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Philip K. Dick

Blade Runner

The single most defining characteristic of human beings, according to Philip Dick, is not their intelligence, but their empathy, and this whole novel, it’s setting, plot and characters are in service of exploring and enforcing that theme.

It is an interesting idea, but I think that he sacrificed too much in order to exercise it. The whole second half of the book almost makes no sense unless looked at as an allegory. In the review to follow I will try to make some sense of it anyway.

The setting

A post apocalyptic and post nuclear-exchange world, completely deprived of all (or almost all) wildlife (plant and animal), as well as most of its human population and its industrial capacity, is somehow capable of still sustaining a sort of organized high-tech capitalistic society, a space program, and advanced research in artificial intelligence. The cities are massively depopulated and fallen in disrepair, but bureaucratized police is still present, as well as niche consumerism (ie the “electric animal accessory” businesses). Public utilities, such as water and electricity, still function even in the crumbling high-rise buildings within depopulated districts.

Years after the nuclear war (long enough that most people really don’t remember or care what it was fought over), the nuclear fallout is still strong, the skies are perpetually dusty (no one has seen stars in years) and the nuclear radiation, besides exterminating most of the animals, is “polluting” human genetic stock. In order to preserve the human race, UN promotes that those still unaffected emigrate from Earth and settle in one of the off-world colonies. This pollution by radiation manifests itself on humans by gradually decreasing their IQ until they get labelled “specials”, “chickenheads”, “antheads”, etc, but apparently this leaves their empathy intact. This all fits well thematically, but factually it is a complete nonsense.

Surviving in the hostile environment of off-world colonies is made possible thanks to androids, intelligent humanoid robots who take role of “black slaves”, doing most of the manual work as well as being house servants and entertainers. Androids have no legal rights and are forbidden to leave the colonies. This exploitation of one intelligent entity by another is never really a theme of this novel.

The production of androids is so perfected that they can not be distinguished from humans by intelligence alone (that is, they pass the Turing test for at least since 50 years ago), and also physically and physiologically they appear identical to humans. The most recent series of androids - Nexus 6, mimics humans so well that the only known way to detect them is by Voigt-Kampff test, which measures involuntary bodily functions triggered by emotional responses.

Some androids do revolt, kill their masters and travel to Earth. Their motivation to do so (come to Earth and move into cities) is never explained. The police is tasked with detecting and destroying them, which has become increasingly difficult, since their outlook has become so similar to humans.

Rosen Association is a company that produces androids, and they have a strange and unclear agenda. They state that they are forced by a market demand to continuously improve the androids and make them more similar to humans, which in effect endangers those humans more, which makes no sense. Also, police is unable to put any pressure onto the Association to somehow regulate or limit this dangerous product. This is never explained in detail, but it appears that Association is above the law.

The Association is either forced to cooperate with the police, or they accept the cooperation in order to try to discredit the Voigt-Kampff test and make it impossible to detect runaway androids. Their motivation for this is never plainly stated (or hinted). Also, the Association runs a “parallel police department”, whose employees are mostly androids (unknown to their human colleagues). This parallel organization remains undetected by the real police for years, even though it is in the plain site (in Mission Street Hall of Justice building). The goal of this department seems to be to undermine detection and retirement (destruction) of runaway androids. However, one of the employees, for several years, is a human, Phil Resch, brutally efficient bounty hunter. Why keeping him around if the purpose is to prevent android destruction?

The plot

Eight androids had killed their masters on Mars, and moved (together) to Earth. I was under impression that they just arrived, or at least very recently. For example, when Isidore goes to meet Pris and asks whether she likes Buster Friendly (an omnipresent tv host), she does not know who he is. I don’t see any reason for her to pretend. Also a bounty hunter Dave Holden, detects them as a group, which seems to imply their recent arrival since they haven’t dispersed.

Two of the eight were destroyed by Dave who is severely wounded by the third. Rick Deckard, another bounty hunter is hired to destroy the remaining six.

The first on the list is Polokov, who nearly kills Deckard, posing as a Soviet police officer. It is not clear if he merely impersonated a Soviet police officer in order to kill Deckard or if he fully assumed that identity (being the police officer). I think that it is the later, but such infiltration would require a lot of time and effort. If he merely impersonates him, then where is the real Soviet? He never appears.

Also, there is another inconsistency with Polokov. At later point it is revealed that all of the eight androids were a part of the same group and they travelled together from Mars. However, one of them, Garland, declared that he did not know that Polokov was android in a situation when he had no motive to lie.

After destroying Polokov, Deckard moves on to destroy the next one on his list - a female posing as an opera singer, again a role that she could not assume quickly.

However, he is interrupted and taken to the aforementioned “parallel police department” and there interrogated by Garland, another one of the eight who is posing as senior police officer. Phill Resch later states that he has known Garland for years, and Resch had no motives to lie about that. Garland has Deckard in power, but somehow manages to get himself destroyed without compromising Deckard, all within a building fully controlled by android-friendly Association.

The androids are described as very capable and intelligent, and yet somehow they can not grasp the concept of cooperation as a tool for survival. They don’t “care” much if another android is destroyed, because of course “they have no empathy”, even though their chances of survival as a group are higher then as individuals. Not very intelligent behaviour…

Also, they seem incapable or unwilling to lie or at least control what they say. Often they end up exposing themselves in the conversation with humans, or alienating the humans by saying a wrong thing or too much, for example Rachael talking to Deckard after the hotel. At that particular situation Deckard is tired, confused, he drank alcohol, slept with an android, so he is a mess emotionally and she still manages to alienate him… Not very smart.

Was Roy Bates fooled by Deckard who pretended that he is Isidore?!

The only situation that seems to me that Deckard was in any real danger, was with Polokov. Several times after that androids had advantage over him and yet did not use it: Luba held a gun at him, Garland had him in custody, Rachael had a plenty of opportunity in the hotel, and the three androids waiting in the ambush in the crumbling building seemed completely incapable of anything.

Why did Priss mutilate the spider? Couldn’t she predict Isidore’s reaction, being an intelligent being? Why did Rachael throw the goat off the roof? Philip K. Dick please decide, they are either cool, rational and unemotional, or they are jealous, malicious, evil, but each of these three would require one to imagine how someone else feels - a property called empathy…

And what’s with Buster Friendly?! Both Rachael and Bates knew or anticipated what he was going to reveal. Was there some kind of android conspiracy? If so, they were doing a very poor job of protecting themselves or pushing their agenda.

Here is a definition of empathy from Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, perhaps I should have started this text with it:

1 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

2 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this

If androids were incapable of this, it would be extremely easy to detect them even after a very brief conversation… Imagine communicating with someone who is unaware if you are bored, interested, distracted, tired, angry… The conversation between two persons is an exchange of words and ideas, but also exchange of feelings and reactions, and each next sentence is tweaked according to the emotional response from the other person to the previous.

On the other hand, this is really a story of humanity (and only humans are capable of being humane). Deckard, in contrast to androids who feel no empathy, starts questioning himself and his actions. Is it wrong to kill an android (even though those androids have killed humans on Mars and may present danger to other humans, and it is his job to protect those humans). So, he struggles with this dilemma until the end of the novel: if he feels empathy for androids - it is hard for him to destroy them, if he puts his empathy aside - does he become no better then them? How did a society with such emphatic individuals nuke itself to wasteland in the first place?!

I did not really get this Mercerism and what he meant to say with it.


I’m a great fan of the movie, its one of my favourite and I’ve seen it many times. Soon after starting the book, I realised that the plot and setting in the movie and in the book are quite different, but it did not bother me. Actually I really enjoyed the first half of the book, but after that nonsense started piling up.

The movie story is much smarter, compact and coherent, at least it does not advertise most of the illogical points I mentioned above. I like the overall mood better, and also I prefer the movie Deckard. I like the shift of the central theme from “the empathy” to “if we are the same in all except that you were born and I was built, shouldn’t we have the same rights?”.

All in all, unfortunately this book was a disappointment.

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