My final (for now) look into SF detectives brings me to the classic SF novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Most people know of this novel as the basis of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Upon reading the novel, however, you quickly learn how little the two works have to do with each other.
Sometime before the events of Electric Sheep, the world is devastated by a nuclear war called “World War Terminus”. The radioactive poisoning of the Earth led to the death of most animals and leaving the environment poisoned. The ensure the survival of the human race, the remaining governments began a colonization scheme of Mars and other planets. Humans are enticed to go by the promise of an android, a short-lived synthetic human, built to be a servant.
Yet not everyone has taken up the call to leave Earth. Many humans remain for a variety reasons. Some are sterile or their minds so effected by the radiation they have been denied the ability to colonize. Other healthy humans, however, simply can’t give up in the Earth and so cluster in the last remaining cities while the rest of the world degenerates into kipple. The primary religion on this blasted Earth is Mercerism, where Empathy Boxes link simultaneous users into a collective consciousness based on the suffering of Wilbur Mercer, a man who takes an endless walk up a mountain while stones are thrown at him, the pain of which the users share. Status symbols aren’t fancy cars (which do fly in this novel), but animals which humans lovingly care for to prevent further extinctions. Having an animal is so important to society, many people will lie and use realistic, but mechanical animals, which they will feed and care to prevent anyone from noticing it is a fake.
There are two POV characters in the novel. The main character is Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is faced with “retiring” six escaped Nexus-6 brain model androids. Turns out androids don’t like being slaves on Mars (gasp) and often flee to Earth will they try to blend in with humanity. The Nexus-6 models, however, are the most advanced models ever made and their is some fear they will be able to pass the Voight-Kampf test, a bounty hunter’s only tool to differentiate humans from androids. You see an android’s one flaw is they cannot empathize. They don’t care for or will help animals, humans or even other androids. They can’t understand why a fictional character can be important to anyone. In many ways they are sociopaths and it is the Voight-Kampf test which identifies them…as long as you don’t come across a human sociopath. There is also a secondary character by the name of John Isidore. He is a “chickenhead” or a man of sub-normal intelligence who is stuck on Earth because of his handicap. He encounters some of the fugitive androids and gives the reader a glimpse at just how “inhuman” the androids are.
Electric Sheep is a perfect example of a Dick novel. Reality is turned on its head while characters philosophize and the reader experiences plenty of WTF moments. I will probably need to re-read this novel a few times to get everything. The primary theme, however, is issue of what it means to be human. Empathy seems to be the key requirement, but as stated in the novel, several humans would fail the Voight-Kampf test if given the chance. Of course given this variable, why make the androids so human in the first place? I feel all the problems concerning the androids could have been solved by making them look less human. Even the characters complained about this and the only reason for why it hasn’t happened yet is because its implied the colonists use them for sexual purposes. Now I don’t know exactly how powerful the porn industry is presently or will be in the future, but when you are talking about the survival of the human race, I think even the horniest politician can keep it in his pants on this one and put some pressure on the corporations making the androids. Give them an extra pinky finger, a mark on their lower back, a different skin tone, something, anything!
Even though they are sex slaves on Mars, its hard to feel sorry for the androids, although I tried. It is not their fault humanity bred a slave army of charming sociopaths. Yet when you see them torturing animals and trying to destroy the deeply held beliefs of so many people…lets just say its hard. Still it is something we all need to think about since synthetic life might be something we will need to deal with in the future. When the first synthetic human is born, will he or she be free or slave?
In conclusion, as an SF detective, Rick Deckard falls flat. He doesn’t track down clues and use deduction to solve the mystery. Someone off screen is doing all the leg work, he is just the guy who finishes the job. I’m surprised so many people recommended this book as a good example of a SF detective, but I am happy I got to read it anyway. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a classic work of SF with some food for thought for future society on the ethics of synthetic life.