Of the two science fiction novels we have read so far in this class, the definition of what it means to be human has been a central theme of both. In Frankenstein, our reflections on whether the monster was human helped to solidify our definition of humanity. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does the opposite; every turn in the novel only makes it harder and harder to tell the difference between humans and androids. This does not imply that defining our existence is unimportant, quite the contrary, in fact. By blurring the line between humans and artificial humans, Philip K. Dick is forcing us to continually reconsider our definition of humanity. This in turn stresses the importance of the subject, as well as the natural impossibility of creating a clear definition. The centrality of this idea throughout the novel lends weight to Brian Aldiss’ definition of science fiction as the struggle to define our own existence.
This struggle is clearly represented in the opening chapters of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In fact, the first thing Rick Deckard needs to do when he gets to work is to go check out the Rosen Association’s new Nexus-6 android to make sure the Voight-Kampff test is still viable. Given Rachael Rosen’s score on the test we think that it is not, until we discover that she is, in fact, an android. “Does she know?” asks Deckard. “No. We programmed her completely,” responds Eldon Rosen. (59) He goes on to admit that the owl is artificial as well, “There are no owls,” he says. This interaction sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Of the four original beings involved in this interaction at the Rosen Association (Deckard, the two Rosens, and the owl), half of them proved to be artificial. As far as we know, at least. At this point we can make no assumptions about anybody’s humanity. Was Eldon an android as well? Is Deckard? We don’t have sufficient information to make any proper conclusions. This chapter is the first of many places in which we will be confused about who is human. It is also the first instance where we must consider whether it matters. As Deckard is leaving he says to Rachael, “I’m not going to retire you, Miss Rosen. Good day.” Knowing that she is an android doesn’t seem to affect the way he interacts with her. He assures her that she is safe, politely refers to her as Miss Rosen, and wishes her a good day. Even though she is artificial she is still conscious, and as such is treated with a certain level of respect, even from Deckard, a man whose job it is to kill androids.
The line only becomes blurrier as the novel continues. Deckard’s struggle with the death of Luba Luft is testament to this. After Resch kills her Deckard says, “She was a wonderful singer. The planet could have used her. This is insane.” (136) This problem is only exacerbated by the revelation that Phil Resch is, in fact, human. Throughout this ordeal Deckard expressed his dislike of Resch and his style of operation, owing his violence to the fact that he was an android. So here we have an android who, apart from escaping slavery, is non-violent and a benefit to society. In contrast we have a human who is extremely violent, to the point where he enjoys killing androids. Philip Dick says it better than I can: “So much for the distinction between authentic living humans and humanoid constructs. In that elevator at the museum, [Deckard] said to himself, I rode down with two creatures, one human, the other android… and my feelings were the reverse of those intended. Of those I’m accustomed to feel – am required to feel.” (142) We can sympathize with Deckard’s confusion here. After all, why did Luba have to die? She contributes beautiful music to the world. And why does Phil Resch deserve life? All he brings to this world is death. Resch argues that Luba killed humans to escape, that she is a murderer. But can we really fault her for that? Faced with a life of slavery and discrimination would Resch not have done the same? Would you not have done the same? I certainly would have.
These questions are the point of this novel. Is there a distinction between humans and androids? Should there be a distinction? They are certainly alive, and they are certainly conscious to the same degree we are, so why treat them as inferior? Why treat them as if they aren’t alive? Does their lack of empathy make them inferior? Many humans are unable to feel empathy; they are not considered inferior. By the same logic, shouldn’t they be considered inferior as well? Philip Dick raises so many questions in this vein and gives us no answers. This is the reason that Dick’s musings fit well within Aldiss’ definition of science fiction. “Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe,” says Aldiss. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the epitome of this statement. In this novel, Dick is continually searching for a clear definition of mankind, but is never able to find one. As such, creating a clear definition of humanity is inherently unimportant, because it is we can’t do it. The importance lies in the search, which Aldiss explicitly states and Dick implies. Neither Aldiss nor Dick ever mentions finding a clear definition of humanity; they recognize that it is impossible. This may seem confusing, but that is the point. We are confused. There are so many shades of grey between being human and non-human that we will never be able to find a concise distinction. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. On the contrary, that is precisely why we should.