Of the two science fiction novels we have read so far in this class, the definition of what it means to be human has been a central theme of both. In Frankenstein, our reflections on whether the monster was human helped to solidify our definition of humanity. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does the opposite; every turn in the novel only makes it harder and harder to tell the difference between humans and androids. This does not imply that defining our existence is unimportant, quite the contrary, in fact. By blurring the line between humans and artificial humans, Philip K. Dick is forcing us to continually reconsider our definition of humanity. This in turn stresses the importance of the subject, as well as the natural impossibility of creating a clear definition. The centrality of this idea throughout the novel lends weight to Brian Aldiss’ definition of science fiction as the struggle to define our own existence.
This struggle is clearly represented in the opening chapters of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In fact, the first thing Rick Deckard needs to do when he gets to work is to go check out the Rosen Association’s new Nexus-6 android to make sure the Voight-Kampff test is still viable. Given Rachael Rosen’s score on the test we think that it is not, until we discover that she is, in fact, an android. “Does she know?” asks Deckard. “No. We programmed her completely,” responds Eldon Rosen. (59) He goes on to admit that the owl is artificial as well, “There are no owls,” he says. This interaction sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Of the four original beings involved in this interaction at the Rosen Association (Deckard, the two Rosens, and the owl), half of them proved to be artificial. As far as we know, at least. At this point we can make no assumptions about anybody’s humanity. Was Eldon an android as well? Is Deckard? We don’t have sufficient information to make any proper conclusions. This chapter is the first of many places in which we will be confused about who is human. It is also the first instance where we must consider whether it matters. As Deckard is leaving he says to Rachael, “I’m not going to retire you, Miss Rosen. Good day.” Knowing that she is an android doesn’t seem to affect the way he interacts with her. He assures her that she is safe, politely refers to her as Miss Rosen, and wishes her a good day. Even though she is artificial she is still conscious, and as such is treated with a certain level of respect, even from Deckard, a man whose job it is to kill androids.
The line only becomes blurrier as the novel continues. Deckard’s struggle with the death of Luba Luft is testament to this. After Resch kills her Deckard says, “She was a wonderful singer. The planet could have used her. This is insane.” (136) This problem is only exacerbated by the revelation that Phil Resch is, in fact, human. Throughout this ordeal Deckard expressed his dislike of Resch and his style of operation, owing his violence to the fact that he was an android. So here we have an android who, apart from escaping slavery, is non-violent and a benefit to society. In contrast we have a human who is extremely violent, to the point where he enjoys killing androids. Philip Dick says it better than I can: “So much for the distinction between authentic living humans and humanoid constructs. In that elevator at the museum, [Deckard] said to himself, I rode down with two creatures, one human, the other android… and my feelings were the reverse of those intended. Of those I’m accustomed to feel – am required to feel.” (142) We can sympathize with Deckard’s confusion here. After all, why did Luba have to die? She contributes beautiful music to the world. And why does Phil Resch deserve life? All he brings to this world is death. Resch argues that Luba killed humans to escape, that she is a murderer. But can we really fault her for that? Faced with a life of slavery and discrimination would Resch not have done the same? Would you not have done the same? I certainly would have.
At this point, Deckard seems to be struggling with emotions he has never felt before, or at the very least, has never been able to recognize. Throughout his life he’s undoubtedly killed dozens of androids, and his newly found emotional connection to them is taking its toll. “I've begun to empathize with androids, and look what that means. You said it this morning yourself. 'Those poor andys.' So you know what I'm talking about. That's why I bought the goat. I never felt like that before,” he said to Iran. (Chapter 15) Like Dick, he has begun to question everything, and like Dick, he sought an escape from his confusion. It seems he’d hoped the goat would help him recover his original mindset, which he needs in order to kill the three remaining androids, which, in turn, he needs to do in order to pay off his new goat. It’s a vicious cycle, and there are only two ways he can see to break it.
Option A is revert. Keep the goat, kill the androids, and don’t worry about their emotions, or your own. Ignorance is bliss. Harry Bryant seems to see this as the most sensible option, and is able to convince, or more accurately, command, Deckard to move forward, despite his misgivings. Option B is stop. Forget the androids, forget bounty hunting, and leave before he loses his life or his mind. It seems that, at this point, Deckard prefers this solution. Iran and Bryant disagree, and in their own ways try to convince him to take Option A, but Deckard will have none of it. He cannot be swayed to take Option A; it’s too late, he’s already changed. There is only one man, if he can still be called a man, who can help Deckard now: Mercer. As soon as Deckard connects to the empathy box, Mercer knows what needs to be done. Deckard begins to ask him questions, and Mercer responds with more wisdom than Deckard can even recognize. Eventually he comes to the root of the problem: “You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity.” It is here that Mercer presents a third option, which Deckard will eventually take. Option C is to change; grow. However, Deckard does not see it. “That's all you can tell me?” says Rick. Mercer’s silence says it all: “That’s all you need to know.”
And so Deckard continues, still confused, still obligated to kill three more androids, still unable to do so. His interaction with Rachael certainly made it harder, but ultimately I believe it helped him. Before he could come to terms with his own life, Deckard needed to realize two things. First, that his feelings for Rachael, and by extension all androids, are genuine and natural. This is accomplished by his little affair with her. As they are leaving the hotel, Rachael brings up that she isn’t alive and Deckard responds with, "Legally you're not. But really you are. Biologically. You're not made out of transistorized circuits like a false animal; you're an organic entity." If she had kept her mouth shut this would have been the end for Deckard, but instead she revealed her true motives. She just had to show him how clever she was, how clever androids were. It’s ironic really. One brief moment of arrogance, one exceptionally human mistake unravels her entire scheme and provides Deckard with his second necessary revelation. Namely, that there are both similarities and, most importantly, differences between androids and humans, as there are similarities and differences between any two humans. In broader terms: nothing is black and white, only shades of grey. Her quick acceptance of death reminded him of the differences. “… the life force oozed out of her, as he had so often witnessed before with other androids. The classic resignation. Mechanical, intellectual acceptance of that which a genuine organism — with two billion years of the pressure to live and evolve hagriding it — could never have reconciled itself to.” He may not have seen it, but she left him with a strong reminder of their similarities as well: “Thanks for not killing me.” A remarkably human thing to say, don’t you think?
By the end of the story Deckard realizes what has happened to him. He has changed; he has successfully chosen Option C. “I wish I could do to you [Rachael] what you did to me, he wished. But it can't be done to an android because they don't care. If I had killed you last night my goat would be alive now. There's where I made the wrong decision. Yes, he thought; it can all be traced back to that and to my going to bed with you. Anyhow you were correct about one thing; it did change me. But not in the way you predicted.” (Chapter 21) And in what way did he actually change? All of his certainties became doubts. All of his answers became questions. He made it through an emotional gauntlet, and came out stronger on the other side. It may seem like he knows less than he did at the beginning of the novel, but that is not the way Deckard, or Dick for that matter, see it. Can we really know anything? Is certainty anything more than an illusion? Is the knowledge that there are unanswered questions not more important than the answer to those questions, or the comfortable delusion that we possess the answer to these questions?
These questions are the point of this novel. Is there a distinction between humans and androids? Should there be a distinction? They are certainly alive, and they are certainly conscious to the same degree we are, so why treat them as inferior? Why treat them as if they aren’t alive? Does their lack of empathy make them inferior? Many humans are unable to feel empathy; they are not considered inferior. By the same logic, shouldn’t they be considered inferior as well? Philip Dick raises so many questions in this vein and gives us no answers. This is the reason that Dick’s musings fit well within Aldiss’ definition of science fiction. “Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge,” says Aldiss. Only Philip K. Dick could have, and did, say it better. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the epitome of this statement. In this novel, Dick is continually searching for a clear definition of mankind, but is never able to find one. As such, creating a clear definition of humanity is inherently unimportant, because it is we can’t do it. The importance lies in the search, which Aldiss explicitly states and Dick implies. Neither Aldiss nor Dick ever mentions finding a clear definition of humanity; they recognize that it is impossible. This may seem confusing, but that is the point. We are confused. There are so many shades of grey between being human and non-human that we will never be able to find a concise distinction. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. On the contrary, that is precisely why we should.