Friday, October 4, 2013

Revision 1: Androids as Metaphor

(Note: Since I’m reading DADES on my Kindle, I lack the wonderful technology known as “page numbers”; instead I’ll list a chapter number followed by the approximate position. I double-checked and it's possibly an issue with my edition being made before Amazon added actual page numbers)

            Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was written in 1968, around the peak of the Vietnam war. It may initially appear to be somewhat of a stretch to say this novel is representative of the conflict, but when you take into account Philip K. Dick’s anti-war attitude [1], it’s not unfair to assume it in some way inspired his writing. Deckard could be seen as a man involved in the conflict and undergoing a realization of the pointless destruction of the war.
            The symbolism became apparent to me during the death of Luba Luft. Until then, bounty hunters gauge their targets by testing their empathy levels, which is the most accurate pre-mortem method of determining whether or not an entity is human. With Luft, however, he encounters a problem—she responds to the questions in an unexpected, emotional way. Deckard expects straightforward answers as that’s what androids would typically expect a human to do, yet she seems to genuinely believe he’s targeting her as an object to feed his perversions. She behaves unexpectedly and humanly. She acts like more than a faceless enemy, and it’s possible she is.
            It’s here that Deckard faces the conflict of being a soldier assigned a duty to kill indiscriminately and being an empathetic human. While Deckard’s testing method relies on proving the lack of empathy in androids, he realizes it’s not necessarily a trait innate to humans. (Chapter 12, 85%). While Deckard didn’t have much chance to formally test Luba, and Resch officially tested as human, his gut feeling told him the opposite. Resch had no reservations in killing Luba because he saw it as nothing more than a job, while Deckard had allowed himself to establish a bond with the android, taking note of her very human appreciation of art and her voice that was more alive and beautiful than any human’s.
            Phil Resch can be seen as a soldier joining the war for the excitement of taking down a supposed enemy. Resch has no qualms with the idea of using an android for sex (Chapter 12, 95%) and killing them, much akin to the rampant rape and forced prostitution that resulted from our involvement in Southeast Asia. Many soldiers would use these women for their services without questioning the morality of it, and at the same time viewed every single one of them as an enemy. Deckard, of course, is starting to feel guilty about his job as an executioner. He allowed himself to become acquainted with two androids and realized he was goaded into a sham war. These androids are presented as murderers of humans, but they’re only trying to make a living just as he is. Aside from Polokov, he hadn’t had a violent encounter with the androids; they had a more human respect for each other than Resch had for them. The androids even value their own lives, not wanting to be put out of service; Resch, however, almost seemed to accept his death if he’d tested positive for being an android (Chapter 12, 60%). Deckard is disappointed to realize he’s of the same kind as Resch; emotionally, he had more in common with Luba and Garland and they’d presumably hurt nobody since coming to earth, while Resch had destroyed two of them in one day.
            In a manner similar to how Americans grew to abhor the conflict in Vietnam, Deckard is growing to detest those who goad him into killing. With the small amount of time he’d put into getting to know Rachael Rosen, Luba Luft, and Garland, nothing about them struck him as wrong aside from their failing of the Voight-Kampff test. Additionally, there’s a major drawback to the test: it assumes that all humans are followers of Mercerism. It only tests for their conditioned disgust of animal products, not necessarily their level of empathy for those around them. It can be seen as quite problematic how Phil Resch cares more for his squirrel than a lifeform that looks just like his own species and possesses the same level of intelligence and emotion. It’s also quite evident in chapter 13 when Isidore brings food back for Pris. While she’s initially cold towards him, Isidore starts talking about food he used to eat and says something most humans would consider inhuman—he misses the taste of meat. This simple fumble is taken by Pris to be a sign that Isidore is actually an android, and she instantly acts compassionate towards him, serving to prove that the androids really do have true human emotions. It shows that the great divide between humans and androids isn’t really biological or mental, but a social trait that’s hammered into each side. They’re taught that they’re different, and so they believe such. Some higher authority tells each side that the other is evil and that they have some advantage over the enemy (similar to how communist governments indoctrinate the people to view capitalist society as corrupt and inhumane, and vice versa), and so that’s what the people believe. It’s quite obvious that Pris’s only objection to befriending Isidore was this false social barrier constructed between them, and Deckard is coming to realize that these divides are false. He sees that people aren’t evil for being different physically, but mentally. He loathes that his job is to protect and serve people like Resch while pointlessly killing innocents like Luba Luft.
            Dick’s abhorrence of the war carries into the action scenes, or lack thereof. The execution of the androids is described just as they are: pointless death. Roy Baty’s death in DADES stand in stark contrast to the massive conflict in Blade Runner. The entire final battle fits on just a few lines: “He shot Roy Baty; the big man's corpse lashed about, toppled like an overstacked collection of separate, brittle entities.” (Chapter 19, 100%) When shot, Roy Baty dies. He dies just like any other human. The movie extends this into a much more dramatic conflict and loses the point of the text: there’s no point in our murder of each other. Roy loses his loved one to Deckard, lets out a cry of distress, and is killed. Deckard isn’t made out to be any sort of hero here, but a mere paid killer. It’s quite clear this is meant to be symbolic of the raids on civilian villages during the Vietnam War. Parallels can be drawn to the My Lai Massacre [2], where hundreds of innocents were killed simply because some members of our military lumped all Vietnamese together as the enemy.
            The chapters following the final massacre are similar to a lost soldier returning from the conflict and having to face what he’s done. He ponders suicide, has a possible psychotic delusion involving Mercer, and ultimately returns to his wife, hoping life will get back to normal. Rick’s turnaround from the beginning of the novel is made evident at the end: “The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are.” (Chapter 22, 50%) Deckard rejects the claim of being a murderer at the beginning of the novel—he has his conditioned prejudices against the androids and can’t possibly see them as human. It was seeing their human struggle to live that changed his mind.
            In order to fully establish the relation to the brutality of Vietnam War, we need to ask one question: Are the androids actually human? Deckard comes close to a conclusion at the end, but doesn’t outright admit that they are. However, we can observe their emotions and find some that are uniquely human. Rachael exhibits jealously and rage when Deckard decides to proceed with his job, resulting in her killing his goat but leaving the electric sheep. It’s a sign of some sympathy towards other artificial beings and jealously towards the natural living and their higher value in society. This extended period of anger and jealousy is something uniquely human. If we use the basis of the empathy test, it’s quite clear that androids can act compassionately towards each other and humans, as evidenced by Pris taking to Isidore after she mistakes him for an android. It shows that the Voight-Kampff test only proves whether or not someone is a supporter of Mercerism. Had Isidore been given test questions involving consumption of animals, he would’ve been shown to be an android, gentle and harmless as he was. It shows that being human isn’t a biological characteristic, but a mental and social trait.
            When we see that someone as decent as Isidore could have been killed, we can see that the extermination of androids from earth is quite certainly meant to represent the indiscriminate murder of civilians during the Vietnam war. They were culturally different from us, but emotionally identical. Dissent grew the more we saw them as people just like us, but it’s a mistake we’ve had to accept. Deckard is beginning to understand his involvement in the destruction.

[1] Liukkonen, Petri. "Philip K. Dick." Philip K. Dick., 2008,
[2] “My Lai Massacre.”  October 2013.


Adam said...

"Deckard could be seen as a man involved in the conflict and undergoing a realization of the pointless destruction of the war." - for a revision especially (but also a draft) you'd want to be in the position of saying "should" rather than "could" here - we want arguments, not speculations.

Are Luba Luft's responses emotional? Remember his complaint about the "semantic fog," she generates, a confusion or dissolution of meaning? What's emotional in her responses, rather than intellectual? I'm not even saying that you're wrong - just that it isn't obvious to me. However, she *is* anything but a faceless enemy, as you say.

I'd like to see your reading of Phil incorporate insights from Deckard's conversation with Rachel. I'd also like to say that your alignment of Phil with a thrill-seeking soldier and of Deckard with a soldier "killing out of duty" seems like a starting point worth taking, but which at this point is overly speculative. I'd greatly prefer details, hopefully concrete ones, to tie us to Vietnam. Where would I start? With the observation that the U.S. had a great deal of trouble distinguishing the hostile population from the friendly population. Maybe that doesn't take you far, but it is a start...

The paragraph about Deckard's abhorrence of conflict is good, although nothing here is surprising. "It’s quite obvious that Pris’s only objection to befriending Isidore was this false social barrier constructed between them, and Deckard is coming to realize that these divides are false. He sees that people aren’t evil for being different physically, but mentally. He loathes that his job is to protect and serve people like Resch while pointlessly killing innocents like Luba Luft." This is a fine, if familiar analysis of the text - what I want to know is how to relate it to Vietnam or protests against it. Does Deckard's particular response to his own violence (and remember that he never turns against Mercerism, or against his job - never forget that!) relate to some particular characteristic of the Vietnam war, or of protests against it?

I really like your discussion of the pointlessness of Baty's death; including the movie here is brief but effective. Still, connecting it to My Lai in particular seems like it demands a little more work, especially since what Deckard does is targeted assassination, and not mass killing (which was what WWT did). There are good insights here, especially as the essay goes on, but your engagement with Vietnam is really limited here.

Do you see Deckard's return as an attempt to give up violence? I'm not opposed to that, if you can make it work together with his interactions with Mercerism. The absence of Mercer and of Deckard's interactions with Mercer is certainly an issue for this essay - what does Mercer mean in the elaborate Vietnam metaphor that you're exploring (constructing)?

The last couple paragraphs have their strengths - but one thing that really bothers me is that, no matter how close the novel brings humans and androids together, it's a stretch to see them as emotionally identical. Consider the traumas (different traumas!) endured by both groups; consider the isolation of Mars. I think you're eradicating difference in a way that Philip K. Dick is reluctant to do (the electric things have *their* pultry lives, distinct from ours...)

Adam said...

Part 2:

Overall: I was skeptical the start, but I see many virtues in your individual insights into the novel. My remaining problems are basically all about Vietnam - your whole attempt to connect the novel to Vietnam is both productive and speculative. I think what's missing is an explicit, detailed attempt to connect the details of the Vietnam war (and maybe even more of US politics about it) to the details of the novel. That would take research, but that's the only way this essay could outgrow its limitations. Too much "could" and not enough "should" or "must" characterize this argument, as you basically showed in the thesis statement.