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Rick Deckard and his wife, Iran, live in San Francisco after a catastrophic world war. Because the conflict left the air full of radioactive dust, most humans have emigrated to colony planets. The few humans that remain on Earth are tested from time to time, to ensure they are still “regulars” and not “specials.” Specials are physically or mentally too damaged by radiation to be allowed to reproduce.
Rick is a bounty hunter, paid to kill androids that occasionally make their way to Earth from the colony planets. Animals are status symbols, because they have become rare. Almost everyone owns either a piece of livestock or a pet. Most people who can’t afford real animals purchase realistic, animated fakes. Rick and Iran keep a sheep in a pasture on the roof of their apartment building. During a morning conversation, Rick learns that the neighbor’s horse is pregnant. Trying to persuade the neighbor to sell him the foal, Rick reveals that his sheep is a robot, a replacement for the real one that died a year ago. The neighbor won’t sell Rick the foal but promises not to tell anyone else that Rick’s sheep is fake. Iran, meanwhile, uses a “mood organ” device to schedule episodes of depression. She believes that depression is the appropriate emotion for their situation.
Specials aren’t allowed to leave Earth, but the U.N. government wants regulars to emigrate and offers android servants as an incentive. Some regulars choose to remain on Earth, for whatever reason. They mostly reside in urban areas, near each other, for companionship. Specials live in isolation in the suburbs. John Isidore was reclassified as a special about a year ago. Even in his mentally diminished, “chickenhead” state, he is able to reflect on his situation. He finds the lifeless silence of his apartment building oppressive and wonders whether another special would feel the same.
Like everyone else, Isidore owns an “empathy box.” People use their empathy boxes in a ritual of psychological “fusion”: everyone’s mind is transported into the body of a Messiah-like figure named Wilbur Mercer, who constantly toils up a hill while unseen onlookers throw rocks at him. Fusion participants feel not only Mercer’s pain but also one another’s joys and sorrows. The experience is so realistic and intense that it can leave physical wounds. Today, cleaning a cut shoulder after a morning fusion session, Isidore hears a TV going in a nearby apartment. Startled, he realizes that someone else has moved into the building.
In signature style, Philip K. Dick opens his dystopian novel in a setting both tragic and comic by portraying a typical day in an unhappy marriage on a dying world. This futuristic setting possesses technological advances far beyond our own, but the pathologies of human life remain inescapable. Both husband and wife use a device to change their moods at will, but they use this technology to fight and threaten each other. The author gives his characters the ability to “dial in” bliss and joy, but instead they choose aggression and defiance. This ridiculous use of high technology is set against the tragedy of a dying natural world. Another example of the comic uses of future technology is Rick Deckard’s electric sheep. In his tragic reality, owning a living animal is a symbol of social status, and he resents his electric animal and the fact that he can’t afford a real one. Comically, however, he must care for the sheep as if it were real to maintain the veneer of a high social status.
To counter the ill-effects of the dying world, many characters in the novel rely on “empathy boxes” to maintain empathetic connections to other humans, bluntly introducing the theme of empathy to the novel. In this authoritarian future, escapist technology supposedly heals sorrow and loneliness. J.R. Isidore’s “empathy box” helps him embody Mercer, a martyr, to help him cope with his designation as a special. Isolated, Isidore can only experience the emotional states of other humans using their empathy boxes at the same time. By contrast, the incongruously cheerful Buster Friendly distracts his audience from the horrors of their world. But Isidore empathetically connects to Mercer’s impossible uphill climb, something that parallels the slog of his everyday life. When Isidore hears a TV set from another apartment, his hunger for companionship in the flesh can’t be tamped down, and he wracks his brain for some pre-war etiquette so he can make contact. Grasping a cube of margarine as a pathetic offering to his potential new companion, Isidore hopes he may find someone who can heal his physical loneliness in a way the empathy box cannot provide.