A devastating global war called World War Terminus ended in 1992 (2021 in later editions). Due to the Earth’s radioactively polluted atmosphere, the United Nations encourages the mass migration of humans to off-world colonies to protect humanity’s genetic integrity.
A move away from Earth comes with free personal androids: robot servants who are identical to humans. The Rosen Association manufactures the androids on a colony on Mars, but some androids violently rebel and escape to Earth.
They hope to remain undetected there. So American and Soviet police departments stay vigilant and keep android bounty-hunting officers on duty.
Real live animals have become a status symbol on Earth. Due to mass extinctions, authentic animals have become rare, as have cultural calls for greater empathy. Poor people can, however, only afford realistic-looking robot imitations of live animals.
Deckard, the protagonist of the novel, owns a sheep with electric black faces. An increase in empathy coincidentally inspired a new technology-based religion called Mercerism. It uses empathy boxes to connect virtual reality worlds through a martyr-like character called Wilbur Mercer.
There appear to be only two ways characters in the story strive to achieve existential fulfillment: acquiring high-status pets and linking them to empathy boxes.
Nexus-6 model, an escaped Martian that has wandered to Earth.
Only a posthumous “bone marrow analysis” can prove the difference between the androids and humans, which makes them indistinguishable from real people.
During this mission, Deckard hopes to earn enough bounty money to purchase a live animal to replace his lone electric sheep as a comfort for his depressed wife Iran.
As Deckard visits Rosen’s Seattle headquarters, he confirms the accuracy of the latest empathy test used to identify incognito androids.
Deckard believes the test may be ineffective to distinguish Nexus-6 models from humans. Apparently, it gave a false positive for Rachael Rosen, indicating that the police are potentially executing people.
Deckard retests Rachael and determines that she is innocent. The Rosen Association attempts to blackmail Deckard to drop the case. Rachael admits, in the end, that she is, indeed, a robot.
Deckard soon meets a Soviet police contact who turns out to be a renegade of the Nexus-6. Deckard kills the android, then flies off to kill his next target, an android disguised as an opera singer. Deckard tries to administer the empathy test to her backstage, but she calls the police. Despite the fact Deckard is a bounty hunter, the cops fail to recognize him and arrest him at a police station he has never heard of and are surprised that he has never met.
An official named Garland accuses Deckard himself of being an android with implanted memories. After a series of mysterious revelations at the station, Deckard ponders the ethical and philosophical questions his line of work raises regarding android intelligence, empathy, and what it means to be human.
Garland, pointing a gun at Deckard, then reveals that the entire station is a sham, claiming that both he and Phil Resch, the station’s resident bounty hunter, are androids.
Resch shoots Garland in the head, escaping with Deckard back to the opera singer, whom Resch brutally kills in cold blood when she alludes that he himself may be an android.
Desperate to know the truth, Resch asks Deckard to administer the empathy test on him, which confirms that he is actually human if a particularly ruthless one. Deckard then tests himself, confirming that he is human but has a sense of empathy for certain androids.
Deckard is now able to buy his wife Iran an authentic Nubian goat with his commission. Later, his supervisor insists that he visit an abandoned apartment building where the three remaining android fugitives are assumed to be hiding. Experiencing a vision of the prophet-like Mercer confusingly telling him to proceed, despite the immorality of the mission, Deckard calls on Rachael Rosen again since her knowledge of android psychology may aid his investigation. Rachael declines to help but reluctantly agrees to meet Deckard at a hotel in exchange for him abandoning the case. At the hotel, she reveals that one of the fugitive androids is the same exact model as herself, meaning that he will have to shoot down an android that looks exactly like her. Rachael coaxes Deckard into sex, after which they confess their love for one another. Rachael reveals she has slept with many bounty hunters, having been programmed to do so in order to dissuade them from their missions. Rick threatens to kill her but holds back at the last moment before he leaves for the abandoned apartment building.
Meanwhile, the three remaining Nexus-6 android fugitives plan how they can outwit Deckard. The building’s only other inhabitant, John R. Isidore, a radioactively damaged and intellectually below-average human, attempts to befriend them, but is shocked when they callously torture and mutilate a rare spider he discovers. They all watch a television program that presents definitive evidence that the entire theology of Mercerism is a hoax. Deckard enters the building, experiencing strange, supernatural premonitions of Mercer notifying him of an ambush. When the androids attack him first, Deckard is legally justified as he shoots down all three without testing them beforehand. Isidore is devastated and Deckard is soon rewarded for a record number of Nexus-6 kills in a single day. When Deckard returns home, he finds Iran grieving because, while he was away, Rachael Rosen stopped by and killed their goat.
Deckard travels to an uninhabited, obliterated region of Oregon to reflect. He climbs a hill and is hit by falling rocks when he realizes this is an experience eerily similar to Mercer’s martyrdom. He stumbles abruptly upon what he thinks is a real toad (an animal thought to be extinct) but, when he returns home with it, Iran discovers it is just a robot. As he goes to sleep, she prepares to care for the electric toad on his behalf.