On androids and replicants: the question of humanity

“I think, therefore I am” has been at the heart of our understanding of ourselves (in the West) for a while now. It follows the premise that humans are rational creatures, in fact the only species capable of reason. This cold scientific ability that brought so much pride to 18th and 19th century positivists and led to their belief in the superiority of the human species, has, however, been trumped by the rise of technology and of computers which are capable of consistently more complex data processing and equation solving, to the point of approaching the level of purely rational thought. Thus with the positivist definition of what it is to be human jeopardised by our own creations, we could seek bastion on our ability to feel. We could rely on our emotions to separate ourselves from cold unfeeling machines; yet basic emotions can also be found, to a certain degree, in less developed animals, especially mammals. So we reach conceive the ability to empathise with others, even those outside of our own species, as a fundamentally ‘human’ characteristic that separates us from the rest of living creatures, or so would say writer Phillip K. Dick, in this seminal science fiction book ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (1968).

The human condition was a major concern to Dick not only in ‘Androids’ but throughout his life and works (Palmer, 2003, p. 8). The idea of rationality being the most human of traits is denied as Dick’s highly intelligent androids are capable of rational thought beyond the level of most humans and the so called chickenheads, humans who had their mental capacities diminished by the radioactive dust that permeates the world of ‘Androids’,  On the other hand, even t being questioned, empathy is shown as a particularly human ability.

In the post-apocalyptic world of ‘Androids’ most humans have either being killed by World War Terminus and its consequent nuclear fallout or are slowly degenerating because of it. The remaining humans on Earth are constantly bombarded with propaganda inviting them to move to the outer world colonies where they will receive their very own android to toil in their stead, it is in this kind of world that police bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s journey in hunting down six escapee androids taking refuge in North California takes place. The very beginning of the novel blurs the boundaries of human and machine,

A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. (…) ‘If you set the surge up high enough, you’ll be glad you are awake; that’s the whole point. At the setting C it overcomes the threshold barring consciousness, as it does for me.

Here humans rely on machines, such as the ‘mood organ’, to actively manage their state of mind artificially, much like as one would change the setting on a microwave. Empathy itself is moderated through a machine: the empathy box,  Notable also is human dependence on television – not that unnatural in our society but still noteworthy –  as can be seen by Deckard’s worry for his wife when she says she does not

His sheep  is  an ersatz, an electric artificial life form, much like the Androids his job requires him to kill. However, he does not keep such a creature due to some sort of attachment to it; he does it as a sort of compliance to social expectation. All humans are expected to have an animal of some sort due to the teachings of Mercerism. As a matter of fact, we learn that he actually despises his sheep and finds ownership of it degrading (p. 129) something that likens him to the Androids as Dick sees them,

Becoming what I call, for lack of better term, an android, means, as I said, to allow oneself to become a means, or to be pounded down, manipulated, made into a means without knowledge or consent – the results are the same. (…) Androidization requires obedience. And most of all, predictability. (Dick, 1995, p. 191)

In other words,  Deckard allows himself to be programmed into doing or acting in a particular way,  to be led by the common prejudice against artificial life forms and into the ‘forced’ ownership of animals by the tenants of Mercerism, the very religion that promotes empathy with all living creatures. The book, therefore, narrates Deckard’s journey from this semi-android state into self discovery and retrieval of his lost humanity by his encounters with the androids which his mission demands he kills eventually learning to accept all forms of life, even those artificial (Galvan, 1997, p. 414). The chickenhead Isidore, unlike Deckard, is naturally capable to empathize with artificial life and becomes ‘friends’ with three of the escapee androids, however he is made to realise the difference between them and humans as they mutilate a spider he found.  Yet even after witnessing their brutality, he finds himself incapable of pointing Deckard in the direction of his quarry (Barlow, 2005, p. 51)

Dick’s androids are intelligent, however incapable of empathy and  incapable of taking the consideration the lives of others, even other androids, (p. 125), unless the other bring them some sort of profit.  They are, as Isidore puts it,  too ‘intellectual’ , to the point that they become jaded to most forms of emotion, which they do possess.  The capability of having emotions be seen when Rick admits that Roy loved his wife, and in Rachel’s jealousy over Deckard’s wife and goat (p. 152) which eventually leads her to kill the animal. Their rationality prowess even leads them to quickly give up on their own lives when confronted with a no escape situation (p. 151) overcoming any sort of will to survive, which one could argue is simulated rather than instinctual. Therefore, while still being lives to be respected, the androids in Dick’s novel are, due to their incapability to empathize and register the weight of other lives, still inferior beings when compared to humans and a menace to those that surround them. For this reason, they must be hunted an stopped even though it may be wrong to do so (p. 131) from a humanistic point of view. Yet the ability of making exceptions is also something intrinsically human, according to Dick (1995, p.201)

Ridley Scott’s androids, however, are very different to those present in the novel which originated his movie Blade Runner. As a matter of fact, the film displays considerable differences when compared to the  book. Instead of radioactive dust, we have constant rain; the concepts of Mercerism and much of the animal elements of the novel are almost completely absent from the movie; and instead of an average looking middle aged married Deckard, we get Harrison Ford.  Ford plays the role of a bachelor blade runner, the film’s term for those who hunt replicants a.k.a androids, who is forced out of retirement to ‘retire’ four escapee replicants. There is no mention of chickenheads or anything of the sort. However, the most significant difference is, without a doubt, the treatment the Scott gives to the replicants/androids (Fitting, 1987, p. 343).

Our very first encounter with one of the replicants happens on it being tested by a blade runner with the empathy test. When asked to describe his mother Leon, the movie’s replicant stand in for the novel’s Polokov, answers by shooting and killing his interviewer, a clearly emotional as opposed to rational response. Rachel is another character that vastly differs from her Androids counterpart. In the film, she actually falls in love with Deckard whereas in the book she sleeps with him in order to stop him from being capable of hunting the remaining androids.  In the film adaptation, Rachel goes as far as killing another replicant, Leon, in order to save Deckard, a very irrational action considering that his job is to hunt replicants such as herself.  Later on the film upon hearing of the deaths of two of his fellow replicants Roy can be seen almost crying;  however, his mood soon fluctuates as it does upon Pris’ death. This infantile and inconstant emotional aspect of the replicants is accentuated with their association with J. F. Sebastian and his house full of toys and dolls. Scott’s replicants are, therefore far more emotional than Dick’s rational androids.

Even their reasons for escaping the colonies are different from those presented in the novel. In Dick’s work, they escape Mars in order to flee from their forced slavery on the hands of their human masters and chose Earth thinking it would be an easier place to hide. In Blade Runner they want more life, and have come to Earth to have their creators, the Tyrell Corporation extend their far too short four-year lifespan. Their life is precious to them and death scares them more then anything, an extremely human characteristic. Rather then inhuman intellectualized monstrosities,  the replicants in Blade Runner are more similar to ‘supra-humans’, with certain emotional and instinctual characteristics taken to extremes.  As Tyrell says to Roy when the same demands more life, ‘The life that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.’ This view of robots as being, in some form, human conflicts with the cold and unfeeling androids present in the novel. Nevertheless, it does match in some ways Dick’s newfound view of constructs

As a matter of fact Deckard, even with his whole noir detective aura, is not as interesting a character as Roy is.  Roy receives some of the most memorable lines in the film, such as, ‘If only you could see what I have seen with your eyes’ and ‘It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker’.  He is also present in some of the most striking scenes, all painted with religious overtones likening him to figures such as Judas (when he kisses Tyrell before killing him), Lucifer (on his descent from the stars to after rebelling against his creator), and Jesus (when he nails his own hand). However, the most striking scene of all is his death scene. Scott presents him not as a religious character but as the most unpredictable and vulnerable human, even if only for a moment. By saving Deckard and imparting unto him a fragment of his experience not only does he finally appreciate the value of life, but, as Hamlet,  he makes another being remember him by after his death. In Blade Runner it is Roy, not Deckard who makes a journey towards humanity.

Thus by comparing both works one can appreciate that while very different both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner have similar views into what makes one human. In both, empathy  and the respect for the lives of others are important aspects of what it is to be human. In both, it is possible to be Homo sapiens and still not be completely human, as exemplified by Phil Resch and Deckard in Androids and by the oppressing myopic figure of Tyrell, blind to the suffering of his creations in Blade Runner. As for rational thinking, while definitely part of what makes us human both Dick and Scott  suggest that rationality and intelligence must be coupled with emotion, instinct and empathy in order for us to be complete. Without such combination we are all half animal or half machine.


  • Barlow, A. (2005) How Much Does Chaos Scare You? New York, NY: Shakespeare Sister.
  • Dick, P. K. (1996) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? London, HarperCollins.
  • Dick, P. K. (1995) ‘The Android and the Human’ In Sutin, L. (Ed) The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. New York, NY: Vintage.
  • Fitting, P and R.M.P. (1987) ‘The Neutralization of Revolt in Blade Runner’. Science Fiction Studies, 14/3, pp. 340-354
  • Galvan, J. (1997) ‘Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’. Science Fiction Studies, 24/3, pp. 413-429.