Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Androids as Metaphors - Alex Quinn

When reading "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" it is inevitable that the reader makes a connection between aspects of the novel and the historical context in which the novel was written. Particularly, the androids in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (DADES) are a clear metaphor for the lack of empathy that many (including Philip Dick) believed characterized America's continuing involvement in the Vietnam war in the 1960's. More directly the androids in DADES represent the American policy makers of the 1960's who seemed to possess no sense of empathy towards the soldiers of the war. Instead the government leveraged their power to control the American public and drive profits of the corporations that were manufacturing military equipment at the time.

Before analyzing the novel's relationship with the 1960's opposition to the Vietnam war it is crucial to explain the context from which Philip Dick was writing during the time period. Dick attended the University of California, Berkeley in 1949 for a brief period of time ("Philip K. Dick"). Although 1949 was not the same year as some of the most important protests against the Vietnam War, it is easy to see that a former student of that institution would have similar beliefs as the protesters that later found a voice at Berkeley. Also in the 1960's Dick is reported to have been aligned with the hippie counter-culture that was the core of the opposition to the Vietnam war through drug use and a belief in openness and freedom (Butler 9). Philip Dick's alignment with the Vietnam war opposition found a creative outlet in his writing and particularly "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep."

The most prominent relationship between DADES and the war opposition of the 1960's involves the power of American government during the war and the androids'  power to control society in the novel. The American government during the Vietnam war held complete control over decisions involving the war yet these decisions impacted the American public directly. The government officials were not forced to fight in the war like many young American men yet they were the ones making the decisions to continue the war. A similar situation is seen in DADES in the power which the androids have to control the public. Buster Friendly and Wilbur Mercer hold commanding power over the society in the novel. John Isidore states that "Buster is the most important human being alive, except of course Wilbur Mercer" (Dick 69).  Both of characters have the ability to work non-stop which indicates that they are not human beings but androids. Both Mercer and Friendly use their power as a means to control the society in a similar way to the American government during the Vietnam war. One of the main goals of Mercerism is that everyone must blindly work together to climb a hill which will hurt and possibly kill an individual. This goal however is said to be in the interest of feeling empathy towards all people and will better the society as a whole. When someone reaches the top of the hill they start over again. This goal is contrived, in an infinite loop, and seems to have no practical benefit to its participants but Mercer is able to use it as a tool to control the society any way he wants (to buy more empathy boxes). In a similar fashion the 1960's American government tried to convince American men to go to war and risk their lives because it was in the best interest of democracy and America's freedom. In reality however, there could have been many other motivations of the war that included increased power and money for the corporations behind the military equipment.

In a similar way as Wilbur Mercer, Buster Friendly is able to control the society in the  novel to do whatever he wants. Through his humor and rhetoric he captures the minds of everyone in the society and makes them believe anything he says. Friendly continually uses biased opinion on his show as a way to align his viewers with his own beliefs (or the beliefs of the androids). One page 18 Friendly is interviewing a woman who emigrated to Mars and speaks about why Earth is such a terrible place. She explains that one Earth she had to constantly worry that she would be described as "special" (Dick 18,19). This reflects almost directly the American government's opposition towards the hippie counter-culture in the 1960's. The government tried to use it's power to go against the views of the "other" and continue with the war.

In addition to Mercer and Friendly we can see the relationship between the androids of DADES and the 1960's American policy makers in a more general way. The distinguishing characteristic of the androids from human beings is that they feel no empathy. In a similar way, the American government sent young men to be killed in Vietnam without feeling empathy towards these men. The androids were designed to be controlled by a master but they also were built by a corporation that has a bottom line as a priority. Deckard explains that "The Rosen Association does a good job--makes a good try, anyhow--at protecting its products" after realizing the scheme that Eldon Rosen elaborated to disqualify the Voigt-Kampff scale. Instead of empathy towards their owners, the androids hold the bottom line of the corporation as a priority. Similarly, the American government in the 1960's made a lot of money off of the war and instead of feeling empathy toward the American public saw the profit as a priority. The government officials were "androids" that were "created" by the military contractors to create allegiance among the American public to continue with the war.


Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.

Butler, Andrew M. "The Boom Years." The Pocket Essential Philip K. Dick. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2000. Print.

"Philip K. Dick." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition.Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 18 Sep. 2013.


Carmen Condeluci said...

Although the relation that you draw between the controlling forces in the novel and the political unrest of the 1960's is very compelling, it's slightly hampered by a minor misreading of the text. You refer to Mercer as someone who is alive (or is an android) and is willfully trying to gain profits from sales of the empathy boxes and attempt to control the populace. For all we know as readers, Mercer never even existed. His story is used as a tool to bring about the human society's intense, religious sense of empathy towards all living creatures. Now, an outside group, possibly maybe the government, may be using Mercerism to achieve some kind of goal, but Mercer himself is in no way involved other than being the "Christ" figure in the religion's mythology. If you wanted to use this writing as your revision, you should definitely rework your wording when you talk about Mercer attempting to control the populace. Otherwise, your connections are strong and highly relevant to the time period in which PKD wrote DADES, and you could easily refine and expand this post into a revision with a little more research.

Adam said...

Rather than beginning generally with the 60s, as many people do, you immediately focus on Vietnam. Good. More focus is better, and this is certainly a workable focus.

The Butler citation is effective, and does what it needs to do. I do feel like the 1st 2 paragraphs could be a little more compact than they are, though.

The 3rd paragraph wanders, and it's hard for me to reconcile everything that you say here. Do you see BF and Mercer as being on the same side? If so, can you work through that in detail? Are they both different aspects, even if seemingly opposed, of one gigantic machine (for instance, should we read their ostensible opposition to one another as being related to, for instance, LBJ vs. Richard Nixon, supposedly polar oppositions but possibly identical from the viewpoint of the counterculture?). I understand that what you're doing here is complicated, but they only way you'll make that complexity work is by engaging in depth with the relevant details - although in fairness you can only do that after finishing the novel, and working with BF and Mercer as they develop through the novel.

Let me rephrase. So far you're mostly demonstrating that Mercer and BF both wield power. So far, so good - but taking us from power and propaganda in general, to specific understanding of how we can see the novel as an interpretation of the machinations of power in 1960s America requires a lot more detail - youc an't just make that leap arbitrarily.

Last paragraph - you have some interesting material here, but you need to work with more details of the androids themselves. For instance, they were first developed as war machines (Synthetic Freedom Fighters, I believe, is the term in the novel) - which might imply that the androids are metaphors for soldiers, maybe. I may be wrong about that, but in any case your closing discussion needs a lot more work. For instance - in what sense did the US government make money from Vietnam? Debt went up massively to pay for Vietnam - it was very far from profitable!

In short, there are some good ideas here, and some solid initial research - but a successful revision would need to make more convincing use of the details of the novel (including inconvenient parts) to make your argument convincing.

Also, pay attention what Carmen says! His reminders about Mercer are important - if not necessarily convenient - details.