Friday, October 16, 2009

21st Century Dreams of Electric Sheep

Philip Dick made a profound impression on me. I was introduced to his work, not through the avenue of science fiction but the closest that he came to writing mainstream fiction in the form of 'Confessions of a Crap Artist'. There is no one quite like Dick in any genre or in any century. Slightly bemused, I sought more and found the treasure trove of his science fiction outpourings.

Philip Dick was an extremely prolific writer, brilliant, undisciplined, 'uneven' in his prose, even self-indulgent where his pet theories were concerned. He was driven to write as a sort of spiritual exploration of his own soul and the collective unconscious. He was neither happy nor content with life. He attempted suicide many times and was incarcerated in mental hospitals more than once. He experimented with drugs in a very dedicated fashion, one of those who felt a compulsion to strip away the veils of multiple realities. His autobiographical 'Valis' trilogy is his ultimate dissertation, embodied in the curious mixture of religious and philosophical theory and science fiction that distinguishes most of his work.

Philip Dick wrote many brilliant novels and short stories but it is an aspect of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' that continues to haunt me to this day. In a post-apolcalyptic world where natural animals have become almost extinct due to poisons in the atmosphere, electronic animals have taken their place to some extent, both as a social status symbol and as surrogate pets on which to lavish affection.

The story was written in 1968, long before the concept of Gigapets or Furbies were even a gleam in the eyes of their creators. Philip Dick's prophetic visions were more astounding for their time even than those of William Gibson. In the 21st century, when virtual realities are commonplace and people think nothing of creating 'avatars' of themselves, Philip Dick's visions of Perky Pat and virtual pets have proven themselves uncanny.

It is not so much the concept of electronic pets, however, but the religion of Mercerism that continues to haunt me. Mercerism was a cult that appeared in the world of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'. William Mercer lived before the last World War that essentially destroyed the natural environment of the Earth. A saint-like figure to his followers, he allegedly had the power to revive dead animals. Rather than seeing this as a gift, however, the government used chemicals to nullify the section of his brain that controlled this amazing ability. This was to prove extremely ironic, in view of the subsequent semi-extinction of natural animal life but governments, according to Philip Dick, seldom are as concerned with the true welfare of the earth or their constituents than they are with protection of their own power at any price.

Mercer's powers having been eradicated, he nonetheless became a cult figure and the 'Black Box' is the means for 'Communion' of his followers with one another and with the object of their devotion. When the handles of the Black Box are gripped, the user becomes fused with Mercer himself on a mythic journey as well as with any one else who happens to be in contact with a Black Box at the same time.

In union, then, Mercer (and all the users of the Box) undertake a difficult and agonising journey up a steep hill. Each step is a struggle and as Mercer ascends, sharp rocks and missiles are thrown at him. The pain is felt acutely by any one in contact with the Black Box. Rather like the Christian Stations of the Cross and empathy with Christ as he stumbles, falls and takes up his cross anew, bleeding from the Crown of Thorns and the wounds of his scourging, the participants in the mystery rite of Mercer are one with him in suffering as well as their determination to reach the top of the mountain.

The ultimate cosmic cruelty in the Mercer rite, however, is that Mercer never reaches the top of the hill. Like Sisyphus who is condemned to push a boulder uphill only to have it roll down again and again, Mercer must continue to climb forever. The power of the rite and the experience in the journey not in the goal.

Sometimes, when I explore a new Harvest Moon game, I am reminded of the Black Box and Wilbur Mercer. The experience with the Black Box was an exercise in empathy, a means by which human beings remained in contact with that essential wellspring of humanity. In a world where nothing but the lack of empathy distinguished the true human from the android, the religion of Mercer represented a means by which empathy was validated as the ultimate spiritual experience.

In Harvest Moon, it is not wealth that determines success but the player's relationships with others, whether other villagers, prospective spouses, magiccal creatures, ranch animals or pets. Some players complain that it is tedious to meet and greet villagers or to care for animals daily. Others complain about the repetitive quality of farming. To me, all of these activities are a spiritual exercise, akin to the journey of Wilbur Mercer up the mountain. Typhoons may destroy crops in Harvest Moon but your ultimate success is measured not in monetary totals but in Heart/Friendship Levels and in 'staying the course'. The player who picks up a new Harvest Moon game and plays through a season or two or even a single year will not reap the best rewards. Often there are events that cannot be experienced before the fifth year but these events usually have friendship requirements as well.

You can spend hours tilling your field, planting your crops and watering them regularly only to have a Typhoon wipe out a good portion of them in a single day. You can explore a mine for hours in one journey and reach a floor only to discover that you can go no further as it has neither stairs nor a pitfall... If you are defeated by setbacks like these, you have no business playing the game. The lesson teaches determination and patience. You have to clear your field of the debris that the storm has caused and rebuild any collapsed buildings. You have to make a new journey to the mine and again strive to go lower...

As with Mercer's journey up the mountain, there usually is no final point in Harvest Moon where you can state that you have 'won' the game any more than real life has any definitive moment, apart from death, where you can pronounce your struggle finished.

Another point of similarity between Harvest Moon and the universe of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' is the emotional investment that we make in virtual realities. The crops you grow and the animals you raise in Rune Factory or Harvest Moon ask for a real investment in time and emotion. Is it a form of weakness or delusion to weep for the death of an animal or character in a game, or does it represent an enlightened sense of empathy? There are those who kill off characters and animals in games and find it amusing to do so, believing that it is a 'safe' way to vent frustrations in life. Perhaps that is so, but I feel there is spiritual value in caring for characters and creatures in virtual realities as well. It is no substitute for THIS world and its creatures but perhaps it keeps us in touch with the divine wellspring of love and compassion in some way.

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