Empathy is the main theme of the novel and is the crux on which Dick's metaphysical reflection on the meaning of life hangs. Each character in the novel must deal with what it means to be empathetic and whether that allows someone to be valued as a living thing. Rick hates his electric sheep precisely because he believes it cannot feel any love for him, even though he cares for it. This feeling allows Rick to perform his work as a bounty hunter because he believes that androids, like his sheep, are incapable of true human emotion and therefore not worthy of life in a society in which life is the highest ideal. Rick notes early on that herbivores or omnivores are the only creatures with the empathetic impulse and that empathy is what allows humanity to survive.
Yet, Rick soon learns that androids may be capable of empathy and humans may be able to be devoid of empathy; this in turn causes a extreme shift in Rick's understanding of himself. Suddenly, Rick finds that the lines between what one can call living or what one can call not-living are blurred. Androids find their empathetic abilities with each other just as humans find the ability to be empathetic in a collective group. Humans, also, are capable of a loss of empathy. This is demonstrated through the character of Phil Resch who, Rick finds, enjoys killing simply for killing's sake.
Real vs. Unreal
Closely tied to the theme of life vs. un-life, the idea of what is real and what is unreal is a blurred distinction in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This dichotomy is best expressed through the world of the empathy box and Mercerism. The reader at first experiences Mercerism as something that one can only experience through entering into a state of fusion with Mercer, mediated through the sights and sounds that one experiences while hooked into an empathy box.
Yet, the reader slowly discovers that the world of the empathy box has very real consequences for the other world as well and that maybe the world of Mercer is just as real as the world that Rick Deckard lives and walks around in. Towards the end of the novel, Mercer begins to make real world appearances to Rick, even after his whole religion has been proved false by Buster Friendly. In the novel's closing chapters Rick even fuses completely with Mercer. He becomes the real Mercer and the real Mercer becomes Rick. The distinctions between the real world and Mercer's world have been completely torn down and Rick is able to finish the novel with a spark of empathy that was not possible for him when the novel began.
Mind Control is alluded to throughout Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The government of Rick's decaying world has also decayed to the point where they have started to lose control and are encouraging people to move to Mars where a new American colony has been started. Throughout the novel, the authorities of government and civic duty have a way of steering people's minds towards creating binary oppositions in the world: what is real vs. what is unreal, what is life vs. what is not living.
This is most clearly seen in the character of Buster Friendly. Buster's mind control comes from his ability to create a sub-reality through the use of mass media. Characters such as John Isidore have become so caught up in the world that Buster Friendly spins that they often have a hard time reconciling his views on something like Mercer with the feelings and emotions that they have towards Mercer. Likewise, the androids of the novel are also caught up in Buster's propaganda, sure that his expose on Mercer's false religion will destroy the already shaken faith of humanity and will allow androids to live as humans. This, however, does not happen as evidenced by Rick and John's continued faith in the principles of Mercerism, even in they are no longer strict adherents to the false religion.
Intelligence vs. Mental Deficiency
In the novel, intelligence and ability are contrasted with the mental deficiency of those called "chickenheads." Rick notes in the novel's opening pages that he has a valued skill - the ability to kill androids - but that this skill could be taken from him at any time by the radioactive dust that en-clouds the world. John Isidore has already become a victim of the cloud and has been turned into a "chickenhead," a person with a diminished mental faculty.
"Chickenheads" are treated as second class citizens in this world. They only have the ability to take menial jobs and they are not allowed to emigrate to Mars so that the pure colony there will not be contaminated. This demonstrates the hypocrisy of Dick's future society. On the one hand, they seek to value and have empathy for all life while on the other they make clearly distinguished lines of hierarchy where some life is valued more than others. In an ironic twist, it is John isidore who displays the most altruistic sense of humanity making him, perhaps, more human than characters such as Rick Deckard.
Decay vs. Regeneration
Dick creates a world that is in a state of decay because of the dust of nuclear fallout that envelopes the entire landscape. Kipple is the metaphysical representation of this decay; stuff that has been destroyed or left behind by those that left a decaying world. Kipple, or decay, simply manifests itself where other Kipple is located indicating that decay is a constant evolving process in the world.
Yet, Dick suggests that the world has a way of surviving and regenerating itself through the decay. This is represented by the animals that appear at the end of the novel - John Isidore's spider which represents the ability of new life to find a way to survive and Rick Deckard's mechanical toad which represents the ability of all kinds of life to find a way to exist in a decaying world.
Individual vs. Collective
The individual vs. the collective is another set of binary opposing principles that Dick seeks to blur and tear down in the novel. The quest for individualism is seen most clearly early in the novel in Rick's consumerist desire to own a real animal and in the Rosen Association's attempt to create an evolved android that will become indistinct from human life, thereby ensuring the company's economic survival in a capitalist economy.
Rick's selfishness causes him to have a misplaced sense of empathy. He chooses not to feel the decay of humanity and instead focuses only on his own need for a real animal in order to show his social worth. This leads him to reject any notion of empathy or care for electric animals or for androids. His job is to kill them and he does so for the money.
This individual selfishness is seen on a macro level in the Rosen Association's desire to economically survive. A corporation such as the the Rosen Association, Dick says, will do anything for their own survival, including life or cheat and, even, encourage the injury or death of the bounty hunters that seek to destroy their androids. This is Dick's critique of an economic system that abandons all value for human life except for the value that creates the most economic gain.
These themes are contrasted with the idea of the collective. It is the collective of humanity that must band together in order to survive the decay of the world around them. Mercerism offers a vehicle for this process. Through the spiritual fusion with Mercer and with other people, the collective humanity is able to ensure their own survival with a sharing of each other's empathy. These themes can be understood as Dick's critique of capitalism and belief in a socialist form of economy that promotes a collective sense of value.
Real Religion vs. False Religion
Another of the novel's binary opposites occurs in the comparison of real religion vs. false religion. Here, Dick attempts to show how organized religion might be false in a strict sense of the world, but how the values of that religion can transcend its falseness.
Mercerism is the novel's main religion; a religion in which humanity fuses with the suffering character of Mercer in order to gain a greater sense of collective empathy. Buster Friendly conducts a scathing investigative report on Mercerism and fully exposes the religion as false. Mercer is simply an old drunk actor and the entire scene of Mercer climbing a hill to his death was manufactured in a Hollywood studio.
Yet, Dick seems to say, the values of Mercerism - namely, shared empathy and the collective will to survive - have transcended any notion of whether the religion's symbols are false or not. This speaks to humanity's deep need for the spiritual. This need, and the manifestation of this need, has made Mercer real in a way that the androids and Buster Friendly cannot truly understand. Rick's fusion with Mercer in the novel's closing chapters shows how the values of religion can become important for the collective of humanity.
This theme can also be seen as a rebuke of one of the important tenets of Marxism: that religion is simply an "opiate of the masses." Though Dick was sympathetic towards Marxist principles, this theme seems to suggest that he saw value in a particular kind of amorphous spirituality that might blur distinctions between real and unreal.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Mercerism is the novel's main religion; a religion in which humanity fuses with the suffering character of Mercer in order to gain a greater sense of collective empathy. Dick seems to say, the values of Mercerism - namely, shared empathy and...
Androids are considered anathema to life on planet earth because they are not real and because they do nothing to further humanity’s existence. In this future world, all life must have a purpose, either to care for or to be cared by, but androids...