Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a science fiction novel by American writer Philip K. Dick. First published in 1968, the book served as the primary basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic near future, where Earth and its populations have been damaged greatly by nuclear war during World War Terminus. Most types of animals are endangered or extinct due to extreme radiation poisoning from the war. To own an animal is a sign of status, but what is emphasized more is the empathic emotions humans experience towards an animal.
The main plot follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is faced with “retiring” six escaped Nexus-6 brain model androids, the latest and most advanced model, while a secondary plot follows John Isidore, a man of sub-normal intelligence who aids the fugitive androids. In connection with Deckard’s mission, the novel explores the issue of what it is to be human. Unlike humans, the androids possess no empathic sense. In essence, Deckard probes the existence of defining qualities that separate humans from androids.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in the year 1992 (2021 in later editions), projecting 25 years in the future after the author’s 1967 writing, after World War Terminus and its radioactive fallout have destroyed most of Earth. The U.N. encourages emigration to off-world colonies, in hope of preserving the human race from the terminal effects of the fallout. One emigration incentive is giving each emigrant an “andy” — a servant android.
The remaining populace live in cluttered, decaying cities wherein radiation poisoning sickens them and damages their genes. Animals are rare, and keeping and owning live animals is an important societal norm and status symbol. But many people turn towards the much cheaper synthetic, or electric, animals to keep up the pretense. Prior to the story’s beginning Rick Deckard owned a real sheep, but it died of tetanus, and he replaced it with an electric one.
The story is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco was one of the last places affected by the radioactive dust, especially on the peninsula to the south. It is monitored daily by meteorologists using the Mongoose weather satellite in Earth’s orbit. While still relatively habitable, the sandy deserts of Oregon to the north are highly contaminated by radiation. Rick Deckard stays in a building on the east-side of the bay with his wife, Iran, who is depressed. J.R. Isidore lives on the peninsula south of San Francisco.
The main Earth religion is Mercerism, in which Empathy Boxes link simultaneous users into a collective consciousness based on the suffering of Wilbur Mercer, a man who takes an endless walk up a mountain while stones are thrown at him, the pain of which the users share. The television appearances of Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends, broadcast twenty-three hours a day, represents a second religion, designed to undermine Mercerism and allow androids to partake in a kind of consumerist spirituality.