Philip Dick’s legacy: will you have compassion for the last animals on Earth?

    14 Oct 2021

    In recent times, there is hardly a person who has not heard of the Hollywood franchise “Blade Runner”. Also in the old days thundered the dilogy “Total Recall” and the lesser-known action movie in two parts “Screamers”, as well as the films “Minority Report” and the series “The Man in the High Castle”. All these films are united by the literary source – the works of Philip Kindred Dick.

    If you managed to watch both parts of Blade Runner, filmed 35 years apart by two directors, it might seem to you that the movies are rather “empty” and meaningless, despite the visual beauty and enchanting soundtrack. On the screen, the main characters are asking themselves if they are androids. And also – can “replicants” have children? You can see digital mistresses, artificial animals, a concrete metropolis among radioactive deserts, and landfills on the screen. Why were all these layers of images shot?

    Reading the original literary source will help to understand the dilogy more. And, as it turned out, you’ve got to read not only one story – Philip Dick passionately loved the post-apocalypse and brought his gloomy assumptions to the point of absurdity.

    His novels are a vivid example of the fact that science fiction is far from a “low genre” and some SF and fantasy works are full-fledged “high-shelf literature”, using the definition of literary critics. Of course, Dick entertains, intrigues, and builds a compelling storyline. But he also asks a lot of questions along the way. They’re global: what is reality? Where is the framework of reality? What are compassion and empathy? Where is the end of the artificial and the beginning of the natural?

    According to The Guardian, the annotation on the back cover of Dick’s books, a quote from The Independent, sound like this: “Dick was a great philosopher writer who found science fiction to be the ideal form for expressing his thoughts.”

    Let’s pay tribute to this writer, who passed away in 1982. I am lucky that one of the first books in the SF genre that fell into my hands is “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” novel.

    Dick’s classic novels from the 60s contain not only a dynamic and gripping sci-fi plot, but also a deep immersion in the philosophy of being, what philosophers call ontology. “Do Androids…” (1968) refers us to the questions of the great French thinker Rene Descartes. He searched for what he could call himself with absolute certainty, and formulated his famous dictum: cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes felt that he could be completely sure of this; on this maxim, the philosopher built a whole doctrine. And Dick stands in the complete opposite of Descartes. To “I think, therefore I am” he replies with a counterargument: “Why do you think that the thoughts in your head are really yours?”.

    Let’s talk briefly about the world of “Do Androids…”. This is an example of the survival of civilization after a nuclear war. In Dick’s setting, there still the USA and the USSR existed. The people left on Earth live in semi-abandoned cities, where radiation contamination causes severe diseases and genetic abnormalities. All animals are either extinct or endangered. Therefore, the possession and care of an animal is considered a virtue, almost everyone’s duty, and the type of pet largely determines the social status of its owner. Animals are traded at prices listed in Sydney’s catalog. For extinct species, the cost of the last sold individual is indicated. Many people who cannot afford a pet purchase an artificial robotic animal.

    The main character, Rick Deckard, had a sheep that died of tetanus. He bought an electric sheep instead of a living being to create the appearance of owning an animal.

    The same setting is at the heart of the “Blade Runner” movie dilogy. It started from “Blade Runner” (1982), based on “Do Androids…”, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer. The film’s title has a complicated history: it’s taken from Alan Nourse’s novel “The Bladerunner” (1974). There the sellers of contraband medical goods are called this way.

    The sequel of the 1982 film classics is “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford.

    And no matter how hard Scott and Villeneuve tried their best, no matter how many millions of dollars were spent on admiring special effects and dead landscapes of the future Earth, you’ve got to read the book. In the films, a lot of Dick’s message is omitted. For example, questions of the artificiality of flora and fauna, and intangible concepts – the religion “Mercerism” promoted by a mysterious seer named Wilbur Mercer.

    Mercerism, according to the plot, is a widespread religion on Earth, a new philosophical movement of the future. It is based on the legends of Mercer, a man who lived before the war. Followers of mercerism squeeze the handles of an electronic device called an “empatoscope” and look at its screen, the collages on which are meaningless to an outside observer. Upon contact with the empatoscope, the viewer’s feelings and consciousness perceive the world of Mercer, where they seem to merge with him and with everyone else who uses the device at the moment.

    Mercerism combines the archetype of the dying and resurrecting deity with the ethical values ​​of unity and compassion. According to legend, Mercer possessed the gift of reviving dead animals, but the authorities first forbade him to use this ability and then destroyed the anomaly in the brain that allowed him to do this with radioactive cobalt. Because of this, Mercer ended up in the so-called Tomb world. Mercer tries to stop the disintegration of this “underworld” and return to Earth, climbing to the top of a massive hill under the blows of stones thrown into it. But even if he reaches the top, he is thrown back into the Tomb world, and the ascent begins again.

    But (spoiler) Deckard’s religion is bogus. The novel reveals that Mercer is just an elderly actor, desperate for work; his religion is a confidence trick.

    The first movie also briefly shows the Voight-Kampf test, which states that a human being can empathize and experience empathy, but an android cannot.

    Hunters of fugitive replicants must conduct tests, such as the Voight-Kampf test, invented in the USSR, to distinguish an android from a human. This test measures brain activity and eye movement in response to emotionally charged questions, most of which involve harming animals. Since androids are incapable of empathy, their answer is radically different from that of humans.

    An illustrative scene from the novel, abridged into the first film adaptation: how would you react if a chef in a restaurant cooks a lobster alive?

    This question, to which vegans have found a definite answer, was expanded by Dick in another, even more striking story, “Beyond Lies the Wub.” How do you react if the pig you want to kill and eat is intelligent? Moreover, this creature also possesses telepathy.

    “Do Androids…” explores the idea that empathy can be felt together with other people using advanced technology. This is the essence of the new religion that Mercer promotes.

    The very inner conflict of the novel’s protagonist is that he does not know whether he is an android or a human.

    Another little-known nowadays story by Philip Dick, the adaptation of which was the action movie “Screamers” and, partly, both “Bladerunners”, is called “The second variety”. This is the embodiment of the author’s principle that Science fiction should be written not on the basis of the question “What if?”, but asking “God, what if?”.

    The story describes the world after the Soviet-American war, where the remnants of the armies are faced with a new weapon – humanoid robots. They disguise themselves as children or beautiful women. And they will inevitably kill all of humanity.


    Dick was a self-taught philosopher and sometimes developed his themes in eccentric ways. At the end of his life, the writer realized he felt what he believed to be a religious vision, devoting years and thousands of pages, stubbornly trying to comprehend the higher meaning. Selected passages of his homegrown theology have been published in “The Exegesis” book.

    And we wait for new screen adaptations. Blade Runner 2049 could not pay off at the box office, but this is not the end of the franchise. In an interview with Digital Spy, Ridley Scott said that he already had an idea for the plot of the next part.

    So the philosophical question, what is life and what is beyond it, the new authors will still ask in a bright Hollywood wrapper.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *