The main plot follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is faced with "retiring" six escaped Nexus-6 brainmodel androids, the latest and most advanced model, 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. Unlike humans, the androids possess no sense of empathy. In essence, Deckard probes the existence of defining qualities that separate humans from androids.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in the year 1992 and in later editions the year 2021 after World War Terminus and its radioactive fallout have ruined most of Earth. The U.N. encourages emigration tooff-world colonies, in hope of preserving the human race from the terminal effects of the fallout. One emigration incentive is giving each emigrant an "andy"—a servant android.
The remaining populace live in cluttered, decaying cities in which radiation poisoning sickens them and damages their genes. Animals are rare, and keeping and owning live animals is an important societal norm and status symbol. But many people turn towards the much cheaper synthetic, or electric, animals to keep up the pretense. Prior to the story's beginning Rick Deckard owned a real sheep, but it died of tetanus, and he replaced it with an electric one.
The story is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the last places affected by the radioactive dust, especially on the peninsula to the south. It is monitored daily by meteorologists using the Mongoose weather satellite in Earth orbit. While still relatively habitable, the sandy deserts of Oregon to the north are highly contaminated by radiation. Rick Deckard stays in a building on the east side of the bay with his wife, Iran, who is depressed.
The main Earth religion is Mercerism, in which Empathy Boxes link simultaneous users into a collective consciousness based on the suffering of Wilbur Mercer. In the shared experience of the Empathy Box, Wilbur Mercer takes an endless walk up a mountain while stones are thrown at him, the pain of which all users share. The television appearances of Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends, broadcast twenty-three hours a day, represent a second religion, designed to undermine Mercerism. Mercerism is ambiguously portrayed in the novel. The androids have radical claims and historical information questioning Mercer, Mercerism, and the Empathy Box. The Empathy box and its creation of a collective empathic experience seem to be at least part of the reason humanity has come to abhor killing. Deckard explicitly states he does not agree with what the Androids are broadcasting about Mercer.
Androids are used only in the off-world colonies on Mars yet many escape to Earth, fleeing the psychological isolation and chattel slavery. Although made of biological materials and physically all but indistinguishable from humans, they are considered to be pieces of machinery. Bounty hunters, such as Rick Deckard, hunt and "retire" (kill) fugitive androids passing for humans. Often, the police department will collect and analyze the corpses of suspected "andys" to confirm that they are, in fact, "artificial."
Earlier androids were easier to detect because of their limited intelligence. As android technology improved, bounty hunters had to apply an empathy test—the Voigt-Kampff test—to distinguish humans from androids, by measuring empathetic responses, or lack thereof, from questions designed to evoke an emotional response, often including animal subjects and themes. Because androids are not empathetic, their responses are either absent or feigned and are measurably slower than a human's. The simpler Boneli Test, used by another police department in San Francisco, measures the reflex-arc velocity in the spinal column's upper ganglia, by testing a subject's reaction time to visual stimuli. However, the only way to be sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that an individual is an android is to take a bone marrow sample.
The novel presents a day in the life of bounty hunter Rick Deckard, as he tracks down renegade androids who have assumed human identities in a post-apocalyptic world where animals are rare and the human population has largely migrated off-world.
The entire Northern California area is the territory of the district's senior bounty hunter Dave Holden. Deckard seldom works in it and does not consider himself to be either a peace officer or a full-time bounty hunter, but accepts the left-over cases that Holden either does not want or does not have time to pursue. On this day he learns that Holden has been hospitalized following an android attack during Holden's investigation into the recent escape of eight Nexus-6 androids, two of which were retired by Holden prior to the start of the novel, leaving Deckard to retire the remaining six. Deckard accepts the assignment in order to give his life meaning and combat the ennui of his existence and lack of social standing—a recent realization brought on by his wife's malaise and the social stigma of being too poor to own an organic animal pet.
The novel begins with Deckard feeling alienated from his wife, Iran, who misuses her mood organ device, intended to keep the population in even temper, by dialing the depression setting twice a month. Later Deckard has a conversation with his neighbor Bill Barbour as they tend to their domesticated animals. Deckard owns a malfunctioning synthetic black-faced Suffolk ewe being unable to afford an organic animal, while neighbor Barbour owns a real and pregnant Percheron mare. Discussing whether or not Barbour should sell the coming colt to Deckard, the latter realizes that owning a real animal would give meaning to his life.
Deckard travels by flying car to Rosen Industries in Seattle, Washington, to administer a bounty hunter "empathy test," a standard method for detection of androids posing as human in the form of a question and answer session, on the company's new Nexus-6 series. Deckard is introduced to and interviews a girl named Rachael, presented to him as the niece of Eldon Rosen, the head of the Rosen Association. Rachael eventually fails the test by hesitating in response to what should be normal human responses. The Rosens explain that Rachael is indeed human but lacks normal empathy due to being raised on a spaceship that was attempting toCOLONIZEProxima before turning back.
Rachael attempts to bribe Deckard with the gift of a real owl, but during the conversation he verifies his finding that she was Nexus-6 and that Rosen Industries was just trying to discredit the empathy test. At first it appears that Rachael had memories implanted and is not aware she is not human; however, it's clear that this was a ruse and that she knows her origin and is being used by the corporation toPROTECT other androids from bounty hunters through sexual favors.
Deckard ponders the meaning of humanity, morality and empathy following an attempt to retire an android opera singer. He is arrested and taken to a police station where he is accused of being an android before escaping with fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch after learning that the station was fake and staffed by androids. His moral quandary deepens after working briefly with Resch, whom Deckard first believes is an android but then learns is a particularly callous fellow human bounty hunter (Resch voluntarily took the VK test, preferring to find out if he himself is android or human).
Deckard's story is interwoven with that of J.R. Isidore (a surname Dick also used in Confessions of a Crap Artist), a "special" (i.e., genetically-damaged)DRIVER for an animal repair shop who cannot qualify to leave Earth due to his "special" status. Isidore's low I.Q. is due to genetic damage induced by radioactive dust, and he lives alone in an empty apartment building with little outside contact. Pris Stratton, the same Nexus-6 model as Rachael Rosen, moves into the building and the lonely Isidore attempts to befriend her. Pris and her friends enlist Isidore to trap the bounty hunter chasing them down, and Deckard recruits Rachael to help him. However Rachael attempts to use her sexuality on Deckard to distract him from his work. Deckard and Rachael have sex. After Deckard confesses his love for Rachael, she reveals she has slept with multiple bounty hunters and, with the exception of Phil Resch, was able to dissuade them from retiring their Rachel-model targets via their empathy developed via her sexual favors. Deckard is tempted to retire Rachael but instead tells her to return to Rosen Industries.
As Buster Friendly unveils evidence that Mercerism is a fraud, and the androids discuss how Buster is actually an android, Deckard attacks them. Mercer appears and warns him of an ambush (incidentally disproving Buster's thesis) so he succeeds in killing the androids. This causes Isidore to break down from the loss of his only friends, and earns Deckard a citation for a near-record number of kills in one day. He returns home and his wife reports having seen Rachael Rosen kill his new genuine animal he has bought with his bountyMONEY that day, a pet goat, by pushing it off his building's roof.
He travels by flying car to a devastated area in Oregon toMEDITATE and has an epiphany. He also finds a toad, thought to be extinct and considered to be Mercer's favorite animal. Deckard brings it home, where his wife discovers that the toad is in fact synthetic. While Deckard is not glad, he prefers to know the truth, whether the toad is real or artificial.
In 1982, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples' loose cinematic adaptation became the film Blade Runner, which wasDIRECTED by Ridley Scott. Following the international success of the film, the title Blade Runner was also used for some later editions of the novel.
As part of their Dangerous Visions dystopia series, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a two-part adaptation of the novel. It was produced andDIRECTED by Sasha Yevtushenko from an adaption by Jonathan Holloway. It stars James Purefoy as Rick Deckard and Jessica Raine as Rachael Rosen. The episodes were originally broadcast on Sunday 15 June and 22 June 2014.
A stage adaptation of the book, written by Edward Einhorn, ran from November 18 to December 10, 2010 at the 3LD Art & Technology Center in New Yorkand made its West Coast Premiere on September 13, playing until October 10, 2013 at the Sacred Fools Theater Company in Los Angeles.
In May 2010 BOOM! Studios began serializing an eight issue prequel subtitled Dust To Dust and written by Chris Roberson and drawn by Robert Adler. The story took place in the days immediately after World War Terminus.
These official and authorized sequels were written by Dick's friend, K. W. Jeter. They continue the story of Rick Deckard and attempt to reconcile many of the differences between the novel and the film.