Saturday, 22 May 2010

Salvation and Christian typology in Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is one of the most powerfully - and genuinely - Christian books I've ever read. I don't say this lightly, not being a Christian myself but as someone who has on occasion felt the raw power of Christian mythology. I read it in a little under a week, and probably affected me because of the depression I've been in myself recently, one I saw evocatively echoed the descent of Isidore (the subhuman, mutated by the poisonous atmosphere of the earth) into the tomb world. As the real world collapses around him - literally it breaks apart at his fingertips - he finds himself in a subterranean place of bones, spiritless and unformed. But after an aeon life begins to emerge again, and takes him with it, and he realises that the origin of the person Mercer, this new world's popular messiah figure, is unimportant - the fraud has just been revealed as a conspiracy based around an unwitting and unknown actor - whether Mercer actually lived, or experienced any of the events people go through when they 'fuse' with him. He lives in human beings, in the people who look to and rely on him.

The androids, conversely, don't care. When media celebrity Buster Friendly exposes the fraud, they mock human empathy (typified in the fusion with Mercer provided by the ubiquitous 'empathy machines') as a hoax, one proved false by the swindle of Mercerism. But the final proof of Mercer's 'untruth' is negated by Isidore's experience as a result of the androids' mutilation of a spider he found outside. Wild animals are extremely rare in the poisoned earth, and cherished by the philosophy of Mercerism. Just as Isidore is saved by the false messiah of Mercerism, so is all reality; all of creation is resanctified, death is defeated and life returns.

Just as in this process, even the tomb world is essential (the appearance and experience of death is necessary for the salvation, when death is revealed as conditional), so the bounty hunter Rick finally realises his wife Iran's meaning: Iran had claimed that depression was a healthy human reaction to some conditions, one necessary to a full human life. The absence of such a correct reaction to the sterile world, abandoned and devoid of life, that surrounded them, she identifies as an archaic mental illness. This flattening of affect typifies the androids as well as the pathological bounty killer Phil Resch who is consistently mistaken for an android; an absence of any emotional depth or resonance which is in fact the problem of the novel's world.

Rick identifies in himself a defect: he has begun to identify with some androids. Phil Resch has no such problem. Although Rick initially feels this overactive empathy as a horrifying mutation, a symptom of dust-infection, it slowly becomes clear that it is not him but the world which is wrong: the cold world, devoid of compassion, involved in a constant struggle to tell androids from humans when even some humans are pathological. Even Isidore, a cripplingly mutated chickenhead, demonstrates his superiority to the androids in his response o the spider - he is terrified by their curious desire to experiment on it, and it is Mercer, the false prophet, who saves them both.

Philip K Dick lived during the last half of the 20th Century, the period when Christianity began to be popularly reduced to the status of a falsehood under speculations about the historicity of Jesus. Dick's own interest in the early Gnostic mythology of the Nag Hammadi texts evidences a belief in the power of myth to guide our lives, and reimbue reality with a sense of meaning and purpose. In Do Androids Dick fully realises the potential of myth as an element of human thought to again bring life to a dead and cold world: Rick finally realises that, in his own identification with Mercer, he has become immortal, identified with an archetype who, despite his literal falsity, is imbedded in human consciousness. Mercer, as the name suggests, is a personification of mercy - mercy to all life, and to that we may call the soul of reality.