Thursday, February 27, 2014

Filling the Void: Why Robots Have Taken Over Science Fiction

In my last post on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I mentioned the role robotic people and animals play in filling the void. Here I would like to further expound on what this role says about basic human needs.
            We first see the effects of the depopulation of the world of Androids when John attempts to leave his apartment for work, but is overcome by the vastness emptiness of his building. Confronted with the evidence of his aloneness, John retreats to his room and uses Mercerism to connect with similarly lonely people. However, his mood truly improves when he discovers another resident in the floor below him. The fact that this newcomer is an android escapes his notice (Dick 67). As the novel progresses, the distinction between human and android is steadily eradicated in this way. Eventually, even Rick relaxes up his distaste for robots in order to team up with Resch and later fall in love with Rachel Rosen, a marketing android of the Rosen association (197). Even after being betrayed by Rachel and shunned by John, the only thing that lifts Rick’s depression is his discovery of what he later learns is a mechanical toad (236). Rick’s one-eighty degree change of heart is significant because it shows that even a man who believes that all androids are potential killers can be beguiled by the realistic exterior of a robot.
            Beyond their role as material status symbols, the electric animals function as a comforting stand-in for life that should be there, but isn’t. Imagine a world without birds singing, without squirrels foraging for acorns, even without a decent supply of spiders. How silent must such a world be? How alone would mankind feel? Nobody wants to be the lone survivor of a dying planet. In the absence of a natural animal ecology, it is our instinct to surround ourselves with the images of fauna. Caring for an electric sheep would provide a sense of self-worth—of the interspecies collaboration that we find so inspiring today.
            Perhaps this is part of the reason why personal android slaves were provided to all those who emigrated to Mars. Yes, androids make convenient slaves, but they are also capable of being somewhat human when there are no other real humans around. John found solace in the presence of Pris. Rick found solace in the presence of Rachel. If your entire family died in World War Terminus, what would be the point of moving to Mars? There’d be nothing there for you. With an android, however, you could have something like a friend with whom you could share your adventure. How different would that be from having an imaginary friend, after all?
            I’m fascinated by the reasons that drive us to create androids in fiction and in real life. Is it art? Is it playing God? Is it because we want to share our ideas with a species as articulate as we are? Or is it because creating an android sometimes seems easier than finding a real person to care about? These are the questions that can only be answered in speculative fiction.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Random House, 1968. Print.

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