I have not read science fiction since I was in junior high, but since I enjoyed the movie Bladerunner, I decided to read the novel on which it was based, Phillip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The two works are quite different. Bladerunner’s strength is its film noir atmosphere and images of grand-scale urban decay. Yet the forms of urban misery that riddle the future are already familiar to us: social stratification, immigrant slums, rampant crime and ecological disaster. The late 21st century it depicts is not too different from how we imagine the slums of 4th century Rome or 19th century London. Life is bad, but we know it will continue. The basic attitudes the characters have towards life are not very different from our own.
In Androids however, humanity is staring extinction in the face: after one or two generations there will be nothing left of life on earth, leaving only the remote hope of life continuing on extra-terrestrial colonies. The basic attitude is despair; not simple despair in the face of death, but a metaphysical despair about the very nature of the universe itself.
Since humanity is facing extinction, it has finally come to grips with what contemporary science already teaches us about life. The creeping chaos that the characters of Androids call “kipple” is what modern physics describes as the law of entropy. The amount of energy in the universe is constant, but every time energy is expended it takes more and more useless forms: when you cut down a tree for firewood and burn it, it expends energy in the form of light and heat, but this quickly dissipates and can never be recovered. The ashes that are left can be used as fertilizer for a new plant, but so much of the energy is lost in the process of growth that the new plant can never be as big as even the pile of ash it grew out of. Eventually, all the matter and energy that makes up the universe will be reduced to unusable forms. After a few billion years all that will be left of the universe will be a vast puddle of background static.
Think that is depressing? It gets worse. Life, according to the neo-darwinian vision dominate today, is a curious chance phenomenon of molecular structures that seem to temporarily defy the law of entropy by becoming more organized through evolution, but which in the end are only speeding up entropy because of the amount of energy they use. A living organism is a “wet machine” that exists by chance, sustains itself by reducing matter to energy, and has no purpose outside its own brief and inherently meaningless survival. The difference between an organic life form and a machine is one of degree, not of kind.
People today study this stuff in high school physics class and stick little Darwin fish on the backs of their cars, but don’t do much to come to grips with this rather grim vision of existence. They compartmentalize it, and even if they believe it they do not act as if it were real. In Androids people have no choice but to come to grips with it. How they do that will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.