Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? sets bounty hunter Rick Deckard against a group of renegade androids roaming free in San Francisco, testing his skills at distinguishing natural from artificial life. His job is to kill the androids. He must place all his faith in the Voigt-Kampff test, a series of questions that measures the empathic response in its subjects. Without an accurate test, Deckard might kill a human by mistake. The key conflict of the novel is how to tell the difference between human and android, and if such a difference even exists.  

The inciting incident of the story takes place when the lead bounty hunter at the police department is nearly killed by one of the androids, making Deckard next in line to collect the current bounties. He jumps at the chance with optimism, since he needs the money to replace his electric sheep with a real live animal. In this dystopian world, owning a live animal is a distinction in class and therefore symbolic of the life of luxury Deckard desperately seeks. 

But the androids Deckard must kill are not the only antagonistic force in the novel. The Rosen Association doesn’t want him going around killing their carefully constructed machines. Rachael Rosen is introduced to Deckard early and nearly tricks him into thinking his test is faulty. This is because she herself is an android. Deckard momentarily loses faith in his sacred empathy test; it’s the first time both Deckard and the reader are forced to grapple with the question of whether someone is human, and what it means that the answer isn’t immediately obvious. However, by discovering their deception, Deckard resumes his work relatively unperturbed, still believing he can tell the difference between human and android. 

The relationship between J.R. Isidore, a “special” living on the outskirts of human society, and Pris Stratton, an android, serves to elucidate the relationship between humans and androids, the driving conflict of the novel. Isidore, shunned by his fellow humans due to his status, is desperate for companionship and therefore gains new purpose and a new companion when Pris comes to his abandoned apartment building. Mistaking her fear and lack of affect for human shyness, Isidore offers his services to the girl and bends over backward to fulfill her needs. However, Pris only accepts his companionship because she knows she must depend on him to survive. They embark on a relationship based on deception and mutual need, contrasting Isidore’s altruism with Pris’s more self-serving agenda. 

In the rising action of the story’s plot, Deckard manages to kill two more androids with the help of another bounty hunter. But in doing so, Deckard perceives a growing difference between himself and others in his line of work. Deckard has begun to empathize with his victims. He feels bad for ending the lives of the androids, where before he hadn’t considered them to be living things at all. His crisis of conscience, and the blurring of the lines between human and android, illustrate the question at the heart of the novel: what exactly does it mean to be human? 

Confused, Deckard searches for meaning in his newfound feelings of empathy for androids. He wants to meet Rachael Rosen in a hotel room and she obliges. They have sex, after which Rachael reveals her true purpose: she is meant to evoke empathy in bounty hunters by seducing them, thereby forcing them to extend empathy to the androids they hunt, and it is clear she has achieved her goal with Deckard. Deckard is outraged by her deception, but he cannot kill her because he cares for her too much. This episode juxtaposes Deckard’s mission with Rachael’s. While Deckard’s is to kill androids, Rachael’s is to save them, which, it could be argued, is in itself an act of empathy, thus complicating the idea that empathy is an inherently human trait. 

J.R. Isidore is joined by two more androids and happily accepts his new companions, reasoning that since both he and the androids are shunned by human society, they should stick together. But as a true believer in Mercerism, the love of all organic life, Isidore’s perspective is forever altered when his new friends torture a living spider for fun. Isidore holds all life sacred and can’t see why his new friends do not. But the androids are convinced that empathy is not real, that it is simply a distinction made by humans to keep them separate and above the androids themselves. Isidore does not know what to think, but Mercer appears to him and restores his faith in the power of human empathy. 

At the novel’s climax, Deckard leaves Rachael behind to kill the three androids staying with J.R. Isidore, marking the first time these two central characters meet. Deckard no longer wants to fulfill this duty, but at a crucial moment Mercer appears to him and offers guidance. Deckard learns from Mercer that all beings must violate their own morals at some point in their lives—that this is the curse of all life, including Deckard’s. Deckard must become the destroyer of life even though he cherishes it. Deckard fulfills his purpose and kills the remaining androids, but not before admitting to truly loving Rachael Rosen. He also admits that artificial life can feel love, and that the androids are truly alive. 

In the story’s resolution, an exhausted Rick Deckard seeks solitude and meaning in the desolate hills north of San Francisco. He stumbles up a dusty hill, mimicking the arduous trek of the martyr Mercer, and finds himself fused with Mercer in an empathic bond. Rick has become the killer and the martyr all at once. With Mercer’s help, Deckard finally accepts that life encompasses both roles simultaneously. Deckard has learned to empathize with the androids, but also learned about the necessity of retiring them. Deckard’s conclusion highlights one of the novel’s central themes, that all life must come to an end. Deckard concedes that sometimes people must bring about that end themselves. This mimics the way the Earth has been destroyed by radioactive dust. Humanity has, in essence, killed itself, just as Deckard has been tasked to kill androids. 

Deckard returns home, believing he has caught a living toad. The toad turns out to be artificial, but when he finds out, Deckard doesn’t seem to mind. He knows now that electric beings live out their lives just like organic beings do. He may remain a bounty hunter or he may not, but he will nevertheless move forward with a new understanding of life in all its forms.