Tuesday, December 06, 2011


Mercerism and Faith

Philip K. Dick's work is probably the most consistently metaphysically-oriented in the American science fiction canon. In my last post, I mentioned Mercerism, the dominant religion in Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Mercer is a Christ-like figure in Mercerism and adherents achieve "fusion" with him via an "empathy box", a device that produces the effect of an altered state of shared consciousness. The androids in Androids are lacking in empathy and hence cannot partake of Mercerism. The nurturing of and sacredness of animal life is an important part of Mercerism, too.

Androids are, thus, double outsiders to Mercerism and they are hostile to it. Three android characters are exultant when the eponymic host of Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends—whom they know is secretly an android himself—reveals on television that Mercer is a decrepit, washed-up, two-bit, alcoholic actor and "Mercerism is a swindle!". The visual manifestations one experiences when using an empathy box were filmed on "a cheap, Hollywood, commonplace sound stage". But things aren't that simple when it comes to religion, especially not in a Philip K. Dick story.

After the revelatory scene, J. R. Isidore, an adherent of Mercerism and a captive of the three taunting androids, has a mystical experience that seems to begin even before he grips the handles of his empathy box. He is transported to the "tomb world". He calls out to Mercer, who comes to him. What follows is one of the most beautiful and beautifully written allegories of faith I've ever read.
"Is the sky painted?" Isidore asked. "Are there really brush strokes that show up under magnification?"

"Yes," Mercer said.

"I can't see them."

"You're too close," Mercer said. "You have to be a long way off, the way the androids are. They have better perspective."

"Is that why they claim you're a fraud?"

"I am a fraud," Mercer said. "They're sincere; their research is genuine. From their standpoint I am an elderly retired bit player named Al Jarry. All of it, their disclosure, is true. They interviewed me at my home, as they claim; I told them whatever they wanted to know, which was everything."

"Including about the whisky?"

Mercer smiled. "It was true. They did a good job and from their standpoint Buster Friendly's disclosure was convincing. They will have trouble understanding why nothing has changed. Because you're still here and I'm still here." Mercer indicated with a sweep of his hand the barren, rising hillside, the familiar place. "I lifted you from the tomb world just now and I will continue to lift you until you lose interest and want to quit. But you will have to stop searching for me because I will never stop searching for you."

"I didn't like that about the whisky," Isidore said. "That's lowering."

"That's because you're a highly moral person. I'm not. I don't judge, not even myself." Mercer held out a closed hand, palm up. "Before I forget it, I have something of yours here." He opened his fingers. On his hand rested the mutilated spider, but with its snipped-off legs restored.

"Thanks." Isidore accepted the spider. He started to say something further --

An alarm bell clanged.
The spider had been dismembered by the androids. The alarm bell is ringing because Deckard, a bounty hunter, has shown up and will soon dispatch the three androids. Shortly after their demise, Deckard—who hasn't seen Buster Friendly's expose—goes to the northern California wastelands. Deckard is portrayed elsewhere in the book as an unenthusiastic adherent of Mercerism but there, in the "uninhabited desolation" and without an empathy box, he has his own mystical encounter with Mercer. Just before he returns home, he speaks on the phone with his secretary: "They're saying now that Mercer is a fake." Deckard replies, "Mercer isn't a fake ... [u]nless reality is a fake."

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really like your blog.
Chris Milk has designed an interface for the shared experience to evolve through interactive video and virtual reality.
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