Thursday, November 5, 2009

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I just finished reading the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It seems like half the staff were reading it all at the same time, and a couple of us watched Blade Runner, the film inspired by the book. It's been sitting on my bookshelf at home for years now, and I've been wanting to read it for a while. Apparently the time was right and it made its way into my backpack and today I finished it.

It was a really great novel. Nobody plays mindgames with the reader, or with his characters, like Philip K. Dick does. The world exists in a state of post-nuclear destruction. The sky is obliterated by radioactive dust, most all life on earth is dead, mutated, or on the verge of extinction. Most of humanity has zoomed off to settle other, non-nuclear worlds with the help of android slaves to build settlements and take care of the major labor. Well, the android models keep getting smarter and smarter, and it becomes more and more difficult to tell androids from humans. So, in order to detect whether or not someone is human or android human police have to administer a test to prove the essential humanity of the individual based on empathetic responses. Rick Deckard works for the San Francisco police department as a bounty hunter who takes down rogue androids. He's been assigned to take out the remaining 6 androids who escaped from their captivity on Mars.

Due to the near extinction of most all animal life humans on Earth have mostly become followers of this empathy cult, whose leader, Wilber Mercer, was a lover of animals. People strive to own and care for living creatures, even though the cost of purchasing, much less caring for, a pet are exorbitantly high given their rarity. Not only do they strive to become pet owners and caretakers, they also spend time "fusing" with the others in the cult through the empathy box, where they share each others emotions as they climb the hill of sacrifice with Mercer.

This becomes the lynch pin in determining whether or not someone is an android. How do they react to animal death? How do they feel about the products that were derived from killing something extraordinarily rare? My own brain goes to thinking about sociopaths like Dexter who have no regard for life, animal or human, because they lack empathetic response. The Voigt-Kampff test they use in the book (and the film) measures how they respond to certain triggering words or situations related to animal cruelty and the death of humans. Interestingly enough, The Wave Magazine in San Francisco used the Voigt-Kampff questions when they spoke with candidates for Mayor of the city. The results were incredibly interesting.

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