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Asimov vs. Dick – What Does It Mean To Be Human?

In the field of SF movies, Blade Runner stands out as one of the top five in many people’s lists. Not many films would consistently place ahead of it. However, the book it’s based on – Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep – is, while highly regarded within the field, still largely eclipsed by the film that was made of it. I was surprised, when revisiting the novel recently, just how much had been left out of the book, and how little made it in. Almost every idea in the film was somewhere in the book. However, the book has so much more in it that couldn’t fit in the film. I can’t think of another SF novel more full of ideas. I won’t deal with all of these ideas in this particular essay – the constant entropic theme, the Jesus-figure of Mercer, the collapse of reality. Instead, I’ll look at PKD’s androids – not dissimilar to those in the film, but with an added depth.
The plot of the book centres around artificial beings created to be servants to man. There is one writer who stands out for robot stories – and that’s, of course, Isaac Asimov. He’s described his approach on numerous occasions. It was in many ways a reaction to the Frankenstein myth. So many robots had gone mad and turned against their makers. Reasonably, Asimov supposes that artificial beings would be designed in such a way that they would be safe, and thus invented his Three Laws of Robotics – fundamental design principles which would prevent a robot from being dangerous. This concept of how a robot should behave has been enormously influential on all subsequent authors. Anyone who wishes to write about robots has to decide, in effect, whether to have them behave according to Asimov’s design, or according to some other principle. He is honoured as much by disagreement as imitation.
The kind of stories that Asimov writes are, therefore, full of reasonable, sensible people dealing with mostly quite minor problems with their robots. Nobody concerns himself particularly with what it’s like to be a robot. That’s not an issue that concerns Asimov. Though his robots have personalities and behavior, he never feels the need to see the world through their eyes. He’s interested in people, and how they interact with their equipment.
Philip K. Dick has obviously taken quite a lot from Asimov – but his approach is very different. His artificial beings aren’t robots, for a start – they are androids, indistinguishable from human beings except using very specific tests. As with Asimov’s robots, the androids are forbidden to live on Earth, being confined to off-world colonies – in this case, Mars. Unlike Asimov, PKD gives no coherent reason for this. His post-Nuclear depopulated world could probably use some androids to clear up the kipple, but they aren’t allowed and that’s that.
The design of the androids is similarly inexplicable. They are made to be identical with humans. Why? Nobody says. It would be easy, one presumes, to give each android a tattoo on its forehead of a large “A” and problems of identification would be removed. But that is not what PKD wants. He needs there to be problems of identification, because the critical difference between humans and androids lies in the androids’ lack of empathy. A psychological test is used to demonstrate the lack of empathy, using unfalsifiable changes in dilation of facial blood vessels – the blush response.
I can imagine Asimov sighing over this (though I’ve no idea what he thought of PKD’s work). “Why would they do things like that?” he would ask. “It makes no sense!” In a way, it doesn’t. PKD really couldn’t be bothered with coming up with a credible explanation as to why anyone would build androids like this. Asimov’s robots are carefully designed to put humans first. PKD’s androids have a deliberately introduced flaw which is precisely what they need in order to murder their owners and flee to Earth. Want an explanation? Make one up yourself. PKD is on to the next idea. This is more a fable than a realistic depiction of a future Earth.
The Earth in DADOES is quite different to the over-populated, bustling, slightly clichéd world of Blade Runner. PKD has set the story in his familiar post-nuclear world. The world is massively underpopulated, with most of the population killed by clouds of radioactive dust, or fled to Mars. The cities are full of empty apartment blocks, available to whoever wants to move in. Additionally, and of vital importance, nearly all the animals have died, from insects to the larger mammals.
In this world, humans have an enormous sense of loss, and a desperate need to be close to animals – real if possible, and if not, artificial, like the electric sheep of the title. The cleverest thing in this clever book is to make this attachment to animals an essential component of being human. Rick Deckard, whose pursuit of rogue androids drives the plot, administers the test which is considered to be an infallible marker of humanity – something that all humans will pass, and all androids fail. It’s clear – though PKD never points it out – that the situations described in the test, dealing with a shocked response to ill-treatment of animals, would not elicit the required response for a contemporary human. We would all fail the test, and be considered mere artificial creatures.
We don’t get the easy let-off of having the humans of the future being better than us, either. The most harrowing scene in the novel occurs when a captured female android pleads with Deckard to buy her a book of prints of Edvard Munch paintings. Another hunter kills her out of irritation. When Deckard is horrified – as we are – he casually tells Deckard that it’s only a matter of sexual attraction. We see that in their way, these humans are as uncaring as us. Or as the androids themselves, who demonstrate in many little acts of cruelty their lack of feeling.
In the end, PKD doesn’t give any answers. The questions he asks, however, remain as pertinent today as when he wrote the novel, fifty-five years ago. Questions that Asimov, despite his genius, would never think to ask.

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  1. Reblogged this on Lisa Morrow Official Author Page and commented:

    My good writer friend, Julian West, wrote an awesome blog discussing some significant topics in the sci-fi genre. Namely, the role robots and androids have played in several of the “great” sci-fi movies and novels. As well as, one of the many questions that seems to lack an easy answer: what does it mean to be human? I uncovered this hidden gem as I’m preparing to play a little in this genre. And because it was so awesome, I thought I’d share it with all of you.

  2. Your friend has really written a wonderful blog. I was wondering whether he has more entries about this topic, I would like to read further about PKD and Asimov since I’m currently writing an extended essay on a comparison between bicentennial man and DADOES. I would be grateful if you can help me 🙂

    • I’m sorry, but I don’t think he has a personal blog or more on this topic. I will, however, direct him to your comment, so he can correct me if I’m wrong.

  1. Cool Quote « Strata_G

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