agosto 27, 2011

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

A short text about the main ideas developed in the 1968 novel by Philip K. Dick.

Although this title was published more than forty years ago, it is still regarded as a science-fiction masterpiece nowadays, proving to have been quite ahead of its time back then. In the novel, the author takes into account a great deal of subjects, mostly ethical and spiritual.

Set in 2021, the story begins when planet Earth has been devastated by radioactive fallout caused by nuclear war: most animal species are now extinct and the majority of humans have fled to other planets, Mars being the main colony. The remnant population of the devastated mother planet regards every living creature as a treasure, which results in an incredibly high demand for petting them. Therefore, animals are not affordable by everyone, and some inhabitants will have to settle for immensely realistic pieces of machinery built by robot-making companies. These also produce androids to serve mankind off-planet (as there is a ban on their presence on Earth), the latest models being so resembling to human beings and so sophisticated that could be superior to the latter in many aspects, such as in their intelligence and appearance. The main character, Rick Deckard, is a government-paid bounty hunter, whose job is to “kill” those who dare to visit Earth in order to blend in with local population and start new lives as human beings.

Despite being a science-fiction novel, not only the human characters but also the artificial ones are displayed as very vulnerable and realistic. Dick focuses on their suffering as well as their ability to overcome challenging obstacles; they seem to be relentless victims of the severe context that is lay upon them, showing a great deal of manipulation of their will. However, the author also presents an abysmal difference between a human and an android: while the first is able to have feelings for other beings, the latter lacks the sufficient empathy to do so. Conversely, Deckard makes use of a few scientifically developed tests consisting of an array of questions that evaluate this skill so that he can tell artificial intelligence from natural intelligence.

Dick employs an ironic tone while narrating the story, almost satirical but also rather grim. This idea correlates with a sense of coarse artificiality that is demonstrated throughout the novel, represented by androids, electric animals, the mood organ and the empathy box. The mood organ consists of a keyboard where numbers are dialled to achieve a modified state of will and synthetic emotions, such as bliss, depression, or to be in the mood for watching TV or sleeping forever. On the other hand, the empathy box is entirely related to a religion, Mercerism, which is lead by a sort of saviour, Wilbur Mercer. Through this religion and the empathy box, inhabitants of Earth can deeply connect with each other and with Mercer himself, using the ability which androids do not understand.

In summary, the novel could be considered as a group of contradictions that exist in our society: the use of technology for self-destruction, the production of artificial intelligence that resembles natural life and the tendency to undergo a lethargic life, full of materialism and fake bonds. In the light of the above said I should conclude that, in my view, the novel actually epitomises the path of life itself, particularly that of human life, while standing for the many contradictions that constitute a product of ourselves and will have to be faced at some stage towards the end. Of course, standing ten years away from the temporal context of the narration, it represents a seemingly impossible scenario, but still the novel reflects on the modern world and the future to come.