Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter on the now sparsely populated planet Earth. His job is to hunt “andys,” slang for androids, that have escaped from the human colonies on Mars and Earth’s Moon. The latest model of cylon, er android, the Nexus-6, is particularly wily; they resemble humans more closely than ever before. Most importantly, the Nexus-6 can almost pass a Voigt-Kampff examination, which tests an intelligent being for empathy, a quality androids don’t possess. As Deckard pursues the six andys that eluded his predecessor, he finds that the line between human and android isn’t as defined as he previously believed and starts to question the morality of his undertaking.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the second Philip K. Dick work I’ve read (the other being A Scanner Darkly) and there is a theme that the author explores in both novels: an understanding of the quality that makes us human. In A Scanner Darkly, Dick was able to create a sympathetic character out of a double-crossing, drug-addicted undercover informant. Similarly, Dick makes sympathetic characters of his androids, showing their humanity even though they are not human. The bounty hunter Deckard starts to notice this too.
Deckard begins to question his preconceptions when he is pursuing the opera singer Luba Luft. She cunningly accuses Deckard of being an android because of the ease with which he “retires” androids without feeling any empathy toward them. Deckard, of course, denies this, but a change in his attitude is revealed shortly, after Luft has been retired by Phil Resch, another bounty hunter. Deckard was touched by Luft’s musical skill and starts to think that robbing the world of her talent, android or human, is insane. This is the first time Deckard feels empathy toward the “things” he hunts.
Luft’s death makes Deckard aware of the difference between himself and Resch. He is convinced that Resch is an android because of Resch’s quick trigger finger (and his indifference to art, perhaps, as well). Deckard tells Resch, “You like to kill. All you need is a pretext. If you had a pretext you’d kill me.” Despite his conviction, however, Deckard’s test reveals that Resch is human. The result of the test is significant enough for both bounty hunters to try to make sense of it, with Deckard reasoning that Resch has a defect that makes him unsympathetic toward androids. Resch points out, though, that this isn’t a defect; if he felt any empathy toward androids, he wouldn’t be able to kill them.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Is filled with conundrums of this sort, in which the qualities that make humans human and androids android are flipped, mixed, rearranged and contemplated. Deckard, a bounty hunter, mourns a dead android and finds he has too much of the quality that androids don’t possess. Those humans that can afford it use a machine to program moods for themselves; Iran, Deckard’s wife, even programs depression for herself twice a month so that she feels bad about being left on Earth. John Isidore, a human whose intelligence was affected by the nuclear fallout on Earth, is considered sub-human, below the level of animals even, which are now highly sought-after because most of them died from radiation poisoning. The only friends he has are the escaped andys.
In addition to the thoughtfulness Dick puts into his examination of how intelligent beings treat one another, he includes many great ideas that have since turned up elsewhere. His andys are the precursor to the humanoid Cylons featured in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, and he explored the issues of what makes humanity before the show did. The empathy box that humans use to “fuse” with their savior Wilbur Mercer and other humans is not unlike the Matrix that Neo and the other freedom fighters jack into. When a human is experiencing Mercer’s life in the machine and has a rock hurled at him, his physical body is actually injured, just as humans harmed in the Matrix manifest injuries in the real world.
This novel, with its quirky plot and plethora of future-gazing ideas can be discussed and dissected endlessly, but the multi-layered theme of the novel remains its most engaging and enduring element: the search for what is in us and in others that makes us human.