Sunday, March 9, 2008


The novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (DADOES) paints us a picture of “the cold desert of our human world after nuclear war” (Lyotard) where we encounter androids, creations of human technologies. If we apply Lyotard’s three conditions needed for a machine to posses in order to fully imitate a human being (non-binary thinking, existence of gender, and suffering) to androids in DADOES, we can see that they have all of them. Because they are not made of wires nor circuits, but rather of organic matter, they do not think in binary mode. In fact, many humans, corroded by the radioactive dust that covers the Earth, are intellectually inferior to these artificial creations. Additionally, androids come in both sexes. Therefore, they have another characteristic that is essential for representation of humans, according to Lyotard. However, the most valuable feature they have is their capacity to suffer. For Lyotard any creation that is to replace humans has to be able to suffer as human thought is inseparable from suffering. We see this trait most clearly in the case of Luba Luft, an opera singer whose quality can be “… rated with that of the best, even that of notables in his collection of historic tapes” (Philip K. Dick). For Lyotard, the fact that this humanoid robot “ could obtain the emptiness from mind and body” necessary for any true art “that doesn’t take place without some suffering” would be enough to call it human. So, why are androids not perceived as humans, or even living beings, in the world of DADOES? In that world, which we nearly destroyed, where the Sun cannot penetrate the shell of radioactive dust, without any plants, with some miraculously-surviving animals, and with human population reduced to hundreds, we exterminate, no questions asked, the life form that is the most similar to us. Why?

In order to understand this paradox, I turned to Camus’ book The Plague. It is a novel about a fictional town, Oran, located in Algeria, and struck by (surprise, surprise) THE PLAGUE. We learn about the suffering and events that take place in this small town during long months of this epidemic, through narrator’s accurate and unexaggerated descriptions. He introduces us to diverse characters, Dr. Rieux, Tarrou, Ramber, Father Paneloux, Cottard, Dr. Castel, Grand, and we get glimpses of their experiences during the plague epidemic. Many of these characters are not fully developed and realized, and, at times, the narrator feels detached and without emotions. At the end of the book, he reveals himself as Dr. Rieux, but even then he continues to talk about himself in third person. It was his wish to report events and give his observations rather than his emotional responses to them. Because of this, we can accept narrator’s interpretations as truthful representations of human behavior.

After declaring the plague epidemic and closing the gates of Oran, all of its citizens have a sense of exile and isolation. Similar feelings can be assigned to people in Dick’s DADOES. People on Earth are trapped by radioactive radiation, and those who live on Mars are given an android to lessen their sense of loneliness. But, androids are the ones that are the most isolated and exiled of all, as they are hunted and killed on Earth and reduced to slavery on Mars. From Camus’ novel I have learned that people who live in such drastic conditions become apathetic, “ the plague had forced on him a detachment which, try as he might, he couldn’t think away…” (Camus). So, the lack of emotions in androids, the major difference between human beings and androids in DADOES, is a consequence of exile, isolation, and fear, rather than a flaw in their character.

Another human trait that becomes apparent as the plagues progresses and takes the town in its deadly grip is the need for belonging and community found in the people of Oran. “Yes, it was quite true that men can’t do without their fellow men …” (Camus). Similarly, in DADOES, the same necessity is satisfied by the empathy box and Mercerism. Through this device people achieve a sense of unity and belonging. Because of “ a deliberately built-in defect [androids] remained excluded” (Philip K. Dick) from this experience, which only enhances their feelings of isolation and exile. Androids, even though hardly distinguishable from humans and necessary for their survival, are by design left outside the human community. Taking both of these observation into consideration, the lack of empathy in androids cannot be a justifiable difference between humans and androids, because the human beings would react the same as androids if they were subjected to the same conditions of life.

If we identify androids as human beings, then reading DADOES becomes more of a critique of a society than an action-packed science fiction book. In his book, Philip K. Dick questions and analyzes our relationship with religion and values of the society that we hold so important that we are ready to kill for them. The religion, Mercerism, has an immense role in the world of DADOES. It establishes the rules by which people live, and it is the means by which they sustain the sense of togetherness. However, this religion rose with the appearance of the empathy box, a man-made device. Later in the novel, Mercer is reveled as a fake prophet. He is just an old actor and a drunk, and the whole experience people have when they merge with Mercer is produced in an old Hollywood studio. In his book, Philip K. Dick does not explain who invented Mercer and the empathy box, but he does imply that it is used to gain control over the people. “They were fighting for control of our psychic selves; the empathy box on one hand, Buster’s guffaws and off-the-cuff jibes on the other” (Philip K. Dick). But, for the people it does not matter whether Mercerism is real or not. It had become a way of life for them, and they could, not and would not, abandon Mercer. This feeling of not being able to let go of one’s deep believes, even if they are based on false postulations, is best described by Father Paneloux’s words in Camus’ The Plague, “ My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who among you, I ask would dare to deny everything?” Also, in addition to being a sham, the Mercerism cannot offer any answers to Rick Deckard when he questions his right to kill androids. The only explanation Rick gets is that killing of androids is necessary, even though the murder is the ultimate sin according to Mercerism. In both of these books religion is described as unable to explain and give answers to questions: what is justification for killing human beings and why God allows immense suffering of innocent people? Yet, religion is so deeply rooted in the society that people are not willing to let go of it even when they become aware of its shortcomings.

Philip K. Dick critique of religion is aimed at people who believe just for believing’s sake, and who do not question in what they believe. Mercerism, and the principles that it imposes on the society, at first look seem good. For Mercer, life, human or animal, is the most valuable thing. When it emerged, the first rule Mercerism imposed was, “You shall kill only the killers” (Philip K. Dick). According to this religion, empathy is regarded as the major human characteristic. “ Empathy, evidently, exist only within the human community… the emphatic gift blurred the boundaries between the hunter and victim, between the successful and defeated” (Philip K. Dick). Yet, in this society so concerned with life and with the ability to have emotional response toward others, we find two groups of people that are being discriminated against- chickenheads and androids. “Chickenheads” is the name for people who could not pass a test of intelligence administered by the government. In times when the number of humans is frightfully low, the government performs monthly medical check-ups, and people with unsatisfying results are excluded from emigration programs and are not allowed to reproduce. “Regulars”, even though they are strict followers of Mercerism, treat chickenheads as second-grade citizens. The androids, which could not pass the empathy test, do not even have a status of second-grade citizens, are used as slaves. Androids’ only purpose is to serve “regulars” in their attempt to colonize an unfriendly planet, Mars. Mercerism, on which society values are based upon, does not have a problem with excluding, using, and, in the case of androids killing parts of population. One might ask, what good are the religion and its values if they do not apply to all? It is our duty to evaluate and question what we choose to believe in. Rick Deckard did start to question his justification for killing androids. He did realize that boundaries between human beings and androids were not clear-cut as he once believed them to be. But, in the end, he could not brake through the set of believes he was trained to have, and he continued to kill androids. What upset me the most is that he killed them with the conviction that he was doing a right thing. It might have been against Mercer’s rules and it did cause agony to him, but it was necessary for the benefit of the society as a whole. He was only defending the set of values he believed in.

What is absurd about Mercerism and its values is that this admiration for human life comes from the society that participated in a nuclear war that nearly destroyed the Earth and all life on it. In a not so distant past, humans that now value life above all and think of themselves as superior beings because of their unique ability for empathy, killed millions of people without any compassion. Furthermore, when we analyze this new society and its values more closely, we can see that it is not much better from those responsible for the World War Terminus. This new, supposedly superior, society discriminates against certain people for reasons they have no control of, and are in charge of. Chickenheads’ only “crime” is that they are genetically weaker and more susceptible to damage caused by radioactive dust than regulars. On the other hand, androids are purposely built with a defect so that they could not “enjoy” the experience of merging with Mercer. Circumstances of life they are subjected to cause them to be detached and capable of empathy, their main “crime”. Thus, the characteristics that made humans capable of nuclear war and mass destruction are still very much present in people of this new society. Or, as Camus would say, “… each of us has the plague within, no one on Earth is free from it.” One of the ways the plague can be understood in Camus’ novel is as a metaphor for human aggression and ignorance. It is a shortfall of human nature that keeps us back from achieving peace and our full potential. The following passage from Camus’ book helped me to understand Rick Deckard’s behavior and the discriminatory society he is living in.
“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue, the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.”
Therefore, any strong-held belief that is not questioned and that is readily accepted as the truth without considering the consequences it may bring, only enhances the plague within us.

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