This book is the basis of the movie Blade Runner. While there are obvious plot connections, the book has a completely different feel. The plot obeys one of Aristotle's classical unities: the unity of time.
The book introduces a machine that controls and creates emotions, even complex emotions like the pleased recognition of the husband's wisdom. Deckhard's wife struggles with the use of the machine, refusing it to use it or selecting a setting that causes deep depression and guilt. Like her husband, she is searching for what is real, true and human but forced to rely on the artifical, the machine for the catharsis she needs, the human connection she craves.
Empathy is the primary way to distinguish androids and humans. In the movie, there is a definite confusion between empathy and sympathy. Both indicate an ability to understand what another person feels and be able to feel what they are feeling. Sympathy is a step further; it includes compassion and ongoing concern for another person. In the book, the newest androids can empathize with humans, are capable of feeling what another feels. On a superficial level, they are capable of identify and emulate feelings. However, Rachael reveals that this ability to empathize is not inherently a positive characteristic. Understanding Deckhard's love and pride in his goat, she murders the goat in revenge. In the movie, Roy exhibits sympathy, compassion, when he elects to save Deckhard while he himself is dying.
The book also features a religious element which is absent in the movie. Mercerism is a religion that allows its members the ability to experience the founders struggles and martyrdom. The followers are linked through empathy boxes. Through these boxes, a follower enters the journey of Mercer, seeing and feeling what he saw and felt. They are also connected to the thoughts and feelings of everyone else who is presently using their empathy box.
Mercerism is threatened by Buster Friendly. Buster encourages consumerism and vapid feelings of content. Buster is the only television show on Earth and maintains a monopoly on entertainment. Mercerism is its only rival. Buster may be a frequently replaced android since he seems to never age or sleep. The androids that are staying with JR state this after Buster "reveals" Mercerism to be a fake.
Deckhard reflects that this supposed revelation will not fundamentally change people and their practices because the religion offers more than its foundation story. For many people, it offers their only connection to others, the ability to feel and communicate with them.
Deckhard himself experiences a religious vision after Mercerism is exposed. Throughout the novel, Deckhard experiences doubt about the ethics of his job and increasing empathy for the androids he retires. His relationship with his fake sheep continues to bother him. He feels that it is necessary for him to maintain his sheep, pretend that it is real, for the sake of appearances. But he resents the sheep, its mechanical demands, the constant care it requires while being artificial. His need to pretend that his sheep is real, to treat it as if it were, flies in the face of his profession as an android killer.
Deckhard's revelation is of Mercer telling him that he must compromise his ethics in order to do what is right, to kill the killers. After killing the last android, Deckhard travels out to a desert and climbs up a hill, mimicking Mercer's Sisyphean journey in the empathy boxes. Before reaching the top, he returns down the hill to his car. Unable to decide what to do next, Deckhard spots a frog, believed to be extinct. The frog was considered special to Mercer; Deckhard interprets this to be a blessing. Deckhard returns home to find his real goat murdered; his wife discovers that the frog is actually a fake. Deckhard is upset but glad to know the truth. Despite the frog being artificial, Deckhard wants to keep the frog and care for it.
Oh, such a delicious ambiguity! He despises his fake sheep, takes pride in his real goat, and decides to love and care for a fake frog. Despite his growing empathy for androids, he retires the renegades with precision. Deckhard desperately wants what is real but relies upon the artificial. The fake human is to be killed, the fake animal to be provided for, cared for, petted. The religion is proven false but potent, much like Deckhard's frog, much like the new androids.
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