In the years after the war, the sky lost some of its radioactive dust, but by then many of the animals had died out. Owls were the first to go. Now keeping a real animal on the rooftop of the half-inhabited apartment buildings was a luxury. (Transportation to other locations was via hovercar from the roof) Rick Deckard had a real sheep, but it got sick and died, and now he had an electric sheep. It looked and acted like a real sheep, but it required maintenance or it would break down; Deckard was perpetually afraid that it would break down and his neighbors would know he could not afford a real animal. He was jealous of his neighbor who had a real horse. A look at Sydney’s, the pricing guide for animals, told him he would need $5000 [roughly $40,000 is 2021 dollars adjusted from the published date of 1968, or a little less than one year’s median wage; median household income in 1968 was $7700] for a real sheep, which he could get by retiring five androids. Androids were illegal on earth, but increasingly-human androids were given as effective slaves to people moving to the off-world colonies. Some androids killed their masters and escaped back to earth; Deckard was a bounty hunter with the San Francisco police department.
Life was difficult on earth, with many people gone, and a half-filled apartment complex was considered densely populated. More well-to-do households, like Deckard’s, could afford a Penfield mood organ, which let you dial in settings to artificially change your moods. Deckard and his wife used theirs every day, in fact they had a schedule. You could dial down your anger to cool off after an argument with your wife, or dial up to be aggressive enough to win it (unless she did the same, in which case you might have the mother of all arguments). If you did not want to dial any mood at all, setting 3 would set you to a mood wanting to dial a mood. 888 was “the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it.” (“Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends” was the most popular show, an all day talk show, and recently Buster was telling of an upcoming reveal he was going to do.) If you are depressed, dial 481, “Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future”. 594 was “pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters.”
As it happened, six of the Rosen Corporation’s Nexus-6 model androids had escaped to earth. The senior bounty hunter in the department had been seriously injured attempting to “retire” one. Deckard was told to fly to Seattle to administer an empathy test to the robots there before attempting to retire any of the Nexus-6's. This he did. He saw an owl in a cage when he landed on the roof; clearly the Rosen Corporation had access to vast resources. He was told to administer the empathy test—androids were not able to pass the test—to the very attractive Rachel Rosen as his initial subject. The test consisted of questions that involved dead animals incorporated into them. One might paint a scene where you meet someone famous in a room that happens to include a sheepskin rug on the floor, for instance. Humans would recognize the rug as a dead animal even though it was completely tangential to the situation and instantly have a measurable physiological reaction, but androids either did not notice or would have a delayed response. Rachel was difficult to place, but came out on the android side. The senior representative of the Corporation informed Deckard that she was human and therefore his test invalid. They offered him the owl on the condition that he not tell anyone. But as Rachel was leaving, Deckard realized that she kept referring to the own impersonally as it, and called her back for another question: this briefcase here is genuine babyhide and stroked it lovingly. Her reaction was definitely too late, his test still valid, the Rosen Corporation devious in a way he had never seen before, and the Nexus-6's were likely to prove difficult. Out of curiosity he asked if the owl was real; “there are no owls” was the reply.
In an apartment complex outside town, John Isidore prepared to go to work at the animal repair company that Deckard used to service his artificial sheep. He was the only person living there, alone in hundreds of apartments, so he was surprised when he heard noise a few floors down. John Isidore was a chickenhead—someone who the radioactive dust in the air had degraded to below normal intelligence. He was barred from emigrating off-world, and generally looked down on. The woman acted strangely. She seemed to not notice that she was half-dressed and meeting a stranger, nor concerned that the apartment she chose was pretty much a ruin, and initially did not see the need to go hunting for usable stuff in the abandoned apartments. She also did not know that “kipple” meant “decay and ruined thing”, nor did she pick up on the allusion to Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends. She was a quick study, though, and changed her reaction to what he expected when she realized how the wind blew. The anomalies registered with Isidore, who knew something was off but was unable to work out what it was. (Isidore also wondered how the famous actors and actresses on Buster Friendly’s show had time to chat with him all day, every day.)
The first Nexus-6 that Deckard was assigned to retire was Polokov, but he was not in his apartment, which was full of kipple; apparently he had moved on after lasering Deckard’s superior. Deckard was supposed to meet with a Russian member of the world police on the Nexus-6 topic; he was late, but arrived as Deckard studied the sheet on the next android in his hovercar. The officer carried a gun Deckard, who had studied all the known models, had never seen. It was a model of their own manufacture, that he had picked up on Mars, and the interesting thing about it was that control was not in the tube but remotely in a control in his hand, and in fact the direction of fire could be controlled from the same remote. Deckard pressed a button in the floor of his car that spread out laser light, informed the officer that he was Polokov, not a Russian officer, and Polokov was surprised when his weapon did not fire. When Polokov attacked physically, Deckard shot him with a .38; since Polokov had attacked, Deckard did not need to administer the test before retirement. Although Deckard was successful, Polokov had very nearly got him, which troubled him.
The next android was Luba Loft, an opera singer. Deckard arrived during a rehearsal, and her voice was very good, similar to recorded opera singers he had listened to. After the rehearsal, he attempted to administer the empathy test in her dressing room, but she, being foreign, misunderstood the questions, he did not get a good reading, and when one of the questions could be interpreted sexually she demanded to call the police. When Officer Crams arrived, it seemed that the phone number for the police had changed, nor did the police office have any record of Deckard being employed. In fact, the office itself was in a completely different (and new) building. The officer suggested that perhaps Deckard’s memories were incorrect because he was, himself, an android that had been given false memories. Polokov had posed as a police officer, and Deckard saw what the android’s had done, and doubted that he would live beyond the ride to the new building.
Deckard was checked in. He asked for his phone call to call his wife, but the number connected so some other woman. Officer Garland noted that the next on Deckard’s list was himself—Garland, and called in one of his bounty hunters, Phil Resch. Resch was not so compliant as Garland would have liked. When the bone marrow tests on Polokov showed that he was an android, Resch commented he thought the tests should be administered to police personal as a matter of course. Garland was livid, but had to let Resch get his test equipment. After Resch left, he pointed a tube at Deckard, but Deckard pointed out it would do no good, Resch would know the game is up. Deckard asked Garland about the department, and Garland admitted that he was an android and that the whole thing was a cover. He claimed Resch was an android, too. When Resch returned, he attempted to laser him, but Resch, who had gotten to know androids well, had a premonition that he would, and dropped to the floor, lasering Garland back.
They both went to apprehend Loft, who had gone to the museum. On the way, Resch grew increasingly nervous that he might be an android with implanted memories that he was a human, as Garland had suggested. Indeed, his dealings with Loft were cold and impersonal, lacking any empathy whatsoever. After Loft was retired, Resch insisted that Deckard administer the test to him. He passed, to both of their surprise. It seems he simply lacked empathy for androids. Deckard then worried about himself, and had Resch administer the test with an ad-hoc question, to which he passed. Deckard had empathy for female androids. Deckard came to the conclusion that Resch loved killing. Resch said that Deckard’s problem was that he had empathy for attractive things. He said Deckard had his order reveresed: go with the physical attraction first, then kill her second.
Isidore had returned to the newcomer, Pris, after his shift ended (Decker’s neighbor some floors down had a real cat, which died; his wife knew he loved the cat and took Isidore’s company up on the suggestion to recreate the cat, so her husband would not need to deal with the grief) with some pre-war food (canned pears) and a valuable bottle of wine. He found her with three friends. They said bounty hunters were after them, and she should take Isidore up on his offer that she could live with him. She professed to think it was a good idea, but her face said otherwise. She claimed that they were mentally abnormal, having shared hallucinations and low empathy, and had just traveled from the mental hospital. Eventually the others came to the apartment and the leader, Baty, rigged up sensors to detect and trap any bounty hunter.
Deckard bought a real black goat with his $3000 bounty ($1000 per android) as the down-payment, and showed his wife, who was not as excited. Later that evening he took Rachel Rosen up on her offer to meet up and tell him about the Nexus-6's, at a hotel nearby. She came, and seduced him (as, it seemed, he expected), and he tried out Resch’s advice. Afterwards Rachel said that after bounty hunters slept with her they gave up their career, except one—Resch. Deckard did not retire her, as she knew he would not be able to, but he did leave to pursue the four remaining androids. Rachel was so mad that she went to Deckard’s building and pushed the goat off the building before she returned to the Corporation.
Isidore found a spider outside, and one of the androids tortured it while they listened to Buster Friendly’s big reveal. Humanity had an empathy box, you grasped the handles and united emotionally and spiritually with all the other humans who were grasping the handles at the same time. You saw—you became—Wilbur Mercer, who had been adopted, had been able to bring dead animals back to life but the ability to do so was labotomized away because it was illegal, and he was persecuted. He was now climbing a hill, slowly, painfully. A rock thrown at him by his enemies cut him—cut you—as he labored to the top. If you remained united long enough, he would reach the top, then go down to the valley of death, where he stayed for an indefinite amount of time until the bones came back to life. Buster Friendly found that Mercer was a fraud. He found the actor, he did an interview. Androids could not make any sense of the empathy box, and the ones in Isidore’s apartment were angry that humanity held over them the one thing, empathy, that they could not do. They had known Friendly’s reveal, because Friendly and his Friendly Friends were androids themselves.
Deckard, who by now was doubting whether he could retire the four, and knew that if he could not, they would “retire” him, and he was already sleep deprived and exhausted. He met Isidore at the front of the building, who had just found the spider. Isidore knew what he meant to do, and said that he would be outside Mercerism if he did it, which did not help Deckard’s self-confidence. Inside the build, Mercer appeared to him. He said the could manifest there because of Isidore, and he warned Deckard that he must do what he came to do, but it would be hard. He needed to do the hardest first, and it was not in the apartment, but coming up the stairs. It was Pris, who looked like Rachel. The Corporation used Rachel to protect the others, but Mercer’s warning allowed Deckard to shoot her. Then he went to the apartment, stuttered like Isidore, and they let him in. After Baty fired on him, they lost their legal basis and he retired them.
Deckard, exhausted and spent, flew the hovercraft north, to the dead lands where no one went. He tried to call his predecessor, but the hospital was not letting anyone through. He started walking, was climbing the hill. A rock hit him. At the top he saw his shadow, and he was Mercer, although he was alone and not with anyone else. He phoned the department; the lady who answered the phone said he needed to phone his wife, who was distraught. He promised he would, and he mentioned that he had permanently fused with Mercer somehow and could not unfuse. Mercer was immortal and he wondered if he would be able to do. He went to call his wife and then—
He saw a toad, a real life toad, one of Mercer’s favorite animals. He captured it and put it in a box, and flew back to his wife. You got some sort of medal or great honor if you discovered an extinct species. His wife was greatly relieved to have him back and he showed her a toad excitedly. She examined and discovered the small control panel on the underneath. Disappointed, but glad to know, he went to bed. His wife watched him to make sure he did not wake up suddenly like he sometimes did, and then called the pet store asking about artificial flies for the toad to eat.
This is a strange book, but it does help make Blade Runner, which was based off it, make a little more sense. I think it is supposed to be a story about what it means to be human. Is a true human who coldly dispatches androids that are so human a psychological test is the only way to definitely tell that they are not, is he actually human? Is an android like Luba Loft, who can sing so beautifully, really an enemy? She did have to kill humans to escape from Mars, but making and appreciating beauty is very human. After taking Deckard’s advice, he discovers that sleeping with an android and then finding he could not kill her, and then needing to kill an android that looked just like her, was where he went wrong. Rachel said that sleeping with her would change him, but it had not changed him for the better. And if he had not done it, or if he had been able to kill her, he would still have his goat.
It is not clear to me how Mercer fits into this. Until Mercer appears to him and he somehow fuses with Mercer, the story seemed understandably sci-fi, with everything accounted for. In the story, Mercer is, indeed an actor (he tells Isidore so), but the story is pre-recorded, how can Mercer do that? How can he manifest himself to Deckard when he is a recording? (And how does getting hit while holding the empathy box result in a real-world wound?) Mercer seems to have characteristics of God, but he, himself, admits that what Buster Friendly said was true (although he thought that Buster’s slur that he was a drunkard was unkind, as well as untrue). How did Deckard end up being Mercer? Is Mercer a literary symbol of the path we walk in life, feeling like we go uphill as we learn empathy? Was Deckard’s fusion symbolic of his growing empathy with the androids, who are mostly human except for empathy, but who have a lifespan of just a few years, because they are biological and we have not been able to figure out cell renewal? They are human in all ways except empathy, yet we superior humans enslave, demonize, and hunt them.
I am not sure how to feel about this book. Yes, it was written in the height of the Cold War, but it explores a possibly morally dead humanity in a world devoid of natural life (which we brought about, presumably by nuclear war). It presents a very bleak picture of humanity which seems overdone. Contrast with, say, Asimov, whose robot series were much more hopeful, although definitely more intellectual puzzles than exploring where humanity starts and ends. The bleak world and the bleak story actually obscured the message for me, and it was only on skimming over the book for this review that I had an inkling of what the purpose of the story really is. A well-told story, but I am not sure that it succeeded in its purpose. (Also, I take issue with the laudatory comments on the book cover: “a prescient rendering of a dark future” [publisher], “A kind of pulp-fiction Kafka, a prophet.” [New York Times] In point of fact, the opposite future has come about, so “prescient” and “prophet” are simply wrong. He’s just a dystopian worrier, an able but not first-rate story-teller.)