Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a trip into the subconscious of one of science fiction’s most renowned authors since the fall of the Golden Age, the Age of Science, and, for the most part, the Age of Sociological SF. Dealing with the overrunning theme of empathy—from a human perspective and from an android perspective—the text reflects some of Dick’s largest concerns with human culture in general.
Dick wrote much about the death of the empathic culture in his non-fiction work and often referred to modern society--in his day--as a form of mechanical android devoid of the ability to truly empathize with fellow human beings. During Dick’s life, and particularly when this novel and some of his non-fiction work was written, it seems as though this idea of a dead youth culture--a mechanical youth culture--doesn’t fit. The novel was written in 1968, a year which sits right in the middle of the Vietnam Conflict (the intention here is to avoid using the term “war” since there was no official declaration of war by Congress, which makes the military actions in Vietnam something else entirely, even though the scale was that of a war), and would also have been influenced by the anti-war protests which really dug in around 1965. It would seem that Dick’s personal concern with empathy in his more personal writing is nothing short of a personal opinion. Or perhaps what Dick saw was a different side of the anti-war protests that is often glossed over today—the treatment of the troops.
The ultimate question is: what does it mean to be human? Is it only the ability to feel for the self and for others? Are the androids human? It’s difficult to look at the novel and assume some sort of humanity to the androids simply because they are labeled as “androids”, not humans. They are instantly identified not only by the characters--who are human--but also by Dick himself in the narration as something not human. Whether androids are nearly human or not is really irrelevant.
What matters is that the relationship between Deckard and the android illegals--Pris, Roy, etc--is entirely occupied with the question of the human. Deckard wonders this question about himself: Is he human if he can feel for the androids? Certainly the arguments Deckard gives for what is and isn’t human makes sense. The androids are cold, almost heartless, a fact which Isidore learns when Pris plucks off all but four of a spider’s legs. There is something strangely inhuman about them beyond the fact that we as readers know they are androids. They react differently and in a lot of ways they are almost like sociopaths. Towards the end of the novel characters like Roy Batty actually begin to call for the death of Isidore even though Isidore is probably the only human being willing to provide some level of support for the androids. Thinking of them as sociopaths--at least to a certain extent, since they are perfectly capable of interacting together, which says plenty about how androids relate to humans--gives a perfect example of the inhuman. Sociopaths are not considered normal in regular society for good reason: they care nothing for the rights of others and are incapable of living by the rules of society. The androids, to a certain extent, are an example of the human “God complex”. The Bible declares that man is made in the image of God and yet the androids are made in the image of man, creations by the hand of humanity in every sense of the word “creation”. Just like with the relationship between God and mankind there is something missing in the relationship between mankind and the androids. Humans are not almighty, limited in scope and vision in comparison to God. The androids are incapable of having the same empathic responses to normal humans--normal humans being those that aren’t tuned in to the mood organ, who actually feel and exist as human beings rather than post-human cyber-entities fixated on mechanical, electronic, and computational control of the nervous system, or any other system within the biological body. They do possess a certain amount of human empathy, just as humans possess a certain amount of God’s creative powers, but it is stunted, as if the growth of that empathy were halted. The androids possess an aggressiveness that moves beyond the human. By the end of the novel the question is answered: androids aren’t human. They can’t be. As sociopaths they lie outside normal society, and the fact that they aren’t known as human and they refuse to call themselves as anything other than androids only adds fuel to the fire. Androids simply aren’t human.
But the question still stands about what it is to be human. Deckard is, in some ways, far from human himself. He and his wife tune in to the mood organ every day, dialing the perfect collection of emotions and feelings. Yet it is Deckard’s wife who becomes more human than her husband. Instead of constantly tuning herself into emotions of happiness, she finds out ways to give herself depression. The interesting part about her depression is that it acts out normally, as if it were a real depression. While she has no desire to tune in to a different mode on her mood organ, she doesn’t have to. Her natural human qualities seem to bring her back from the brink and by the end of the novel there is something hugely more human about her. This moves like a transitional period from an almost addictive relationship to the mood organ to a more level-headed, perhaps more “human” existence. Like any addiction, withdrawal is generally brutal. Dick would have some understanding of this feeling--he seems to discuss the drug world as if he had actually been there, which he probably had to some extent. Either way, for Deckard’s wife the use of the mood organ to dial in depression is in some ways a rejection, a form of resistance against the very concept of mood control, while at the same time acting as a transitional period from the addiction to the mood organ. Her empathic responses to Deckard are real emotions, not dialed in, fake emotions. She truly feels for him when the goat is killed and shows concern about his taking on the androids. At the start of the novel, however, it’s almost as though she doesn’t care—she had dialed herself into a seemingly irreparable depression.
Deckard also changes, becomes more human. His responses to the androids, however, never become fully human. While he does gain empathy for androids, it is limited to female androids. Regardless, Deckard questions what he does for a living, and rightfully so. The androids are living, sentient, self-aware beings far more human than any other living creature that once moved on the Earth. Yet he kills them without feeling anything at all, at least until the end of the novel. This isn’t quite enough to redeem Deckard of what must have been years of prior wickedness—in his eyes. It does end his career and the introduction of some measure of empathic response to the androids, and in particular to Rachel, makes him question what exactly is right about the enslavement of androids and the extermination of them on Earth.
Perhaps looking at this weak relation to empathy is fuel for Dick’s idea of the youth culture of his time being a sort of semi-Android--though in some ways his idea of an android in his non-fictional work is closer to a cybernetic, proto-Android than anything else. The human being becomes less empathic over time, devolving into a biological robot that does what it’s told. We see this in today’s world of consumer culture. They call all those small, mostly useless items near the registers in most any store “impulse buys” because they act as attention getters. You probably don’t need another set of nail clippers, but you see them at the register and you think “we keep losing them; maybe I should buy a pack of twelve”. Consumer culture works like a robot where people buy things because it’s an impulse, or because everyone has one, not thinking about whether one really needs it or of it’s the right thing for an individual. Commercials, the government, organizations, and religion are all factors in Dick’s android youth. I wonder whether we really are an android culture. Are we truly post-human or have we always been human and what we do to ourselves to survive is nothing more than being human? If we become androids ourselves, aren’t we still human beings who have done what comes naturally to us? Survival is part of the social framework of human culture, which explains why we create and maintain laws in our respective countries: doing so means maintaining an order that essentially brings us together as a selective proto-hivemind. If this is being the android, then perhaps there is a certain amount of grace to such a world. Perhaps the positive outweighs the negative. Or maybe this is exactly what Dick is concerned about when he talks about the android youth culture, that we will sacrifice our humanity for social order.