Professor Craig Thompson
Deckard and The Toad
In Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the question is posed on what it means to be human versus what it means to be an android. Where humans have the capacity for empathy, androids do not. It is this primary difference that truly separate the humans from the androids. Rick Deckard is a particularly unempathetic human for most of the novel, referring to his Sidney’s guide regularly on how many androids he needs to retire to get what animal. He is more concerned with having a living animal to care for as a status symbol than he is with the lives of the androids he retires on a regular basis. However, at the end of the novel, and after a very long day, Deckard retreats to the wastelands of Oregon and has a spiritual experience, during which he finds a toad. After his trials and tribulations in retiring the Nexus-6 androids and having an affair with Rachael Rosen, who then decides to kill his new goat in a most grotesque fashion, Deckard begins to see that the lines between the human and android are perhaps blurred, and that these technological creatures have their own emotions and drives and perhaps deserve life, such as it is offered to them. By the time Deckard discovers the toad is electric at the end of the novel, he has developed a sense of empathy toward androids and other electric creatures. This character evolution of Deckard’s is the primary catalyst in his reluctance to continue to retire androids. Deckard begins to accept that perhaps these beings have their own lives and fates, and questions his role in their demise, making him then more human.
The novel begins with the introduction of Rick Deckard and his wife, Iran. They are having a fight and using their mood organs, which are devices that stimulate or suppress the thalamus, offering a variety of moods to choose from in different combinations. Iran says, “My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting – do you see? I guess you don’t” (Dick, 5). She refers to Deckard’s insensitivity, and the way he can just ignore the impossibilities of life and go to work every day. Iran actually schedules herself for depressive moods, and in general seems far more in tune with the oppressive world than does Deckard. Iran also refers to the lack of population, as most humans have emigrated away from Earth. This crushingly lonely world does not seem to have any effect on Deckard, but the fact that he has an electric sheep instead of a living one really does. At the outset, all that motivates Deckard is money and status.
It would be unfair to say that Deckard had never contemplated his actions, but he considered androids to be lone killers. “Rick liked to think of them that way; it made his job palatable. In retiring – i.e., killing – an andy, he did not violate the rule of life laid down by Mercer. ‘You shall kill only the killers,’ Mercer had told them the year empathy boxes first appeared on Earth” (Dick, 30). By viewing androids as cold killers, it was easier for Deckard to do his job. Wilbur Mercer is the central figure in Mercerism, which is seemingly a theology of sorts, that allows for empathetic connection to other humans. By using a device called an empathy box, only humans can upload their consciousness into this shared experience. Within the experience, the old man, Mercer, toils up a hill while being attacked by mysterious forces. Other interesting things can happen within the realm of the empathy box, bringing the remaining humans closer together and reminding them of their shared humanity.
With a clear conscience, Deckard heads in to work to get down to the business of administering the Voigt-Kampff empathy-measuring test to Rachael Rosen, and continuing his hunt for the Nexus-6 androids on his list. As he attempts to administer the test to the opera singer Luba Luft, she calls an android police officer to come take Deckard in. It is at this mysterious, fake police station (full of androids) that Deckard first encounters another bounty hunter by the name of Phil Resch. It is Resch that actually retires both his superior Garland, and Luba Luft. Resch acts as a foil for Deckard, and is symbolic of the changes he is going through. Resch differs from Deckard in that he is ready to kill with any excuse, without hesitation. There is a lot of speculation as to whether Resch is human or android himself. Eventually he is proven human, and he owns a squirrel named Buffy, however, he lacks a certain amount of empathy. It is easy for Resch to kill, where for Deckard all the criteria must be met in order for him to retire androids. Deckard buys a copy of an art print for Luba Luft shortly before she is retired, and states upon her death that he is getting out of the business, after claiming the bounty, of course. On Phil Resch, Deckard ruminates, “You’re a good bounty hunter, Rick realized. Your attitude proves it. But am I? Suddenly for the first time in his life, he had begun to wonder” (Dick, 133). This self-examination is new, and Deckard is really starting to struggle with his work.
As Deckard began to question his place within the world, he surprises his wife by showing up with a newly-purchased goat. He tells her of his newfound empathy toward androids, and together they give thanks by fusing with Mercer via their empathy boxes. Shortly thereafter, he calls Rachael Rosen to get her help and they immediately have an affair at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Rachael reveals that she knows he will be unable to continue to hunt androids after being with her, as she has seen it in all the other bounty hunters she had been with, aside from Phil Resch. Perhaps to prove her wrong, Deckard goes on to retire the remaining Nexus-6 units that same evening. Perhaps unused to being wrong, or from some sense of jealousy, Rachael retaliates by throwing Deckard’s poor new goat right off of his roof.
Both humans and androids enjoy watching Buster Friendly. He is a TV personality and he acts as a foil for Mercer. Where Mercerism is all about empathy, compassion, and connection, the message of Buster Friendly is one of isolation and despair. Humans feel ultimately good, or at least affected, by fusing with Mercer and enjoying their shared experience. Towards the end of the novel, Buster Friendly is discovered to be an android, and he shockingly reveals that Wilbur Mercer is actually a human named Al Jarry, and that the images seen within the empathy boxes are all filmed and staged. Mercerism is a fake, and so is Buster Friendly, but Mercer is real. He appears to both Isidore and Deckard, offering advice and bringing gifts. This theme of being both real and not-real appears throughout the novel and culminates with the finding of the “real” toad. Deckard is so excited to have found a real animal out in the wastelands, while being permanently fused with Mercer. He toils up a hill, as Mercer does, and is even struck by an errant stone. The toad is sacred to Mercer, and believed to be extinct. Deckard is so excited, he puts the toad in a box and takes it straight home to his wife. Iran is the one that discovers the control panel that shows the toad to be electrical. While disappointed, Deckard says that he would prefer to know. Deckard then says to Iran, “The spider Mercer gave the chickenhead, Isidore; it probably was artificial, too. But it doesn’t matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are” (Dick, 222). This shows that he believes the toad to be a gift from Mercer, and also just how far he has shifted from being a cold-hearted android-hunter to a softer, more compassionate and empathetic version of himself. In this world, the androids and humans are both living on borrowed time. If Deckard can evolve so much in one day, perhaps there is hope for humanity, and for them to coexist with androids.