The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic near future, where Earth and its populations have been damaged greatly by nuclear war during the end of a nuclear World War III. Most types of animals are endangered or extinct due to extreme radiation poisoning. To own an animal is a sign of high social status, but what is emphasized more is the empathy that real humans feel toward living creatures.
The main plot follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is faced with "retiring" six escaped Nexus-6 model android, the latest and most advanced model, while a secondary plot follows John Isidore, a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids. In connection with Deckard's mission, the novel explores the issue of what it is to be human. The androids are distinguishable from organic human beings by their lack of empathy. This would seem an obvious comment on what capitalism has done to social relations. People have turned into things without empathy and things into people without empathy.