I’ve recently finished reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick, and it is quite a good science fiction novel. If you have ever seen Battlestar Gallactica then this book will remind you of that show a lot, although the movie Blade Runner is the one that’s actually based on this book. I’ve not seen Blade Runner and that is probably why my mind kept wandering back to Battlestar Gallactica.
The novel is about an earth that has almost been destroyed by a world war called World War Terminus, and there are only a very few people who now stay there, and animals are almost extinct.
Most people have been sent to Mars by the UN, and there are androids in this world that are so similar to humans that only a certain type of test can distinguish them.
This test is an empathy test; for some reason, unlike humans, androids aren’t able to empathize with others, and while they can fake their reaction to the test, there is a slight delay in eye movement that gives them away.
The story is about a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard who is tasked with killing androids on earth, and how he begins to empathize with the androids themselves. There is an interesting passage from the book where Rick is thinking about empathy in humans, animals and androids.
For one thing, the emphatic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct; a solitary organism, such as a spider, would have no use for it; in fact it would tend to abort a spider’s ability to survive. It would make him conscious of the desire to live on the part of his prey. Hence all predators, even highly developed mammals such as cats, would starve. Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet. Because, ultimately, the emphatic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated.
Empathy is one of the central themes of the book, and I feel the central question of the novel is what it means to be human, and I really liked the part of the book where Rick is wondering whether androids dream, and concludes that they do dream. The androids that escaped from Mars escaped servitude, and in that sense they did dream of a better life.
This is interesting to think about because the book starts with Rick and his wife using a device that alters their mood in the sense that you can dial it for happiness or depression and the device will give you that, so you do feel that humans have acquired some machine like features.
The thing I liked most about the story was how you see-saw from liking the androids, to disliking them, and how the thought of absence of empathy can make such a lot of difference.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a quick read, and I think you’d enjoy reading this on a plane or a lazy weekend.
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