When one hears the term “science fiction”, images of the pulp aspect of it immediately come to mind. Although the lasers, androids, and hover-cars might be at the forefront of the genre, the content underneath the quick prose and action sequences is primarily Gothic. Brian Aldiss, a prolific science fiction writer and accredited “Grand Master” of the genre, spoke to its Gothic themes, as well as its, “search for the definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge.” Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Phillip K. Dick is no exception to this definition. It tells of an Earth reduced to radioactive wastelands, and follows a day in the life of a bounty hunter as he hunts eight advanced androids and evaluates the merits of his actions. Dick utilizes this unique technological future to display an unconventional take on gothic horror and a powerful view on humanity that attests greatly to the validity of Aldiss’ description of the genre.
The “advanced but confused state of knowledge” that provides the backdrop for gothic horror and questioning of humanity stems primarily from the present state of android technology in D.A.D.E.S. Since their adaptation from pre-war “Synthetic Freedom Fighters” to common laborers, butlers, and maids meant to entice humans to emigrate to Mars, androids remain in a kind of “uncanny valley”, in which they are physically identical to humans, but differ emotionally and socially (Dick 9). Furthermore, the ways in which androids differ from humans go directly against current social norms, such as an inability to practice Mercerism, feel camaraderie with humans or other androids, or have empathy for other beings. Previously, androids blatantly showed these differences, but more recent models such as the Nexus-6 that Deckard hunts require in-depth empathy tests to determine whether or not they are androids (Dick 19). Still, the Rosen Corporation continues to revise the androids, with their goal being to eventually create an android that “can’t be distinguished,” from humans, complete with true empathetic responses, which is in direct opposition to the overwhelming social opinion that androids should always remain separate from humans (Dick 115). This in turn creates the ever-present and perpetual suspicion over who is a human and who is an android, which is central not only to aspects of horror throughout the novel, but D.A.D.E.S.’ evaluation of humanity as well.
The social issues concerning real and electric animals run parallel to the authenticity evaluations of the androids, and expresses a more trivial and straightforward example of humanity’s current confusion regarding the novel’s forms of “artificial life”. As denoted by the conversation held between Deckard and Barbour concerning the colts, Mercerism dictates that all people should own and care for an animal, as it exemplifies the religion’s radical example of empathy in addition to preserving species that otherwise might have gone extinct due to radiation (Dick 30). However, this seemingly pious expectation of caring for an animal is spun on its head due to seemingly endless vanity and profitable economy present within the live animal market, both in Sidney’s catalog, which Deckard constantly carries with him, and on animal row. Animal salesman constantly upsell for more exotic animals similarly to an unscrupulous car salesman, such as when Deckard inquires about a family of rabbits and the salesman replies, “Sir, if you have a down payment of three thou, I can make you the owner of something a lot better than a pair of rabbits,” (Dick 133).
The social pressure to own an animal combined with both the high wages required and desire to own rare species leads many people to secretly purchase ersatz animals to fool others, like when Deckard covertly inquires about an electric ostrich which costs less than eight hundred dollars instead of the full thirty thousand dollar price of a real ostrich (Dick 45). Similar to the androids exist within, the electric animals are also nearly identical to real animals physically, so much so that Isidore mistakenly brings real cat back to the ersatz animal repair shop, believing that it was just a malfunctioning machine instead of a sick animal (Dick 73). This overall confusion concerning what life is real, what life is fake, and what the difference means within the context of D.A.D.E.S.’s society appears with such high frequency that even Aldiss comments that, “unrealities have multiplied to such an extent that the result is a confusion we are tempted merely to reject as abnormal,” and is central in setting the stage for the gothic horror present in the narrative (Aldiss 48).
Although horror within D.A.D.E.S. flows from many different areas, the most apparent of them is the new Nexus-6 android themselves, which are “more adroit than [their] master”, and “surpassed several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence,” (Dick 19). Although Deckard seems to have success in using the Voigt-Kampff scale, the androids continue to show their ability to express the empathetic reactions that it searches for, albeit with a slight lag that eventually gets them “retired” (Dick 38). Earth is slowly becoming invaded by these beings that look, talk, and act like humans, all of which are fugitives due to the slayings of their human masters. Throughout the novel, they are constantly referred to as having no empathy for neither fellow androids nor humans. Deckard even goes as far as to call them “solitary predators” and that they accurately represent “The Killers” from the teachings of Mercerism (Dick 22). This fear of invasion by an undetectable, nonhuman force is a large factor in the horror present in the novel, and serves as a vehicle for humans to distance themselves from the behaviors of androids.
Another aspect of Gothic horror throughout the novel is simply through the everyday lives of the human characters. Emotions, although they are the one thing androids cannot have, are taken for granted by humans so much so that they manufacture them through “mood organs”, experiencing everything from “self-accusatory depression” to “ecstatic sexual bliss” with the turn of a dial (Dick 3). People left on Earth live in such fear of radiation altering their genes that they wear heavy, lead codpieces over their genitals, as well as the possibility that they may test below a certain IQ threshold, a be reduced to a “chickenhead”. Not only does this bar them from ever emigrating from the now-Hell that is Earth, but they will be scorned for the rest of their lives (Dick 13). The torture that humans go through every day as a result of World War Terminus lends to the desensitization of the facets of humanity that their society appears to hold most dear, empathy and emotion.
Throughout the story, a hard line is drawn between androids and humans, but through the accounts of Deckard and Isidore, it certainly does not always appear that way. From the opening chapter, it can be seen that humans have become more and more desensitized to their emotions, something that, along with empathy, they uphold as a religion with Mercerism. Deckard constantly reiterates that androids cannot feel these emotions, commenting, “An android… could make no sense out of the fusion which took place routinely among followers of Mercerism,” but yet he relies on his mood organ simply to get out of bed in the morning and drag himself to work (Dick 21). Later, after Deckard has joined forces with Phil Resch, he questions how Resch can be a human when he kills Garland and Luba on the earliest suggestion of permission and with a subtle kind of enjoyment, even after Resch passes the Voigt-Kampff test (Dick 88). Deckard also reveals that he gives empathetic responses to female androids, buys a gift for Luba Luft with his own money, and even expresses to Resch that he was sexually attracted to Luba Luft in some capacity. To his surprise, Resch consoles Deckard, explaining to him he once felt the same way and saying, “You wanted to go to bed with a female type of android – nothing more, nothing less,”(Dick 87).
The lines that dictate what is typically android or human behavior is obviously not as clear as it is made out to be by law enforcement agencies, empathy tests, and even bounty hunters like Deckard. Even the android called Garland, who in the same speech denies that androids possess any form of empathy, admits that they cooperate with one another in running a fake police agency on Mission Street (Dick 78). Later still, when Isidore meets Pris’ friends, Roy and Irmgard, he observes Pris crying and her and Irmgard embracing, and they then discuss the state of affairs as if all the androids care for one another, just like a group of humans would in a survival situation (Dick 99). When Deckard finally finds and begins retiring the renegade group of androids, Roy “lets out a cry of anguish” when his wife is shot and killed, showing again that androids are indeed capable of at least showing some type of camaraderie or possibly even love for one another (Dick 169). Rachel Rosen also exhibits possibly the strangest contradiction to “normal” android behavior when she kills Deckard’s new goat, seemingly out of either revenge for the retired android group, or out of jealously and anger towards him regarding his brief affair and subsequent attempted murder with her (Dick 172). On the other side of the coin, Deckard, who as a bounty hunter should exemplify society’s steadfast opinion against android “life”, comes to respect the artificial, stating, “The electric things have their lives too,” (Dick 181).This fundamental contradiction concerning the authenticity of different types of life and societies expectations of them that permeates through the narrative is at the same time both the key aspect of Gothic horror and of humanity. Mercerism and the legal system demand that androids and humans be seen as completely separate and radically different beings, but humans continually show their capacity to devolve to what even they define as an android, while the androids themselves show more and more “human” characteristics, such as camaraderie, revenge, and possibly even empathy and love. It is this conflict, when cast in front of the novel’s unique state of technological progress and societal morals, which fulfills Aldiss’ requirements for true science fiction, showing Phillip K. Dick as a “Grand Master” in his own right.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? London: Millennium, 1999. Print.
Aldiss, Brian W. The Detached Retina. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1995. Print.
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