Neuroscience Book Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

by Rachel Cliburn


CS_Cliburn_bookDo androids dream of electric sheep? No, they don’t. At least, that’s the short answer. Did I just ruin one of science fiction’s hallmark novels for you? Again, the answer is no. This book is packed with just-out-there enough hypotheticals to keep you wondering what this world is coming to.

Though he met with little success during his lifetime, in the 60’s and 70’s Philip K. Dick masterfully led the pack in the emerging genre of science fiction writing. He had a knack for anticipating technologies decades before their time, and, even more important as a novelist, for anticipating the ethical and moral questions surrounding society and technology. The 1982 sci-fi film noir Blade Runner was very loosely based on Androids.

In Androids, the reader follows Rick Deckard, a wearied bounty hunter tasked with offing masterfully crafted humanoid robots that have escaped servitude in Mars by pretending to be real humans on the sparsely-inhabited post-apocalyptic Earth. This book creates a world replete with ethical questions that society struggles to answer today: How much should we lean on technology for our daily lives? How much should we shepherd the human genome? If we have the power to alter mood, in what ways should we use it? What is the role of humanity as caretakers of this earth?

All good questions. However, the ethical issue that kept popping out to me from this book was that of empathy. Deckard relies solely on tests of empathy to discern between true humans and all-too-believable androids (It’s worth mentioning that the ability to empathize is by no means uniquely human, but since James already wrote a Science article about that 🙂 ). Supposedly, androids cannot empathize. Pretty soon, though, Deckard realizes that sometimes humans themselves aren’t too great at empathizing. Furthermore, the subject of empathy becomes skewed. In this post-apocalyptic society, humans are supposed to empathize with each other, but end up increasingly placing value on dwindling live animals. Animal care becomes so venerated that owning a pet is a status symbol, but due to animal scarcity, most people get robotic replicas of animals in order to stay in good standing with their neighbors. Thus, both real and fake animals are valued far above humanoid androids, despite humans and androids being so identical it takes a series of involved tests to ever tell the difference. The ability to empathize becomes twisted in this topsy-turvy world.

In this novel, the androids have flesh and blood and whatnot, it’s just been manufactured in a plant rather than in a womb. It’s difficult to come up with a litmus test for ‘true’ humanity, but the ability to empathize is certainly a good place to start. Unfortunately, I—like Deckard—soon start to think of the many exceptions to this potential rule. Certainly, people on the autism spectrum or with a personality disorder may have trouble empathizing. But one need not turn to disease states to see that not all humans have an empathetic drive– all it takes is fifteen minutes of any given news channel. It’d be easy to point to various bombers, gunmen, or violent truck drivers to prove this point, but truly, one needn’t even look that far. On both sides of the aisle, the presidential race provides more than enough examples of people forgetting empathy for the sake of being heard.

Dick postulates that to be empathetic is to be human. Dick frames empathy as an inherently good thing, but something that is also difficult and can make daily living hard. Empathy is more difficult for people like Deckard whose daily job is to kill, but hey, that’s why this is a great story. What Dick doesn’t answer is how we can increase empathy in ourselves and in our society. As hatred-fueled violence continues to rock the US and the world, I don’t know how to answer that question on a personal or societal level.

I very much doubt we’re headed towards a post-apocalyptic radiation-filled ghosttown of a planet any time soon, but by using this setting, Philip K. Dick, with his usual cutting astuteness, illustrates the potential pitfalls of our present culture. Pick up Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and let me know what you think!

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