A dominant theme of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is the question of what it means to be human. Human identity is blurred in this futuristic society because robotics has become so advanced that it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate between androids and humans.
Philip K. Dick’s fictional society decides that empathy is the defining characteristic of humanity. As the bounty hunter Rick Deckard learns early in the novel, "Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order, including the arachnida." To test an individual’s empathy, a machine-administered assessment called the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test is given and, as the plot unfolds, several characters are forced to take it to prove their humanity. However, Dick calls into question the utility of such an arbitrary measurement by highlighting uncertainties surrounding the difference between man and machine in the novel.
For example, as Rick Deckard searches for the androids he has been hired to “retire,” he attends a rehearsal session for Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.” One android sings so beautifully that Deckard believes she must be human and suggests that she take the test Voigt-Kampff test. In reply, the android suggests,
“Maybe there was once a human who looked like you, and somewhere along the line you killed him and took his place. And your superiors don’t know.”
This cheeky assertion sparks doubt in Deckard, and he begins to question his own identity, knowing that many androids are implanted with false memories and create their own family units. As his uncertainty grows, it extends to the reader, who begins to wonder if they have taken for granted that the protagonist of the novel is human! If only humans can feel empathy, how could someone doubt their own humanity? Perhaps Dick is suggesting that the line between organic and artificial life isn’t as clear cut as many would like to believe.
The value of artificial or “electric” life is explored throughout the novel but reaches a conclusion near the end of the plot. Rick Deckard references an artificial spider and electric toad in the final pages by asserting, “The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.” This suggests that all life, organic and “electric”, is worthy of some degree of respect. This connects back to the question of what it means to be human and the kinds of life valued by our species. Perhaps, if humanity is truly as empathetic as we assume, we should reevaluate how we treat all life on the planet rather than focusing solely on anthropocentric concerns.
I hope this helps provide some food for thought!
The central theme of this powerful work of science fiction is what is the value of a life and how do we determine what is human and what isn't. The reader is presented with a world where there is apparently a very clear delineation between replicants or robots and humans, but as the novel continues, Dekkard comes to realise more and more that there is no such delineation and the boundary line between what marks somebody as being human and what indicates that they are nothing but a replicant becomes more and more blurred. Perhaps one of the most powerful lines in the whole novel is the following quote:
Do androids dream? Rick asked himself.
This reflects the confusion and conflict that Dekkard suffers. Roy Baty seems to have just as many dreams as Dekkard himself does, yet Dekkard is sent to kill Roy as if he were not human or his life doesn't matter. This quote picks up the philosophical musings of the title and is used to explore the central question of the novel, which focuses on the meaning of life and what determines that we are human.