This novel is set in a post-apocalyptic California in which life is scarce. Androids, humanoid possessions of the newly emigrated population in Mars, escape to Earth in hopes of blending in with the remaining human population and establishing themselves as human-like entities with similar values and establishments. Rick Deckard, however, is a bounty hunter who doesn’t feel that the androids are human-like or worthy enough to live on Earth. This ironic juxtaposition between the human-like characteristics of androids and the robotic features of humans is illustrated in Deckard’s character and serves to show the developing lack of empathy in our society.
The comparison between humans and androids is first observed in Rick Deckard when he fails to see the ostensible similarities between him and his android counterparts. His wife calls him a murderer because of his initial sadistic pleasure in knocking out the androids one-by-one as if he was playing a video game; however, he himself does not see his actions as such and vehemently disagrees with her, implying that these androids do not have a right to life and that their very nature makes them unworthy of human sympathy. The irony of this scene is symbolized in the constant reference and usage of the “mood organ.” When dialed to a certain setting, this device stimulates or inhibits various brain regions in order to make one feel an emotion of their choosing. This mechanism juxtaposes the humans and androids in the very human-like characteristics of mood and emotion. Rick’s wife, alarmed that she is not affected by the emptiness of her environment “found a setting for despair” and excitedly added it to her schedule of moods for the week (5). This sort of synthetic emotion brought about by technology depicts the exact nature of the androids and shows that if an emotion can be brought about artificially, it is not an authentic feeling. In introducing this kind of artificial humanity, this brings the humans down to the level of the androids and implies that if humans can be programmed in ways much like the androids, the two may not be so different after all. The androids are depicted, from the eyes of the humans, as machines so advanced that they can mimic human emotion and behavior while still acting entirely unattached to society. Although Deckard and other “real” humans initially see the androids as such, Dick uses symbolic pieces such as the mood organ to bring these stark similarities to the attention of the reader.
Despite the seemingly advanced nature of the mood organ, other devices have been constructed in our own society to allow people to alter their own moods and behavior at the their disposal and discretion. In the 1960s, various pharmaceuticals such as Valium, a benzodiazapene that causes relaxation, were introduced and widely distributed in order for people to alter their mood based on claims of anxiety. Although regulated by physicians, drugs like this quickly flourished and people began to use them at the time and dose of their choosing because of their widespread effects on mood. Still widely used today, this drug is analogous to the function of the mood organ because it allows people to essentially disconnect from their natural moods and feelings and allow an artificial agent to take over the way they feel. Mood-altering drugs enhance Dick’s point that many of the features of the androids that the humans deem as “non-human” are actually reflected in human society. Specifically, drugs like this and Dick’s usage of the “mood organ” undermine the point that Deckard and his police department make in saying that the one thing that separates humans from androids is the ability to empathize.
Dick’s usage of the concept of empathy blurs the distinction between humans and androids even more so with the introduction of the Voigt-Kampff profiling test. This test is intended to discern whether or not the subject displays any sort of empathy or moral code. However insofar, there has been much ambiguity if this is truly applicable in the current state of society. “The Leningrad scientists…think that a small class of human beings could not pass the Voigt-Kampff scale” (38). This reference alludes to the fact that there are humans that cannot experience empathy, and if there were a wide spread study done, one could expect a large population to not be able to pass. The introduction of this test highlights how self-centered Deckard and his colleagues, in regard to both the android population and animals. When looking at how Rick and fellow readers of the Sydney catalog objectify animals as status symbols, one can only notice the lack of empathy they have for them. No one cared when the owls were falling from the sky during the beginning of the extinction, but once they were gone, they were regarded as the most prized of all animals. This shows that the humans don’t actually care for the well-being of the animals, for if they did it would have become apparent as soon as they were in apparent danger. It is only once they become a prized possession that the humans even take notice and wish to obtain them as a symbol of upper status. Animals are dying due to deforestation, poaching and pollution, and although most people are very much aware that their own actions affect the well-being of animals in the environment, they continue to litter, use potent pesticides and drive gas-guzzling vehicles. Even in our society, animals only become a prized possession once they are a rarity, and even then humans don’t actually “care” about the animals themselves, only the fact that they won’t be able to look at them anymore. This selfish attitude towards other forms of life is seen in both the humans and androids, and serves to mimic the uncaring nature that society has towards other forms of life.
This lack of empathy can also be seen when observing how their society treats the “specials.” The “specials” are a group of low IQ individuals who have become mentally challenged from the radioactive dust on earth. They are outcasts in society, and are treated as if they were non-humans, on par with the androids. This comparison is one of the most prominent examples of the non-empathetic nature of the humans and their ignorant inability to recognize it. Regardless of this disability, the specials are still 100% human but other humans fail to treat them as such. By portraying this treatment of specials, animals and androids as lesser beings to the humans, Dick illustrates their robotic nature and true lack of empathy.
The concepts of the androids and specials are paralleled in Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein in which Victor creates a being in the image of man, but then due to his lack of empathy shows his creation nothing but malice and discards it as an outcast. The monster endures countless hardships at the hands of humans throughout the novel which can be seen as a potent synthesis of both the plights of the androids and specials. He was “grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons” as soon as he stepped foot into a village and met nothing but pain during every encounter with humans. When he aided humans by saving the little girl’s life and helping Felix with his chores and work, he received punishment and anguish. Similarly to the androids and specials, despite his acts of benevolence and kindness, the monster due to his superficial differences was physically harmed and ostracized by the humans. This suffering of the monster illustrates the truly cold nature of humans in society who both Shelley and Dick although from different time periods criticize.
Dick presents a society that although initially seems so disconnected from ours, is a complex allegory of our own creation. In our own society we have become so disillusioned from our own lack of empathy that we use both drugs and ideas to elevate ourselves from authentic feelings and other creatures. Through the juxtaposition of personality traits and actions taken by both the androids and humans, Dick illustrates that we have become so accustomed to this type of life perpetuated by new technology and unattatchment that we mimic many of seemingly “inhuman” characteristics of the androids.