does not seem to empathize with his new android neighbors is when Pris pulls the legs off a spider they have found. Not only does she display her inhumanity and lack of empathy by doing this and even seeming to enjoy Isidore's unease, Isidore also shows that he has strong empathy for whom- or whatever gets hurt- be it man or spider.

In the course of the novel, there is a change in Deckard's empathy pattern. There is a deterioration in his relationship with his wife and he begins to feel that female androids are more attractive than her:

Most androids I've known have more vitality and desire to live than my wife. She has nothing to give me. [...]

Some female androids seemed to him pretty; he had found himself physically attracted by several, and it was an odd sensation, knowing intellectually that they were machines but emotionally reacting anyhow.

His statement that his wife has less to offer him than she used to might of course be read as meaning that she is no longer as human and interesting as she has been (she does come across a little bit like a couch potato). It can also, however, be read to mean that Iran is still the person that she has always been, while Deckard is becoming more and more like an android. Later, we see how he goes to bed with the android Rachael Rosen. Not only does he think of killing her while they are together, but he also gets her to promise to kill Pris, one of the remaining androids, for him in exchange for making love to her. Just previously, Rachael has told Deckard that Pris looks just like herself and that she is afraid of her own reactions when he retires an android that looks just like herself. Deckard doesn't stop to consider her fears when she offers to kill Pris for him. The fact that Deckard is married and still goes to bed with Rachael is another indicator that his empathy is not very strong. He does not stop to consider what his wife would think and feel if she knew that he is going to bed with a machine.

In this scene, we are also shown conflicting character traits in Rachael. She tells Deckard that she loves him and she is willing to make personal sacrifices to get him to make love to her. First, she gives Deckard an emergency device that cancels breathing in both androids and humans for a few seconds. She does this so that he will be able to protect himself from Roy Baty, but it is just as dangerous to her. Second, she frees Deckard from the task of retiring Pris by promising to kill her herself. Even though she has previously agonized about her own reactions when Deckard shoots Pris (who looks just like her), she is still willing to take this task upon herself to get Deckard to love her. It is clear that she is capable of both empathy and coldbloodedness.

``I love you,'' Rachael said. ``If I entered a room and found a sofa covered with your hide I'd score very high on the Voigt-Kampff test.'' [...]

``We're not the same. I don't care about Pris Stratton. Listen.'' Rachael thrashed about in the bed, sitting up; in the gloom he could dimly make out her almost breastless, trim shape. ``Go to bed with me and I'll retire Stratton. Okay? Because I can't stand getting this close and then-''

Another possible interpretation of this would be that Rachael is using Deckard's attraction to her for her own ends. Neither we nor Deckard has any way of knowing whether the device she gives to him really can cancel breathing in androids, we have to take her word for it. The device might be a useless dummy that she gives to Deckard to get him to trust her by making herself appear vulnerable and giving him control of her life. She also claims at one point that she sleeps with bounty hunters to get them to stop shooting androids. By getting them to see that she too is human, she makes them unable to continue shooting other androids as well.

Isidore and Rachael are not the only persons displaying more empathy and emotion than we originally think that they would. Roy Baty, the leader of the escaped androids, is on record as having tried to achieve something like fusion for himself and the others with various mind-altering drugs. ``A rough, cold android, hoping to undergo an experience from which, due to a deliberately built-in defect, it remained excluded.'' We never get to know what Baty knew about fusion or what he thought that they were going to get out of it. The whole thing is mentioned in passing by human policemen as being obviously ridiculous. On the other hand, if Baty is supposed to have no feelings, why is he then so interested in trying to achieve fusion? If he had no feelings, the whole exercise of ``merging'' with somebody else to empathize with them seems totally pointless. It seems to me that a person must be in possession of at least a certain amount of emotions to be able to realize that empathy is something to be desired. Another possible interpretation would be that Baty is just trying to learn empathy to be able to get away from bounty hunters. On the other hand, if that were the case he might as well just fake empathic reactions without actually feeling anything.

As we have just seen, empathy is very important in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The Voigt-Kampff test uses it to separate humans and androids and the humans use empathy boxes to emphasize their humanity. Throughout the novel, we see Deckard display very little empathy: he does not use his empathy box, he becomes more unfeeling toward Iran, and even while he has sex with the android Rachael, he considers killing her. Isidore, who is considered sub-human, fares better: he has regular sessions with his empathy box and he gets very concerned about Pris and her friends when he hears that they are stalked by a bounty hunter. Roy Baty, the leader of the androids, has tried to achieve fusion, both for himself and the others. Rachael, finally, is supposed to be incapable of feeling but she claims to love Deckard and is willing to make personal sacrifices to get him to love her back. On the other hand, the sacrifice she offers is to kill one of the other androids so the reversal of our original expectations is not so clear in her case as it is in the others. We have also seen how she might be using Deckard for her own ends. On the whole, however, we see that Deckard who is considered human by society is very cold and unfeeling while Isidore and Rachael who are considered sub- or non-human display much more emotion.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? there is one characteristic that can decide whether someone is a human or an android. Androids are sometimes equipped with false memories, memories or recordings of things, events or places that they have not experienced in person but which are either artificially created or taken from the experience of another person. Planting artificial memories in humans have proved to be impossible. The problem is that detecting false memories in someone requires the willing cooperation of the test subject. This, on the other hand, is not very likely since having false memories means that you are an android and will probably be shot.

When Deckard and Phil Resch catch up with the android Luba Luft, she is absorbed in Munch's painting Puberty:

Luba Luft [...] stood absorbed in the picture before her: a drawing of a young girl, hands clasped together, seated on the edge of a bed, an impression of bewildered wonder and new, groping awe imprinted on the face.

``Want me to buy it for you?'' Rick said [...]

``It's not for sale.''

This episode is quite simple on the surface, but may be interpreted in interesting ways. Luba Luft, opera singer that she is, can of course be excused for having an interest in the fine arts. On the other hand, she might somehow be drawn to this picture because it speaks of the experience of puberty, something that she probably feels, through implanted memories, that she has passed through- and yet has not. Likewise, Deckard's question might refer not only to the painting but to the actual experience. Luba Luft's answer indicates that she knows what she is and has resigned herself to the fact that she can never have this experience by stating that the picture and, more importantly, the experience ``isn't for sale.'' Fittingly, Deckard buys Luba a reproduction of the painting, thus metaphorizing her lack of real memories of puberty.

Not all androids who have been equipped with false memory systems are as aware of them as Luba Luft seems to be. Phil Resch believes himself to be human, even a bounty hunter, and gets his entire world turned upside down when Deckard shows that his memories are false:

``They've been here all the time. Garland has been my superior from the start, throughout my three years.''

``According to [Garland],'' Rick said, ``the bunch of them came to Earth together. And that wasn't as long ago as three years; it's only been a matter of months.''

``Then at one time an authentic Garland existed,'' Phil Resch said. ``And somewhere along the way got replaced.'' His sharklike lean face twisted and he struggled to understand. ``Or- I've been impregnated with a false memory system. Maybe I only remember Garland over the whole time. But-'' His face, suffused now with growing torment, continued to twist and work spasmodically. ``Only androids show up with false memory systems; it's been found ineffective in humans.''

At this point, Deckard has Phil Resch more or less convinced that he is an android and not the human that he has previously thought. We have been shown that he might have false memories and that is only supposed to be possible in androids. There are, however, a couple of problems. First, the only source we have for the ``facts'' that mark Phil's memories as false are statements from Garland who himself has proven to be an android. He might simply have been lying to make Phil seem suspect and to cover his own tracks. Second, it might in fact be possible to implant artificial memories in humans. The knowledge that he might be an android gnaws on Phil and he wants Deckard to put the test to him:

``You'll tell me the truth, won't you?'' Phil Resch asked. ``If I'm an android you'll tell me?''


``Because I really want to know. I have to know.'' [...] ``Did you really like that Munch picture that Luba Luft was looking at?'' he asked. ``I didn't care for it. Realism in art doesn't interest me; I like Picasso and-''

``Puberty dates from 1894,'' Rick said shortly. ``Nothing but realism existed then; you have to take that into account.''

``But that other one, of the man holding his ears and yelling- that wasn't representational.''

This exchange could also be read as an indication that Phil Resch isn't an android. He says that he does not care for realism in art, i. e. he does not like art imitating life- he does not think that he is an android which is an artifact imitating human life. When Deckard points out that realism was all there was in 1894 when Puberty was painted, Phil Resch is quick to point out that The Scream is not realistic. As soon as Deckard has pointed out that there is a logical explanation, Phil indicates something that seems to turn the whole explanation upside-down. Just like Phil Dick once and again turns our perceptions upside-down and inside-out and makes us doubt what is really the truth, Phil Resch makes Deckard's explanation appear unsure.

Just like Frankenstein, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? contains a number of situations where the vital criteria of humanity are tested in both humans and non-humans. The situation here is somewhat more complex since the humans are compared to both androids and specials but a pattern similar to the one found in Frankenstein can be seen to emerge anyway. Often the specials and the androids seem to be more human that the humans. While Deckard shows almost no emotions at all, both Isidore and Rachael prove capable of both empathy and self-sacrifice.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the presence of artificial memories in a person is presented as a conclusive indication that the person is an android. As we see, however, even this sure-fire indicator does not make everything clear. Not only are the androids unwilling to be detected as such since it will probably lead to their ``retirement.'' It also proves to be difficult- even with a willing subject- to distinguish real memories from false ones.

On the whole, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? conveys a sense that the characteristics that define a human being can be present in both androids and supposedly deteriorated humans. In the same way, humans that are considered ``real humans'' by society may be lacking these characteristics. Just as in Frankenstein, the boundary between human and non-human seems to be very vague.