An exploration of what it is to be human.

© Copyright 2000, T.J. LeGrice, England,
written in September 2000.

Is this an adequate description of 'Bladerunner'?

human (a) 1/ of or relating to people or humankind
2/ having the nature, qualities or characteristics of people or humankind
3/ of or relating to humankind as distinct from God or gods, animals or machines.

(n) a human being

Cassell's Concise Dictionary (1997)

Stated in such mechanistic terms, I like to think Phillip K. Dick would have approved this definition. In his 1968 novel, 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' (later re-issued as "Bladerunner") he probes the darker aspects of humankind by illustrating his central character Deckard's pursuance of the androids to the human failings of society in the late 1960's. Dick's other characters such as J. D. Isidore and the androids try to show true human nature, both by how they behave and how others react to them. However, Dick is not this simplistic. He also tries to portray what it was to be 'human' in the past, and the omens of what it is to be 'human' in the future.

A typically Dickian device used to analyse the qualities of humans is a machine. In this society of the future empathy -- the ability to identify with the experiences of others -- is the proof of how 'human' one is, and is tested by the Voight-Kampff machine. It records the rapidity of response of emotion to see if ones emotions are instinctive or stimulated. If stimulated then it is a possibility that one is an android, and could lead to 'retirement'. Dick juxtaposes this against another machine that is socially and officially acceptable, the Penfield Mood Organ. This allows any feeling or emotion to be artificially created by dialling pre-programmed setting, such as 481, 'Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future' and 594, 'Pleased acknowledgement of husbands superior wisdom in all matters'. This machine embodies the true failings of humans in the story and in reality by eradicating our only distinctive trait, that of empathy. Dick illustrates that it is human nature to take the easy option; that it is our shortfall not to correct our mistakes. In the capitalist, consumer friendly 1960's the popular opinion was to flip a switch, change the channel, or turn a dial. Dick even manages to derive this aspect of culture, "Dial 3 -- stimulates you into wanting to dial" or "Dial 888 (seeming emergency number) -- the feeling to watch television no matter what's on". It is characteristic of 'human' that this machine, which has the potential to create a near perfect -- if 'ersatz'- society is also used to generate aggression and apathy. It is possible to dial for a 'thalamic stimulant' to make you win arguments (p.8) or even stimulate a feeling of despair;

"I put it on my schedule twice a month; I think that's a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything." -- Iran Deckard (p.9)

Deckard even has to 'rely' on 481, simply to create hope for himself in this world in which mankind has created and he chooses to stay. In this post-nuclear world in which man has created a mockery of nature and society, 'human' then turns on itself, making itself no better than the androids which they hunt down and kill.

A further analysis of the possible future of humanity is visible through the crushing world in which 'Do Androids...' is set. The threat of nuclear war was very real in 1968, and Dick extrapolates this to set the novel after 'World War Terminus'. The finality of this name indicates a warning at the failure of humankind to halt the advance of war and a refusal to learn from our mistakes. This was not another sequel to be analysed by who won and at what cost; it was the end of society on the planet, with no victor and at the ultimate cost.

"San Francisco and the entire peninsula had chattered like a bird tree with life and opinions and complaints" (p.16) and was turned into an "ownerless ruin" under a "tent of dust". Dick's disgust at the possibility of this is clear; he sees human wisdom in the form of the owls die.

"At the time it had seemed almost funny, the fat, fluffy white birds lying here and there, in yards and on streets; coming out no earlier than twilight as they had while alive the owls escaped notice.....This plague, however, had descended from above." (p.16)

Dick speaks of the plague coming from above, not only the birds dying and screaming nuclear missiles, but from those in power. He clearly envisions government/s and misplaced trust from the people for creating this future holocaust, with no resolution of issues and greater apathy;

"In addition, no-one today remembered why the war had come about or who, if anyone, had won." (p.16)

There is even a prophetic warning in relation to the impending Vietnam War;

" had been a costly war despite the valiant predictions of the Pentagon and its smug, scientific vassal, the Rand Corporation." (p.16)

It is a tragedy of humankind that when the terror of war -- and a war which would destroy the very Earth itself -- rears, those in power can be 'valiant' and 'smug', giving a feeling that they almost want it to happen. It is a clear warning of what it is to be human, to have human aggression and nationalism, and the human technology to fight with.

It is suitable that in a novel about empathy and humanity the government should be portrayed as a faceless, unemotional entity; asking no permission, accepting no responsibility. The propaganda machine grinds;

"Emigrate or degenerate! The choice is yours!"

when in reality the choice was made a long time ago. The state-sponsored 'Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends' blares out its message 23 hours a day, and for those people without the ability to receive other information becomes truth. To be human in 1968 meant a barrage of twisted misinformation, which one had to accept. It was only the social outcasts, or the 'radicals' who dared speak out. Even Isidore 'the chickenhead' realizes that Buster and Mercer (a pseudo-religion) are "...fighting for our minds". However, the more socially acceptable humans in this society find it easier to believe misinformation- or are so apathetic they don't act upon information- just as it is easier to emigrate and use mood organs than it is to remedy mankind's quandary. By the first definition stated in the introduction, 'human' is of or relating to humankind. Dick urges that to be human, one has to relate to all humans, not just one particular political segment.

Another failing of what it is to be human is seen by our approach to each other. The state sponsored "...TV sets shouted -- duplicates the halcyon days of the Pre-Civil War Southern States!" This was arguably one of the cruellest periods of American history, which advocated abduction, imprisonment and forced labour of blacks, yet the nature of humans is to gloss over the suffering and concentrate on the prosperous few. The "'Synthetic Freedom Fighter' (strictly speaking- the organic androids)" can be identified as the modern day army, an artificial body heading into Vietnam, and created for destruction in the name of democracy or 'freedom'. The disenfranchised young blacks of the 1960's in America were effectively "the mobile donkey engine" of the army and exported to fight in a foreign country, while having no participation in the social or political process. These people in the future judge themselves on empathy, yet they cannot identify with the experiences of others, and so are less human themselves.

Some of the androids are examples of what it is to be human, or rather what Dicks impressions of what humans should be as opposed to what we are. All of the androids have an innate desire to survive, even though they only have a limited lifespan. Polokov's desire to live is so great he hunts Deckard. Compared this to the human characters that prefer to fall into 'entropic ruin'(p.20) and need to dial 481 on their mood organs. Luba Luft becomes an opera singer, one of Dick's personal hobbies, and an art held in great esteem. Apart from voice opera depends wholly on emotion and feeling to portray it and so demonstrates Luft's empathic qualities in the highest regard. She also has an appreciation of art -- Munch's 'Puberty' indicating her transient status into nearly human. Phil Resch, the nearly android, looks to destroy something that creates joy and empathy in others. Rachel Rosen's scheming characterization exposes her as having more emotions and feeling than many of the human cast. Yet whether used for right or wrong (a purely human invention) it is the android willingness to use the primitive instincts of survival, sex and togetherness that defines them, and shows man what it is to be human.

Perhaps the most insightful aspect into human qualities is the 'chickenhead' John Isidore. Although he is 'biologically unacceptable' and 'a menace to the pristine heredity of the race' (p.17) he possesses far more empathic qualities than either the androids or humans. Because of his stupidity Isidore cannot rationalise his emotions and so feels them at a most basic, core level. This is illustrated on p.19 when the 'void' strikes him.

"Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered grey wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn't worked in all the time Isidore had lived there."

The sheer, primal onomatopoeic power that Isidore feels in the silence in this 'blind building' is an indication of just how human he is. The reader can sense his fear of being alone, the need to be around other people even though he 'ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind'. There is also anger and frustration at being rejected, at being 'informed... in a countless procession of ways that he, as a special, wasn't wanted', even though he was previously accepted. He is human in that he needs a 'sense of being' (p.153). This reflects on current human civilization, in that anything aberrant is to be stereotyped and feared, and that people are judged on other people's reactions to them. 'Special' people in reality are perfectly human except they cannot understand or articulate their feelings or thoughts. Dick tells us through Isidore that people should be judged on their actions as individuals, not grouped into 'custodial institutions quaintly called "Institute of Special Trade Skills of America".

In 'Bladerunner' Isidore's actions make him human. His initial joy at hearing Pris is such that he takes her a present, even as base as a cube of margarine. In such a gesture it is the thought that counts; an empathically lapsed Deckard wouldn't be so chivalrous (until he is just about to kill her). His job is a far more socially interactive environment than the more 'human' jobs of killing androids, proving he can function perfectly in society if given an opportunity. The 'malfunctioning' cat, even though Isidore perceives it to be fake, causes him panic and moves him to empathy,

"Funny, he thought, even though I know rationally it's faked the sound of a false animal burning out its drive-train and power supply ties my stomach in knots. I wish, he thought painfully, that I could get another job."

Deckard, craving social status and acceptance, has an electric sheep to prove how 'human' he is to his neighbours and to himself. Isidore's relationship towards other people such as Pris and the Batys is demonstrated when he realizes;

"You're androids... But he didn't care; it made no difference to him."

Deckard is proud when he kills six human replicants in one day. This confirms Isidore's fundamental empathic qualities of what it is to be human. Isidore states to Pris that the empathy box;

"... is the most personal possession you have! It's an extension of your body; it's the way you touch other humans, it's the way you stop being alone" (p.54)

Isidore's empathy box in this instance is Dick's definition of 'human'. He states that empathy is an individual, personal attribute that defines what makes us human.

In 'Bladerunner' Dick offers the view that our society as a whole assesses people by what is known about them, instead of finding out about them. The people who know you, your personality, your job, the stereotype of what you are makes you human to the rest of society. If, like Isidore, people don't know or are unwilling to know you, you 'cease(ed) in effect, to be part of mankind'. The segregative and aggressive attitudes that prevailed in the 1960's are effectively making us less human by making us less empathic and less able to identify with the experiences of others. Dick urges the reader to recognise that this key aspect of empathy is crucial to what makes us 'human', and that more recent divisive passions such as capitalism and communism should not take precedence. 'Bladerunner' is not just 'an exploration' of humanity, it examines our pathetic qualities at present, mistakes in the past and our tragedy in the future. The sum of these is what it is to be 'human'.


Landon, B., The aesthetics of ambivalence, 1992, Greenwood Press.

Sammon, P., Future Noir, 1996, Orion.

Butakman, S., Bladerunner

Dick, P., Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968 (this edition 1993) Harper Collins