by Aaron Barlow
Late in his career, in the essay “Man, Android and Machine,’’ Philip K. Dick said the android is “a thing somehow generated to deceive us in a cruel way, to cause us to think it to be one of ourselves.”1 This is merely a description: unsure of the exact nature of the android, Dick could attain no definition. Even a clear dividing line between android and human proved impossible. Though the dangers of deception are clearly depicted in his fiction, Dick’s androids are its instruments no more often than are men. Each can be a constant enemy, or an inconstant friend. Both human and android may be means to someone else’s end. Like a man, an android sometimes proves to be something more than this. Each can be a victim, harmed by the deceit as surely as the deceived. To be truly victimized, a being must have a life beyond its utilization. Dick’s androids often have this life, just as his humans do.
Early in his career, when Dick strove toward a clear dividing line between android and human, he found he only managed to confuse things. Later, as he looked closer, his androids came to seem more human, his humans more like androids. But out of confusion a certain clarity arose.
Of Dick’s thirty-four science fiction novels, six deal substantially with questions surrounding the android. A smaller percentage of his short stories (ten, at most, out of well over one hundred) are directly concerned with the same set of problems. In many of the other stories and novels, Dick raises these issues, but replaces the android with humans, aliens or other types of machines. The “cruel deception” manifests itself in modes other than appearance, but remains nonetheless.
The works concerning androids, of course, allow Dick to deal most directly with the problems he sees in man/machine relationships. Chances for deception are obviously great, but points of similarity can be more easily made. In a talk he gave in Vancouver in 1972, called “The Android and the Human,” Dick explained why he considered these points crucial:
[S]ome meaningful comparison exists between human and mechanical behavior[As]the external world becomes more animate, we may find that we—the so-called humans— are becoming.. .inanimate in the sense that we are led, directed by built-in tropisms, rather than leading. So we and our elaborately evolving computers may meet each other half way.2
Humans may create their machines, but they can learn about themselves through them. Things created often tend to take on lives of their own and thus can teach, even if only through the problems they create. Nothing will ever be exactly what it was created to be. We learn about our expectations through our disappointments and about ourselves through our successes.
Perhaps it would be going too far to claim the relationship between Rick Deckard, android killer, and Rachael Rosen, “survivalist” android, in the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as the meeting “half way” between man and android that Dick hoped for. But Deckard, at least, does learn to respect the “life” of the android. So, even if the Deckard/Rosen relationship is not the ideal, it is about as close as Dick ever gets to man/android perfection. Certainly, Dick must have felt satisfied with the way he deals with the issue in this novel, for it is his last significant extended statement in fiction on the android. Later, the “androids” he presents are, in fact, human beings who have lost something of their humanity.
The range of human/machine relationships in Dick before Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? extends a long way down from Deckard and Rosen. At the bottom are annoying machines such as Joe Chip’s argumentative door in Ubik, which sulkily refuses him credit and will not open without payment of a nickel. A myriad of this sort of machine appears in other novels and stories, ranging from the unstoppable news-collectors of The Simulacra to the self-selling robot in “Sales Pitch.” On the other hand, his work contains mechanical beings like the taxi in Now Wait for Last Year which gives Eric Sweetscent horribly humane advice on how to deal with his wife. Like humans, Dick’s machines exhibit little consistency.
One constant can, however, be found throughout Dick’s man/machine and man/android relationships (the android and the machine can be conveniently classed together even though the android need not be mechanical, for Dick uses them similarly). In each of Dick’s instances, the machine behavior has a human analog. Like the machines already mentioned, people are stingy, are insatiable in their quests for information or sales, and can even be understanding. Through these parallels, Dick asks: What can we say is human, when things humans make act as “we” humans do? If there is no answer, if action is the only basis we have for judgment, then what can be made of humans, many of whom react in a machine-like fashion and seem to be, to use Patricia Warrick’s apt phrase, “metaphorical androids”?3
These questions about what makes a human, of course, are not original with Dick. They are embedded in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in the Jewish Golem tales, and in much of the rest of the Gothic. For the most part, however, examinations of the questions tend to concentrate on “cruel deception” (against both androids and humans), while Dick moves toward affinities. The Gothic plays on the fear of mistaking what is not human for what is. Though he recognizes the importance of such fears, Dick offsets them with consideration of similarities. From this comes Dick’s final abandonment of the android altogether, in favor of concentration on humans, many of whom have features much like those he earlier gave his androids.
Until the emergence of Dick and his generation of writers in the 1950s, human/machine relationships were not often seriously considered in science fiction. Earlier non-humans were most often absolutely inhuman, in appearance and in action. Robots were well-controlled, ruled by the ironclad logic of their human designers. Aliens in human form had attributes so inhuman that they could never successfully interact with humans. The gothic had been rejected by the genre as “unscientific.” Rational solutions to rational problems were the core. Things could be compartmentalized.
Dick, and those like him, rejected the earlier simplistic view of the human as something that could be established beyond doubt. They quickly began to question the arrogance of the stipulated human control over our creations. In these newer stories, machines take on lives of their own, and their relationships with humans become much more complex than they are in earlier science fiction universes.
One of the best of the “new” breed of stories, Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” (published shortly after Dick’s own first vision of the dangers of the android and something of a benchmark “android-run-wild” story), addresses many of the questions Dick and others would later consider, especially “What is the difference between the construct and its director?” and “Can a construct be held accountable for its actions?” Bester’s android turns killer when exposed to heat. At first, it seems, its owner keeps it—and keeps running from the law with it—only because the android is his means of making a living (he rents it out to do complicated work). Later we discover that the relationship between android and owner is more complicated, that the murders are not solely the responsibility of the android.
Interest in the somewhat unanswerable questions asked by Bester, Dick and others helped move science fiction along lines suggested by Karel Capek, away from the genre’s earlier somewhat simplistic technological orientation and toward consideration of sociological, anthropological and even philosophical problems. The authors were not only interested in escapism and paradox. They wanted discovery.
Dick saw the possibilities early. “Second Variety” (Space Science Fiction, May, 1953), his first android story, centers on a US/Soviet conflict nearly won by the Russians—until US automated factories begin producing weapons that are “alive,” from any practical standpoint (44).4 Initially non-human in appearance, the weapons are easily avoided by the Russians. Programmed to be aware of failure, the weapons construct their own replacements. They “evolve” into something more effective, into what appear to be little boys with teddy bears. Or wounded soldiers.
An American soldier treats with the Russians, who can no longer face these new enemies. He realizes that war against the Russians is being replaced with war against the machines. The three Russians left in this sector of the front, two men, Rudi and Klaus, and a woman, Tasso, explain to the American— Major Hendricks—that they have found markings on the remains of destroyed androids indicating that the “wounded soldiers” are type I androids and that the “little boys” are type III. The question, then, is what type II, the second variety, looks like. Speculation leads to tragedy when Klaus decides Rudi is type II, and destroys him. He turns to Tasso:
“The Second Variety, Tasso. Now we know. We have all three types identified. The danger is less. I—”…
“You were certain?” Tasso pushed past him and bent down, over the steaming remains on the floor. Her face became hard. “Major, see for yourself. Bones. Flesh.” (58)
The significance of this passage does not become clear until the end of the story, when Hendricks discovers that Klaus is type IV and Tasso, herself, is a type II. At this earlier point, however, both androids are portrayed as quite human—as Tasso’s reaction to the killing of Rudi shows.
Accusations follow the killing. Klaus has killed Rudi, Tasso says, because Rudi discovered Klaus to be the android. No determination is then made, for Hendricks ends the discussions by fiat: “No more killing” (59). After all, he still believes each of them is human and is sick of the war.
Experienced readers of Dick will see in Hendricks’s statement the affirmation of the character’s own humanity, for Dick defines humans as those beings able to empathize, to care what happens to others. But in this statement lies Hendricks’s downfall. Hendricks trusts Tasso’s humanity, and sends her off to a hidden American moon base to bring help. She, after all, has saved him after an injury, after the destruction of Klaus.
Once Tasso’s ship has taken off, Hendricks examines the remains of Klaus, discovering Klaus’s android identity. Soon, other Tassoes appear, as do other Klauses. They begin to fight each other, and to fight types I and III. Humanity has lost.
“The Defenders” (Galaxy, January, 1953) centers on robots who can initiate action but who are quite distinct from humans in appearance, like the initial robot-warriors of “Second Variety.” But the robots of “The Defenders” save humanity from self-destruction. The difference between the two stories makes us aware that the machine itself does not bring forth Dick’s terrifying “machine” future. The machine misapplied does. The claws, the first products of the automated factories in “Second Variety,” were made so that they would become more efficient as they learned how best to kill. Initial production, an act of desperation on the part of the Americans, backfires on them even as it succeeds. The leadies of “The Defenders” learn, too, but they learn how to protect.
Reprisal—there couldn’t be much victory, for Earth has become a wasteland— is what the Americans of “Second Variety” desire. They lack the heroic quality Theodore Sturgeon gives his defeated Americans in one of science fiction’s greatest stories, “Thunder and Roses,” where the defeated recognize that reprisal is useless. In Dick’s story, humanity finds itself sacrificed to its desire for retribution. By not saying what Hendricks manages to say—“no more killing”—the American war planners kill both their enemies and themselves. Their machines are too narrowly directed to stop, even when the humans’ goal has been achieved. They have only one purpose—destruction.
The machines in “The Defenders,” however, have the ability to judge situations by their ramifications. They end up saving humanity by stopping the senseless war they were deputized to continue.
Still, in neither case can the androids be blamed for the outcome of their actions. Each is a creation of man; their actions are man’s responsibility.
Dick’s other android story of 1953, “Imposter,” was his single sale to Astounding, then the aging king of science-fiction magazines. In it, Spence Olham discovers that Earth authorities have decided he is an alien bomb. They try to destroy him. He attempts to save himself. The story ends with a terrible joke, proving Olham’s vision of himself quite wrong. Olham has come across the remains of the alien ship that did, in fact, bring an android. He sees a body, the body of the “real” Olham, in the wreck. Confused, he utters the phrase the crafty Outspacers had set up as the spark for his detonation:
“But if that’s Olham, then I must be—” He did not complete the sentence, only the first phrase. The blast was visible all the way to Alpha Centauri [the home of the aliens]. (89)
The joke aside, “Imposter” may be the earliest clear ancestor of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, though it centers on the android as if it were human and not on the humans who know they must destroy it, the reverse of the situation in the later work. Though he has self-awareness and freedom of action, Olham ends up doing as his creators wish. Believing himself human, he tries very hard for self-preservation. The reader, who is also led to believe in the humanity of the android, hopes for his success. Early in the story, it is a couple of humans who seem inhuman—when they arrest the android. Nelson, who had been a friend to Olham, speaks:
“Shall we kill him now?” he whispered to Peters. “I think we should kill him now. We can’t wait.”
Olham stared into his friend’s face. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. (79)
Olham’s reaction to this apparent callousness certainly appears to be the more human, and the reader identifies with his horror at the chilling conduct of Nelson and Peters.
As the two take Olham to the moon, where he can be destroyed in relative safety, Olham thinks about his wife, who knows nothing about what has happened. He tries to find ways of convincing his captors that he is indeed who he thinks he is. His captors, however, must act like unfeeling automatons— much as Rick Deckard learns to do—to destroy him, whom they must destroy to save themselves, to save humanity. In order to fight the android, they must act like androids.
They fail to destroy him. Olham “pretends” to be the android the others think he is (a nice twist) and claims to be about to explode. The two humans run from their ship, now parked on the moon, and Olham takes off, to get back to Earth to clear himself. His all-too-human deceit has forced the others also to act as men. All three are interested in self-preservation, something associated with humans, not machines.
The man/machine identity confusion seen in “Imposter” becomes more than the means toward a joke in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Deckard comes closer and closer to android behavior (by action, if not by thought), becoming as ruthless as the androids, who lack empathy, which has been ironically identified as the core human emotion. To be an effective android killer, Deckard denies whatever empathy he feels toward the androids, who do act and react like humans much of the time. At the same time, the androids are struggling toward empathy themselves. Only with it can they find parity with humans— unless they prove that humans lack it as well.
Though the same themes appear, there is no clear progression from the early stories and novels to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or to the later novels of men as androids. Dick’s first novel, Solar Lottery (1955), in fact, contains an android rather removed from any so far considered here, one much more in keeping with Dick’s “cruel deception” description.
Called Keith Pellig, it is meant to act as an assassin, but with a minimum of self-motivation. All major actions are directly controlled by humans, who replace each other through a supposedly random process. In this manner Pellig can elude security systems that follow brain patterns. Whatever similarities there are to other Dick works stemming from the concept of “cruel deception,” there can be no sympathy with Pellig such as often exists with Philip K. Dick’s androids, for Pellig has only the most minimal personality of his own.
The case of Pellig is an early illustration of something that became so apparent to Dick after 1970 that he gave up dealing directly with androids and machines and turned his attention to humans, those “metaphorical androids.” Simply stated, the machines are not the deceivers. The people behind them are, those who created them to mask their own deceptions. In “Man, Android and Machine,” Dick explains:
My theme for years in writing has been, “The devil has a metal face.” Perhaps this should be amended now. What I glimpsed and then wrote about was in fact not a face; it was a mask over a face. And the true face is the reverse of the mask. Of course it would be. You do not place fierce cold metal over fierce cold metal….
[I]f a gentle, harmless life conceals itself behind a frightening war-mask, then it is likely that behind gentle and loving masks there can conceal itself a vicious slayer of men’s souls.5
Though he claims otherwise for the purposes of his essay, Dick early on understood the true role of the mask. In “The Mold of Yancy” (Worlds of If, August, 1955), the population of the moon Callisto is being moved toward totalitarianism through
“A sort of popular commentator. Name of Yancy.”
“Is he part of the government?”
“Not that I know of. A kind of home-spun philosopher….A sort of talking almanac. Pithy sayings on every topic. Wise old saws: how to cure a chest cold. What the trouble is back on Terra.” (79)
Unbeknownst to the people, Yancy is an android programmed in such a way that he “reaches into every sphere of… [Callisto’s] citizens’ lives, forms their opinions on every subject” (75). His shapers form him into a pleasant mask, but an extremely dangerous one. Fortunately for the citizens of Callisto, the Yancy eventually falls under the control of those who want to teach the populace to think for itself, who will now use it to undo the damage of eleven years of rather pleasant propaganda—an optimistic ending that the older, more cynical, Dick would never contemplate.
“The Mold of Yancy” was later used, along with “The Defenders” and “The Unreconstructed M,” to create The Penultimate Truth (1964). The Yancy is eventually replaced by a man who may or may not prove as altruistic as the people who control the android at the end of the earlier short story. Perhaps Dick, by the time he was incorporating the short story into the novel, had come to the conclusion that anybody with the kind of power he invests in the controllers of the Yancy should not to be completely trusted. Also, by replacing the Yancy with a man who looks just like the android, he begins to show his later, and more sophisticated, view of the relationships between man and machine. Which is which? Life imitating art, imitating life?
Another android story of 1955, “War Veteran” (Worlds of If), involves David Unger, who seems to be a veteran of a war yet to occur, a war Earth will lose. The supposed veteran, the Earthmen who find him decide, has “been hurled back along his time-track” (76). They are wrong. Venusians (humans who have been altered to be able to survive the Venus environment) constructed him as part of a plan to avert a war with the newly-jingoistic Earth. Here again, as finally in “The Mold of Yancy,” an android serves positive purposes. The man behind the movement toward war, faced with a “sure” sign of loss, calls off his campaign.
As he does in “Imposter,” Dick opens “War Veteran” by focusing on the android—without letting his readers know that it is an android. The supposed “old soldier” Unger is drawn with sympathy, as very human. Sitting in a park, he reminisces, watches the young at play. Lonely, he wants to tell his tale, but no one seems to be interested.
Soon the scene shifts to an anti-Venusian riot and the rescue of a Venusian woman. From this point on, the story focuses upon those who have discovered, and who later interview, the old man, and on their interactions and reactions when they find out about the Earth’s “defeat.”
Strangely, the necessary eventual destruction of the android (a part of the Venusian plan) does not appear shocking—even though the reader, at this point, still thinks the old man is human. He seems close to death, anyway. A certain sympathy (or, at least, suspension of judgment) has been set up for the Venusian who kills him, for it is clear by then that the Venusian cause is the just one. Later, it becomes evident that some of the humans—both Earthmen and Venusian—have been acting with a great deal of humanity, so they are forgiven, though their actions at first seem questionable.
Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” shows the emotions of man and android becoming intertwined through proximity. In Dick’s early stories they become intertwined within the reader, who is deceived by Dick exactly the same way Dick has androids in the stories deceiving other characters. As a result, the reader “learns” that the androids are “alive.” Dick’s view of his stories, in fact, is much like his view of androids. Though each is a vehicle for the purposes of some “author,” both have their own integrity, their own being. One character in Dick’s last science fiction novel, The Divine Invasion, says about the Bible: “It is alive” (91). They all are, to Dick: androids, books and stories. This proves to be his major problem in maintaining distinctions. Cause and intent are not enough. The thing itself deserves respect, no matter what its purpose.
The disparity between the android Pellig and the androids Yancy and Unger— all of 1955—might lead a reader to believe Dick had a rather ambivalent, if not contradictory, attitude toward creations meant to appear human. Pellig has been built only for a power grab. Yancy is a tool for totalitarianism before being turned to the good. And Unger has been constructed only so that war can be averted. However, if all three are seen as constructs of human beings, as masks, attempts at deception, we see what may have been Dick’s real and single purpose in all three stories.
The three androids of 1955 exhibit none of that self-motivated aspect of the androids of “Second Variety” that makes them so frightening. And only Unger shows any of the self-awareness of Olham (1953). Though they are not independent entities (Unger is deliberately made senile and incapable of independent action) but clearly masks used by others whose own faces would not be useful in attainment of their ends, the androids still elicit reader empathy. These androids are only tools—as are all androids (and all humans, Dick might add, to some extent). In them, we are expected to see something of our own human situation as the tools of others. Dick wanted us to realize what we are, not what some android, good or bad, might be.
“Explorers We” (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January, 1959), on the other hand, deliberately obscures the purposes of the creators of the androids, which are replicas of men who died during Earth’s first attempt at a landing on Mars. In this story Dick concentrates on the twin plights of the androids and the humans who do not dare trust them, having no idea of their origin. Here again, initial focus is on the humanity of the androids— or on what they believe is their humanity. They think they are men returning home after a long, hard trip. They discuss what they will do when they get there, as any weary travellers might. Soon after landing, however, they are destroyed by Earthmen who “know” that these are not the “real” spacemen. Earth has been ready for them, for this is the twenty-first time androids believing they are those same returning spacemen have landed on Earth. At the end of the story the twenty-second group lands, and its members are lining up to take pictures of their return—an entirely human action.
Could the returning androids be an attempt by some unknown force to replace the men Earth has lost? The question is never answered. For these could also be invaders, meant to fool Earthmen; the chance that they are is too great for Earth to risk it. The F.B.I. men in the story speculate about the aliens who make the androids:
Maybe they’re so different no contact’s possible. Do they think we’re all named Leon and Merriweather and Parkhurst and Stone? [Names of the dead crewmen.] That’s the part that personally gets me down_Or maybe that’s our chance, the fact that they don’t understand we’re individuals. (43)
Earth dares not risk the possibility that the return of the spacemen is a benign gesture. So, each group of jubilant spacemen finds itself returning not to parades, but to napalm and destruction. The story offers no way out of the situation; Dick provides no hint of what the creators of the androids might be up to. Only a continuing tragedy appears. There is no glimpse behind the mask.
Significantly, the title of the story includes the word “We.” As readers, we are expected to identify with the androids, not only with the humans who feel they must destroy them.
The implications of android-as-mask are often lost in reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in the stories about self-motivated androids and the novels of “metaphorical androids.” The men and androids, often strong characters in their own right (though none quite so strong as the Roy Batty of Blade Runner), appear not as creations, but as independent actors. Still, it should be evident that something else is at work, that “android” continues as part of these beings. Something “human” is always missing from them. And for very specific reasons.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Rosen Association and those behind Buster Friendly—and not the androids—are the real “evil” force of the novel, the Rosen Association because of its creation of the androids (Why make such sophisticated models—really? And why make them so that they would become interested in torturing spiders?) and the Buster Friendly group because of its antipathy to Mercerism, which, after all—along with the great concern with pets—holds humanity on Earth to that essential element of humanness, empathy. The androids suffer because of these villains, just as Deckard and the “chickenhead” J.R. Isidore do. The greater conspiracy, never directly seen, but hinted, is destroying them all, human, chickenhead, android.
We Can Build You (serialized in 1969-1972 as “A. Lincoln, Simulacrum” and published in book form in 1972, but first written in 1959 or I960),6 The Simulacra (1964) and Martian Time-Slip (1964), although they all come from what is often called the second period in Dick’s career, do not, at first, seem similar in their approaches to androids. None, certainly, foreshadows Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, from later in the same period. Yet they are actually of a piece, and show how Dick’s vision was progressing.
The earliest of these, We Can Build You, focuses on actions surrounding two androids, one based on Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, and the second on Lincoln himself. The other characters (who know, for the most part, that the androids are constructs) treat the Stanton and the Lincoln as though they can think for themselves. The two are asked for advice, and give it. And they can and do act on their own.
The androids Jack Bohlen repairs in Martian Time-Slip, on the other hand, do not have such range of action. They are confined to a public school, and to teaching. In The Simulacra, the androids of the title at first seem to be to Yancy-like creations called Der Alte, again androids devoid of self-motivation.
The public believes it has selected each Der Alte, whom it sees as a real person, to marry Nicole Thibodeaux, who seems to be the real leader of the nation. Late in the novel, Thibodeaux is exposed as the instrument of a fraud, an actress, as much of a tool as any android. Before this revelation, however, she is called, first, “the most synthetic object in our milieu” (98) and then “an illusion. Something synthetic, unreal” (119). The speakers do not know that she is a fake; they are making analogies. Dick gives a truth to their words that they do not know. Thibodeaux turns out to be one of the earliest of Dick’s “metaphorical androids.”
These three novels of the early part of Dick’s second period fit together through connection of psychosis and androids, not through androids alone. Jack Bohlen, in Martian Time-Slip, has experienced a schizophrenic episode in his past, seeing all people as mechanical constructs. He remembers it as he works on an android at the school:
What had tormented him ever since the psychotic episode with the personnel manager at Corona Corporation was this: suppose it was not a hallucination? Suppose the so-called personnel manager was as he had seen him, an artificial construct, a machine like these teaching machines.
If that had been the case, then there was no psychosis. (70)
Louis Rosen (the narrator of We Can Build You) finds he has “the Magna Mater type of schizophrenia” (183), centering on Pris Frauenzimmer, his partner’s daughter and an android builder. But Frauenzimmer, another early “metaphorical android,” lacks all empathy, regarding everything, even people, as the equivalents of androids. Rosen cracks when he realizes that she cannot respond to him, that she will not be his mother/wife. The connection she feels with her androids is stronger than any she has with humans. She even goes so far as to destroy one android, a John Wilkes Booth, to save another, the Lincoln (of course). Yet she cannot interact with Rosen. She is a fake human, an android, though one of flesh and blood.
A musician named Richard Kongrosian verges on complete breakdown in The Simulacra. His only hope for sanity lies in faith in the world leader, Thibodeaux. When he finds Thibodeaux has no real power and is the fourth to play the role, his impending psychosis overwhelms him. This had been planned; a man who wanted him psychotic forces Kongrosian’s psychiatrist to describe the exact nature of the problem, soon revealed as a Magna Mater schizophrenia. This man muses to the psychiatrist: “So in other words he idolizes her. She’s like a goddess to him, not mortal. How would he react [to discovery of her true nature?]” (184) We soon find out.
The problems of distinguishing the real from the fake that bring on psychosis for Bohlen, Rosen and Kongrosian dovetail with those of Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? If androids and humans can hardly be distinguished, what does it mean to react strongly to androids? Perhaps negative reaction to androids does not even involve the androids. It may be something in humans, instead, that brings it on. The ersatz animals in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—especially the “frog” Deckard finds at the end of the book—play important roles in human life. Why not the androids? They face destruction, while fake “lower animals” are cherished. This must seem strange, when it is noted that the dangers the androids represent are built from human responsibility and only peripherally involve their humanoid appearance.
The problem for the humans really does not concern androids at all. Instead, it centers on masks, on belief in their veracity. Discovering that the masks do not, indeed, show the truth behind them, Dick’s characters find their realities threatened. For Deckard, the situation is somewhat reversed, but the core problem is the same. Though able to identify androids, he must also face up to the possibility that something “human” lies within them.
The dangers androids represent, again, grow from the humans who constructed them, not from the androids themselves. This is a second “cruel deception,” one whose cruelty is aimed at the androids, not their “victims.” Though the mask may threaten, destruction of it does not provide safety for the wearer or the viewer. Furthermore, if the mask is “alive” somehow and deserving of respect in its own right, then the threat that leads to its own destruction is as cruel to it as any threat it may be to any other. “The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are” (214), says Deckard, at the end of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Though simple, this, in the end, may be Dick’s definitive statement on the android.
Rosen, Deckard, Kongrosian, and Bohlen have all been taught to regard the androids and other constructs as machines—and to regard certain other objects as humans. But the androids are often more than machines. The humans are often less. An unconscious (perhaps) understanding of this makes the humans unable to deal with the machines as they would, say, with the radios of our 1980s, or with humans similar to themselves. They end up transferring their worries about machines to worries about humans, and vice versa. All four characters clearly respect what lives. In their inability to find an adequate dividing line between life and non-life lies their downfall—and, in a way, their triumph.
Bohlen, in Martian Time-Slip, refuses to accept the idea that the Bleekmen, members of a dwindling race that has long inhabited Mars, do not deserve the treatment accorded sentient beings, “human” beings. Part of his psyche does not allow him to deny succor. That same part leads to his inability to make a distinction between androids and humans. His empathy is commendable, but it brings him near to insanity.
Rosen (We Can Build You), in his psychosis, feels resentment toward the simulacra, for his love object gives them more consideration than she gives him. He, who can learn to love a woman incapable, through her own mental illness, of any empathy or love, has taken the non-living into his cosmos of culpability. Finally, however, his empathy does allow his cure, while Frauenzimmer, also suffering from a breakdown, remains in a mental hospital. Unlike Rosen, she lacks the empathy essential for recovery.
Kongrosian (The Simulacra), in the agony of his discovery of the truth behind the Thibodeaux mask, lashes out with his extra-sensory powers and unwittingly saves the world from a new totalitarian ruler. And Deckard, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, whose recognition of the problem almost proves selfdestructive, finally has hope of dealing competently with his situation, though doing so will destroy his livelihood.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is, actually, Dick’s penultimate published attempt at dealing directly with the android. It is followed by “The Electric Ant” (Fantasy and Science Fiction, October, 1969). Garson Poole, like Spence Olham in “Imposter,” finds he is not human. Unlike Olham, however, who discovers his “essence” only at the end of the story, Poole’s comes across him at the beginning, as a result of an accident in which he loses his hand. The story chronicles Poole’s attempt, after this realization, to understand what he is, if he is not human but “roby,” an android. Poole comes across a “reality-supply construct” (218) in his abdomen, and decides to experiment with it. Finally, he cuts it out, and “dies.”
A “real” human is watching. After Poole is “dead,” the human finds she can see through her hands:
The walls of the room, too, had become ill-defined. Trembling, she walked back to the inert roby, stood by it, not knowing what to do. Through her legs the carpet showed, and then the carpet became dim, and she saw through it, further layers of disintegrating matter beyond. (228)
Poole’s “reality tape” is not his alone. It has a rather substantial impact on human beings as well, thus providing the irony of the story. The woman and others, who have known Poole’s “real” essence before he does, act relieved, once Poole knows what he is and responsibility for pretense is gone. They have had no respect for the construct, no consideration for his “feelings” (which, in the story, are quite real). He is merely a thing.
The power behind Poole is an off-planet company owner. On instructions, the employees of the company have treated Poole as the human head of the company. They resent doing so. Poole is beneath them, is not alive as they are. But Poole, by testing his limits, proves himself as real as the rest and, in his death, proves them as “unalive” as he.
A bitter story, “The Electric Ant” is also one of the funniest Dick ever wrote. At first, its topic seems to be the arrogance of the construct. At last, the arrogance of the human comes to the fore, and to destruction. Not one of the humans in the story learns that even mechanical beings can have a life. They refuse even to consider such a possibility. And so they doom themselves.
No one in “The Electric Ant” will empathize with the situation of the roby, unlike Deckard, who does begin to learn the lesson of empathy in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The question of creature or creation becomes irrelevant; attention must be paid to either.
This lesson is essential: one deals with those around one, no matter how bad they seem or what they seem to be. This is the point the taxi makes to Eric Sweetscent in Now Wait for Last Year. Sweetscent’s wife hates him, wants to divorce him, and is incurably mentally ill. Still, the taxi says, Sweetscent should take care of her. And he concurs, even though the advice comes from a thing. For the source of the advice does not matter; the advice stands on its own. Here, Dick turns around his thesis that the messenger (the android) cannot be blamed or condemned solely because of the message (the deceit). It does not matter where the message comes from; if it is significant, it must be heard.
At the end of Blade Runner, the movie based loosely on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Rick Deckard runs off with an android woman. This act may seem to be at odds with the novel—at least in the sense that Deckard, in the book, has a human wife to whom he returns—but it does not conflict with Dick’s overall vision of the android/human question. It illustrates that the android itself is not the evil. It may have been constructed for evil purposes, but, if it gains recognition of its own self, it becomes something other than a mask, a tool. It can even change sides, make its own decisions.
Though Dick does not write a story in which an android changes sides, he says he would have, if he had thought about it. In a note on the early story “Sales Pitch,” he says, “Could I rewrite it, I would have it end differently. I would have the man and the robot… form a partnership at the end and become friends.”7
Become friends. That’s what could not happen in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—until Deckard’s wife Iran realizes that it does not matter if the frog is real or not. That’s what could not happen in “The Electric Ant”; though Poole thinks of some of his fellow workers as friends, it is proven that they are not. Obviously, friendship between android and human would not have been possible in most of Dick’s early stories, given the situations of some of them, such as “Imposter.” Friendship is what Olham longs for but it will destroy Earth. Friendship could not be expected in “Second Variety,” where the prime directive for the androids is destruction. Dick would have his characters attain it if they could, be they humans or machines, but friendship always proves difficult, and Dick rarely allows it. Significantly, he never did rewrite “Sales Pitch.”
For Dick, then, the situation of an android can never be encompassed by the simple man/machine relationship. Questions of responsibility, of individuality, and of respect (including friendship) interrupt and throw an ambiguity over something even Dick himself has tried to present in simplistic terms (in that depiction of the android as vehicle of a “cruel deception,” for example). Perhaps Dick has this as central theme, in the stories and novels that concern the android: the messenger is not the message and should not be bound by content. Each item, message and messenger, should be judged on its merit, not on its environment. Given that, the stories discussed here have a great deal of continuity. Through them, Dick’s own message about messages comes across with clarity. Do not kill the bringer of bad tidings. He, she or it could be as much a victim as anyone else.
Toward the end of Now Wait for Last Year, Sweetscent is saved from suicide by a confrontation between two of the Lazy Brown Dogs, rejected missile avoidance systems, long ago released on wheels by one of his fellow employees at Tijuana Fur & Dye. One of the things, nearly beaten, hides in a bucket as Sweetscent watches:
Even these things, he decided, are determined to live….They deserve their opportunity, their minuscule place under the sun and sky. That’s all they’re asking for and it isn’t much. He thought, and I can’t even do what they do, make my stand, use my wits to survive in a debris-littered alley in Tijuana; that thing that’s taken refuge there in that zinc bucket, without a wife, a career, a concept or money or the possibility of encountering any of these, still persists. For reasons unknown to me its stake in existence is greater than mine.
The.. .[poison] no longer seemed attractive to him. (222; ch. 14)
Sweetscent learns, as Dick would have all his “best” characters learn, that life, whatever its source, has an intrinsic value. Take life as it is, Dick says, and accept it in others, no matter what they are, “little brown dogs,” electric frogs or sheep, androids or people.
1 Philip K. Dick, “Man, Android and Machine”, in Science Fiction at Large, ed. Peter Nicholls (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 202.
2 Dick, “The Android and the Human”, in Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd, ed. Bruce Gillespie (Melbourne, Australia: Norstrilia Press, 1975), 53-4.
3 Patricia S. Warrick, “The Labyrinthian Process of the Artificial: Philip K. Dick’s Androids and Mechanical Constructs”, in Philip K. Dick, ed. Martin Greenburg and Joseph Olander (New York: Taplinger, 1983), 190.
4 The editions of Dick’s works discussed are listed below, preceded by the original date of publication. All quotations will be cited in the text:
1955 Solar Lottery (New York: Ace, 1955).
1964 Martian Time-Slip (New York: Ballantine, 1964).
1964 The Penultimate Truth (New York: Belmont, 1964).
1964 The Simulacra (London: Methuen, 1977).
1966 Now Wait for Last Year (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966).
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (New York, Ballantine, 1982, under the title Blade Runner).
1969 The Preserving Machine and Other Stories (New York: Ace, 1969).
1969 Ubik (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969).
1972 We Can Build You (New York: DAW, 1972).
1980 The Golden Man (New York: Berkley, 1980).
“The Mold of Yancy”
“The Little Black Box”
“The Unreconstructed M”
1981 The Divine Invasion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981).
1984 Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press).
“The Electric Ant”
1985 I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985).
5 Dick, “Man, Android, and Machine,” 204.
6 From a conversation between Aaron Barlow and Anne Dick, Philip Dick’s third wife, on June 28, 1985.
7 Dick, “Story Notes,” in The Golden Man, 335.
Source: Judith B. Kerman [Edited by], Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Bowling Green State University Popular Press