This is because I’ve seen Blade Runner approximately 4,000 times, and because my science fiction-obsessed college professors would always build elaborate paper castles of syllabi, heavy on the words “dystopia” and “postmodern,” just so that they could teach Dick, but ultimately it was always Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, so everyone I knew just relied on their knowledge of Blade Runner rather than do the reading. And so did I, apparently; hence, all my discussions of the book have really just been about half-remembered things from Blade Runner.
The aforementioned problem almost ruined the book for me. The whole experience of reading it was fraught with attempts to conjure up equivalent scenes from the film. Darryl Hannah with her crazy legs akimbo, Harrison Ford eating ramen noodles in the rain, the dark L.A. pyramids of the Rosen corporation. At a certain point I no longer remembered what had happened in the film, and what happened in the book, or vice-versa. Which is fitting, I suppose, for a story revolving around the distinctions between human and android, the latter of which is so sophisticated as to be almost indistinguishable from humanity, and the moral position of a hunter (a “retirer”) of rogue androids.
Also, when I picked up my copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? at the library, a dollar bill fell out.
I found this appropriate because the novel is fundamentally about the failure of human systems to serve as arbiters of value. What is the difference, for example, between an artificial thing and a “real” one if they serve the exact same purpose, have the same market value? Androids are designed to be servants, and they only have a market value as workers, a value that is depreciated if they liberate themselves and choose to live a life of servitude — not to a master, but to their own needs. But still, they are beings which take up space in the world, which breathe and exhaust resources, which have a desire to integrate in human society. And so their value is similar to ours, if not identical.
Ultimately, it’s perception that defines everything: whether you are human or a sophisticated android that just looks human, the importance of your life, insofar as everyone else is concerned, is the same. It’s no one’s purview to murder you just because you’re incapable of empathy. Or so we are led to believe. As Marilyn Gwaltney notes in her essay, Androids as a Device for Reflection on Personhood, which can be found in the excellent compendium Retrofitting Blade Runner, “the androids are clearly human beings, but are they persons? Do they have ‘selves?’ We cannot answer that question until we define what a self is, and what it means to be a person.” The idea, then, is that our understanding of selfhood is so nuanced, so flawed (attributes which, incidentally, elude androidkind) that we are left with nothing, with which to judge nothing.
Blade Runner looks like Dick’s novel in the same way that androids look like humans; in a way, it’s exactly the same. The habitual guidelines do not stand: as the story is about originals and copies, we are left with the realization that it’s impossible to judge a copy, for we may be copies ourselves.
NEXT BOOK: OLAF STAPLEDON’S ODD JOHN AND SIRIUS