Soft light ghost bone chill scattered,
charmed ticking slithering
polished ivory chalky milk like tusk,
in tooth and claw It began to culminate,
in the raw aspect of slender forms
in wild shape and obtuse riddle.
Too many countless, we had
sat still boring and forever, ringing
off days and grains and blades,
still longer than our insides
would permit - tiny voices.
Vernacular; tawdry, tired and
It was a relationship in which
everything that could have been was
scathed down into a fine white paste -
were we so well pleased with
ourselves? This I could not tell you,
and yet to think on such matters is to
show flame to the dragon as they say.
This was all inconsequential; we had
Made a pact of blood:
We were the wind and the trees
We were the moon and the sea,
We were the wanderer staring out
Phillip K. Dick’s classic sci-if novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? stands today as a demonstration of the minimal gap between the individual and the hypothetical ‘other’. The obvious distinction set in this future world is that between the supposedly autonomous and free-thinking genuine human beings, and the synthetic androids which have been manufactured by the Rosen Corporation to imitate and serve them.
At the start of the novel, the protagonist Rick Deckard goes about his duty as a bounty hunter, tracking and ‘retiring’ (ostensibly killing) escaped ‘andys’ with little to no thought regarding the ethical or social implications of such a position. The early distinction in the premise of the novel is simple: organic life is the real thing and is to be valued; artificial life, inversely, has no implicit value.
But of course as in any of Phillip K. Dick’s stories, his synthesis of keen prophetic genius and almost lunatic raving leads to the dislodging and dissection of such peculiarities through a reification of shortcomings inherent in them. Organic human characters find themselves wondering whether they too have been manufactured as the validity of their thoughts and actions is called into question. At times during the novel, the paranoia between parties is most real as they doubt the lives and memories of themselves and those around them. Concurrently, the story is whisked along by a group of rogue androids who have been engineered to replicate human existence to such an extent that extreme measures are required to detect and retire them. While the narrative follows them, the reader becomes aware that there are many similarities between these androids and the human characters, despite some clear differences which prevail.
There are other dualities inherent within this surface distinction. Besides simply ‘organic and machine’ is the dichotomy of ‘spirituality and commercialisation’ personified through various forms in the novel and echoed throughout the plot between Deckard and his bounty. A distinction is set between the genuine ‘real’ and the artificial not only in terms of the gap between the human being and the robot, but also between the genuine desires and motives of the human being, the compulsion to fear and destroy the other. The simplified thesis of the novel seems to be that there is something inherently transcendent about organic life which cannot be engineered and synthesised, and moreso that such attempts, though convincing in terms of their verisimilitude, are destined to be the cause of chaos and confusion.
A more detailed reading, however, permits the novel’s ultimate message to be far more ambiguous. In certain senses the androids are depicted as a new form of life, not a second rate copy, but rather a completely new, and genuine blue-print; beings with their own values, desires and emotions, even if abhorrent at times to the human ethos. This is mirrored in the near obsessive values that humans in the novel have attached to possessing animals as status symbols. When an organic creature is too expensive, an artificial one must suffice (though its artificiality must be kept hidden from neighbours and co-workers alike, in fact Deckard is almost loath to admit such a circumstance to himself). The reader is asked what the difference here might be, and whether or not such distinctions are in the end classificatory rather than qualitative.
In its conclusion, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? leaves the reader questioning the validity of our own implicit values regarding organic life, and places the burden of ethical capacity on those with the ability to consider and process such distinctions. While Deckard goes on dreaming, the reader is left wondering whether it’s for his lost love, his lost humanity or even his lost sheep. Perhaps only time will tell.
“She walks with ghosts” we’d say laughing. We were children then.
When we’d get to talk to her she’d tell us that if you couldn’t move yourself to laughter or tears at the dropping of a single leaf, then you didn’t deserve to call yourself ‘human’. We’d laugh more and our father would say we needed to learn respect, but for all of her stern demeanour and despite our carelessness, she would smile at us with her eyes.
The old woman was as strange as they came around our village, amongst we the tribespeople of the Skellisi. The elders said her name was ‘Tanniko’, however we took to calling her ‘Wolf-Mutt’ amongst ourselves, as she tended to the canine population of the village yet seemed to live out in the wild amongst the wolves, far away from the safety of the tribe.
Although we saw her rarely, Wolf-Mutt would frequent our huts when the world would turn bone-white, when the trees stifled and hid their greens, when food was scarce and people were often sick with a lowness of spirit.
On one night such as this, myself and my two brothers huddled around the fire awaiting the return of our father and the Chief. We listened to the distant howling of wolves and our chilled bones were shadowed by a stiffness of heart. The youngest among us, Eolan, had fallen ill to the sickness. He had not eaten a full meal in nearly two weeks – his skeletal body slumped and his eyes were fixed to the fire and its insatiable appetite. He would have died had we not fed him soup and fastened our finest furs upon him. Even with our assistance he sat muted and could barely stay upright; we worked constantly to provide him with support and, as it was his one link to the world of man, to keep the flame alive.
As we shivered from cold and from a respectful apprehension of the night, we heard beyond the black of the forest a rustling sound only barely audible above the crackling of the fire. Fearing wolf attack, Kholan (my elder brother) and I sprang to defensive position surrounding Eolan who sat paralysed by the ghosts of the cold, evidently sensing little above the glow of the fire. I remembered their howls only minutes before and my thoughts were devoid of all beyond the making out of any movement in the darkness.
Kholan screamed, his voice distinct amongst the silence now “AAKIIIIYEHT”, a signal of mild warning for those nearest our position in the camp. As our neighbours emerged, Ebalo, and his son Mobokku (our village’s primary hunter) we saw simultaneously creeping out of the darkness, old Wolf-Mutt with her rain-stick, her ramshackle wolfs-pelt and Polo, her primary canine by her side.
It was Ebalo, who spoke up. “What is this usurper doing out in the dead of night, skulking about under cover of darkness?” Still taking in the situation we hesitated in reply. As Wolf-Mutt crouched to the snow in the following moments fixed and surveying the scene, some more warriors arrived from neighbouring huts in answer to my brother’s call.
It was well known around the village that the old woman sometimes needed to take for herself (and her dogs) food from our reserves, thus making her unpopular with many of the tribespeople. Things could easily turn to quick violence given this intrusion onto the residential area of our hutment, especially so late in the dark hours of the cold when people’s fears and desires were fierce and not so easily satiated as by day.
“She’s here for our brother Eolan” I said. The crowd grew more unstable as I spoke, spears at the ready and looking for any excuse to wield. The old eccentric stood crouched on the ground observing with careful instinct, and probably ready to take flight at the first sign of real trouble. I was lying of course, father had not been gone that long and it was unlikely the old woman had heard of our troubles so quickly, unless indeed she was informed by the spirit world as we’d sometimes imagined. At the same time, the chief would likely have advised father to seek out the old woman’s help in the coming days lest our brother truly freeze, never to return to the human world - I was, in this sense, not far from some kind of truth.
“I came here, not for your brother, young one,” growled Wolf-Mutt. “Nor to take food from your reserves. I come bringing warning: the night spirits are angry with you and are coming to attack you tonight”. The contempt which many of the villagers held for old Tanniko had always been counterbalanced by the integrity she practised as a protector of our people, heeding warnings of extreme dangers and countless times saving our village from catastrophe. Even so, at this time in the world our people seemed to be at an all time low. I sensed that her warnings this night would not be taken well. “We’ve had enough of your nonsense” said the hunter’s father, his son Mobokku moving a few paces forward, his teeth bared and his arm ready, the other warriors moved with their leader.
Spears were flung without further thought while at the same time Wolf-Mutt, obscuring herself – seemingly without effort – from vision, rescinded into the white darkness of the snow and frost encrusted trees, her mutt following. Our skin prickled from the howls that ensued and as more cries were shouted, more from our village joined the campfire’s reaches. Kowaii, our village Chief returned with our father at this time, demanding explanation.
“Where is she – what did the old woman say?” Kowaii, who was wise and who knew of the great sacrifices Tanniko had made for us all knew not to dismiss the words of the wolf-mother. “Gone” was the only answer I could muster. The warriors clustered around our Chief and my father. “Into shadow” my brother echoed.
“She came with her wolves to steal all our food,” said Mobokku taking the lead. “She was about to attack us. We drove her off”.
“Lies!” replied Kowaii who had seen Tanniko over the past week and as such knew that her hunting had gone well of recent days. “She has plenty to eat for her pack. You will tell me now what she said to you before you foolishly attacked her, or I will kill you where you stand.”
The howls of the wolves were closer now. Young Eolan, withering, slumped to the ground before my brother and I could hold him back, reaching his hand out to the fire, and withholding any sound of pain, the fire charred his skin enough to fill the air with the smell of cooked flesh. Meanwhile the gathered crowd grew weary of further deceit as they had come to respect and fear the cunning of their Chief, and had noted the reprimand of Mobukku at Kowaii’s word. As we struggled to pull our brother from the fire, Ebalo told the Chief of the Wolf-Mutt’s warning of the night spirits.
Eyes glowed around us now, and as the howls continued, we were unable to gauge any kind of distance as to the howlers, or to their shape or form. We feared that more than wolves stood out beyond the fire’s reach watching us. The eyes glowed and absconded as easily as they first appeared.
Amidst the continued howling, a voice appeared, hissing and crackling. “Youuuuu, the people of the Sskelllissssiiiiii … we the creatures of the night have been watching,” the crowd scampered into chaotic formation, the warriors surrounding the elders, me and my brother to the side with Eolan. “It hassss been many moons since you have ssspoken to usss.”
“What do you want?” beamed the voice of our Chief, unafraid and unyielding to any passions of rebuke. “You have forgotten usss, for this inssssult we demand sacrificssse.”
Three of the warriors, young and eager to prove themselves, defying command, and ignoring Kowaii’s halting words, raced towards the clearing shouting a war cry to conquer their fears, “Aaaiiieeeeaaaah!”
The three disappeared into the darkness.
What came after this was uncertain. Shapes played out beyond our powers to see, and as the voices of the three young warriors were muffled, the growls of wolves increased and for a moment there was a silence before a single howl broke out, a strangely humanised howl, which was immediately joined by the others.
I can’t pinpoint what it was, perhaps it was the lulling voice in the flames or perhaps it was the icy wind that had finally taken hold of my heart, but I let go of Eolan and stood up preparing to walk out into the void surrounding us. For the first time in two cycles, Eolan made an effort of movement, reaching his hand out to me, and for a moment I thought of surrendering my desire and staying there to hold him until he died, but I couldn’t. The chief tried to stop me, a youngster amongst the warriors, but my father, in silence showed his support and consent.
Life with Tanniko, out in the darkness, was not as I had expected. I grew to know the names of the twigs on the trees, of patches of ground which resonated frequencies of warmth or darkness, I conversed with clouds about life and I hunted with the wolves, and in this regard transgressed the abilities of my tribespeople – or at least as far as I could remember them.
In honesty there was little room for nostalgia in my life. When I returned to the village along with the Wolf-Mother to tend to the dogs, I could only make out a few faces, my father and my brothers with whom I conversed briefly to tell them news of the wilds. My brothers had taken to calling me ‘Pup-Mutt’, but I understood that they knew who I was now and what I had done, and that in essence I was still their sister, and I made sure they could recognise a smile in my eyes. Eolan would often stare at me and seemed to be unable to look away when I was around. He never used words, but in the expression of his face I thought I could read the message “thank you, and may the skies forever bless”.
Morning slave rises
fixing fragments, fixing
for a wanderless
fixing, flaunting through
small poisons of stated smiles,
he’s brought background by
Sent off through the river
regent reborn fixing
for sleep under night sky
and jewels of the heaven
We were cartoon mice in one of those
parts of town still characterised by a
slapstick-comedy aura; the threat of giddy
(almost innocent) violence loomed around the
corners and the bends.
Flashes on the vid-screens boast post-
Faustian pact in whisper - 100 illustrious
illusions to illicit women’s desires; captivate
and subdue (now you too can possess the
The threat of the forests soared ever larger
and as we centred in upon the great tower to reflect
upon stale axiom, I looked to you and you to me,
and as we grew we came to see that there is
less of us each day.
Our tumbling descent is a frenetic gravitational
jig, much in the vein of the big bang’s primal
dance number. We subtract all division on our
way past grimacing billboards and tired cries
of surprise, until…
Splat! A pile of dust arises from our silhouettes
and we lift our caps to the madmen herever after
The correct term is ‘vagrant’
Although such affiliation espouses
Misery and disease,
The truth is that no such facsimile
He was of the sort who’d think to do
His secret things while others lay asleep.
Can you picture that face like a pile of
Fetid garbage? Squashed pizza?
Some say he is the only-man, we
Prisoners shun and pity him as is our
Right, this great-escapist.
White-washed factoids passively reiterate my
Slumberous state, stoic coordinates illuminate slim rain
Figures; ghosts conceived of many repetitions ago.
We speak of mountains, of the development
Of millions of years. We speak of formations, of men
Caught up between wild wonder and RealPolitik,
A floating consciousness caught up in sleep reverberation.
I’m sure for a moment that I could taste it, but I can never
Quite grasp at what those words have planned for me:
They seem to float between the surfaces, sinking,
And sending me curling within for slippery instance
Yet in circumstance they’d poked me in the face.
Today the pro-militant atheist of our age boldly dismisses any idea of an ‘Ultimate Source’, while ridiculing those who are not so ready to commit to such an absolutist stance. The conservative theistic element reels in fear in light of an unredeemable youth of modernity who, without the guiding principles of their ‘God’, are doomed to commit this world to the chaos of nihilism and amorality. But viewed in a relatively simplistic manner, we might span the history of mankind to see that there are pros and cons of both ‘irrational faith’ and scepticism.
The imaginative leaps that lead prehistoric mankind first to establish a system of sounds with which to communicate was, in certain senses, rational but surely this development was connected, at least in part, to the development of tribal music, of drumming sounds, of imitating nature as best as possible. Art itself is immensely irrational, and yet it would be hard to give an account of the history of human thought without mentioning its influences. The development of religious beliefs too, were undoubtedly at some stage seen as being rational - that is, they were systems which were able to explain more than they obfuscated. Ideas are subject to constant change, every idea is a work in progress, every thought a living process. Some day the ideas of modern physicists might seem terribly outdated and thus irrational. Isaac Newton was rumoured to have spent more time studying alchemy than he did physics. The point to be made is that there is a fine line between irrational beliefs and practical fictions. Human thought is a long history of balance and imbalance between assumed beliefs and evidential counter-arguments driven by scepticism of said beliefs.
The problem is not that either party in this false dilemma of atheism/theism is completely wrong, rather than that they are both only partly right. When dealing with anyone with even a remotely intelligent idea of an Ultimate Source, the hard-boiled atheist may have some difficulty in defending the existence of any abstract principle in conjunction with their disavowal of a ‘God’. Can one produce evidence for the existence of justice, friendship, or love? What about the number three? What about ‘correctness’? The human self? According to the manner in which atheists lay their charge of non-existence in regards to ‘God’, none of these things can be proven to exist. And yet, it moves, to invert the famous avowal of Galileo Galilei, or perhaps one might rather say, and yet we go about our daily lives as if things exist for which we have no proof.
To view the religiously inclined as those who (at times) entertain irrational thought, is a step away from the picture portrayed (well-deservedly) through roughly 5000 shameful years of institutional power relations - as those who follow bizarre and anachronistic rules merely through an acquiescence to social, cultural and familial norms. As far as the atheist lays her charge of antipathy in regards to blind faith and ignorant submission to authority, I think most of us would be in agreement with her. But to dismiss any kind of ‘spirituality’ or ‘irrational/instinctual feeling of connectedness with the world’ on the basis of the actions of the church is to throw the proverbial baby out with the holy water. More than this though, we are all of us - atheist, theist or agnost - subject to influences for which we often have no explanation. The religious element is not necessary for this kind of inductive error, in fact it’s really just a given facet of life that we must sometimes act without knowing fully.
Likewise, any reasonable non-believing individual will be able to give an account of how it is perfectly possible in a material world to act in accordance with one’s fellows in an ethical fashion without recourse to a ‘Divine Being’. Regressive slippery slope arguments aside, theists have really no reason to fear the decline of morality in today’s world, other than that there are fewer in their own social club with which to interact, and thus there is perhaps more room for potential dissonance between parties. Nihilism and apathy are not the dominion of the non-believer alone. An individual with a healthy sense of faith will also at times doubt said faith - if they didn’t then there would be absolutely no difference between their belief in comparison to non-belief; there is no point to accept without constructive dissention. Faith on any scale is dependent upon constant re-avowals of abstract thought into (more or less agreeable) linguistic propositions.
It seems to me, the smartest (and strongest minded) atheists are those who lay the burden of proof with the theist and simply choose not to believe. They don’t need to argue, they just go on living their lives. Likewise regarding the theistically inclined, the strongest are those who find joy and purpose within the confines of their own belief structure without attempting to intimidate or demoralise those around them who choose to live differently. When one or the other of these ideological factions (which are themselves as diverse and fractional as any other groupings of abstract concepts) moves to dehumanise their antagonists, they show the invalidity of their own modes of thought. This is not to say, for instance, that schools in Evangelist parts of the United States should be allowed free reign to impose their belief in science classrooms or to challenge biological science through a primitive ‘might is right’ mindset - once again, when aspects of individual belief are imposed on those outside of that belief system, we are able to see the true underlying message of the ideals which propel such impositions: our belief is superior to your belief. Join us and enjoy our privilege.
Discussion and disagreement are necessary for the development of our ideational capacities as humans. Generalisation and dehumanisation however, brings nothing to the table. Let’s remember to play nicely with our imaginary friends, or lack thereof.