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December 11, 2010

The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.

Not many of Philip K. Dick's books have been adapted for the stage. Even given my reservations, I wish I had not missed Edward Einhorn's take on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), finishing its run yesterday.

I read the book after I had already seen Blade Runner, and I was struck by how different it was—and to my mind, better. The thing that intrigued me about it was Mercerism, empathy, and their relationship to the symbol of the electric sheep—none of which appeared in the movie at all. The movie is of course an entity in itself, and groundbreaking in its own way, but it didn’t capture the heart of what the book said to me.

Then I read about one of Dick’s inspirations—he had read a Nazi journal in which an SS officer complained about not being able to sleep because the crying of the children in the concentration camps kept him awake. Instead of empathizing with the suffering of the children, the officer only saw them as a nuisance that disturbed his sleep. Dick started thinking of people who lacked any sort of empathy as androids. To me, the book is all about how the process of war and killing (or being enslaved) makes people into androids, and Mercerism is all about resurrecting that spirit inside.

Which is to miss much of the point of Blade Runner and of Dick's novel. Yes, Mercerism is missing from Ridley Scott's film adaptation but the theme of missing empathy takes centre stage nevertheless. In the end, it is the androids who demonstrate an ability to care for one another and humanity which has demonstrably lost the capacity to do so.

In fact, my only complaint with the director's cut of Blade Runner is how apparent it becomes that Deckard was himself a replicant all along. Much more interesting, more compelling for Deckard - a man - to have learned empathy from the machines he was sent to destroy.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at December 11, 2010 08:47 AM