I’ll Probably Dream of Electric Somethings

I really, really like reading, but I don’t seem to do nearly as much of it lately. Not sure why; when I was younger, I would spend whole days just reading books, but perhaps the information overload that the modern world is just makes it hard for me to focus on one thing for such a long time these days. It’s sad, really, but I often find myself thinking about reading a book and instead watching something on TV while also playing games on my phone and scrolling through social media on my laptop, or something like that.

The other day, I had a rare opportunity to read a book in a setting that offered very little alternative stimulation: a long train ride. Most people probably don’t look forward to being stuck in a place with relatively little to do, but I actually sort of enjoy the feeling of detachment from the oversaturated world and the sense that I’m not able to immediately drown myself in an information or entertainment overload. It means that I can focus on one thing, like reading a book, without worrying about what’s going on outside or what else I could be connecting to or consuming.

The book I chose to read on this train ride was one that I’ve owned for a while. In fact, I was supposed to have read it in my first year of university, but I think I opted for a different text for some reason. Turns out I really ought to have just read this one, because it’s one of the first in a really long time to give me a sense that my outlook and world view had been legitimately challenged or changed, even if only temporarily. It’s a very peculiar feeling, but I rather like it. The book was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, a novel which is perhaps most famous for being the source material for Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner and which deals with themes of identity, humanity, empathy, and a deep uncertainty about those things. Take, for example, the titular electric sheep, which is an almost perfect simulacrum of the real thing – as, indeed, are the equally titular androids. From the outside, unless something malfunctions, you’d never know whether it was organic or mechanical… which sort of leads to the question: so what’s the difference anyway? Why does it even matter? The concept of the identity of indiscernibles (separate from, but related to, the indiscernibility of identicals) sets out that a thing which shares all the properties of another thing, no more and no fewer, can only be the same thing. If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Of course, a robotic imitation of a thing which is externally indiscernible is in fact not identical with the real thing – which is to say, it’s not the same entity – because it is different in ways which are simply not visible. (It might also be worth mentioning that two completely identical cubes, for example, are not the same thing because the two instances of the cube exist in different spatial locations and are not made up of the same atoms, just as a side note.) The electric sheep isn’t, in fact, a sheep. But if nobody can tell the difference, why should anyone care whether it’s got organic, living tissue or inanimate metal components?

That’s an interesting question on its own, but applied to humans it seems to become more immediately pressing. In Androids (a shortened form of the title which I’ll be using for convenience, because I don’t particularly like ‘DADOES?‘) there exist androids which are so advanced that they’ve become indistinguishable from humans. In fact, some of them aren’t even aware that they’re androids and not real people at all. The novel’s protagonist, Rick Deckard, works as a bounty hunter ‘retiring’ (read: killing) malfunctioning androids who have escaped from Mars, where human colonies use them for manual labour and that sort of thing. Over the course of the story, he comes up against the question of what separates the androids from the humans, and his answer progressively shifts from ‘fundamental distinctness of nature and type’ to ‘capacity for empathy’ to ‘probably not all that much really’. Almost every individual – and almost every animal – in the story is, at one point or another, ambiguous in their human-ness or android-ness, including Deckard himself. Deckard’s perception of the relationship between the living and the mechanical becomes less about the ability to tell the difference and more about what the point of treating them as different in the first place might be exactly; by the end of his tale, his initial insistence on the obvious inferiority and untrustworthiness of the androids has become a wish to let every thing live the life it has, whether that’s a biological life or the ‘not much of a life at all’ that the short-lived robotic units experience.

I’m not sure what it is about Androids that affected me so thoroughly. I think perhaps it was a sense of getting completely absorbed in the story, then looking up and out of the window, remembering where I was, seeing cows which suddenly seemed as if they might not really be cows at all. I even felt in awe when I spotted a little spider in the window, because in the world of Androids, any living creature at all is an invaluable rarity. It’s quite a simply-written novel, but that means it’s easier to keep reading, to absorb its story and themes without being distracted by overuse of literary technique.

If you’re familiar with post-apocalyptic fiction, or the now-common theme in pop culture of the fine line between robot and human (see HBO’s Westworld, for example, as a recent example), then Androids might sound as if it doesn’t really cover any new ground. I mean, I suppose it doesn’t come across as revolutionary these days, but then it was published in ’68. I think it is cleverer than many of the examples that came after it, though, more aware of the ambiguities on both the human and android side; not only are the androids indistinguishable from humans, but the humans have access to technology which allows them to alter their own mood, in effect programming their brains to have a particular attitude. The empathy that humans hold up as the uber-example of their own superiority is tested by a bounty hunter whose ruthlessness is remarkable even to others in the trade, by Deckard’s own growing sense of the androids as living beings, by the androids’ self-awareness and ability to recognise the value of each other’s existence.

Ultimately, I guess Androids made me feel a sort of generalised appreciation for all life, even simulated. I’m not at the point of campaigning for computers to have human rights just yet, but there was a period after I finished the book where I just felt as if the world had suddenly become a different colour entirely. Any story that can make me feel like that is more than worth reading, I think.

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