My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The way literary people talk about empathy nowadays, you would think it was an ethical term borrowed by aesthetic thinkers to promote the value of art. But in fact this relatively recent word began as an aesthetic concept—to account for the phenomenon of aesthetic absorption, it was coined to describe viewers’ projection of themselves into a work of art. From there the term seems to have migrated into discussions of morality, ethics, and politics as a synonym for putting oneself in the place not of a work of art but of another person, better to understand and to remedy the hardships of one’s fellows. Finally, the word returned to aesthetics via popular literary theories that claim our identification with literary characters—and not with the aesthetic object as a whole—enhances our ability to identify with real people, thus making literature (of a certain kind: that which invites identification) the cultural supplement of a liberal politics.
I begin a review of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 science fiction classic and later the basis for Blade Runner, with the above information because “empathy” is the novel’s key term and the following its most radical suggestion, even though it is said by the villain Roy Baty: “‘The whole experience of empathy is a swindle.'” The novel is a kind of crypto-dystopia, parodying the more avowedly “humanitarian” forms of modern mass violence (liberal imperialism, socialist totalitarianism), in which a future society’s ruling elite judges who is in and who is out, and indeed who gets to live and who must die, by testing its subjects on their capacity for empathy.
Set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, the novel is the story of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter working for the police force whose job is to discover and eliminate renegade androids. Most humans have left the despoiled and dying earth for other planets, where they are served by an increasingly sophisticated slave class of organic robots who are indistinguishable, to all appearances, from people. The main way to discern human from android is through an empathy test, though, as the novel shows, this is not quite reliable. On earth, human beings are subject to degeneration by exposure to radioactive dust, which may leave them “special,” i.e., cognitively or otherwise impaired, like the novel’s secondary protagonist, John Isidore. Non-impaired (“regular”) humans like Deckard and his wife are expected to keep and rear the few animals that remain on the earth, to the extent that if they cannot get a real animal they use a robotic decoy to fool their neighbors (the “electric sheep” of the bizarre title). Finally, in a nod to Huxley, they self-medicate with a wide array of mood-enhancing drugs (my favorite: one that stimulates “[t]he desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it”) and practice the religion of Mercerism by using an “empathy box” to experience a virtual-reality simulation of the religious martyr Mercer’s doomed attempt to scale a mountain.
The novel’s plot, given these parameters, is as follows: Deckard wants to earn enough money to buy a real animal instead of an electric sheep, and he is in luck because his superior in bounty hunting has been injured while attempting to bag eight androids escaped from Mars and hiding in the Bay Area. The case falls to Deckard, but in the course of his 24-hour hunt for the androids (allied to modernism, this is a one-day novel, like Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway or A Single Man), all of his certainties about the boundaries that structure his society collapse as it becomes progressively more difficult, even with the empathy test, to tell android from human, “normal” human from “special” human—and even real animal from electric animal. The novel raises and never fully dispels the suggestion that Deckard himself is an android, even though he is unusually empathetic, and it is careful to show other “regular” human characters as devoid of humane feeling. I suspect Dick was well aware of the etymology of “empathy,” because Deckard begins to have doubts about killing androids when he is forced to kill one in a museum even after he clearly perceives her empathy with a work of art, Edvard Munch’s Puberty:
Holding a printed catalogue, Luba Luft, wearing shiny tapered pants and an illuminated gold vestlike top, stood absorbed in the picture before her: a drawing of a young girl, hands clasped together, seated on the edge of a bed, an expression of bewildered wonder and new, groping awe imprinted on the face.
Other androids, however, such as the rebel leader Roy Baty and his wife Irmgard, are devoted to quashing the concept of empathy and the empathic religion of Mercerism because they are the ideological means by which the android class is kept powerless:
“No, it’s that empathy,” Irmgard said vigorously. Fists clenched, she roved into the kitchen, up to Isidore. “Isn’t it a way of proving that humans can do something we can’t do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared, group thing.”
As she says this, she and the other androids are torturing a spider—a rare animal on the post-apocalyptic earth—as if to elaborately demonstrate their lack of fellow-feeling with other creatures. Obviously, this is a science-fictional refraction of the liberal vs. radical debate about how oppressed classes should resist the cultural element of their oppression: should they claim their share in the universal (“we androids empathize as well as any human”) or should they elevate the particular terms of their abjection to a point of pride (“empathy is a tool of the oppressor and we are better for not having it”)?
The novel seems in the end to leave empathy standing as an ideal, even as it denies that some classes of living thing have it and not others. Its counsel, presumably, is to widen our capacity to empathize beyond the circle of those our society already instructs us to feel with. Dick, despite his radical reputation, seems to side with the liberals; on this reading, Dick becomes Dickens. Nevertheless, the novel has a radical implication beyond this: in extending empathy to animals, robots, and even humans considered subhuman by the dominant culture because of something like disability or cognitive impairment, we decouple the capacity to feel from any normative definition of the human at all. But this was implied in the concept of empathy from the start of its career: originally, it meant precisely projecting oneself into an inorganic, non-human, non-sentient object—the work of art. Dick is more faithful to the idea of empathy, then, than are its literary promoters today, who apply it mainly to readerly identification with the protagonists of realist novels.
All the same, Dick is not a careful writer—as I understand it, he often wrote not only at speed but also on speed—and the novel never coherently stages the above debate or makes the above argument. He throws a lot of ideas into the air, which readers then have to gather and put in order as they will. Dick is not a philosophical novelist; he gets a lot of credit, probably too much, for vividly raising philosophical issues via speculative metaphors, but his chosen form restricts his ability to address them in all their complexity as writers who were not so shackled to generic (and economic) constraints might. In this novel, for instance, he forces his visionary ideas into a reductive detective/noir plot complete with an android femme fatale, which tends to drain his original concepts of their force and individuality by allying them to hackneyed genre tropes. I am even tempted to suggest that the situation of the novel’s androids, restricted in their capacity to feel by their programming, might be an ironic authorial reflection on the situation of the genre writer.
Nevertheless, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is redemptively strange in summary and is no less strange in the actual reading, even in Dick’s rather bland and pulpy anti-style. While I think Dick can be overpraised, as when Fredric Jameson called him “the Shakespeare of science fiction,” the singularity of his affectless tone when describing marvels, and the dream-like haze of surreality that hangs over what should be straightforward genre entertainments, as if Heinlein had somehow been spliced to Kafka, is probably enough to account for his eminence today. The plot and the concept are a bit blurred and confused, but the weary wistful sadness of this novel, with which I found it all too easy to empathize, will almost certainly stay with me.