Dreaming of Androids

Debby Reis

I found a copy of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Ballantine Books) on a bench outside the local grocery store. It was a beat-up copy, with highlighting throughout. Whenever I came across a highlighted line, I wondered: Did I ruin some student’s day when I picked up their lost textbook? Did they eventually have to request an extension on their essay? Knowing that this novel is the basis for the movie Blade Runner, I kept trying to figure out: “Who is who?” and “Why did they change things?” For example: there are no sheep in the movie, electric or otherwise. In the novel, most of the animals have become extinct following the war and the dust, and as a result, live animals have become valuable status symbols. Those who cannot afford live animals keep mechanical ones, pretending that they are real. The Voight-Kampff test, which tests for empathetic response, helps to distinguish between androids and humans. Androids are not capable of empathy—but perhaps humans are losing this ability as well. In one key scene, Pris, an android, cuts the legs off a spider, because she can’t imagine why it would need so many to walk around. When I read this scene, I was horrified—even though the day before, I’d squished a spider that I’d found in my closet. Meanwhile, Rick Deckard, an android bounty hunter who has begun to feel empathy for his victims, doesn’t understand why J.R. Isidore, the victim of a eugenics program, has set the spider free. “You ought to keep it in a jar,” Deckard tells Isidore. “You could have gotten a hundred and some odd dollars for it.” Which prompts us to ask: which of them is the most human? Who has the greater empathy?

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