Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I just finished rereading Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, thinking I might be teaching on it again next semester. I was reminded of what a deceptively simple read the book is. It is quick-paced, and easy to finish in a very short time. That is one thing that I think students always like about it when we assign it for a class. But there is more to the book than this simple reading seems to indicate. It explores some very complex notions about empathy and the human capacity to feel for others.

I like how Decker helps us consider the question of just who is worthy of our empathy, and who is not. Androids, in the story, are not appropriate targets of empathy from humans (though it is empathy that determines that one is in fact human and not an android). In the novel — unlike in the later film version of the tale, Bladerunner — the androids are destroyed routinely and the writing of those events is not belabored or overly emotional. It is usually quite a straight telling of the demise of one more android trying to escape detection. The real emotional writing is reserved for Decker's questioning of whether he might be an android himself... and of his feelings for the various animals he encounters.

I think the animals are put to good use in the story. Animals are appropriate targets of human empathy, being that they are living creatures. "Specials" (humans with schizoid-type symptoms) are borderline cases — nearly androids themselves because they seem to be losing the capacity for empathy. Animals, it seems, are worthy of more empathy than "specials" in the story, and empathy for androids is completely inappropriate.

There are many hot-button topics that can be brought out of a novel like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, whether it be animal rights, slavery and oppression, ethical questions related to scientific advancement, or whatever. There is a great deal in the novel to be explored, despite the simple nature of the writing that contains it all.

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