Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Power of Human Empathy

Human empathy overwhelms Rick Deckard on his long day hunting androids. Empathy is the only measure by which androids can be distinguished from the humans they are trying to impersonate. But Rick Deckard’s empathetic reaction to the androids he is forced to “retire” shows how empathy is an overwhelming force in the bounty hunter and does not apply exclusively to organic beings. Rick, like all other humans in the story, cherishes organic life in all its forms. He even takes part in the empathetic connection of Mercerism’s empathy boxes. But his personal empathy does not end there. He may not be “killing” androids in the technical sense, but he feels bad ending their lives by “retiring” them. This empathy for artificial life suggests human empathy is a powerful force and a complicating one when it comes to how the world treats androids. 

Deckard’s empathetic connection to all life, both organic and artificial, becomes complete on the hill outside San Francisco when he makes his climb and fuses with Mercer once and for all. Up to this point, Mercer has been the conduit through which all humanity checks in with one another. Now, Deckard fuses alone, and realizes that despite his empathy, he must become one of “the killers” in the parable of Mercer, and not the martyr himself. As a result, Deckard comes to understand the power of human empathy to bind all living things together, even the artificial. 

The Difficulty in Distinguishing Between Organic and Artificial Beings

The novel’s plot is dependent on how to distinguish between organic and artificial life. Throughout the novel, characters either correctly or incorrectly identify artificial and organic life forms. It is Rick Deckard’s sole duty in life to correctly distinguish between them, and he takes his responsibility very seriously. However, Deckard himself blurs the line between the organic and the artificial by keeping an electric sheep instead of a real one. He keeps this a secret from his neighbors and no one can distinguish it from a real sheep, but Deckard feels distraught at the difference and wishes he had a real animal. J.R. Isidore also must distinguish between living and artificial beings. He notices a strange flatness of affect in Pris Stratton, but at first dismisses it as shyness or fear. Thus, it is ironically Isidore’s empathy, his “humanness,” that leads him to mistake an android for an organic person. Not knowing what a bounty hunter is, Isidore mistakenly assumes it is a type of machine, moving in to kill innocent people, when in fact the reverse is true. Isidore’s difficulty in distinguishing between the organic and artificial suggests that “being human” is not so much a provable biological fact as it is a philosophical determination.  

In the end, Deckard comes to understand that artificial life is a legitimate form of life as well. He sees how the androids he hunts yearn to live their lives free from persecution. He feels empathy for the machines, and even empathizes with the electric toad he finds at the end of the novel. He realizes that all life, artificial and authentic, must live and die as part of the great cycle of the cosmos. As a result, distinguishing between the two forms becomes less important to him. He knows now that Rachael Rosen, an android, leads an emotional life the same as he does. Yet Deckard’s job as a bounty hunter entraps him: he must continue to distinguish artificial life from authentic life to survive, despite his newfound understanding. 

The Inevitability of Entropy and Destruction

In the novel’s dystopian setting, life both natural and artificial is continually overrun by death and destruction. “Kipple,” the word used by Buster Friendly and J.R. Isidore, is shorthand for the garbage generated by radioactive dust’s destructive force. The planet has been ruined by the dust, creating more and more kipple, causing much of humanity’s imprint on the Earth to be eroded and erased. All around the characters, the world is falling apart. Garbage collection has become a growth industry as a result of emigration to Mars and other colony worlds. People have left behind mountains and mountains of garbage and unused objects, and the dust slowly turns it all into kipple. This process of entropy, accelerated as it is by radioactive dust on Earth, represents the fact that everything everywhere in the universe will eventually die and disintegrate. Kipple symbolizes a sad but unifying fact: despite society’s complexity and machinations, everything is composed of the same material, and everyone shares the same ultimate fate. 

Rick Deckard’s job is also destructive in nature and contributes to the erasure of physical reality on earth, even if he doesn’t want it to be. The androids he faces must be destroyed, and he sees himself as the ultimate destroyer despite his feelings of empathy towards them. Deckard begins to believe his actions are wrong, but that there is nothing he can do about this wrongness. He could quit his job, but that doesn’t mean the destruction of the androids will cease. The androids will be retired regardless of whether he is the one who does it or not. Thus, Deckard’s job underscores the point that all life must eventually end and that destruction will always win out over creation.