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Rick arrives at work to learn that the senior bounty hunter in the office, Dave Holden, is hospitalized with a laser injury. Like all the “andys” Holden and Rick pursue, the android that shot Holden is on the run after killing its master. The android manufacturer, Rosen Association, is constantly upgrading its product line, and the robots are increasingly hard to tell apart from real human beings. The one test that still distinguishes them, the Voigt-Kampff test, is a test for empathy, of which androids are incapable.
Rick takes comfort in the fact that the androids he kills do not feel for others. He is following Mercer’s teaching: kill only the killers. With Holden out of action for at least a month, Rick may be able to earn some extra bounty money “retiring” the androids assigned to Holden. Rick tries to line up a purchase of a real ostrich he had seen in a pet shop window. To his irritation, he is unable to negotiate a price he could afford, even with the hoped-for extra bounty money. Logically, Rick should feel cautiously pleased over the opportunity Holden’s injury presents, but he feels only depressed.
Of the eight androids Holden was pursuing, six are still alive. Like all androids on Earth, these six are posing as human beings, which means their android status will have to be confirmed before they can be killed. Police Inspector Harry Bryant, head of the San Francisco department, worries that someday, a faulty test result will lead one of his bounty hunters to kill a human being. Bryant sends Rick to Rosen headquarters in Seattle. There, Rick must examine a mix of humans and the newest android model, the Nexus-6, to see whether the Voigt-Kampff test can still tell one from the other.
Arriving in Seattle, Rick meets Rachael Rosen, who confirms that the corporation is a family business. She introduces Rick to her uncle, Eldon Rosen. Rick enjoys the sensation of holding their future in his hands: if the test can’t distinguish humans and androids, the police may order the Nexus-6 models pulled from circulation. After Rick explains that the test works by measuring involuntary blushing and eye-muscle responses, Eldon catches him off guard by informing him that his first test subject is Rachael.
The test involves a series of questions that describe or imply the killing of various creatures. Rachael’s responses, as registered by Rick’s machine, convince him she is an android. Eldon and Rachael, however, insist she is not. They explain that Rachael’s responses are unusual because she grew up isolated on a spacecraft. Since it would be contrary to their interests to lie, Rick accepts that Rachael is human. Bryant was right to worry about killing humans by mistake; it may, in fact, have happened already.
Then it dawns on Rick that Rachael and Eldon tricked him. Proper protocol would have been to test all subjects before comparing the results against a previously sealed list. By breaking protocol, Rick has invalidated his results. Eldon and Rachael offer Rick a live owl from their corporate zoo as a bribe, to report back to Bryant that all is well with the test. On a hunch, however, Rick examines Rachael again, with one additional, carefully chosen question, and confirms that she is, indeed, an android. Rachael herself did not know this, Eldon says, but she had begun to suspect. Since Rachael is on Earth legally and has broken no laws, Rick has no reason to take action against her.
As Deckard’s grim and isolating profession plays out over the course of a day, the theme of empathy comes into full focus. The Voigt-Kampff test, an invaluable (yet perhaps flawed) tool, can detect humanoid androids by identifying their lack of human empathy. As the artificial brain is refined, the test must be refined as well, and in this world of astonishing technology, it seems that empathy is the only remaining difference between humans and androids. Deckard’s faith in the Voigt-Kampff test must be solid, otherwise he might have mistakenly killed human beings. He willfully denies that possibility, as it would violate the principles of Mercerism, as well as Deckard’s personal ethics. Deckard doesn’t mind “retiring” androids, but Iran’s sympathy for the “andys” continues to haunt him, foreshadowing his coming crisis of empathy for the ones he kills.
Chapters 4 and 5 develop an important theme of the novel as Deckard struggles to distinguish authenticity from artificiality. Directed to meet with the Rosen Association to confirm the validity of his precious Voigt-Kampff test, he is unprepared for the unfettered luxury of the offices of the highly successful organization. Frustrated over the prices of animals up to this point, Deckard is astonished by what appears to be an authentic, living owl, a species thought to be extinct. The owl, symbolic of authenticity, stands in sharp contrast to Deckard’s own, pathetic electric sheep. But the priceless organic zoo that confronts Deckard is soon revealed as a highly orchestrated misdirection by the Rosens in the following scenes, and indeed throughout the novel. Deckard yearns for authentic living things, as all humans must in a dead world, but he is continually disappointed to discover more and more artificial beings attempting to deceive him.
Deckard is introduced to Rachael Rosen, the novel’s coming antagonist and a living symbol of the blurred line between artificiality and authenticity at the heart of the story. Rachael Rosen has distracted Deckard with her beauty and boldness, and the Rosens offer the owl casually, as a bribe, in another show of wealth and status. However, when Deckard realizes he’s been duped, and that Eldon Rosen’s “niece” is indeed an android, his confidence in the Voigt-Kampff test is restored. Rachael’s confidence, by contrast, appears shattered, as if she did not know she was an android herself. Deckard guesses that the living owl in the Rosen collection is a facsimile, like Rachael. Though Deckard has successfully exposed the Rosens’ deception, the image of Rachael Rosen sticks in his mind. Rachael’s true manipulation of Deckard is only just beginning.