Monday, May 9, 2011
About That "Empathy Test" Of Yours
There's been some PKD activity on the Intertoobz lately, and I really need to write up a news roundup article, but not today; I want to share something cool a student hipped me to in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Yes, it's that time of the semester again, when I read literally about a hundred essay about DADOES?. Most are pretty simplistic and usually go over one of the topics I suggest during our class lectures. Last week, a student approached me and said she wanted to write about the Voight-Kampff test in the novel; specifically, she found it ironic that the questions were not the least bit empathetic. I was stunned by the power of her discovery, and a little amazed that I had missed it.
Indeed, if you read the test questions Rick asks Rachel for instance, it's clear that there is nothing empathetic about the test itself. Rick describes a situation to Rachel: "In a magazine you come across a full-page color picture of a nude girl" (49). This is when Rachel gets the great line about testing to see if she's an android or lesbian - a line so great it even made it into the movie. But then it gets weird; Deckard continues: "Your husband likes the picture."
Uh, Rick... she doesn't have a husband. The questions are impersonal and in many cases seem totally unrelated to the expression of empathy someone might make in their day-to-day lives. So, this test and its administrators, which seek to detect empathy, make no attempt to tailor the questions to the subject. Martin Luther King Jr wrote in his letter from a Birmingham Jail that the ends are preexistant in the means. And here I can't help but think that the apathetic and clinical attitude of the test and its administrators creates a situation in which the androids' apathetic outlook has spread like a virus to the very people who are charged with eliminating this apathy.
This is yet another layer of irony in a deeply ironic book. Look, all of the characters transcend their identity in one way or other: the androids are empathetic, the humans are apathetic, the supposedly Chickenheaded John Isidore shows an appropriate reverance for life; Deckard, who keeps talking about how much he wants a real animal, can't take proper care of the animals once he acquires them.
It reminded me of this interview I did way back in the day with Lethem, where he said:
"On the other hand “Do Androids…” has “Blade Runner” attached to it. I think in terms of the role that Dick has taken in terms of the popular imagination it’s an important connection… I reread [each of the four novels] carefully and “DADoES” is the one book I’ve been underrating. It struck me as totally controlled and emotionally precise..."
I'm, once again, appreciating the care with which Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I have a new theory, that perhaps it is DADOES that marks a transition in Dick's writing career from his second-draft masterpieces written in the early 60s to the multiple drafts and Herculean efforts he put into his later books. Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said went through how many editions and drafts?
Anyway, all that effort pays off brilliantly in DADOES?, a book that continues to open up to deeper and deeper analysis and interpretation. Even after teaching the novel to thousands of students, I'm still amazed by what I find inside.
(Thanks for the insight, Lisa Casale!)