Note: The book is only minimally like its famous movie version, Blade Runner, so you can read it without fear of spoilers.
The story is set on a near-future Earth that has been ruined by nuclear war. Most animal species have become extinct or nearly so. The few remaining people who haven’t emigrated to colonies on Mars hold animal life in such esteem that it is considered a status symbol to own a living animal, and even stray insects are collected and kept from harm. The irony is that the main character, Rick Deckard, is a hunter — not of animals or men, but of organic androids. His job as bounty hunter is to track down those androids that have killed their human owners on Mars and returned to Earth to live in hiding, pretending to be human. The androids are so realistic that they can only be detected using a psychological test that reveals whether they feel empathy for other living beings; “andys,” as they are called, aren’t capable of empathy, which is why bounty hunters like Deckard feel it’s okay to kill them.
The story covers about one day in Deckard’s life, during which he is tracking down and “retiring” four highly advanced andys of the Nexus 6 line, one of whom nearly killed his boss. In the course of his assignment, he meets and becomes involved with Rachael Rosen, a Nexus 6 android and employee of Rosen Industries, which makes them. Deckard’s experiences hunting the andys and with Rachael lead him to question his profession and even to feel empathic toward the androids, which shakes his core belief system.
What’s most interesting about this novel is its take on the importance of empathy, especially in contrasting the human characters with the non-empathic androids they’re trying to kill. The experience of empathy has become a religious pursuit for most humans, as they use machines to empathically connect with one another and a spiritual leader named Mercer, and as they empathically connect with the animals in their care.This concept of empathy set against such a bleak vision of the future is particularly effective when contrasted with our current disregard for the planet and its rich variety of life while we still have it. We learn to value life only when it’s gone, but even so, we still feel compelled to destroy, to the point where we have to invent something — the androids — that we can feel okay about killing. When Deckard begins feeling empathy for them, he no longer knows who he is.
By the way, PKD invented some wonderful words and phrases for this story. My favorite was “disemelevatored,” meaning to get off the elevator. I also noticed that he used the phrase, “So it goes,” twice when referring to the meaninglessness of life and death, yet this novel was published a full year before Slaughterhouse-Five. Great minds, I suppose.