World War Terminus has left the Earth a radioactive wreck. Most survivors have emigrated to Mars, where the authorities promise them an easy life with android servants. Only those too poor to emigrate, or who have been genetically damaged by radiation (the chickenheads), remain on Earth. They huddle in scattered population groups; use mood organs that allow them to predetermine how they will feel each day; follow Buster Friendly, who is on television and radio twenty-three hours a day; and practice Mercerism, a universal religion that teaches empathy and community-feeling through repeated images of an old man struggling to climb a barren hillside. Animal life has been more severely affected by the war than has humankind, so social status in this bleak postapocalyptic world is determined by keeping an animal; those who cannot afford an animal keep a robot simulation.
Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter whose job is to retire (kill) androids who attempt to escape their servitude on Mars. He and his wife, Iran, have an electric sheep, but they dream of being able to afford a real animal. Deckard gets his chance when six Nexus-6 androids escape to San Francisco. The Nexus-6 is the most advanced android to date, indistinguishable from humans, and it is not at all clear that the standard Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test for identifying androids will work on them. So Deckard must first visit the manufacturers. The first individual on whom he tries the test, Rachael Rosen, seems to come out as human, but Deckard is suspicious and asks her one last question. Her answer reveals that she is indeed an android. Rachael then offers to help him hunt down the escaped androids, but he rejects her offer.
The first android is masquerading as a Russian police officer, but Deckard sees through the deception and kills him. The second is a singer with the San Francisco Opera, but before he is able to administer the Voigt-Kampff test, she has him arrested. Though himself a police...
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Thanks to the film Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is Dick’s best-known novel. (A tie-in edition was issued in paperback under the title of the film, with Dick’s original title given in small print.) That is ironic because, as is often the case, the screenwriters omitted significant elements of the novel, changed others, and added material of their own.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a postnuclear holocaust novel. This subgenre is one of the most crowded in science fiction, including masterpieces such as A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), by William M. Miller, Jr., as well as countless forgotten books. Writers from outside science fiction have often contributed to this subgenre too; one notable example is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1982).
Dick’s novel, written in the mid-1960’s and published in 1968, is set in 1992. World War Terminus and the resultant fallout have rendered much of Earth uninhabitable and much of the population sterile. Many of the survivors have emigrated to the barren landscape of Mars. Others, despite the hazards (there is a whole class of people damaged by radiation, known as “specials” or, more popularly, “chickenheads”), have chosen to remain on Earth.
This scenario is familiar enough, but Dick’s way of developing it is characteristically fresh. Postnuclear holocaust tales tend to veer toward cynicism or sentimentalism; Do...
(The entire section is 608 words.)