Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2008


Animal Companions and Empathy

Warren Buff

I don't normally get this sercon, but when Guy mentioned that his theme was on animals and SF, I immediately thought of a comparison I'd drawn several months before, meant to turn into an article, and left by the wayside. I'll be supposing, for most of this article, that you've read (or are at least familiar with) both Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. Unfortunately, due to Ridley Scott's choice of which themes to include, Blade Runner will not do as a substitute here.

Both stories had a heavy focus on the connections between human characters and their companion animals. That occurred to me pretty readily. So did a few of the other parallels – the idea that someone could be judged based on their animal, that someone without an animal was somehow less human, the involvement of the animals in the religious experiences of the human characters. All this stuff jumped out at me, but I wanted to dig deeper, see how it could be significant. So here goes.

Since the first connection I really made was the religious attitudes of the human characters towards animals, that's where I'll start. In Dick's world, the dominant religion is Mercerism, which emphasizes empathy of any sort. The primary modes this empathy is practiced in, though, are through a machine which allows the devotee to experience the suffering of Mercer, and through caring for animals. Mercer had encouraged all of his followers to care for an animal, and with the rarity of animals following the war, society placed a premium on owning one. The idea seems to be that by practicing empathy for an animal, we can retain our ability to care for one another.

The religious connection to animals in Pullman's world is much more metaphysical than social. Each human being is born with a daemon, an animal-like manifestation of our souls. The daemon is a constant companion which we can hold close for comfort, carry on a conversation with, or rely upon for its heightened senses. It has an ability to shift for children, but settles into a fixed form during adolescence. Its religious significance is reinforced by reference to daemons in the passage of Pullman's alternate world's Genesis story – upon eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve become aware of their daemons.

Furthermore, as a reflection of an individual's soul, a daemon could tell the world about someone's character. A person with a dog-daemon ought to be loyal. A person with an owl-daemon ought to be wise. A cat-daemon could indicate cleverness. Particularly violent folks might have wolves for daemons. It's a convenient trope for young-adult fiction that the adults in the story can mostly be judged by the form and actions of their daemons, although some of the most important characters have rather confusing daemons, probably deliberately. This convenience extends to the point of whole groups of people having the same sorts of daemons (for instance, a fighting troupe with wolves), so that young readers might easily perceive their threatening or benevolent potential.

The judgment of people based upon their animas in Dick's world takes a different tone. Animals are readily classified in value according to Sidney's Catalog, which lists all sorts of animals, even those that are extinct. It gives a market rate for each sort of animal, and the last sale's price for those which are not currently available. Because of the scarcity of animals, a social hierarchy develops based upon the price of the animal a person can afford. The pressures of this hierarchy are so great that people go to great lengths to obtain animals potentially beyond their means, or purchase the electric versions of the title. It is considered better to be seen tending an animal you pretend is real (and the neighbors maintain the fiction, sometimes without much effort) than to be someone who doesn't tend an animal at all.

Someone who doesn't tend to an animal is seen as unusual and potentially untrustworthy. Because of Mercerism's emphasis on empathy, and the role animals play in providing opportunities to learn and show empathy, someone without an animal to care for is seen as deficient in empathy. And since empathy is the last trait which really divides humans from androids, to be deficient in empathy is to be less human. The urge to care for an animal is one of the simplest forms of empathy, and expressing this empathy makes us more human. Oddly enough, even this has become perverted to the point that it is more socially desirable to care for animals than to care for other people. As Rachael points out to Deckard, “You love that goat more than you love me, more than you love your wife probably.” Mercerism's ritual of caring for animals may have had an alchemical goal of improving oneself, but it has lost its substance in the face of the Sidney's Catalog and the commercial attitudes it represents. The value of caring for an animal has gone from a transformative experience to little more than a status symbol.

In Pullman's world, the idea of a person without a daemon is even more repulsive. Literally, someone without a daemon would have no soul. When Lyra first encounters people without apparent daemons, she is shocked. While some, like the witches and Will Parry, still have souls which aren't readily apparent (the witches because their daemons can travel far from them and Will because his soul is internal), the children the General Oblation Board has separated from their daemons are literally soulless, and are slowly dying of it. As with the urge in Dick's world to improve one's standing through owning a better animal, even a simulacrum thereof, in Pullman's world, those without daemons want them. Iofur Raknison, the king of the armored bears, is so obsessed with getting a daemon that he keeps a doll, and in his eagerness opens himself to Lyra's manipulations. While other bears, like Iorek Byrnison, realize that their souls are in their armor, Iofur is so convinced of the appeal of a relationship with a daemon that he overlooks this.

In contrast to Iofur's folly, though, as well as to the overly desensitized marketplace of Dick's world, daemons open up a strange opportunity for empathy in Pullman's world. Once Will and Lyra have journeyed to a world on which Will's daemon is visible, and their lives become tranquil enough, they begin to experiment with their connection to each other by breaking one of the greatest taboos of Lyra's society – they touch each others' daemons. It is in this moment of connection that their daemons fix in form and they become adults (and proceed to go behind a hill to do a few more adult things). Where in Dick's world, empathy separated humans from androids, in Pullman's world, it is a mark of maturity. In gaining the transcendent empathy of direct contact with each other's souls, Will and Lyra were able to immediately become adults.

Deckard also experiences a moment of transcendent empathy. After the major action of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, he encounters a supposedly extinct toad in the wilderness. He takes it with him, hoping to share this experience with others. While it occurs to him that this toad is priceless, he is more overcome by the wonder of discovering it. Even when the toad turns out to be electric, he no longer minds, and his wife proceeds to order artificial flies to feed it.

Both novels use empathy for animals as a model for empathy among human beings. While Dick's treatment of human empathy and experience is more pessimistic than Pullman's, both emphasize the importance of connecting with other human beings. Through the symbolic medium of care for animals, both elevate empathy to the level of a holy duty. And while both worlds are necessarily fantastic in the service of their central allegories, this lesson of empathy is one we can easily take away from both.



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