Put away that Mensa application and stop studying for that IQ test: in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the key question isn't how smart you are but how emotionally smart you are. Not IQ; EQ.Does the word "empathy" look familiar? After all, you've only seen it appear in the novel roughly 9,634 times. Empathy is the ability to imagine the thoughts, feelings, attitudes of another person or animal as though they were your own. Not surprisingly, it tends to lead to compassion and forgiveness.
But what happens when a person is born human but lacks empathy, or when an android develops the ability to think of others beyond his or herself? Is the human no longer considered human? Is the machine more than a machine? (And will it still obey our every command?)
Mercer's prompts for Rick to kill the androids that Mercerism's definition of empathy is inherently faulty.
No character is completely empathetic in the novel. Even Isidore, the grand master of empathy, can't fathom the pain or feelings of Rick or Roy.
There's a lot to look forward to in the future. The iPhone 96 will come out, Iron Man 11 will be released, and civilization will be destroyed. Fun stuff like that. The remains of civilization's structures and innovations will pollute the landscape, the atmosphere will become an irradiated wasteland, death will be the only conceivable outcome for anyone experiencing this literal hell on earth, and Brad Pitt will find no miracle cure in the third act. What a downer. Yet the human and android characters of Do Androids Dream? persevere. Like Wilbur Mercer, they keep climbing their personal mountains despite knowing they will later fall. Why? For Luba Luft, it's trying to be human and sustain art in a decaying world. For Roy Baty, it's survival. Isidore is seeking an end to his isolation, and Rick… well, we don't want to give too much away, now do we?
Because the androids are machines, they have much more perseverance than humans. They'll keep on going until someone flips their switch—or maybe even longer, with the right batteries.
In Mercerism, perseverance as an individual is impossible. Only the perseverance of the group—or, shall we say, the species—has a chance of success.
The natural world is a hot mess in 2021. We can practically hear Earth remembering the last Ice Age fondly, thinking to itself, "Aw, those were the days, weren't they?" Pristine snow, awesome woolly mammoths, those funny little walking apes with their spears … and now the natural world is a gray, desolate landscape with radioactive dust indiscriminately murdering whole species into extinction. Not exactly a Bob Ross picture we're dealing with here, people. The world as humans have always known it may be a distant memory, but that distance means that the novel can explore the complex, often contradictory, relationship between man and nature—one where humanity seems both outside the natural world and also part of it.
Rick found the electric toad in the supposedly human-free wasteland once called Oregon, meaning that the toad must have hopped there from someplace else—meaning that the natural world just might end up repopulated after all.
The radioactive dust degrades humans, such as Isidore, at the same time that it is destroying the natural world. Humanity isn't separate from the natural world; we're a part of it.
We did the math, and Philip K. Dick's worlds contain, on average, 3.74 versions of reality. (Okay, we totally did not do actual math.) For Dick, realities aren't like in the Matrix or Narnia, where the boundary between the real world and the other world is definitive. Instead, Dick's realities bleed together so much that the characters can't tell where one reality begins and the other ends—or if they were even separate realities to begin with. In Do Androids Dream?, Mercerism makes us ask some hard question about what's real. When the novel begins, Mercer's reality is distinct from the character's world and only the empathy boxes connect them together. As the novel progresses, Mercer finds his way into Rick's world and Rick into his until the readers no long know who is who or what reality they are in or, if one is the other, then where is the one who isn't the other…ow, brain pain.
Rick's journey into the Oregon wasteland took him into the same reality as the empathy box; he just managed to enter without the contraption.
By the end of the novel, Rick comes to see Isidore's reality: that the electrical animals have their lives too.
Characters in Do Androids Dream? don't carry the usual character ID cards of "good guy," "bad guy," or "comic relief sidekick." They're fluid concepts, shifting and changing depending on their environment—a lot like regular old people, come to think of it. Future society tries to peg individuals with concrete identities and even speech patterns, like how all the humans in the house say "Hey!" and the androids say "Ho!" But as the longest day of Rick's career continues, the identities of humans and androids begin to seem a lot less important. Maybe androids are human; maybe humans are androids. And maybe it doesn't really matter in the end either way.
Rick can be identified as a bounty hunter throughout the novel, but how he defines that identity changes as Rick continues on his quest.
When Isidore pictures a bounty hunter (i.e. Rick), he imagines a mechanical, nightmarish creature. When he sees Baty, he notices the same qualities. These similarities suggest that androids and humans aren't so different, after all.
There's a lot of isolation in Do Androids Dream? and not just because Facebook isn't a thing. In the year 2021, the remnants of humanity live in cities to be closer together, but they're not exactly walking down the street shoulder-to-shoulder. Instead, people can live in entire apartment building by themselves. That's right, one person for an entire San Francisco downtown apartment. (Does the Google bus still run?) But isolation in the future isn't just physical. The social bonds that keep people together continue to grow more distant, and only the empathy box can bring them together—except even that turns out to push people apart.
Isolation comes from empathy, but you can't fake it. In the end, Rick has to turn off the empathy box to learn how to feel.
It's hard to feel isolated living in a city like San Francisco (population 825,111, and that's not even a particularly large city). But in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, isolation is a state of mind.
Imagine: A government crushes a peaceful protest using tanks and guns against people armed with picket signs and no tanks. Then, the government uses a special device that alters people's memories, so they remember things differently. In this new reality, the protesters came ready for a rumble. Science fiction? Try fact. The government was 1989 China's, and the protesters were in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The special device wasn't a sci-fi thingamajig but good-old fashioned propaganda using memory-distortion techniques. In Do Androids Dream?, memory is just another version of reality that can be altered or blended to create something new. As with the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the tools necessary to alter memory in Do Androids Dream? aren't complex James Bond inventions. They can be deceptively simple.
Wilbur Mercer's knowledge of his real life counterpart, Al Jerry, suggests he has the memories and past of both versions of himself—and that human memory can be altered, too.
Buster Friendly's exposé on Wilbur Mercer proved unsuccessful with characters like Iran and Isidore because memories are not the same as facts.
In science fiction, violence can sometimes feel sterile or matter-of-fact. Think about all those poor stormtroopers that the heroes of the Star Wars series have gunned and/or lightsabered down. Did you ever stop to think about all those deaths before? Exactly. Do Androids Dreams? steps back and considers the acts of violence that, in many other science fiction novels, might be committed without second thought. It looks away from large-scale conflict like world wars to focus on small scale violence, such as the torturing of a spider. Can you imagine a future in which no android—or future stormtrooper—will be "retired" without a little stab on conscience again? Yeah, neither can we. But Philip K. Dick wants us to try anyway.
We never see Mercer's rock throwing attackers because their violence symbolizes the violence the world does to people and that people do to themselves.
The android who most hurts Rick is Rachael, the android who doesn't try to inflict physical violence on him. Dick wants us to realize that not all kinds of violence are physical.