The book opens with Rick Deckard and his wife Iran waking up in a futuristic San Francisco in 2021 (1992 in earlier editions) to argue about adjusting the settings on each other's Penfield wave transmitter, a device which can control the user's mood. Iran and Rick both consider dialing up medications that would make them fight with each other because Iran believes that Rick is nothing but “crude” cop who kills “andys” for a living and he believes that she does nothing but squander her time and his money.
The Deckards live in a half-empty apartment building in the pre-war suburbs. Iran tells Rick that she has scheduled a dose of “six-hour self-accusatory depression.” She tells him that she was watching television one day in their San Francisco apartment when she realized that the mood organ deprived her of “sensing the absence of life.” The depression drug allows her to wallow in the hopelessness of earth’s predicament after World War Terminus. After arguing, Rick dials up drugs from the mood organ for both of them: for him, a drug that helps him find a “fresh attitude towards his job;” for her, a drug that gives her “pleased acknowledgement of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters.”
After breakfast, Rick goes up to the roof of his apartment building to check on his electric sheep. Each person in their apartment building keeps an animal in a small patch of grass on the building’s roof. Taking care of animals has become a societal norm and everyone is expected to do so. Rick feels a great degree of shame because he has an electric sheep as opposed to a real one. To have a real animal meant that one had attained a certain status.
The air of Northern California is contaminated with radiation, a result of World War Terminus. Since the war, people were being encouraged by the government to emigrate to another planet as earth was slowly dying. Rick wears an “Ajax model Mountibank Lead Codpiece” in order to avoid exposing himself to too much radiation, but he knows that any day an exam from the San Francisco Police Department doctors could reveal that he was contaminated. Those that were contaminated were not allowed to continue living in society with the rest of humanity, functioning in their normal jobs or in their normal lives.
Bill Barbour, Rick’s neighbor, joins him on the roof of the apartment building. Bill owns a Percheron horse and Rick is quite jealous of the animal. He tells Rick that the horse is expecting a colt and Rick offers to buy it, telling Bill that it is immoral to have more than one animal. Rick insists that it “violates the whole basic theological and moral structure of Mercerism” for Bill to own two animals. Rick reveals that his animal is, in fact, electric and Bill feels pit for him, offering to not tell any of his neighbors this fact. Rick greatly wants a real animal and thinks about how many “andys” he would need to “retire” before he would be able to afford on.
The scene then shifts to an “empty, decaying building” which had once been a busy apartment building. The effects of World War Terminus are seen: most people had migrated to a colony on Mars, New America. After the war, the owls and the birds had died first from the radiation dust that descended on the earth. Then life in the earth’s lower tiers had been affected. The government tempted many people away with propaganda and by offering them an android servant on the new space colony. Those that stayed were often changed by the radiation: John Isidore is one of the changed ones.
John Isidore watches television in his apartment; shows that serve as propaganda attempting to convince earth dwellers to move to the Mars colony. Isidore has “distorted genes” and had failed to pass a “minimum mental faculties test.” This makes him a “chickenhead.” He has a simple job driving a delivery truck and while his life is not much, he is grateful that he is accepted by those he works with. He begins to prepare himself for his job and after turning the television off, he is met with a powerful sound of silence.
Overwhelmed by the void created by the silence, John goes to his “empathy box” and grasps its handles. The empathy box creates a visual image that fuses John’s consciousness with that of Wilbur Mercer, a kind of transcendental figure. John sees Mercer ascending a hill, and the box allows him to “cross over” and to gain a “mental and spiritual identification” with Mercer. Each day John climbs higher on the hill with Mercer, but the higher he climbs the more resistance he faces from the “antagonists.” The antagonists throw a rock at John which hits him on the arm. The wound is manifested in his real physical life as well and he leaves the box to wash the wound. Though he knows climbing higher with Mercer will only cause him more pain, he is compelled to climb anyway.
John reflects on his previous life, which is not much more than a haze. He had been a special child who loved all life, especially animals, and had the ability to “bring dead animals” back to life, a process known as a “Time-Reversal Faculty.” This power had been outlawed, however, and when the authorities found out that John was performing such acts, they infused his brain with radiation to keep him from bringing more things back to life. The radiation is what left him “chickenheaded.”
As John cleans the wound on his arm, he hears the noise of a television from inside his building. He realizes that someone has moved into the building with him, something that’s never happened before, and he grabs an old stick of margarine to take to the new resident as a gift.
Rick Deckard stops by one of San Francisco’s largest pet shops on his way to work. The shop had just received an ostrich from a zoo in Cleveland and Rick has a deep desire to own the animal. When he arrives at work he is told that Dave Holden, the police department’s chief bounty hunter, had been shot the previous evening. Rick’s secretary, Miss Marsten, comments that it must have been a “Nexus-6” android, one of the most advanced android types available. That model, manufactured by a company called the Rosen Association.
The Nexus-6 represents an advancement in android technology because it is capable of a very high level of human intelligence. This allows it to pass as human in many instances. In fact, the Nexus-6 model had “evolved beyond a major-but inferior-segment of mankind.” The government had created a test, however, called the Voigt-Kampf Empathy Test to identify androids that attempted to pass for human, and no android had yet been able to pass such a test. Empathy exists as one of the sole human emotions that cannot be programmed into a machine. Rick Deckard reflects on the traits of empathy that make it unique to humanity: it must be limited to herbivores or omnivores because once an animal with empathy would not be able to kill another animal. Empathy resembles a kind of “biological insurance” that allows herd animals (such as humans) to survive.
Rick reflects that Mercerism had defined and elevated empathy into a theological system in the post World War Terminus society. Mercer had introduced the empathy boxes and had coined the mantra that, “You shall kill only the killers.” “The Killers” were not a known entity but instead were a concept. A Mercerite was able to sense evil, even if he or she could not define it.
Thinking that Dave Holden’s absence from the department would open up the possibility for more android retirements, Rick calls the pet store to find out the price of the ostrich. The store owner tells him that the price is $29,000, one thousand dollars less than the retail value. Rick attempts to haggle with the owner but gives up.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a science fiction novel set in the near future in which a great war, “World War Terminus,” has caused nuclear destruction for all of humanity. Those that survived the war now live in a world contaminated with a radioactive dust that contaminates all living things. The dust is both a real substance as well as a metaphorical device used by Dick to symbolize the contaminated cloud of consciousness that keeps humanity from recognizing and appreciating all forms of life.
In this fictional future world, the ability to own an animal has become a symbol of status. Animal ownership has become the norm for all people remaining on earth, because the ability to care for and sustain life has taken on a new moral dimension after the destruction of so much in the war. Certain species do not make it through the radioactive fallout - spiders, frogs, and toads were especially vulnerable - and this has made the appreciation of real life a sacred task.
Rick Deckard is the novel’s protagonist, a bounty hunter working for the San Francisco police department. Rick is initially portrayed as a simple man, a person driven more by the things that surround him than he is by his own motivations or desires. Though he has a modest life, he realizes that this life could be taken from him at any minute - by the radioactive dust, by the androids that he hunts, or by any other dangers of everyday life. Deckard is protrayed by Dick as a man not in full control of his fate. This fate becomes palpable to him when he arrives at work one day to learn of Dave Holden’s violent run-in with an android that he was hunting. Rick is given Dave’s position with the department and this seems to propel him even further out of touch with the forces controlling his life.
One of the things that most controls Deckard is his own materialistic identity. The ability to own animals and care for life has also been fused with the ability to consume goods and services. This, it could be argued, is the chief motivating factor behind Rick Deckard’s life and job. Dick uses the first chapter of the novel to contrast Rick’s contempt for his wife’s “real” life with his deep desire to care for and sustain lesser animal life. Rick Deckard, Dick suggests to the reader, does not have an innate desire to care for life when the novel begins, but is more driven by his consumeristic desire to “keep up with the Jones’s.”
John Isidore, introduced in Chapter 2, is a person whose life has been destroyed and formed by the contaminated landscape of the future. Isidore is a “chickenhead,” a person who lost many of their intellectual abilities though they still maintain an intellect high enough to function in simple jobs. It is alluded to that Isidore was at one time a gifted child, able to bring life back from the dead, but that the ability was taken from him early on, leaving him intellectually challenged. Isidore is now an assistant at an electric animal repair shop.
Isidore’s character is used to first introduce the themes of Mercerism, the prevailing religion of the future world. Mercerism is Dick’s attempt to play with the themes of religion and belief in a world in which all religion and belief had been destroyed with previous generations. In Chapter 2, Mercerism is contrasted with the silent void that greets John Isidore in his apartment building. The world outside of Isidore’s apartment represents complete nihilism, while Mercerism has been created to give human beings a sense of togetherness and empathy with each other to fight this void. Mercerism’s chief tool is an empathy box, a device that is able to create internal feeling but also real physical contact with entities inside of the box.
The antagonists of the novel are initially named in Chapter 3: the Nexus-6 androids. 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 are not able to do either. They can only be concerned with their own survival. This causes them, in turn, to take other life when given no other choice.
Empathy is the most important emotion of this future world because empathy separates the human from the non-human. Rick reflects that empathy was created as an evolutionary trait in order for herd animals such as humans to survive. Mercerism creates a mantra from this notion - “kill only The Killers.” This is an ironic statement since the future world was created by a previous humanity out of touch with all empathetic emotions and this might suggest an empathetic flaw in everyone.