Do Androids Dream of Science Fiction?

Beyond admission essays, this is my first college essay. Woot! Or rather, hoot!

Blade Runner Owl
The owl from Blade Runner. Organic or electric?

The assignment is a response to Cornell University’s summer reading: Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which the legendary film Blade Runner was based.

Cornell came up with 10 prompts to select from (I know in that link they’re called “study questions,” but they’re actually essay prompts). I chose the final one, which seemed more general than the others, for it was not only about the book—it was about the entire genre:

10. Dick described science fiction as “the conceptual dislocation” of our own society in order to generate “a new society . . . [that] occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition” (1981). What is the most shocking or dysrecognizable aspect of Dick’s work, for today’s reader? What role does Dick’s science fiction play in our own thinking about the present?

Do Androids Dream of Science Fiction?

If the goal of science fiction is to shock, then the brilliance of Dick’s novel comes from its constant shock of artificiality, in which the lack of nature is the ultimate state of dysrecognition. In fact, the title by itself is enough to disorient a human’s bearings, for androids and electric sheep are no familiar objects to our human memory. And neither do our brains like to be abruptly awakened, as Rick Deckard’s does in the book’s opening, by “a merry surge of electricity” piped from a Penfield mood organ.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the art of dysrecognition taken to the extreme. What is so dysrecognizable is the total, unnatural world, in which the hopeless vestiges of nature have been replaced in every way: the clean air by the radioactive dust, nonkipple by kipple, animals by their electric counterparts, and humans by specials and androids. But the new, artificial world is fundamentally not the same as the one it had replaced. It was not as if all Fords had simply been replaced by Toyotas.

No, it was as if all the Fords and Toyotas and Chevrolets and Volkswagens had been replaced by unicycles. Imagine this brave new world of the unicycle. How would society be changed? What would the unicycle reveal about human character? Such are the inquisitive questions of science fiction, which is after all, according to Dick, a “conceptual dislocation” within society. This conceptual dislocation, such as the unicycle, creates a new society, which must differ from ours in at least one significant way, and in a way that is intellectually stimulating. So, the unicycle example may not be the most compelling—perhaps androids are a better idea.

But it is not the androids alone that create the shock of dysrecognition—it is the synergetic combination of androids and electric animals, mood organs and empathy boxes, Voight-Kampff tests and laser tubes, that create a new world in which we cannot fully immerse ourselves, for parts of our brains are repulsed by the total artificiality of it. Yet, as curious beings, we enter it anyways, hoping to do the one thing the human mind is best at doing: to understand. It is here that the story’s meta-conflict occurs. On one level the conflict is between Rick Deckard and the six androids he must retire, but on the higher level, the conflict is between the novel’s future alien environment and the reader, who must fight for survival within it. That is the mind clash of science fiction.

Is science fiction limited to the human mind? It would seem so, but androids are capable of enjoying it as well. Pris on Mars became interested in space science fiction, which she calls “pre-colonial fiction.” Whether androids can write science fiction is another matter. Although Pris and the other androids seem untalented in telling stories, the lack of android creativity in this story does not signify impossibility. If we were told that Deckard himself is an android—now that would be an unforgettable shock of dysrecognition.

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