Monday, August 27, 2012

True Lies in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Is it possible for something to be simultaneously true and false?

We’re used to the theme that lies can be better than the truth, or can bring hope to the downtrodden when the truth would destroy them. It’s a major Christopher Nolan theme, appearing in The Dark Knight, Inception and Memento, to name just a few. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, however, Philip K. Dick takes that theme the next level. Spoilers abound because that's how this works. Beware! Beware!

Electric Sheep is what people talk about when they talk about postmodern fiction. There are no certainties or clear definitions, and outward appearance is laughably inadequate in determining the true nature of an object, animal or human. Early on in the novel, we learn that perfectly normal-looking humans can be androids, that the animals citizens are required to have as pets—sheep, goats, cats, whatever—are frequently replaced with inexpensive electric versions, and that the Voigt-Kampff test used to root uncover escaped androids is not necessarily reliable. Emotions are manufactured and Mercerism, the emotion-based religion of a post-apocalyptic Earth, is the only truth to be found.

The novel's slow, dreamlike turns tend to blur the boundary between simulation and simulated even further, most notably in the case of the false police station. Upon apprehending an android, bounty hunter Rick Deckard enters a nightmare reversal of the real world: nobody recognizes him or his job, a policeman takes him in for questioning because he is an unknown person and he is told that his entire life did not actually happen. Deckard is arrested by a false cop, taken to a false station—they tell him that the one he knows has been closed down for years--and just wrapped in this fog of lies and deception that leaves Deckard, and the reader, genuinely unsure of what's happening to the hunter.The fog is eventually cleared and the falsehoods exposed, but the message remains: everything is uncertain. 

In a sense, throughout the book, Rick is searching for something true, something concrete and real for him to latch onto. There does not seem to be a capital-T Truth in Electric Sheep, however, so Rick attempts to content himself with lies. He sleeps with Rachael, an android, and finds relief with her in a way he does not with his shrewish wife. He finds a supposedly extinct toad in the wreckage of Oregon and rejoices, thinking it real; when the toad turns out to be electric after all, though, he is still able to sleep the sleep of deep inner contentment. While Deckard is crestfallen about the toad, there’s meaning to be found within it that defies falsehood. This is a familiar theme inNolan’s work and in The Matrix, a world of simulations and false promises. Postmodern worlds often feature lies giving hope to the lied to, even when the lied-to person knows that they are false.

But Wilbur Mercer, the founder of Mercerism is both truth and lie. We learn during the novel that the person of Mercer may never have existed, that the image that the population of Earth shares in through empathy-boxes—a sort of collective hallucination where they all fuse into one person—was filmed on a sound stage somewhere and was never objectively real. And yet Mercer appears, saintlike, to Deckard and warns him of danger; they even have a brief conversation. He is unmistakably still there even after he’s been exposed as an actor playing a part. Is it possible that the collective belief of the people made him real, or is Mercer part of some higher Truth or Reality that transcends his origins or behaviour? The book doesn’t say, and Deckard may never find out. All he knows is that Mercer, false or real, or both, symbolizes peace and tranquility. That’s enough.

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