Friday, October 4, 2013

Are Androids Human - Revision

Science fiction offers two immediate things to the reader: the ability to travel to far away times and places, to alternate histories and to gorgeously realized other worlds. It also often gives us a sense of great familiarity – it is, after all, other humans, other persons exploring the universe. This duality of the genre lets the author take a modern[1] human and put him in an altogether alien environment. The author gives this person a series of immense obstacles to overcome so as to see how he will react. Using this technique, by the end of the novel, both the author and, by extension, the audience will hopefully learn something about the human condition. In this way, science fiction can be thought of as a great thought experiment – projecting modern ideas, philosophies, mores, norms etc. onto a society inherently deprived of those very attributes. This lets the author satirize modern society, show any glaring problems with it, and often, predict where it will end up[2]. But this is not all that science fiction does. Perhaps by putting the recognizable man of this world into the alien-ness of that world, we will realize something in humankind that is inherent to everyone, across time, across space and even possibly across species. Often, in the words of Brian Aldiss, science fiction’s main goal is to define what makes us human.
            Knowing this, does DADES fall into the definition of science fiction set by Aldiss? The answer comes down to whether or not defining humanity is of central importance to Philip K. Dick. To give the short answer to this, yes, the definition of humanity is of central importance from the very first page. The long answer, however, involves not only defining what makes us human, but focuses instead on who should be considered human. Through both the plot and the setting, Philip K. Dick uses the science fiction genre almost to the ‘t’ in context of Brian Aldiss’ definition.
In the first half, where we are introduced to Nexus-6 androids – “capable of selecting within a field of two trillion constituents, or ten million separate neural pathways,”[3] – which are indistinguishable from humans without either taking a post-mortem bone marrow biopsy or administering one of two advanced, quite possibly flawed, ‘empathy tests’. This is the key to the story. In DADES, we are initially led to believe that empathy is the penultimate human trait; androids – near perfect replicas of humans – do not produce empathy naturally. In DADES, Dick uses the android as a device to let readers “think more dispassionately about just what qualities of human life are required for the presence of personhood.”[4] By framing the main questions referenced earlier in the context of futuristic androids, Dick lets readers contemplate the answers and implications of what it means to be human in a way that lets the reader remain fairly detached emotionally from the inevitable outcomes.
Dick at first appears to use empathy as the distinguishing feature of humanity in the novel. A more subtle reading, however, reveals that he actually does not want empathy – a trait raised to religious status in post-apocalypse Earth – to be the sole definition of humanity.     Dick did not write DADES to show us what he believes humanity is. He instead wants us to consider what makes us human and near-perfect replicas not human. In a society that has rejected androids, he wants us to question whether or not that society has rejected humans.
But what does it mean to be human exactly, and how do we divide the world into the dichotomy of person/not-person? This is a question that has been argued throughout the history of organized thought, and the answer is well beyond the scope of this paper. However, the implications of the definition are important to the reading of DADES so, instead, let us look at what has historically been thought of as the crux of being a ‘person’ – the self. How does this metaphysical entity relate to the androids and humans in DADES? In Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, we are presented with a definition of personhood revolving around rationality and the idea of self-consciousness as parts of the ‘self’. We will use this definition later in this paper to examine the possible humanity of Rachel Rosen and Iran and Rick Deckard.
 In order to understand why the androids are not considered human in the diegesis, we must first examine those characters that are human. Take Iran Deckard for instance, the wife of Richard Deckard. The very first page of the book introduces to the reader both of the Deckards and their Penfield Mood Organ[5], a device that alters the moods of the humans who use it with the turn of a dial. Using this device, one taken for granted in the novel – “…he hesitated between dialing a thalamic suppressant…or a thalamic stimulant (which would make him irked enough to win the argument),”[6] – the surviving humans are able to alter their mental being at will. This of course raises a major question about the people in the world of DADES, namely that it is never clear if their emotions are genuine or not. Going back to Iran, we see an example of this: she has to ‘dial in’ to be depressed at the world she lives in. She realizes that as a human, she should be irrevocably depressed by living in the world she does; yet there she is, artificially making herself depressed – an attitude she can change with the turn of a knob. Iran, in fact, is one of the only characters to experience this existential problem of simultaneously recognizing and therefore rejecting the world she lives in. In only the first handful of pages, Iran shows some of the only empathy, the accepted definition of humanity, towards other humans we see in the book. Almost nowhere else do we get such a clear answer of who, beyond a shadow of doubt, is human.
            What then of the androids themselves? Throughout the novel, dick uses the simulacra of humans to illustrate his beliefs in what makes things human or not. The first example of this is Rachel Rosen. The most outwardly ‘human’ of the androids, she is led to believe that she actually is a human. Raised on an orbiting starship, she is given false memories (can memories be given to someone? That alone raises some interesting questions – can the humans be given false memories? If they can, are they still human? Clearly memories are not what makes us human) and treated as human her whole life. When Rick meets her at the Rosen headquarters, she is able to initially pass the Voight-Kampff test – Rick reluctantly believes that she is human. More importantly, Rachel believes she is human. She acts with a self-consciousness that is characteristic of humans.  It is only when she shows empathy towards the human babies killed to make Rick’s briefcase (a fabricated story to test her empathy) is Rick able to tell her as android – ‘true humans’ wouldn’t have had a measured response[7]. Rachel clearly thinks of herself as a human – it is only the world she lives in that refuses to grant her personhood. Self-consciousness in this sense involves more than just recognizing yourself as an entity, it requires you to act towards your own goals.
The rationality aspect of the definition of self Marilyn Gwaltney sets in Retrofitting Bladerunner… references the fact that the androids were created to think and act as humans would. If we classify ourselves as a rational species – and I believe that we do – then by extension the androids must be rational. Originally built as weapons and later modified to deal with the dangerous radioactive settings on Earth and the colonization processes on Mars, the androids were expected to act on their own, towards their own limited goals. It should be of no surprise then that a conscious, self-aware being should want freedom – in this case stowing away and arriving back on Earth.
This idea – the androids were meant to handle situations unsafe for humans – satisfies the second clause of Aldiss’ definition. According to Aldiss, the above plot elements and thematic arcs must take place in a gothic novel. The question then is, since Dick is trying to define what humanity is, does he do so in a gothic novel? Between a radioactive Earth, inhospitable to all life save for a few unlucky humans left behind, and a Mars reminiscent of 1800’s Earth, ti would not be a stretch to classify DADES as a neo-gothic novel. The androids of DADES can easily live on the ruins of Earth. In fact, they would prefer to live on the radioactive-dust covered surface of our planet than work as slaves for the rich on Mars.
For comparison, let us look at the monster of Frankenstein. The monster in this book is at home in the frigid arctic and can dance around the mountains of Switzerland with no hesitation. In much the same way, the androids in DADES mirror the monster in both their ability to live in inhospitable landscapes and their role as antagonist – and by extension as the way to define humanity[8].
To conclude, throughout the novel, Philip K. Dick constantly challenges our preconceived notions that all androids are simply autonomous beings distinctly different from the humans they mimic. By presenting the android as an ‘other’, Dick hopes that we will be able to rationally think about what it is that actually makes us human.

[1] Modern of course is relative to the author’s time – in DADES’ case, it would be a person from 1968.
[2] See 1984 for a perfect example – what was once a warning seems to be overwhelmingly used as an instruction manual. 
[3] Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine, 1996. 28. Print.
[4] Gwaltney, Marilyn. Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ed. Judith Kerman. N.p.: Popular, 1991. 32-40. Google Books. Web. 3 Oct. 2013
[5] Not to get on too long of a tangent, but we can examine the book in light of One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse. According to Marcuse, society is on the path towards a being in which consumerism and false-needs gradually hinder our ability to think critically. This idea is taken to its extreme in DADES, with the advent of electric animals to replace a perceived need for real ones. Every time Rick sees an animal, he fishes for his Sidney’s Animal and Fowl Catalogue to check the price. Animal ownership – and the empathy it implies – is the ultimate expression of this rampant consumerism that must have started with Penfield Mood Organs, Rosen Androids and whatever other fictional brands exist in the story. Furthermore, people simply accept the ‘danger’ of the androids without question. If an android is on Earth, it is automatically a criminal and has to be retired. In many ways, a parallel between Marcuse’s idea of a “great refusal” and Dick’s point that androids must be seen as people and not things want us to arrive at the same conclusion.
[6] Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, 4
[7] It is interesting that to be human, empathy towards other humans isn’t necessary. This makes Rachel and Iran so unique – both recognize that empathy towards humans, not just animals, is an integral part of being human. Rick himself comes to realize this after killing Luba Loft – while talking to Phil Resch he realizes that he has an “emphatically empathetic response” (142) to the death of Luba Loft. In a startling turn of events, Rick realizes that he has developed empathy towards androids.
[8] In a technique dating back to at least Thomas Aquinas, where one uses what a thing is not to define what it is.

1 comment:

Adam said...

I like the first paragraph as a free-standing object, although for this essay I'd be happier if it got around to presenting your main argument. It has its merits, but beware of getting lost in abstractions (I like to think of abstractions as something we should usually earn when writing, rather than as a starting point). Even at the end of the 2nd paragraph it's really not clear what you will say in particular about the novel. Do you have a clear viewpoint about it? Yes. Do you have a clear argument about it? Not yet.

Despite my difficulties so far, "In a society that has rejected androids, he wants us to question whether or not that society has rejected humans." is a fine statement of one of the central dilemmas, if not the central dilemma, in the novel. You are saying interesting things, moving in interesting directions, without yet really establishing a clear (or maybe distinctive) argument.

"Iran, in fact, is one of the only characters to experience this existential problem of simultaneously recognizing and therefore rejecting the world she lives in. In only the first handful of pages, Iran shows some of the only empathy, the accepted definition of humanity, towards other humans we see in the book. Almost nowhere else do we get such a clear answer of who, beyond a shadow of doubt, is human." To my mind, this is good material for a first or second paragraph. Although you don't quite have an argument even here, you're saying some interesting things in ways which could lead to a really nice essay. Actually, I think you're making an implicit argument: the real problem in DADES is how do we both accept and reject the world at once? How do we live in it, while trying to rise above it? How do we attain transcendence amidst immanence? You are zeroing in on some great stuff, but ideally you would *begin* with your problem, and use the bulk of the essay to explore and interpret it. As an example, you might use the paintings as an example of how the world is both accepted and rejected in the novel...

Your discussion of Rachel is sloppy - it ignores the second encounter with her entirely in favor of the first encounter. You could have addressed the duality of acceptance and rejection with interests you, in fact, by addressing the contradictions in Rachel's character. I think you're mostly a careful reader, but not when dealing with Rachel.

Is rationality really central to the self in DADES? You assert that, but I'm not sure why. My tendency is to think that Mercerism and Buster Friendly both challenge that idea - in fact, in the novel they seem to mostly align the androids with rationality and humans with emotion (rightly or wrongly).

Your discussion of Aldiss, the Androids, and F's monster at the end is intelligent in itself, but doesn't really fit with the rest of the essay.

Overall: You have some great raw material, but you struggled to make it really fit together. This is an essay which, I think, was in need of another thorough rewrite. I think that the part about the self and its contradictions that I quote above is your best material, and that the better/finished version would have started with an interpretation of Iran's character.

p.s. Good tangent (in the footnotes, where it belongs) on Marcuse. It would have been interesting to bring that into the main body as another way of thinking about Iran...