I find that when most people think of Rick Deckard and the neo-noir world he inhabited, they think first of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (and it’s many different editions). But while the film and it’s very late/very recent sequel are remarkable science fiction films, there are essential disconnects between them and the narrative of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel that served as their inspiration.
What serve only as passing moments in the films – namely the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test, the importance of the animal, and the religion of Mercerism – are the essential components of how the book signifier/signified relationship between the Human and the Other. While the films might be preoccupied with notions of examining the distance (or lack thereof) between the human and the android characters, there are still clear separations between the two. While in the film’s “replicants” are often stronger and faster than human, but with severely shortened lifespans, the “Andy” (Dick 35) are not physically distinguishable.
Unlike many of the other humanoid android’s of popular culture – human flesh hiding the skeleton of the robot ala James Cameron’s Terminator – Dick’s creations of the “organic android” (16) might be synthetic, but the novel argues that they cannot be considered artificial. All that separates the androids, and the humans of the novel is their ability to pass the Voight-Kampff Empathy scale. Dick’s novel sideswipes the question that books and films continue to debate today when it comes to stories of the “other” even today. Dick’s novel is unconcerned with whether or not androids can think. Their self-awareness and mental abilities are a given. What the Voight-Kampff Empathy scale that can identify the android is concerned with, is what the novel itself is concerned with: the power of empathy. In Do Androids Dream, a humanoid android is not identified with physical attributes, but with emotional intelligence and empathy.
My focus on Dick isn’t only on the science-fiction or the noir detective influences of the book, but this focus on how to signify the Human and it’s other., the Rick Deckard of the novel knows the empathic responses that signify the human “biologically […] exist (46) in the androids that he hunts. Dick also goes to lengths to show that even humans, affected by the radioactive dust of their dystopian environment (or other emotional traumas/disabilities) experience “a flattening of affect” (37) that would make them fail the Voight-Kampff test. Humans affected by the dust, the “specials” (16) may not be exterminated like the Andy’s, but they “ceased, in effect, to be a part of mankind” (16).
“Do you think androids have souls?” (135) Might be the question of Dick’s bounty hunter, but I don’t think it is the question of the novel, and moreover, I think it one that a contemporary reader can take for granted. By the time we reach the 2017 sequel to the original movie: Blade Runner 2049, It is simultaneously easier to accept an android protagonist with their own feelings, independence, and motivations, and easier to see the distinction between human and Other. When I return to Dick’s novel, I can’t help but be troubled that the signifier/signified relationship between human and android in the novel was actually harder to define than the adaptations, and reimagining’s the book inspired (similarly to the monster of Shelly’s Frankenstein, who became less recognizable and intelligent with each retelling).
I think the lesson of Dick’s novel is not how to create a compelling dystopia or threatening androids, but how to question what it means to be “Othered”.