Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Aldiss and Humanity

            Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick is a novel that explores many interesting concepts in a dystopian world. One of the main themes of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is in defining what makes someone human. Brian Aldiss states that “Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode,” which I think applies quite specifically to the DADES story. A planet that is filled with humans and androids raises many questions about who really is the more humane individual. In DADES humanity is a goal that both androids and humans strive to achieve, and yet it remains loosely defined and constantly contradicted. The exploration of humanity and what it means to be human is something that would make Aldiss say that DADES is a science fiction novel.
            The exploration of what defines one as human can be seen in one of the main characters of the novel, Rick Deckard, who is an android. He has the job of bounty hunter – one who hunts down rogue androids and “retires” them before they wreak havoc on society and that blurs the lines of humanity as Deckard struggles to identify the androids from people. His first encounter is with Rachael Rosen, who at first appears to him as human, and though she does not pass the test he applies to her, eventually he comes to see that she is not human by the way “she keeps calling the owl it. Not her,” which indicates to Deckard that she is an android and incapable of feeling an emotional connection to other beings (56). This seems a pretty clear indication of what makes someone human, and yet still Deckard struggles to identify the androids he is assigned to “retire”. Upon reflection, this shows how the novel portrays the difficulty one has in defining humanity, because someone’s humanity is not easy to tell just by inspection.
            Besides just having the difference between human and android be difficult to discern from just observation, the novel takes the humanity problem even further when another character is introduced, John R. Isidore, who is a human that is labeled a “chickenhead” and because he “had failed to pass the mental faculties test” (17). Shortly after Isidore is introduced he comes upon what the reader can tell is an android, although Isidore simply sees the android as an eccentric woman. However, the contrast between the way that the two humans treat androids, and just other people they come in contact with, is marked and should be looked at more closely. Deckard regards everyone with suspicion and is not immediately friendly to those he encounters and yet is deemed a human citizen and capable of interacting and participating in society. Isidore meets everyone with kindness and yet is labeled as inferior and not an integral part of society. This relates back to what Aldiss was saying about science fiction dealing with the definition of mankind. Even though Isidore shows more compassion towards others, which is something Deckard uses as a test to determine who is android and who is human, Isidore is viewed as inferior because of other tests he fails to pass.
            Another point that Aldiss makes in his statement is that science fiction is classically set in a Gothic or Post-Gothic mode. This also applies to DADES because much of the imagery seen and indeed the setting of the novel is on Earth after particular nuclear fallout. Dark images are common and a new term “kipple” has been used to describe all the waste left behind by humans (63). The natural decay of buildings left alone becomes normal and the ruins that are left help add to these images. That people can live with and just ignore this mess is another way of defining mankind, and allowing the characters a certain amount of adaptability. They have all simply become accustomed to seeing ruin in their daily lives.
            The main marked point that the novel has repeated seems to be that not everyone is as they appear and nothing should be taken for granted. The reoccurring theme of humanity and how that is defined is also relevant. Relating this back to Aldiss’s statement, the novel falls into the science fiction category. There are other parts of the novel that also fit Aldiss’s definition too, such as the Gothic setting of the novel, though I believe the more important feature is that of defining mankind. Humanity and mankind are words that are difficult to define in society today and having clear-cut definitions for them in the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep seems almost impossible.


Caleb Radomile said...

You do a good job analyzing part of Aldiss' quote , but you seem to avoid talking about our "status in the universe" and "our advanced but confused state of knowledge." If you consider this for a revision you should definately focus on those parts of the quote. I would have also liked to have seen more of an explanation about what defines Gothic and post Gothic and how the degrading civilization reflects that definition. These two parts of the quote need the most analysis if you're trying to prove that the novel is science fiction under Aldiss' definition.

Adam said...

Your introduction is a little long & fuzzy, but somewhat redeemed by this line: "In DADES humanity is a goal that both androids and humans strive to achieve". You could have fleshed it out a little, but I like the implicit distinction between "humanity" and "humans" here - it gives you a lot to work with.

Your 2nd paragraph is oddly vague - to be considered human by Deckard's rules, we must have a profound and immediate emotional connection to animals. You are right that it's not easily determined by inspection (for him), but yet it *can* be determined, even if it's not easy. I'm not sure what you could do with that.

Going with the best part of your first paragraph, I'd end your third paragraph with a line clarifying that Isidore shows more humanity than Deckard, and yet is less human by the specific rules of his society. You are implicitly putting tension between how the novel defines humanity and how the fictional society within it defines humans, but you're struggling to make that idea explicit.

While Gothic = ruins is a little simplistic, you use the idea of kipple here very well to make your point.

Your conclusion isn't terribly exciting or focused; as I've made clear throughout, I think you have better ideas brewing here, but had trouble bringing them to the surface. If you revise, the challenge will be, first, to make your best ideas clear and explicit and, second, to rebuild the essay (especially the end of it) around those clarified ideas.

Also, Caleb is clearly right about what you ignore here.