Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was first published in 1968. The novel tells the story of Rick Deckard and his quest to "retire" six Nexus-6 androids, the most advanced type, in 24 hours. The novel follows Deckard and a secondary character - John R. Isidore - through a futuristic San Francisco wasteland. The earth has been largely destroyed by the nuclear fallout of World War Terminus, most of the survivors of which have left for a new colony on Mars. Androids, who are built to be humans' slaves on Mars, often escape back to earth where they must be killed because they are devoid of real life.
The novel did not gain a great deal of critical or commercial success until the book was adapted into a screenplay and shot as the movie Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford. Dick, unfortunately, would not survive to see much of his work take on a second life in film, but today many of his works, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, are considered classics of the science fiction genre. In 2005, Dick and his novel Electric Sheep were the first science fiction pieces to be anthologized in a Library of America volume.
The themes of Electric Sheep deal with the social, the metaphysical, and the theological. First, the novel was written and published at the height of the counter-cultural "flower power" revolution on the West Coast. As a Berkeley native, Dick held deep sympathies toward the revolutionary leftist political spectrum, and his novel sets up a large corporation, the Rosen Association, as the true antagonist. The Association seeks to do anything and everything possible to ensure its own survival as android producers. The din of mass media in the form of Buster Friendly provides an alternate reality backdrop to the "real" world. Yet, if Buster friendly's world is real, does that make the other world unreal - or vice versa?
Metaphysically, the novel deals with the question of what is life, and what makes a life real or unreal. Dick explores this by first setting up opposing binary categories: there are humans and there are androids and both would like to kill each other in order to live. Yet, as the novel progresses, the main character, Rick Deckard, finds that he is not so different from the androids he hunts. Likewise, the androids challenge Rick to see how they also contain that elemental spark of human life. Though Rick ends up destroying each of the Nexus-6 androids, his own life is fundamentally changed by his realization of the empathic impulse in all living things and their ability to survive against great odds.
Finally Dick ties these themes together through a theological exploration of the ability of collective humanity to undergo collective suffering. Mercerism, the pervasive religious movement of the novel, calls all humans to join together in a collective sense of empathy for their messianic figure, Wilbur Mercer. Mercer is on a slow climb toward his death and is being persecuted by The Killers. Only by sharing in Mercer's suffering can humanity find a collective spirit strong enough to survive the bleak decay that surrounds them.
While the common themes of science fiction are found here - technology vs. human intelligence, space travel and foreign lands, and the interaction of humans with an alien race - Dick frames these issues within some of the most nuanced and thoughtful writing in the history of science fiction. This nuance has allowed Electric Sheep to transcend the normal boundaries of the genre to be considered one of the most important novels of 20th century literature.