Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dystopia In Books Begins?

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K Dick, 1968

I think I know people who are really androids.  Their lack of affect and emotional intelligence gives them away.

If you saw the film ‘Blade Runner’ when it came out in 1982, you probably were slapped in the face by the story and setting.  From my experience, that film was the first big screen version of an American dystopia, following on foreign films like Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ and Godard’s “Alphaville.’  Many films have since borrowed some of the concepts – ‘Total Recall,’ the ‘Terminator’ series, part of ‘The Matrix,’ ‘Star Wars, ‘Cloud Atlas’ and ‘District 9,’ – but it set the standard.  It concluded the period of ‘invading monster’ stories, except the monsters had won.  What is evident is that the humans were now the ‘monster,’ as these dystopias are self-inflicted.  Blade Runner was very loosely based on this seminal book, although the film's name is not from the book, but borrowed from William Burroughs.  The film is a LA space-noir directed by Ridley Scott.  It captures the mood of this book, but butchers the story, and the progressive points it made.

Dick quit college to avoid ROTC in 1952 and lived in the Bay Area, writing more than 30 highly-regarded science fiction books.  You could conjecture that the Beats and Hippie-dom influenced Dick’s science-fiction writing, as it was issued in that revolutionary year – 1968 – from the heartland of the hippie movement, San Francisco. 

The surprising thing about this book is its progressive message.  Much U.S. science fiction, unlike progressive Soviet science fiction, brings us into a backward world of high-tech fascism or medievalism. This book doesn’t.   

It is 2021.  Noir San Francisco after a nuclear war that killed millions, and made the planet a barren wasteland.  Most upscale people have escaped to the equally barren but not radioactive world of Mars, where android slaves do the dirty work for the humans.  Back on earth are nostalgics who don’t want to leave, or those who are ‘specials’ – a working-class group of rejects who cannot procreate or go to Mars because the radioactive dust has partly damaged them.  Their insulting name is ‘chickenheads.’  Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter assigned to kill androids who escape Mars after killing humans, and hide on earth.  He’s fully human. 

Most humans on the planet follow an ersatz religion called “Mercerism” – a thinly disguised term for mercy.  Television consists of one station showing a burgling idiot 24/7 called “Buster Friendly,” who is really an android and hates Mercerism.  Mercerism unites all humans and makes them ‘empathetic’ – the most important word in this book.  The humans revere animals, bugs, birds – any living thing – as most have died in the nuclear war.  In fact it is so important that an industry creating electric animals has appeared to comfort people who cannot afford a real animal or pet.  This is where Deckard’s electric sheep comes in.  The only meal shown on this planet involves a meal bought by Isidore the special - a bottle of expensive wine, peaches, bean curd and cheese – and no dead animals. (Dick didn’t realize cheese would have had to be made from rare or non-existent cows, and would have been prohibitively expensive for the poor special Isidore to afford.)  Mercer is shown in videos climbing up a hill like Sisyphus, being stoned like Christ, yet continuing to love and advise the humans, including Deckard. 

The androids on the other had are intellectual, but cold.  They have no empathy or emotional intelligence.  In fact their physical intelligence is lower too, as humans are faster.  The bounty hunters like Deckard use a test that measures humanity by asking humans and androids questions that include bad treatment of animals in each one.  If they don’t react to the brutality to animals quickly enough, Deckard knows them to be a robot / android, as you can't tell by just looking at them.  And he kills them if they are on his list of escaped killer androids.  In a key scene, an escaped female android snips 4 legs off of a 8-legged spider just to see if it can still walk.  She does this in front of Isidore, a ‘chickenhead’ who has offered to help them, even though he finally figures out they are androids.  He is horrified at this brutality.  It is reminiscent of little human boys who torture animals.  Later, a sexy android named Rachel pushes a living goat off a roof to its death to get back at Deckard.

The U.N. is a force for good on the planet – and the Soviet’s still exist.  A creepy rich company called the Rosen Corporation makes living android robots, which sometimes go rogue.  They have just created an advanced version, the “Nexus VI.” They lie and try to bribe Deckard with a fake owl to protect their profitable android business. 

I contend that Dick was a virtual vegetarian and was making a point about the sorts of persons who lack ‘empathy’ for living things, and thus lack humanity.  In 1968 in the U.S., in the midst of massive civil rights and anti-war movements, of back-to-the-land and organic food movements, it was no secret who that might be.  The ‘androids’ were certain cruel humans. 

The key moment comes when Deckard, after killing a record 6 escaped androids in one day, starts feeling sympathy for the androids too.  In his fights with them, they have made simple intellectual mistakes, which belies even their intelligence level.  Deckard feels this way after he has sex with Rachel, a Nexus VI android.  Sex with androids is a crime in human society.  He can’t kill her afterwards, as he’s been advised to do by a more ‘blood-thirsty’ bounty hunter.  Instead he is obsessed with getting a live animal, no matter the cost.  This is the only thing that brightens his life.  He decides to quit the bounty-hunter business because his empathy cannot allow him to kill androids anymore.  After all, a few of them were just trying to hide, had talent and evidently had not killed anyone. They had been slaves. He even identifies himself as ‘Mercer’ at one point after he walks up a hill in the desert and is stoned, so there is a bit of the hipster Jesus in him.

Mercy wins.  A rarity.  Animals are revered.  A rarity.  The human community actually improves for one of its members.  So ‘can’ an android dream of having an electric sheep?  Perhaps, perhaps.  But the odds are long.

Red Frog
October 24, 2013