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'Android' lectures explore humanity and technology

Freshmen and transfer students attended lectures on the nature of being human, artificial pets, the interplay between humans and technology, and more on Aug. 22. Six faculty lecturers tackled different aspects of Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" -- this year's New Student Reading Project selection.

Shawkat Toorawa, professor of Near Eastern studies, accompanied his talk in Willard Straight Theatre with film and video -- including scenes from Fritz Lang's 1927 "Metropolis" and from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" -- dealing with the human traits of artificial beings, a central theme of Dick's novel.

"Ever since I started teaching, I've used science fiction in my teaching of subjects including medieval culture," he said, suggesting several books including "The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction" and Peter Palk's "From Utopia to Apocalypse."

Popular science fiction works such as "Star Wars" and "The Matrix" series "appeal to the filmgoer's interest in good and evil," he said, with human stories at their core but also trading in special effects and merchandising. He gave "Avatar" as an "egregious example" of this, with its DVD menu full of interactive, downloadable extras; and showed film trailers mashing up "Avatar" with Disney's "Pocahontas" and "Ferngully: The Last Rainforest."

"Science fiction writing is extremely intertextual," Toorawa said, and lends itself to diverse critical approaches, from literary analysis to queer theory. The 1982 film "Blade Runner," based on Dick's book, became a major influence not only on subsequent films but on SF writing, he said.

Speaking in Statler Auditorium, associate professor of communication and information science Jeff Hancock referenced the novel's Voigt-Kampff "human-detector" empathy test as he engaged students in an "interrogation" to define humanity, and looked at deception in the age of social networks. His lecture was titled "More Human Than Human: Virtual Worlds and Imagination."

Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis, discussed the technology in the book and the roles machines play in our lives in his talk, "Why Electric Sheep Need Human Shepherds" at the Schwartz Center. Other "Android" lecturers were Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and information science, on "What Do Robots Dream Of?" in Baker Lab; "Pets of the Future" with clinical sciences lecturer Gretchen Schoeffler; and Thomas Whitlow, professor of horticulture, with "Biodiversity, Ecocomplexity, and the Human Experience" in Call Alumni Auditorium.

New students also submitted essays on the book at about 250 small group discussions across campus on Aug. 23, led by Cornell faculty, staff and administrators.

The "Androids" experience doesn't end with Orientation Week. The reading project website http://reading.cornell.edu features study questions, events, and an informative blog with content by librarian Lance Heidig. This year's read has also spawned a film series and three exhibitions on campus.

Cornell Cinema is presenting "Dickstopia: The Dystopian Realities of Philip K. Dick," Sept. 1-24, with four film adaptations: "Screamers" (1996), based on "Second Variety"; "Total Recall" (1990), based on "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"; "A Scanner Darkly" (2006) and "Minority Report" (2002). Each film will also be screened on video on Saturdays in September in Robert Purcell Community Center Auditorium.

The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art is offering, through Sept. 19, a small study gallery exhibit of paintings and video related to the book.

"The Case for Relationships," through Oct. 8 in Balch Hall's Carol Tatkon Center, displays such themes as the role of animals in our lives and science's efforts to preserve the animal kingdom.

Cornell Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections traces the history of Dick's novel, and its translation to screen and popular consciousness, in "Android Dreams: Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott's Replicant Futures," online and in a physical exhibition on display through Oct. 8 in Carl A. Kroch Library level 2B. The library has copies of "Androids" and other Dick works in several languages, and various editions of "Blade Runner."

Other events include a panel discussion of the "Androids" 2010 Community Read, Aug. 26, 8 p.m. at the Tompkins County Public Library. The library's book discussion groups, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. and Sept. 22 at 11:30 a.m., are open to the public with advance registration. Information: http://tcpl.org/community-read.php.

Media Contact

Blaine Friedlander