Back in 1968, Philip K. Dick made its readers consider what it truly means to be a human being with the help of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The central theme of the book, the struggle between people and artificially developed androids, is relevant for showing how humans have come to dominate Western culture, with the specific features of masculinity, whiteness, professional success, and heterosexuality dominating the narrative of success in society. As the novel deals with the ability of the main character to track and destroy androids posing as biological people, the references toward what it truly means to be a human are what makes Dick’s contribution truly unique and notable.
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The livelihood of the novel’s protagonist, Rick Deckard, depends on his ability to differentiate between androids and human beings, the lines between which became blurred in a post-apocalyptic society. The narrative of androids is a common theme in science fiction used for exploring various aspects of human life (Roberts 117). One of the main ways in which Deckard distinguishes between androids (replicants) and humans is the Voigt-Kampff Empathy test that “had been devised by the Pavlov Institute […] and no T-14 android – insofar, at least, as was known – had managed to pass that particular test” (Dick 13). The test combined the measurement of physiological responses with psychological analysis to determine whether a subject can empathize. Those capable of demonstrating empathy are deemed human and therefore are allowed to live, and those incapables are destroyed.
The critical revelation that Deckard comes across is the realization that some of the androids can be empathetic and thus pass as human: “but they identify with each other; I understand they have an empathic, special bond” (Dick 85). The protagonist challenges the test and seeks to identify another way to distinguish androids from human beings. However, throughout his exploration, Rick finds that the test is accurate, after all, since the capacity for empathy is the main characteristic that should be used for determining the worth of another person. Based on this revelation, the main character realizes that there should be no limits for scientific or physical ground for distinguishing between humans and non-humans.
The novel goes beyond the philosophical or science-fiction game and poses important questions as to the social and political significance of humanism as so many historical players here dehumanized over the millennia. From racial inequality to colonialism, the narrative of systematic social injustice involved presenting some people as ‘less human’ than others for justifying their exploitation. In Blade Runner 1982, a question regarding Deckard’s humanity is also raised, and it remains unclear whether he is a replicant himself.
The question that is frequently asked in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is what is it that defines humanity. While mortality, of course, is one of the defining features of being a human, empathy represents the key to developing relationships between people, establishing societies, and making the human race what it is. After all, empathy is not an emotional reaction, as revealed by Deckard, but is a way of uniting humans together to resist some kind of opposition. Throughout history, people had to unite to achieve victory in war or fight against social injustice and discrimination. The aspect of empathy is what usually kept them together as they understood what it felt like to be overlooked or undervalued.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Doubleday, 1968.
Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction. Routledge, 2006.
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