Rick Deckard meets with Inspector Bryant, one of the head police officers, and is debriefed on the shooting of Dave Holden. Rick is told that there are six Nexus-6 androids hiding in Northern California. Dave Holden had retired two and was attempting to retire another named Max Polokov when he was shot. Rick is given Dave’s notes and told that he will be taking over the investigation.
Rick and Inspector Bryant discuss one particular situation that Dave was working on at the time of his accident. Dave had been using the Voigt-Kampff scale, an updated empathy test that is used to tell humans from androids. But scientific studies from Russia suggested that the Voigt-Kampff scale might not be effective in identifying androids from humans with severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia. Such humans would appear to have the same flat emotional levels as androids. A bounty hunter would not know that they had killed a human until it was too late, however. Rick agrees to fly to Seattle to meet with representatives of the Rosen Association, creators of the Nexus-6, in order to learn more about the androids.
Rick flies to Seattle and visits the Rosen Association. He is met by Rachael Rosen who begins to lead him to the room where he will conduct a Voigt-Kampff test on a random sample of people (some of them androids) to attempt to determine if the test works on the Nexus-6 androids. Rick is surprised that the entire company appears to be run by a family. Rosen is visibly agitated that a bounty hunter would visit the Association as the results of Deckard’s tests could impact the company’s production of androids. As she leads him to the room, Rick notices the elaborate collection of animals that the corporation keeps. The corporation even had an advanced copy of the Sidney’s animal pricing catalogue, an item considered illegal contraband.
Two animals catch his eye specifically: a raccoon and an owl. Rick has never seen a raccoon as they were one of the species, along with owls, that died first from the radiation dust that fell after World War Terminus. Sidney’s, the animal buying guide, lists only an astronomical price for the animal, though none are currently available to buy. Rosen then shows Rick the company’s owl. The owl is an especially surprising animal for Rick to see as they are supposed to be extinct. Rachael tells him that the company has private sellers for the most rare animals. Seeing these rare animals causes Rick to become even more disgusted by his electric sheep, an animal that “had no ability to appreciate the existence of another.”
Rick meets Eldon Rosen who leads him into a private room where Rick begins to set up the machinery to administer the Voigt-Kampff test. Both members of the Rosen family watch him closely and Rick realizes that “by coming here he had brought the void to them, had ushered in emptiness and the hush of economic death.” After setting up the machinery, Eldon Rosen tells Rick that Rachael will be the first one to receive the test.
Rick administers the Voigt-Kampff test to Rachael Rosen. The test consists of a series of questions meant to illicit empathetic responses from the test subjects. If the subjects display empathy, they are deemed to not be androids. If they are androids, they risk being retired by the police.
The questions mostly center around scenarios involving animals. Rick gives Rachael a scenario in which she is given a calf-skin wallet; in which she is given the choice to kill a wasp; in which she is asked to respond to a picture of a young nude girl lying on a bearskin rug; and in which she reads a novel where the characters boil a live lobster. In almost all the scenarios, Rachael does not display the kind of empathy that Rick expects real humans to display.
When the test is over, Rick declares that Rachael is an android. Eldon Rosen, however, claims that she is not. Rick demands that a bone marrow test be taken, but Rachael declines stating that the law does not mandate her to give marrow. Eldon Rosen then explains why Rachael failed the test. Rachael was born and raised on Salander 3, a transport space ship that left earth shortly before all the animals began to die. Because the ship’s passengers had all lived on earth when eating animals and using their by-products was deemed acceptable, Rachael had been raised believing the same. When she returned to earth, she did not have the same issues of empathy regarding animals as other residents.
Rick realizes that he has been tricked into giving the test to a human who would not be able to pass. This was the Rosen Association’s way of debunking the validity of the test: if the Voigt-Kampff test failed to tell a human apart from an android, this meant that the police had not recourse for shutting down production of the Nexus-6. Eldon Rosen accuses the police of having retired innocent humans.
Eldon and Rachael begin to bargain with Rick so that he will return to the police and lie, telling them that the test works so that the Rosen Association can continue their production of the Nexus-6. Rachael offers to give Rick the owl on the roof in return for his silence. Rick debates his situation and then asks Rachael to sit for one more question on the test. She reluctantly does so and Rick tells her that his briefcase is made of the skin of babies. Rachael flinches just enough to tell that she is, in fact, an android. The Association had almost tricked him into believing that she was human. Eldon Rosen dejectedly admits that she is android and does not know it and that the owl on the roof they attempted to bribe him with is also fake.
John Isidore descends the stairs of his apartment building and hears the voice of Buster Friendly, a television personality, booming from the set in the apartment of his new neighbor. He knocks on the door and a thin dark haired woman answers, standing topless, looking nervously at him. Isidore introduces himself and the woman slowly begins to feel that it is okay to talk with him.
Isidore observes her apartment from his spot in the hallway and sees that it is filled with rotting furniture and suitcases with their contents spilled onto the floor. He tries to start casual conversation with the woman, but she comes off cold and uncaring.
Isidore offers to help her find new furniture for her apartment by going through the other empty apartments in the building. He begins to tell her about “Kipple.” Kipple “is useless objects, like junk mail....” According to Isidore, the First Law of Kipple is that “Kipple drives out nonkipple.” He tells her that her apartment has been overrun with Kipple and that the only way to reduce the Kipple is to organize things to stave off the junk.
John lets it slip that he is a “chickenhead” and the woman becomes noticeably colder to him. She tells him that she rejects Mercerism precisely because it allows “special” people like himself to participate. After a while she allows him to help her find furniture later in the day. As John leaves, the woman introduces herself as Rachael Rosen. When the name sparks an inquiry from John, she gives him a new name, Pris Stratton.
Androids, in Dick’s novel, represent the literary theme of Doppelganger, or double. A character in the novel is presented with a person or thing that looks and acts exactly like him or her, except that this double character is an imperfect reflection, showing a flaw or trait that was otherwise unknown. Androids play this role by looking and acting exactly as humans do, yet they also represent humanity’s chief flaw - the lack of empathy.
This lack of empathy is an ironic twist throughout the novel. On the one hand, futuristic humanity elevates empathy to the highest of all emotions. Yet, Dick suggests that humanity is flawed with an inherent lack of empathy. This is what caused World War Terminus in the first place and necessitates the constant “fusion” that each person must go through with Mercer. By persecuting and killing androids, humans are really trying to destroy a flaw within themselves. In this way, androids represent a half of the human condition.
Empathy, therefore, is a very unreliable emotion when it comes to matters of life and death. This is alluded to as Rick is briefed on the latest developments on the Voigt Kampff test and how its efficacy is being put in doubt. Bounty hunters, Rick is told, have the propensity to kill humans if the test turns out to be unreliable. This empathetic flaw is again explored when Rick lands on the roof of the Rosen Association and sees the myriad of animals that the corporation keeps. Rick’s jealousy of the animal collection stems not from any desire to care for or keep the animals, but from a place of consumeristic greed. Rick wants the animals for his own sake, not for theirs. Ironically, Rick hates his electric sheep because it is not able of real empathy, while Rick himself unknowingly displays this same flaw.
Dick’s critique of the economic system of production is explored in Chapter 5. The Rosen Association is depicted as a shadowy organization concerned only with its own economic survival. Rick acknowledges that he is putting their entire business in jeopardy by arriving to administer his empathy test. By attempting to trick Rick into believing that Rachael is actually human, the Association is trying to point out the empathetic flaws that guide the moral structure of society.
Through Rick’s belief in his own moral superiority, Dick casts into doubt the distinguishing factors between an economic system of commodification and those that consume such goods. The Rosen Association is only seeking to supply the goods (in this case, androids) that humanity desires. Consumers play an integral part in that chain because without their demand, there would be no supply. Rick Deckard’s air of moral integrity is varnished by his own electric sheep. He believes himself to be above the fray of such supply and demand, yet he himself has demanded an android. This represents humanity’s own inability to recognize the economic systems of power that it supports.
Phillip Dick’s own context is important for understanding this critique of economic systems. Dick wrote Electric Sheep during the pivotal years of the 1960’s and ’70’s counter cultural revolution in the United States. One of the chief critiques of capitalism of this period was the belief that America’s own capitalistic hunger only fueled the machines of war that sprung up all over the world during this time, chiefly in Vietnam. Through this novel, Dick claims that those perpetuating violence on others have just as much responsibility for the economic and social conditions of the world as do those that they fight.
This critique of consumption is also explored in the symbol of “kipple.” Kipple is the name given to the accumulation of things over time. Dick is creating a kind of mythology around the accumulation of clutter. While clutter is simply a reality in most people’s lives, kipple is the spiritual manifestation of this reality because kipple seems to appear from nowhere and drives out the more positive state of non-kipple. This parallels themes found in eastern religion in which the lack of material objects is equated with spiritual balance. John Isidore has been able to find a spiritual balance in this world of destruction and in his own life, even though he is a chickenhead, because he has been able to keep the kipple at bay.
Isidore’s first interaction with the character of Pris Stratton introduces the reader to the themes of human interaction with its doppelganger character. The reader immediately senses that Pris Stratton is hiding an essential fact about her self which will soon be discovered: that she is an android. Pris Stratton’s nakedness in front of John Isidore is an ironic symbol of the android’s desire to live openly in society while, at the same time, needing to hide herself in order to stay alive. Isidore’s complete acceptance of the girl develops the innocence of his character. Isidore, though a chickenhead, is the novel’s purest character. His empathy is real and not motivated by consumption or power and this brief initial interaction with these two characters offers a glimpse at a utopian world that might live on the other side of the radioactive dust.