During the first part of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, while I was still disoriented by how not-noir the novel was compared to Blade Runner, there was one scene where I got my bearings and found the two versions in sync – when Rick Deckard performs the Voight-Kampff test on Rachel Rosen. This may be the only scene in the book that the film delivers without much adjustment.
After that there were many divergences, especially in the portrayal of the androids.
What a disappointment the Nexus-6’s are as antagonists for Deckard, especially Roy Baty, who is a major badass in the film – and iconic – Rutger Hauer’s “Tears in Rain” speech is unforgettable. As far as the book is concerned, Deckard seems to be far too worried about this job considering how easy they all go down. Baty especially needed to be fiercer as the culminating retiree. He sets up an alarm and trap for Deckard that will chemically induce anxiety, giving the androids a chance to escape or kill him. But Deckard never trips the alarm, missing a great storytelling opportunity for PKD and making the androids look like chumps.
Getting past that, what’s important about the androids is how they are similar and different from human beings. They define humanity through their lack of it. So PKD starts by eliminating three of the major components most people associate with humanity: biology, intelligence, and emotion. Biologically they are nearly indistinguishable from the humans – and here is where the simulated / real question comes into play. They appear utterly realistic, like the electric animals. Only a DNA test can determine their artificiality. Intellectually, they are humanity’s superior. This is shown most starkly when the Baty gang interacts with Isidore, the “chickenhead.” Emotionally, they are in step with humans, acting on what seems to be authentic feelings. Presumably out of rage and a desire for revenge, Rachel decides to kill that which Deckard loves most – his new, authentic goat – when he goes ahead and retires the group of Nexus-6’s that she’s tried to protect by seducing him. But PKD establishes the simulation of emotions by humans through the mood organ and thus eliminates it as a defining human trait.
What diminishes the androids is their lack of empathy. Rachel is easily the most human of the androids. She nearly convinces Deckard to walk away from his mission, even bounty hunting in general. After having sex with her, he admits that he’d marry her if the situation were different, if he weren’t married and if human-android marriages weren’t illegal. He likewise admits he doesn’t know if he can retire the final three androids. She knows intellectually she’s got him on the hook, but her lack of empathy allows him to escape. She unempathetically gloats that she’s done this before, including to the heartless bounty hunter that disgusts and disturbs Deckard. Empathy would have told her not to reveal this information until Deckard had turned in his resignation and the Baty gang had escaped to safety. But now he realizes their love-making was merely utilitarian. His feelings are hurt. He’s going to retire her doppleganger right in the face.
This lack of empathy is most affectively demonstrated through the spider scene. All hail the effectiveness of PKD’s writing here! I don’t like spiders. But when Isidore finds the spider, a presumably real one, it is a joyous moment, a moment of freaking hope even. This place is such a wasteland, they don’t even have spiders. And when Pris takes it and starts cutting its legs off, it is devastating. I found it to be the most disturbing, gut-wrenching scene in the book. Isidore is traumatized by it, as was I. PKD takes a generally repulsive creature and makes it a symbol of blessing and life. That’s some good writing.
The other place where the lack of empathy in androids is made significant is in the melding with Mercer using the empathy box. I’m going to speak more to Mercerism in Part III.
Considering all of this, PKD is clearly saying that empathy is the lynchpin of humanity. The fascinating, keep-you-thinking bit is the paradox of this – both Isidore and Deckard end up empathizing with androids, though the androids cannot empathize back. Isidore doesn’t find much contradiction in this, though he is devastatingly betrayed by his android-empathizing in the spider-mutilation scene, leading to his emotional breakdown. Deckard, however, becomes nearly undone by his empathy. As a bounty hunter, he cannot empathize with his prey and get the job done. His empathy will likely cost him his life. So while each of these characters are held up as fully human beings, embracing their empathy, they are both vulnerable because of it.