The Empathy Exams

DO ANDROIDS DREAM of electric sheep? It’s a funny question, built up of several others: Do androids dream? Of what? If they’re electric, are their dreams electric, too? And since humans dream of living sheep. . . . But that doesn’t quite follow. We don’t dream of sheep; we count sheep to fall asleep, whereupon we dream, and not necessarily of sheep. The question, more fantastical than scientific, drifts into a kind of nonce analogy—which is perhaps why the screenwriters who adapted Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel eventually dropped its title altogether.

The title they optioned instead, Blade Runner, was taken somewhat randomly from William S. Burroughs’s film treatment of an obscure 1974 dystopian novel about black-market doctors. The shift from a quirky, surreal question about animals to a slick, noirish non sequitur was telling—and effective. The original Blade Runner, released in 1982, became a cult hit, and last year’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was greeted as an instant classic. These films have made Dick’s novel famous. But when it comes to style and plot and even the philosophical questions at their core, it’s as if both adaptations took only the first half of Dick’s title seriously—the dreaming androids part. Whatever happened to the electric sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in 2021. The sun has “ceased to shine,” World War Terminus has left the world covered in radioactive waste—the owls fell from the sky first—and most people have emigrated to a colony planet. The thousands who remain live in blighted urban ruins. Those able and willing to leave are rewarded with a humanoid robot (an “andy”) as a source of free labor—“the android servant as carrot, the radioactive fallout as stick.” The English word robot comes from the Czech word robota, which means “forced labor.” Dick emphasizes this connection: A TV set shouts that this system “duplicates the halcyon days of the pre–Civil War Southern states! Either as body servants or tireless field hands, the custom-tailored humanoid robot.” The novel’s hero, Rick Deckard, works for the police, killing renegade androids who have fled the colonies.

The story begins with Rick worrying not about his job but about his electric sheep, which he purchased to replace a live one that died of tetanus. Up on the roof of his building, an erstwhile barnyard where residents keep their pets, Rick tends to his sheep and meets a neighbor whose horse is pregnant. When Rick confesses that his sheep is electric, they discuss the relative values of their animals—the cost of live pets rises along with their rate of extinction. Passing by a pet shop window, Rick checks out the respective prices of a live and an electric ostrich. Later, he visits a corporation and is awed by its animal collection, an owl and a raccoon named Bill in particular. His desire to own a live, large animal soon proves to be the driving force of the plot: “The bounty from retiring five andys would do it, he realized. A thousand dollars apiece.” When he manages to kill three andys, he goes to “animal row” to claim his prize. The salesman convinces him to buy a goat—a large, black, female Nubian. Rick’s wife responds with utter joy.

In Dick’s future society, animals are a crucial index of moral values. The Christlike cult figure at the center of the dominant religion, Mercerism, reportedly brought dead animals back to life as a child. The donkey and the toad are “the creatures most important to him.” Owning and caring for an animal has become a way of proving you have the capacity for empathy and thus that you are not an android. This test of humanity has turned into a form of cultural capital and literal capital: The ongoing extinction of species makes pet ownership into a rarity market, while generating a secondary market in knockoff electric beasts.

Beyond social satire, the question of animals speaks to a key debate in the novel and both films: Are androids human? The fleshly androids in the novel are often compared to animals, legitimizing both their forced labor and the cops’ willingness to murder them. These andys are both inhuman and inhumane: Their response to the torture of an animal is the subject of many questions on the “Voigt-Kampff” empathy test. Rick catches one renegade andy by referring to the “one hundred percent genuine human babyhide” leather of a briefcase—she barely blinks. We witness the sadism of another android firsthand when she clips the legs off a living spider one by one.

My favorite moment of android animal cruelty involves Rachael, the femme fatale with whom Rick eventually has sex—supposedly to rid himself of his feelings for her and thus make it easier to kill her. Android sex doesn’t do the trick but Rachael’s next move does: She climbs up to his rooftop barnyard, gets his new goat out of its cage, drags it to the edge of the roof, and pushes it off. “It’s so awful. So needless,” his wife says. This moment beautifully captures the aspects of the novel that the noirish, self-serious film adaptations miss: its absurdity; its bizarro plot; its zany, tragicomic tone.

Can you imagine a beautiful female android pushing a goat off a roof in either Blade Runner movie? It’s hilarious—the sheer silliness of it, the pettiness. Rachael is more jealous of the goat than of Rick’s wife. (“You love the goat more than me,” she says to him after they have sex.) This scene again raises the novel’s fundamental question—What constitutes a life?—but on different terms. Rachael considers people, animals, and androids equivalent, leveling them rather than subscribing to the self-aggrandizing hierarchies of man. Her android “reasoning” about what counts as life, though vicious, is perhaps more egalitarian than Rick’s.

At the end of the novel, Rick finds himself in a desert landscape, hungry and hot, trying to understand the meaning of it all. He thinks, “I’ve been defeated in some obscure way. By having killed the androids? By Rachael’s murder of my goat?” Soon after, he discovers a live toad—an animal previously believed extinct. He excitedly brings it home, only to learn that it, too, is mechanical. The novel ends with his wife calling an “animal accessories” company to order electric flies for their new electric toad: “I want it to work perfectly,” she says. “My husband is devoted to it.”

C. Namwali Serpell’s novel, The Old Drift, will be published in 2019.