In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick explores a post-apocalyptic Earth through the two central characters of J. R. Isidore and Rick Deckard. The world in which the two men live is being threatened by not only the Dust, which will eventually kill off all living organisms from the Earth, but also the androids, or, "The Killers" (Dick, 32). Several times throughout the course of the novel Deckard finds himself trying to rationalize his murderous occupation by differentiating the human race from the android race. By the end of the book, however, Deckard fails to completely distinguish humans and androids due to his developed empathy for androids. Similarly, when Isidore encounters androids for the first time in his life, their lives are put in his hands, and he is forced to make an important, difficult choice, and he chooses to assist the androids. Because of Isidore’s decision to comply with the androids and Deckard’s eventual empathy toward the androids, both men fail to separate the android species from their own. Deckard's and Isidore’s attempts to evaluate mankind as a whole that is separate from and different than the androids is what Aldiss deems "the search for the definition of mankind" (Aldiss, 1). Isidore’s and Deckard’s characterization and development throughout the novel signify Dick’s success in defining mankind.
Throughout the first half of the novel, we are introduced to different methods of technology that are designed to distinguish humans from androids, or, "andys" (Dick, 4). Humans need to differentiate themselves as much as possible from the androids because they see the androids as monstrous, emotionless creatures who are a threat to their society. To detect androids, the police use the "Voigt-Kampff test" (Dick, 53), which includes a serious of questions designed to elicit specific emotional, empathetic responses. If the subject lacks empathy, he is determined to be an android, separating him from mankind. According to science fiction analyst Christopher A. Sims, Dick “uses the invention of a humanoid replica to critique and define the essence of humanity; whatever qualities distinguish humans from androids become the essential aspects of humanity” (Sims, 111). We are left with the conclusion that the lack of empathy in androids translates into the necessity of empathy in mankind.
The conclusion that androids are completely void of empathy does not seem to hold true throughout the entirety of the novel, however. Dick chooses to “disrupt the delineation between androids and humans” (Sims, 121) several times by invalidating the test meant to distinguish humans from androids. Dick introduces the idea that the distinction between humans and androids is not so clear when Bryant reveals to Deckard that “the Leningrad psychiatrists...think that a small class of human beings could not pass the Voigt-Kampff scale” (Dick, 38). Dick emphasizes that the humans who would not pass the Voigt-Kampff test are not fully functioning members of society, so the confusion of a schizophrenic and an android could not easily be made. This is important because this categorizes two types of almost-human beings who do not generate empathy properly, schizophrenics and androids, as non-functioning members of society and thus separates them from the rest of mankind. The seemingly contradictory malfunction of the Voigt-Kampff test, then, does not hinder the point that empathy is necessary to mankind, but enforces it.
Dick continues to blur the lines between human and android by introducing android characters that do not fit the profile of the typical humanoid robot incapable of empathy. Deckard is especially struck by Luba Luft, the wonderful opera singer whose death greatly bothers him. When he thinks of her after her death, he describes that she “had seemed genuinely alive; it had not worn the aspect of a simulation” (Dick, 141). Deckard thinks of Luba as nearly human because he, in a way, gets to know Luba. Deckard witnesses her performance of The Magic Flute, during which, he experiences the typical emotional response from an opera. After he sees Luba perform, he hopes that “Dave guessed wrong on her” (Dick, 99). Her emotions onstage were very real to Deckard, so he begins to question her android nature. In addition, at the Edvard Munch exhibit, Deckard witnesses Luba “absorbed in the picture before her” (Dick, 131). This suggestion that she is “absorbed” in the picture, deep in thought, responding emotionally to Munch’s artwork, further characterizes Luba as more human-like. After Luba is killed, Deckard experiences mourning, a depression of sorts. When he explains to Iran why he purchased the goat, he says, “‘I’ve begun to empathize with androids...That’s why I bought the goat. I never felt like that before. Maybe it could be a depression, like you get. I can understand now how you suffer when you’re depressed” (Dick, 174). The reason Deckard feels so depressed after Luba’s death is because he sees her as human due to her empathy during the opera and later at the Munch exhibit. The idea that Deckard identifies with Luba as a result of her empathy supports the theory that empathy is an essential trait of mankind.
An essential part of mankind that is not as explicitly discussed in the novel as empathy is the ability to function in society. The ability of any subject to function in society is based on whether or not the subject in question can hold a job, manage a home, and lead a relatively stable life. Deckard sets a good example as a functioning member of society because he has a job that allows him to provide for him and his wife and maintain a stable living condition. Unlike empathy, however, the androids have the power to imitate fully functioning members of society. They can hold jobs and maintain homes just like human beings. When Deckard is searching for Polokov, he is informed, “Polokov ought to be at work. Flattening hovercars at our Daly city plant” (Dick, 87). Deckard initially looks where any normal human or clever android would be: at his daily job, doing the things he needs to do so that he can live a somewhat comfortable life on a planet that can only offer somewhat of a comfortable life.
In the novel, Dick constructs a recipe for mankind by using Deckard and Isidore as ingredients. Essentially, Rick Deckard constitutes the model human being. He has a job, a home, a wife, and a relatively stable life. The sole, but crucial, questionable aspect of Rick’s humanity is his empathy. Rick’s empathy is questionable because he struggles with the fact that androids may be more human than he would like to believe, but retires them anyway. He begins to define them as human when he mourns the loss of Luba Luft. After her death, he thinks, “she was a wonderful singer. The planet could have used her. This is insane” (Dick, 136). Deckard even begins to question the motives behind his assignment, “how can a talent like that be a liability to our society?” (Dick, 137). Dick’s description, to coincide with Deckard’s acceptance of the androids, changes as well. The first time we experience Deckard killing an android is when he shoots Polokov in the head. Dick explicitly describes the android’s death with, “its brain box burst” (Dick, 93). He continues to refer to the body as “twitching remnants of the android” (Dick, 93). These mechanical descriptions blatantly suggest a robotic mechanism rather than any figure remotely relatable to a human being. This contrasts greatly with Dick’s description of Luba Luft when she is saddened at the realization of her impending doom: “her eyes faded and the color dimmed from her face, leaving it cadaverous, as if already starting to decay” (Dick, 131). There are no hints of robotic characteristics in this description because Dick is essentially describing her as human. Dick’s difference in language directly coincides with Deckard’s empathizing for the androids. Deckard’s ultimate decision to kill the remaining androids at the end of the novel is a testament to the failure of his empathy. This raises the question of how Deckard can be a good example of a human being if he lacks empathy. The answer to the question lies in the character of J.R. Isidore.
Isidore’s empathy, in contrast with Deckard’s, is inherent. Wherever Deckard lacks empathy, Isidore makes up for it with his abundance of “love and compassion for all living forms” (Gunn, 129). When Isidore brings the sick cat back to the animal hospital, Milt, in reference to Isidore’s reaction to the situation says, “‘to him they’re all alive, false animals included. He probably tried to save it” (Dick, 77). Milt’s characterization of Isidore is extremely accurate. He did try to save the dying, supposedly electric cat, even though he thought it was electric. He couldn’t stand the sound of the suffering cat and wanted to help in any way that he could. Isidore’s empathy is further emphasized when he thinks of what kind of being would be able to kill a living thing. He thinks of a “darkly impression: of something merciless...machine-like...a thing without emotions, or even a face” (Dick, 158). His description of what he imagines to be a murderer is inhuman and monstrous. He cannot even imagine a killer with a face, which is a testament to the fact that he himself could never kill or even harm anything that is alive. He embodies all of the empathy that Deckard lacks. If he has the essential ingredient to form a human being, however, then why can Isidore not stand alone as the representation of mankind? It is because he is what Dick calls a “chickenhead.” The dust adversely affected Isidore’s brain and appearance, leaving him with a low IQ and a less-than-beautiful countenance. He is not a fully functioning member of society and cannot therefore be a part of mankind by himself.
Thus, Deckard and Isidore together represent mankind as an empathetic member of society. Deckard represents the idea that to be a part of mankind, a man must function well in society. And Isidore makes up for everything that Deckard lack by way of empathy. He may not be able to function in society because of his chickenhead status, but he would never dream of committing murder or allowing any being to suffer. By using the two characters as two essential components to the idea of what mankind constitutes, and is defined as, Dick succeeds in what Aldiss calls, “the definition of mankind.”