Horizons: Androids in Love

Horizons is another new feature you’ll see on Sarah Does Sci-Fi in the coming months (and years). I intend to use this space to explore marginalized voices in the world of science fiction, as well as stepping outside of the writing realm to explore SF themes and ideas in film, music, and visual arts. So check out the reviews, recommendations, and explorations of science fiction media on the Horizons Page to expand yours.

As a science fiction writer and all around SF enthusiast I’m always on the lookout for fun things that might inspire the next story. Ten years ago I stumbled upon one such Sci-Fi surprise when I found myself falling headfirst into the music of Janelle Monae.

If you haven’t heard of Monae, you absolutely must check her out. When I downloaded her Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) (2007) I had no idea what I was getting myself into. This album is an exquisite blend of storytelling and song that you will not be able to stop listening to (or dancing embarrassingly to, if you’re anything like me).

 

Suite I: (The Chase) tells the story of an android, Cindi Mayweather, who has the grave misfortune to fall in love with a human. Monae has created what I want to call a Sci-Fi Opera; each song has its own sound but the story moves seamlessly from one track to the next as we follow Mayweather on her flight from the humans who want to disassemble her for her crime.

Watch the short film for “Many Moons” here, to get an idea of what Monae’s concept is like.

This is such a great example of the way artists can work across genres to build on a theme. Monae’s Metropolis was inspired by Fritz Lang’s classic SF film, Metropolis (1927). It, and the sequel album, The ArchAndroid (2010), have been on my mind for the last decade. I listen to them often, but it’s not just that. There’s an idea stirring here…

With Blade Runner 2049 out this year, there’s been a lot of buzz in the world of SF writers around artificial intelligence and some great philosophical discussion about what makes us human. I admittedly have never seen Blade Runner (1982) or Blade Runner 2049 (2017). But I have read and loved Philip K. Dyck’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep(1968). I even blogged about it after I read it the first time, check it out HERE!

Now, I’m working on a short story (possibly novella, if things get out of hand) which is basically a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” with a Sci-Fi twist. In my version, the Nightingale in question is a singing android who falls in love with her creator.

NOTE: I’m telling you this because I’m not going to be scared of sharing my ideas anymore, no matter how rough a state they are in. Am I scared of someone stealing my idea? NO! Because even with the same premise no two writers will ever write the same story. So if you are inspired, go write your own version of this story! And then, of course, share it with me here!

Are you a Janelle Monae fan? Has she inspired any of your work? Who are some of your favourite musicians and artists who like to dabble in Sci-Fi themes? Drop me a comment, fire me and email or message! I might just feature one of your faves here in the future.

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SF Book Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

This is the first Philip K. Dick that I have ever read, and having finished it, I’m now sure it won’t be the last. I have never seen “Blade Runner,” so let’s get that out in the open right now. And I cannot, for that matter, understand the apparent need of book reviewers to compare the book to the movie. Not just this book, but any book. The book came first, and should, therefore be judged on its own merit. On a book review site, at least.

I can understand the need to compare a movie to the book that inspired it, but really not the other way around. The movie is an evolution of the ideas in the book, where it differs or omits information is valid to our interpretation of the filmmaker’s intentions. It doesn’t work in reverse!

I just had to get that out of my system.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Is a brief and easy read with surprising depth, in my opinion. I admit that it took me a little longer than usual to jump into this novel. I actually had to take a couple of attempts at reading the second chapter; I stumbled over it and couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what was going on. But I pressed on and suddenly the book took off! I was hooked.

I think what I loved most about this novel is the underlying question, in every moment of the text, as to what makes us human. The play between human and android is complex, and at various points in the novel I found myself empathizing with both parties; now that I’m finished the novel, I’m a little creeped out by that. The ability to empathize is significant in the novel, as it marks one of the only remaining differences between humans and the Nexus-6 android.

Yet, in the beginning, this trait appears superficial. SPOILERS AHEAD!!! When Deckard meets Rachel Rosen and Luba Luft, one has to seriously question the morality of his position. Rosen appears to be an innocent, and the fact that we are surprised that she is, in fact, an android goes to prove how similar the two “species” (if you can call them that) really are. In fact, she nearly passes the Voigt-Kampff empathy tests with a little explanation. Luba Luft is a brilliant performer, and her voice would have been a gift to human kind had she been allowed to live. These characters seem to beg the question, how important is empathy? Is that what really makes us human?

Certainly, J. R. Isodore’s position seems to have been improved because of his relationship with the androids. As a special—a human without the necessary IQ to emigrate to Mars—Isodore is alienated from a society whose acceptance he desperately craves. The illusion of acceptance, in the company of the androids he is harbouring, gives sudden meaning to his otherwise dreary existence.

And it is through Isodore’s eyes that we first see the shift in the androids. Isodore is a model of nearly perfect empathy, and I would argue that it is his limited intellectual intelligence that enables his advanced emotional intelligence. In comparison to Isodore, Deckard appears nearly android himself. There are moments in the book when we suspect him of being so—Deckard is never given an empathy test—and it is not until the final chapters of the novel that we are ever really assured that he is human. However, when Deckard is compared to Rachel Rosen, we can see the difference. The androids, with their nearly flawless intellectualism, are dreadfully cold. They are able to fear for their own existence, and it is this primitive urge to survive which makes them appear human. As Rachel Rosen says, she is capable of feeling empathy only for herself. The tidy analytical minds of androids are capable of anything except empathy, which cannot be rationalized. Deckard’s horror at discovering that he feels empathy for certain androids—which is connected to physical desire—is crude, but it goes to prove just how irrational the feeling of empathy can be.

When Pris cuts the legs off of Isodore’s spider—she claims to want to see why it has eight, if it can get by with only four—we understand just how dangerous such a purely intellectual mind could be. To the android, there is no difference between the spider and Isodore. He is a tool for their survival, and nothing more. When Buster Friendly and his Friendly-Friends reveal that Wilbur Mercer—the prophet of Mercerism, and a unifying figure for all human empathy on Earth—is a fraud, Isodore’s androids are amused by his shock and confusion. They believe this justifies their existence, that empathy itself is a fraud.

Yet it is the androids who will be confused, ultimately. Isodore tells them that Mercerism will not end because of this revelation, though he does not know why. Deckard, after a kind of psychological breakdown in the desert, comes to the same conclusion. This is because empathy, which Mercer embodies, is real. And it is the sense of community that empathy creates amongst humans that gives Mercerism its meaning.

I liked a lot of the ideas that Dick brings to the table with this novel. I liked the sliding scale between empathy and intelligence, and the implications of such an idea. And I liked, even if I don’t agree with it, the parallel comparison between Faith and science; at least, I felt that the idea was well-executed in this book. It is my discomfort with this idea that made me give Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep four stars instead of five.

I think that much of what Dick seems to be saying is true; humans have an ability to rationalize away our empathy, and this act makes us less human. What I didn’t like was the implication that empathy and religiosity are somehow inextricably linked, and that lack of Faith somehow makes us less human. People are just as able to rationalize based on religious reasons as scientific ones. It is the act of attempting to rationalize empathy that is the problem, no matter what a person’s individual motivations for doing so are.

Then again, maybe that wasn’t the point. Mercerism is really a kind of worship of empathy, rather than a religion in the sense of the word that we are accustomed to today. So maybe Dick is saying that, in order to remain true to ourselves, we must learn to recognize and embrace the things that make us human and not lose them in either religion or science.

Hmmm. Maybe I need to change that rating after all.