For some reason, we tend to consider the terms "bounty hunter" and "empathy" as oppositional; in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick manages to make them seem like nothing of the sort. This book both entranced and disappointed me; your mileage may vary.
The key to any futuristic, post-apocalyptic world is establishing a lack of empathy among its citizens—that is, dystopias come about because the government suddenly starts ruling people instead of caring for them. Here, the governments on Earth, aided by the United Nations, are doing the best they can to kick people off the planet, which has been so devastated by nuclear war. Even as governments lack empathy, people are judged human based on how empathic they are; the planet's leading religion, Mercerism, is a mass-hallucinatory experience designed to promote empathy. And humanity's secret enemies are android fugitives who—you guessed it—can't feel empathy. So what happens when someone feels empathy for the androids?
Rick Deckard is an average bounty hunter with a wife and a sheep—electric, which is a source of shame and guilt; since one's moral worth is measured by one's ability to care for an animal or animals, Deckard and his wife are essentially frauds: "owning and maintaining a fraud had a way of gradually demoralizing one." When a fugitive android puts Deckard's department head at the San Francisco police station into the hospital, Deckard has to hunt down the android and his six companions. Along the way, Deckard begins questioning the rightness of his actions, and whether or not androids qualify for the same sort of respect accorded to human beings.
Dick's talent lies in his ability to skew society. He retains traditional concepts, such as jobs, while introducing bizarre new rules and mores that have interesting ramifications for people's behaviour. After humanity narrowly survives "World War Terminus," empathy becomes the name of the game, and the government decides that the best way to demonstrate empathy is to care for animals—which is also crowdsourcing the conservation of now-endangered or nearly-extinct species brought low by the radioactive, contaminated "Dust" that has settled around the planet. Not caring for an animal seems taboo: "You know how people are about not taking care of an animal; they consider it immoral and anti-empathic," so those who can't afford a live animal, like Deckard, often opt for electric models and risk exposure.
The role of empathy is also important in distinguishing human from android. Indistinguishable biologically, save for a painful and intrusive bone marrow test, androids fail an "empathy test" that measures biological reactions to psychological situations: "empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community." Yet Deckard seems to have a surfeit of empathy, and it's interfering with his work.
The book's other plot, the loneliness and subsequent exploitation of "chickenhead" J.R. Isidore is actually more rewarding, at least in my opinion, because it has some interesting observations about entropy:
Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself.... We can't win.... No one can win against kipple ... except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I've sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I'll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. it's a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.
I love that last line, with the phrase "total, absolute kippleization." I then imagine a horrible action catchphrase: "prepare to be kippleized!" Anyway, Dick's description of entropy, while by no means unique, is quite humourous and apt—but perhaps that's because I have a weakness for entropy. And Isidore is, besides Decker, the only other character for whom I felt sympathy. Every other character is one-dimensional and, ultimately, uninteresting. Deckard's solitary introspection and Isidore's kipple-ruminations provide the only glimmers of true philosophical import in this book.
The other disappointment of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is that the book never truly addresses the fundamental inequality between humans and androids. Yes, OK, androids lack empathy—so what? Deckard eventual decides bounty hunting is wrong, but he does it anyway, and that's supposed to be OK because:
You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.
It's never really explained why androids bother to escape the colonies—yes, we're given to understand that the colonies aren't all they're cracked up to be and that Earth looks more attractive once one has left. But Dick ducks the main issue in order to look at a sideshow attraction.
My reaction to this book can be summed up in three phases: first I was intrigued, then I was excited, but finally I was disappointed. There are some good moments in this book, parts that I found quotable, memorable, perhaps even magical. Overall though, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep promises more than it can deliver. While at times delightful and even stimulating, it's like a symphony with a beautiful development but a flat coda; it ends on a note both dull and unremarkable.