Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip Dick fits into the genre of science fiction according to Brian Aldiss’ definition that it “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, and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode”. The focus of the book is trying to decipher humans from androids and in doing so it begins to define humanity. Defining humanity, in relation to the ever-changing landscape of the universe, is absolutely vital for the post “World War Terminus” earth in which, a radioactive dust settles over everything (Dick 15).
In the novel, this definition is constantly evolving, marked by the constant stream of new tests needed to differentiate the human from the android. Early tests focused purely on the physical differences. After those were no longer able to detect androids, new intelligence tests were implemented. Once the intelligence tests failed, they turned to the Voigt-Kampff test measuring last remaining difference, emotion, in particular, empathy (Dick 30). This progression of tests represents the attempt of the society in the novel to define mankind, just as Aldiss suggests is central to all works of science fiction. It is not just the physical that makes a human a human, nor is it purely intelligence or even, as Rick finds out, emotion. Aldiss’ definition also proves correct in the sense that the state of knowledge is “advanced but confused” (Aldiss). The technology of the androids, like the Nexus-6, is amazing but confusion comes along with it. “Since the initial release of its specifications and performance charts back in August of 2020 most police agencies which dealt with escaped andys had been protesting” (29). After the release of a new android, there is a scramble to find a test capable capturing it. The technology advances and with that confusion ensues the police agencies must redefine humanity with every new advancement in technology. In this sense, Aldiss describes science fiction perfectly.
The empathy test runs into trouble because there is “a small class of human beings could not pass the Voigt- Kampff scale. If you tested them in line with police work you would asses them as humanoid robots” (38). This possibility greatly blurs the line between human and android. Does this tested lack of empathy make the specials unhuman? This question does not even occur to Deckard or Bryant but rather they are concerned they may kill a human. If the andys can be so similar to humans, then should they be considered human? They look like humans, think like humans, are apparently capable of all human emotion except empathy, just as the specials are. What is the difference between the two? This question is probably one that Deckard will be forced to ask in the coming chapters and finding the fine line between human and not human is central to the novel. To make these questions even more important, the antagonist and all of those left on earth are constantly in danger of becoming special (8). At any given moment, the dust could turn a perfectly functioning man on earth into a special. At the same time, a man can be completely convinced of his humanity and turn around to find out that he is in fact an android “impregnated with a false memory system” (127). The inner experience cannot even define what it means to be human anymore. This exact situation is demonstrated with Paul Resch. Dick even has the reader questioning Deckard’s humanity at points throughout the novel. This doubt in the definition of humanity lends itself to Aldiss’ definition of science fiction. It is a constant struggle to define humanity and the technology in the novel only confuses that definition even more. False memory systems, brain units with “ten million separate neural pathways” and extreme intelligence make androids more human while humans rely on mood organs, codpieces, empathy boxes and are in constant danger of becoming less intelligent due to the dust (28). The humans in this novel are certainly searching for their place in a constantly changing universe completely in line with Aldiss’ definition of science fiction.
As for the later part of the definition, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Probably wouldn’t fit into the characteristic idea of a Gothic story. The setting is San Francisco of the future rather than a typical gothic setting. Also, while the idea of undetectable human robots is terrifying for some, it is not quite the element of horror needed to be considered gothic. So far in the novel, it does not have the romantic piece needed to be considered gothic, either. Despite this small incongruity with Aldiss’ definition, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is still classifiable as a science fiction novel.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.