The future of 2020 is a rather bleak one on Earth. World War Terminus has dissolved all living animals and plants, leaving only radioactive dust in its wake. To meet the demand for organic life forms, robotic animals were created, along with human androids. Androids are used in the off-world colonies, but since they are virtually undetectable from humans in most every way, they are banned from Earth. The only thing that sets an android apart from a human is empathy. Androids do not feel empathy for living things, not even other androids. However, is it possible for an unemotional robotic human to evolve into a higher life form? Is it possible that all living things, mechanical or organic, share a similar spark and thus the right to live?
These are questions that android-bounty hunter Rick Deckard asks himself while on the quest to ‘retire’ six Nexus-6 androids in a single day. When he meets Rachel Rosen, a Nexus-6 android, her ability to mimic human emotions makes Deckard question his entire profession, and really, his entire outlook on life. Though, in the end, Deckard realizes that the lack of empathy in androids runs too deep. Humans and their ability to empathize with living things are what sets them apart from the mechanical intelligence of androids.
Life on Earth is sacred, mostly because of the after affects of World War Terminus. A new religion has sprung up called Mercerism. Mercerism promotes unity among humans, citing empathy as the greatest link from one human to another. Murders are unheard of (except when androids kill humans in off-world colonies), and the death of an animal is cause for a serious depression. Even the idea of killing an insect like a spider would be abhorrent to the future citizens described by Dick.
In Phillip K. Dick’s novel, there are parallels with other SF futuristic novels, like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Both men have wives that are unsatisfied with their lives. In fact, in both novels, the wives and their displeasure serve as an extension of the main male character’s own dissatisfaction, almost like a foreshadowing of the unpleasantness to come. In the beginning of Dick’s novel, Deckard is happier (well, happier than his wife) and trying his best to help his wife out of her depression, but by the end, she is the one taking care of her husband as he is a broken man after retiring six andys.
As for the theme of communal human emotions in the novel, it ran in the same strain of the communal telepathic climate found in Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. The Earth setting described in Dick’s novel is a mirror comparison of the Utopian worlds found by the protagonist in Star Maker; citizens of Deckard’s Earth share their emotions through an empathy box, fusing their minds and emotions together. When Deckard comes home in a good mood, his wife implores him to share his mood with the world, telling him that it would be immoral not to.
As a reader, I kept expecting the world described by Dick to be a dystopian one, and in a way it is. People are given health and IQ tests, and if they do not pass, they are labeled as ‘special’, a term that prohibits them from mating or immigrating to off-world colonies. Another flaw of the world is the eventual ruin of Earth, as the radioactive ash is slowly covering (and devouring) everything. Through all of the prejudice and physical ruin of the Earth, the people of this futuristic setting manage to live peacefully with one another. It is sad to think that it took a nuclear war to make them understand the true value of life, and of each other.
Dick, K., Philip. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Doubleday, 1968. Print.