When you read a book, if the author is any good, you feel for the characters living in its pages. A reader empathises with them, worries about them, and follows their story. Words on a page can create this real emotional attachment.
So if bits of the alphabet carefully strung into sentences can create living people, it’s not a big step to imagine androids who have a sense of life to them. This is the theme of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It describes a post-apocalyptic world where usually subservient androids occasionally go rogue and try to make an independent life for themselves. Bounty hunters have the job of hunting down renegades and putting them out of action. Their task is complicated by the fact that artificial life forms are growing in sophistication, looking and acting very much like real people. So a test is required to differentiate one from the other, a test based on the idea that humans demonstrate a capacity for empathy, which is missing in an android.
One of the great achievements of the book is to create believable artificial characters, robots with their own charm and personality. I loved the way one of the lady androids says “pardon” when confused, while her “husband” is a gauche fellow who always puts too much force into closing doors. They also have a kind of childish cruelty, giving a jagged edge to their charm. That was how the androids struck me, as children trying to work out how to live in the world. They lack empathy in the same way that young children sometimes lack empathy. But I got the feeling that given the chance, they might develop this quality, as most, if not all, humans do.
The overall irony is, human or android, all of Philip K. Dick’s characters are built out of words, and in that sense are equally fake and equally real. This is a book which encourages a reader to take a more open minded view of what is real and what is pretend, of what matters and what can be dismissed as unimportant.