Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the name of the novel written by American writer Philip K. Dick which was the primary basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner. The novel later on was retitled as “Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” for obvious reasons.
Philip K. Dick was notable for publishing works of science fiction. Dick explored philosophical, social and political themes in novels with plots dominated by monopolistic corporations, authoritarian governments, parallel universes and altered states of consciousness. His work reflected his personal interest in metaphysics and often drew upon his life experiences in addressing the nature of reality, identity, drug abuse, schizophrenia and transcendental experiences.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was defined as another of their science fiction novels and was first published in 1968. The novel is presented in a context described as a post-apocalyptic scenario in the bay area, specifically in San Francisco California, where the earth ecosystem was severely damaged by a great nuclear war affecting all living forms from extreme radiation, poisoning and pollution.
The main plot follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is tasked to eliminate six escaped Nexus-6 model androids, while a secondary plot follows John Isidore, a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids. In connection with Deckard’s mission, the novel explores the issue of what it is to be human and the implications of our existence. Unlike humans, the androids are said to possess no sense of empathy.
The novel is presented on an a post-apocalyptic era in the year 1992, then moved to year 2021 in later editions. After the great nuclear war called in the novel “World War Terminus”, the Earth’s dying atmosphere leads the United Nations to promote mass emigrations to off-world colonies to preserve humanity’s genetic integrity with the incentive of free personal androids, described as robot servants which are identical to humans. On Earth, real live animals are perceived as a status symbol because of mass extinction and a curious cultural push from humans to have greater empathy with them. In consequence a new technology-based religion called “Mercerism” emerged. Poor people can only afford realistic looking electric animals. In the novel Deckard, for example, owns a robotic black-faced sheep. Mercerism uses “empathy boxes” to link users simultaneously to a collective virtual reality of communal suffering, centered on a martyr-like character, Wilbur Mercer who eternally climbs up a hill while being hit with crashing stones.
The story also contains passing mention of “Penfield mood organs”, which fill the role played by mind-altering drugs in other Dick stories. The technology can induce any desired mood in the people nearby, such as “an optimistic business-like attitude” or “the desire to watch television, no matter what is on”. A slightly ironic passage in the opening chapter has Deckard and his wife, Iran, discussing what settings to use to start the day. She announces that she has scheduled six hours of “existential despair” for later in order to deal with their loneliness in an almost-deserted apartment building.
The plot starts with bounty-hunter Rick Deckard signing on to a new police mission in order to earn money to buy a live animal to replace his electric sheep, seeking greater existential fulfillment for himself and his depressed wife, Iran. The mission involves hunting down six Nexus-6 androids that violently went rogue after their creation by the Rosen Association, and fled Mars for Earth. Deckard visits the Rosen headquarters in Seattle to confirm the validity of a question-and-answer empathy test: a method for identifying any androids posing as humans. Deckard is greeted by Rachael Rosen, who quickly fails his test. Rachael attempts to bribe Deckard into silence, but he verifies that she is indeed a Nexus-6 model used by Rosen to attempt to discredit the test.
Deckard soon meets a Soviet police contact who turns out to be one of the disguised Nexus-6 renegades. Deckard retires the android, then flies off to retire his next target: an opera singer. This android, however, has him arrested and detained at a police department he has never heard of by a police officer whom he is surprised never to have met.
At this strange station, Deckard’s worldview is shaken when an official named Garland accuses Deckard himself of being an android. After a series of mysterious revelations at the station, Deckard ponders the ethical and philosophical questions his line of work raises regarding android intelligence, empathy, and what it means to be human. Phil Resch, the station’s resident bounty hunter, gets testing equipment to determine if his coworkers—including Deckard and Resch himself—are androids or humans. Garland subsequently reveals that the entire station is a sham, staffed entirely by androids, including Garland himself. Resch shoots Garland in the head and escapes with Deckard; together, they find and arrest the opera singer, whom Resch brutally retires in cold blood. Although Resch and Deckard are now collaborators, each still worries that he (or his partner) might be an android. Deckard administers the empathy test to himself and Resch, which confirms that Resch is a human being—if a particularly ruthless one—and that Deckard is also human, but with empathy for the androids.
Only three of the Nexus-6 android fugitives remain, and one, Pris Stratton, moves into an apartment building whose only other inhabitant is John R. Isidore, a radioactively damaged, intellectually slow human classified as a “special.” The lonely Isidore attempts to befriend her. Roy and Irmgard Baty, the final two rogue androids, visit the building, and together they all plan how to survive. Meanwhile, Deckard buys Iran an authentic Nubian goat with his reward money. After quitting, Deckard is pulled back in after being notified of a new lead and experiencing a vision of the prophet-like Mercer confusingly telling him to proceed, despite the immorality of the mission. Deckard calls on Rachael Rosen again, since her own insider knowledge as an android will aid his investigation. Rachael reveals that she and Pris are the same exact model, meaning that he will have to shoot down an android that looks just like her. Rachael coaxes Deckard into sex, after which they confess their love for one another. However, she reveals she has slept with many bounty hunters, having been programmed to do so in order to dissuade them from their missions. After threatening to kill her, Deckard abruptly leaves.
Isidore develops friendships with the three android fugitives, and they all watch a television program giving definitive evidence that Mercerism is a hoax. Roy Baty tells Isidore that the show was produced by androids to discredit Mercerism and blur the distinction with humans. Suddenly Deckard enters the building, with supernatural premonitions of Mercer appearing to both him and Isidore. Since they attack him first, Deckard is legally justified in shooting down all three androids without testing them. Isidore is devastated, and Deckard is soon rewarded for a record number of Nexus-6 kills in a single day. When Deckard returns home, he finds Iran grieving because Rachael Rosen had recently shown up and killed their goat.
Deckard goes to an uninhabited, obliterated region of Oregon to reflect. He climbs a hill when he is hit by falling rocks and realizes this is an experience eerily similar to Mercer’s martyrdom. Rushing back to his car, he stumbles abruptly upon a toad, an animal previously thought to be extinct, and one of the animals sacred to Mercer. With newfound joy, Deckard brings the toad home, where Iran quickly discovers it is just a robot. While Deckard is unhappy, he decides that he at least prefers to know the truth, making the remark that “The electrical things have their lives too, paltry as those lives are”.