"At its best, science fiction attempts to reconcile the inhuman scale of the universe with the smaller compass of human life." ~An introduction from Paul McAuley
It was only July of last year when I fixated on the Blade Runner movie which was loosely based on this Philip K. Dick novel. It was a Ridley Scott creation foremost, and he infused noir ambiance with science fiction elements in an earnest atttempt at preserving not only a beautiful landscape but a vulnerable examination about humanity. I was easily infatuated with the film (which I proceeded to re-watch at least four times since). But I wanted to know the novel itself and so I ventured on with the knowledge that the movie has altered quite a few things from the book and so my possible enjoyment would be incomparable either way. With only 181 pages, it occurred to me that it was only a novella after all, and in that expanse, everything has happened in one fateful day alone.
With caution, I perused through and found myself helplessly transported to a bleak and unimpressive future where Earth has become uninhabitable with increasing radioactivity that only people who are deemed to possess average intelligence can waste their lives away in it with humdrum woodwork. There are those who function above this cluster of folk (derogatorily called 'chickenheads' and more pitifully labeled as 'special') and one of them is a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard whose personal existential crisis starts the story as he had a dispute with his wife Iran. As readers follow Deckard with his inconspicuous existence, he is received with underwhelming reception. It was often difficult to distinguish him from the androids he hunts down and 'retires' (a necessary euphemism since you cannot kill something that is not organically alive, can you?) but his self-awareness is characteristically human. Still, there's an absence to Deckard that leaves us feeling cold; and almost every human in the story is regarded just the same. I would often pause every ten pages or so just to ponder the inescapable apathy and resignation that these characters are caught up in--and I find myself relating to them more strongly than I hoped and I suppose that's because it's the thematic resonance of this novel: the value of human empathy. Dick shows us skillfully and with subtlety that it's this quality that ultimately separates us from machines and other artificial intelligence.
Deckard's dire countenance is a consequential effect from the extinction of many animals which are replaced with synthetic ones, therefore robbing humans the opportunity to have pets they can bond with. Deckard himself owns an electric sheep and desires to buy a living animal (which are now expensive commodities; with a price range in an accessible pamphlet catalogue that Deckard carries around everywhere) not only because it's a status symbol but also because he unconsciously seeks a genuine connection from a slowly disintegrating world and plane of reality. Everything else has become scarce--including faith. A pseudo-religious movement called Mercernism has taken over people's lives. They would watch a video of an old man struggling to climb a hill (reminiscent of the Myth of Sisyphus) and they are allowed to fuse their consciousness with him by touching an 'empathy box'. Through this, it becomes possible for thousands of people to unite into one entity and feel the same emotions together, all at once.
This was one of the saddest things I've ever read; not only are these people living in a radioactive environment without living pets to take care of--they are also only able to experience spiritual meaning through a video that will have been proven faked by a scandalous journalist named Buster Friendly who dominated their waking and sleeping hours both on radio and television as much as the false deity Mercer had occupied their souls.
The character who truly broke my heart was J.R Isidore, a 'chickenhead' who could not even distinguish a live animal from a synthetic (he works in a repair shop who handles artifical pets). He was considered a lesser being because he failed IQ tests, and was essentially discarded by society so when he met an enigmatic young girl who turned out to be an android, he was easily duped and he eagerly considered her a friend rather than to face the alternative which was the constant isolation of his every day life. His storyline contrasted Deckard's bounty quest but they equally provide that piercing feeling of absence they try to fill with urgent distractions from their overall existential hunger; Deckard hunts androids because he wants to use the money to buy a live animal but along the way ends up falling for an android because of his general unhappy domestic life with Iran. Meanwhile, Isidore clings onto the religious power of the empathy box because it gives him an opportunity to feel as though he wasn't different from other human beings when he fuses emotions with them.
Another bounty hunter, Phil Resch, was even mistaken for an android by Deckard himself and it was only because Deckard has confused his own feelings; he is able to feel something honest with androids more than towards his own fellowman. Once he was able to regain a better perspective of his actions, his road to clarity and redemption is at hand. In a poignant moment when Deckard finds a toad which turned out to be just another fake, he did not brood about it anymore for he has finally understood that nothing needs to be real or genuine itself; and that it's only because we believe something is real or genuine that makes it so. Dick's message is unmistakable: it is us who assign meaning in the world--from objects to animals, to relationships, defeats and dreams--and it is our light that gives the darkness that perpetuates our lives more than just a sense of being.
Unlike the movie, the book was less action-oriented and more intimate in scope. Dick's metaphors (the memorable spider scene) and use of symbolism captures a multitude of insights but delivers with one solid punch to the chest. As bleak and depressing as the lives of the characters in this modest novella were, Dick gradually, steadily--and with touching sincerity--asked hard questions about the importance of human qualities like empathy and faith. His book was even appropriately titled to ask just that: Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? And by the end of the tale, with a resonating recognition, the answer is understandably NO, and yet it remains a rhetorical one we are not supposed to answer (just like Who watches the Watchmen?).
It's a philosophical statement that allows us to examine and appreciate (even celebrate) the depth of our conscious desire to aspire, live and evolve in contrast with the machines that will never replace us for they lack the spark of our humanity (they are mere empty canvasses while we are the bold brushstrokes). And human beings always seek progress no matter how much it fears change and is haunted by its ghosts. We will never lose that courage to climb up even if there's nothing to grasp onto, even if all we have is the beauty of not knowing.