Rick Deckard and his wife, Iran, live in San Francisco after a catastrophic world war. Because the conflict left the air full of radioactive dust, most humans have emigrated to colony planets. The few humans that remain on Earth are tested from time to time, to ensure they are still “regulars” and not “specials.” Specials are physically or mentally too damaged by radiation to be allowed to reproduce.
Rick is a bounty hunter, paid to kill androids that occasionally make their way to Earth from the colony planets. Animals are status symbols, because they have become rare. Almost everyone owns either a piece of livestock or a pet. Most people who can’t afford real animals purchase realistic, animated fakes. Rick and Iran keep a sheep in a pasture on the roof of their apartment building. During a morning conversation, Rick learns that the neighbor’s horse is pregnant. Trying to persuade the neighbor to sell him the foal, Rick reveals that his sheep is a robot, a replacement for the real one that died a year ago. The neighbor won’t sell Rick the foal but promises not to tell anyone else that Rick’s sheep is fake. Iran, meanwhile, uses a “mood organ” device to schedule episodes of depression. She believes that depression is the appropriate emotion for their situation.
Specials aren’t allowed to leave Earth, but the U.N. government wants regulars to emigrate and offers android servants as an incentive. Some regulars choose to remain on Earth, for whatever reason. They mostly reside in urban areas, near each other, for companionship. Specials live in isolation in the suburbs. John Isidore was reclassified as a special about a year ago. Even in his mentally diminished, “chickenhead” state, he is able to reflect on his situation. He finds the lifeless silence of his apartment building oppressive and wonders whether another special would feel the same.
Like everyone else, Isidore owns an “empathy box.” People use their empathy boxes in a ritual of psychological “fusion”: everyone’s mind is transported into the body of a Messiah-like figure named Wilbur Mercer, who constantly toils up a hill while unseen onlookers throw rocks at him. Fusion participants feel not only Mercer’s pain but also one another’s joys and sorrows. The experience is so realistic and intense that it can leave physical wounds. Today, cleaning a cut shoulder after a morning fusion session, Isidore hears a TV going in a nearby apartment. Startled, he realizes that someone else has moved into the building.
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.
Isidore knocks on the door of the newly inhabited apartment. An attractive but frightened-looking girl opens. She moved into the vacant apartment without any belongings of her own and is, for the moment, living with the clutter left by the last occupants. Isidore discovers that the girl doesn’t know common slang, hasn’t heard of the world-famous TV comic Buster Friendly, doesn’t have an empathy box, and doesn’t embrace the Mercerist religion. When Isidore lets slip that he is a special, the girl’s demeanor changes. She becomes cold and dismissive, telling Isidore she will not socialize with him but may need his help scavenging furniture from other apartments. The girl gives her name as Rachael Rosen. When Isidore connects the last name with the android manufacturer, she abruptly declares that the only name she ever goes by is Pris Stratton.
Isidore is a pickup and delivery driver for a false-animal repair shop that poses as a veterinary hospital. He was late for work that morning but has now made his first stop of the day. In his truck is a sick cat, abruptly thrust into his hands by an owner who had no time to talk. The cat acts very much like a real dying cat, and it stops functioning before Isidore can find the control panel or the battery terminals. He is, in a way, relieved, since even simulated animal suffering bothers him. When he brings the cat’s remains into the shop, however, the proprietor, Hannibal Sloat, determines that the cat is real. Disgusted that Isidore can’t tell a real cat from a fake one, Sloat orders him to make the vidphone call to inform the owner of the cat’s demise. The owner’s wife answers. She believes that her husband could not bear to lose the cat, and so she agrees to Isidore’s suggestion that the shop pay for an identical-looking replica. Isidore is relieved when the call is over, but he is pleased at how he handled it.
Returning to San Francisco, Rick assures Bryant that the Voigt-Kampff test is still reliable. Rick then starts working through Holden’s files on the remaining androids. Max Polokov, the one that shot Holden, is absent from work and not at home, either. Polokov has apparently fled town and become some other bounty hunter’s worry. For the next android, Rick has learned, he will be joined by a foreign cop who is visiting as an observer. Oddly, Rick also gets a call from Rachael, who offers to help him deal with the six androids, all Nexus-6 models. Rick turns her down.
When Rick’s new foreign partner tries to kill him, Rick realizes the partner is actually Polokov and manages to shoot him first. Shaken, Rick has second thoughts about spurning Rachael’s offer. When he calls Iran, she is just coming out of a long depressive episode and reacts apathetically to his news that he killed an andy. Rick thinks bitterly that most female androids have more life in them than Iran. His thoughts turn to his new target, Luba Luft. She is a well-known singer with the San Francisco opera.
A fan of opera, Rick watches the company rehearse before proceeding to confront Luba in her dressing room. When he tries to administer the Voigt-Kampff test, however, Luba throws Rick off track, deflecting his questions and asking how Rick knows he himself is human. He protests that he passed the required test, but she gives him reasons to doubt his answer. Finally, Luba distracts Rick long enough to pull out a laser weapon. She accuses Rick of being a sexual deviant. When Luba calls the police, Rick is relieved and thinks Luba must not realize she is an android. His relief turns to confusion, however, when an Officer Crams arrives who claims never to have heard of Rick or Inspector Bryant. A strange vidphone malfunction prevents Rick from getting Bryant on the line to clear up the confusion. Even more bafflingly, Crams claims that the Hall of Justice where Rick works fell into disuse years ago. Crams will be flying Rick to the new one.
Landing the hovercar at the new Hall of Justice, Crams takes Rick to a police department that Rick did not know existed. When he tries to phone Iran, he instead reaches a stranger. An inspector named Garland interviews Rick, listens to his claim about being a bounty hunter, and goes through Rick’s briefcase. Garland then informs Rick that he, Garland, is the next name in Rick’s list of targets. Garland brings in another bounty hunter, Phil Resch, and together Garland and Resch interrogate Rick. They have not heard of the Voigt-Kampff test to expose androids, but they have a test of their own, based on response time for a reflex pathway in the spine. Garland and Resch begin to disagree over what should be done with Rick. They openly discuss Resch’s belief that police higher-ups such as Garland should be tested. When a lab report on the tissue remains found in Rick’s car confirms that Polokov was an android, Resch believes Rick’s story and insists that Garland submit to a test.
While Resch is away fetching the testing gear, Garland admits to Rick that Garland and the others in Rick’s file are all androids that came from Mars together. Resch joined them a week later, Garland says, but he doesn’t know that he, too, is an android. The supposed new Hall of Justice is a covert operation used by androids to counter bounty hunters’ efforts. When Resch returns, Garland moves to shoot him with a concealed laser. Resch is quicker, killing Garland first. Informed by Rick that the building is full of androids, Resch handcuffs himself and Rick together, so the two can walk out of the building looking like captor and prisoner. They head back to the opera house to take care of Luba Luft. During the escape, Resch wonders how he could have been working for androids and not known. Eventually he proposes that at the next opportunity, Rick should administer one of the tests, to find out whether Resch is android or human.
At the opera house, Rick and Resch learn that Luba has gone to a nearby art museum. They find her and escort her out, taking advantage of the fact that androids habitually avoid attracting attention. At a kiosk near the museum exit, Luba asks Rick to buy her a gift. Rick obliges. After admitting she is an android, Luba takes Rick’s willingness to grant her a last request as a sign of his humanity. She taunts Resch with the suggestion that he is an android. At that, Resch kills Luba. He is not sorry.
Rick and Resch now use the Voigt-Kampff test to confirm that they are both human. The test also reveals that unlike Resch, Rick feels empathy for androids—or, at least, for some androids. Rick particularly felt empathy for Luba. He believes he was moved by her artistry, but Resch insists it was simply physical attraction, a pitfall that bounty hunters are warned about. There is nothing wrong with being attracted to android women and even having sex with them, Resch says with a smile, but one must be able to kill them afterward.
Still hoping for a dinner with Pris, Isidore appears at her door with some expensive delicacies. Pris is not much interested in the food, but she is ready for some company and mildly impressed by Isidore’s newly confident demeanor. She invites him in and begins to talk, in rambling fashion, about her situation. She is one of eight friends who returned from Mars after finding life there unbearable, but by now some of the others have no doubt been killed by bounty hunters.
Isidore does not understand that bounty hunters hunt androids and therefore doesn’t grasp that Pris is an android. He finds her story hard to believe, partly because Mercerian ethics forbids all killing. Still, he offers to protect her. She flirts with him, tries the food, and cries. She speaks wistfully of old stories, before the age of actual space travel, in which life on other worlds was an adventure. Suddenly there is a knock. The two other surviving androids, Roy and Irmgard Baty, have showed up.
Roy, the androids’ leader, confirms that the others are all dead. Learning that Isidore is friendly and a special, he proposes that Pris move in with Isidore and leave her place to Roy and Irmgard. Roy wires up an alarm to warn either apartment’s occupants of an intruder in the other. Meanwhile, Isidore has noticed the three androids’ strangely abstract way of talking and thinking. He finally realizes they are androids. Now the story about their being hunted makes more sense. However, Isidore still does not understand that the androids killed their masters to escape Mars. He declares his admiration for their intelligence. Irmgard, in turn, appreciatively notes his solidarity with them. He is a member of one despised class, looking out for members of another despised class. Still, now that Isidore knows the other three to be androids, they must vote on what to do with him.
As soon as his workday is officially over, Rick heads for an animal dealership. He uses his bounty money from killing Polokov, Luba and Garland as down payment on a genuine Nubian goat. Examining the goat in its rooftop enclosure, Iran is excited to own a real animal again. She insists on sharing her happiness with others, through fusion with Mercer. The choice to return to the apartment proves unfortunate, as Bryant catches Rick by vidphone. Bryant tasks Rick with immediately retiring Roy and Irmgard, who have been tracked to their new location, but could be gone by morning.
Rick is physically exhausted, and he is unsettled by his newfound sympathy for androids. During Rick’s turn at the empathy box, Mercer gives him a message of despair: There is no salvation. In a bleak and resigned mood, Rick begins planning how to move against the remaining androids. He resolves to get out of the bounty hunting business if he survives this assignment. Unsure how he will handle several androids at once, he decides to enlist Rachael’s help. Rachael protests that it is too late in the day for her to fly down from Seattle. She changes her mind when Rick, lying, promises to stop pursuing the remaining andys and suggests that they meet at a hotel.
Rachael arrives at the hotel with a bottle of bourbon. When Rick shows her his files on the remaining androids, she looks through them but then reminds Rick of his promise to leave the andys alone. Increasingly drunk on the bourbon, she shares her real reason for flying down on short notice: she wants to learn how the Nexus-6 androids are distinguishable from humans. The information will be used in the design of the Nexus-7. Rick, meanwhile, has decided that killing Roy Baty will be his main challenge. Rick has mixed feelings about killing Pris, because she is the same model as Rachael and physically identical. Rachael coaxes Rick into sleeping with her, promising she will kill Pris if he takes care of the other two.
It is night. As Rick and Rachael fly toward the suburb where the remaining androids are hiding, she reveals that she has been trying to get him to stop hunting androids. She has, in fact, had sex with nine bounty hunters. Of all of them, only Resch was able to continue hunting androids afterward. Rick decides to kill her, but like others before him, he can’t bring himself to follow through. He turns his hovercar back toward the hotel, to drop Rachel off there so he can proceed alone. She uses the remaining time of their trip to tease Rick about his new goat and to keep an ear tuned to the radio. Buster Friendly is about to make a long-promised big announcement, and she wants to hear it.
Although Roy would have preferred to kill Isidore, Irmgard and Pris outvoted him, arguing that Isidore was useful. Now the four of them, like Rachael, eagerly await Buster Friendly’s big revelation. Isidore, setting his apartment up for the TV-watching session, finds a spider and shows it to Pris. He is horrified when she starts torturing the spider and the Batys join in. Meanwhile on TV, Buster and his Friendly Friends present proof that Mercerism is an elaborate fabrication. Mercer’s uphill struggle took place long ago, not on a real hillside but on a sound stage. The evidence includes an interview with an aging small-time actor named Al Jarry. The androids had known to expect this development, because Buster is one of them. Roy Baty is pleased that the phenomenon of empathy has been exposed as a giant fraud.
Isidore drowns the mutilated spider to end its suffering. Overcome with empathy for the creature, he enters a trance and descends into the tomb world, another part of Mercer’s sufferings familiar to fusion participants. Mercer approaches. He admits to being Al Jarry, a fraud in the eyes of anyone focused on literal facts. Nonetheless, he will continue to search for souls who need lifting. Mercer then hands Isidore the spider, now made whole again. As he is about to reply to Mercer, Isidore is startled out of his trance—which had been induced by him using his empathy box—by a warning bell from the intruder alarm.
Roy Baty sends Isidore into the hallway for a look. Making his way down the hallway and outdoors into what remains of an old garden, Isidore releases the spider Mercer restored to him. Rick appears out of the darkness. Without thinking, Isidore tells Rick about the androids in his apartment. Isidore is pleased at having important information to share. He turns uncooperative, however, after Rick calls him a chickenhead. Isidore warns Rick that killing the androids would mean exclusion from Mercerism.
Entering the building, Rick encounters a shadowy figure. It is Mercer. He assures Rick that what Rick is doing has to be done. Mercer then warns Rick that Pris is lurking on the stairs. Rick turns. He is momentarily confused by Pris’s resemblance to Rachael, but he recovers just in time to kill Pris as she runs toward him. Rick then enters Isidore’s apartment. After the Batys fire at him, he shoots them both without much difficulty. The hard part, it turned out, was killing Pris, not Roy Baty. All the Rachael-model androids are designed to trigger feelings of love in male humans. Isidore, seeing that Pris is dead, cries silently.
Rick has done the job he came to do, but he is disgusted with the business of hunting androids, and he is disgusted with himself. He snaps irritably at Isidore and heads home. Iran greets him in a state of agitation and tells him that someone deliberately pushed the new goat off the roof to its death. From Iran’s physical description, Rick knows the killer was Rachael. Numbly, Rick gets back in his hovercar and begins flying north, away from San Francisco.
It is morning by the time Rick puts the hovercar down in a barren landscape. He tries to call Dave Holden. When he is unable to get through, he begins walking. Soon his walk turns into a Mercer-like uphill trudge. Despite all his success the day before, Rick feels defeated and empty. Suddenly he is struck by a rock. Delirious with fatigue, he experiences something like fusion with Mercer: he is a wretched figure condemned to climb pointlessly uphill.
Finally, spooked by his own shadow, Rick turns and stumbles back down to his car. Knowing he is in no condition to fly, he tries to call Inspector Bryant. Bryant is unavailable, but Rick reaches Bryant’s secretary. She tells Rick that his wife is worried about him. Rick tries to explain about his dead goat, about having parked his car somewhere near the Oregon border, and about having fused with Mercer. He is, he claims, no longer with the department. To the report that Mercer is a fake, he replies, “Mercer isn’t a fake. Unless reality is a fake.” He ends the conversation with a promise to call his wife. He should not have gone to bed with Rachael, he reflects. He should have killed her.
Something in the dust at Rick’s feet catches his eye: a toad. The toad and the donkey are known to be Mercer’s two favorite creatures, but the toad has long been listed as extinct. And yet here, seeing the world through Mercer’s eyes, Rick has found one in the wild. He is in awe. Rick packs the toad in a box and flies home. He excitedly presents the box to Iran, but his excitement turns to disappointment when she quickly discovers a control panel on the toad’s belly. The toad is a fake. Deflated, Rick tells Iran how exhausting yesterday was for him, both physically and morally. Comforting Rick and urging him to get to bed, Iran sets the mood organ to “long deserved peace.” Rick falls asleep almost immediately. Iran regrets ruining Rick’s surprise. She intends to look after their new toad properly, and so she orders some supplies for the toad’s care.
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