Rick Deckard wakes up in bed next to his wife, Iran. He whispers to Iran that she’s set her “alarm clock” too low—a jolt of electricity is supposed to wake her up, making her feel wide awake. Iran whispers that she just wants to sleep, and she teases Rick about being a “crude cop.” Rick replies that he’s not a cop, and has never killed a human being.
The novel begins with a sense that something isn’t quite right. We’ve all used alarm clocks, but it’s rather disturbing that this alarm clock has to shock its user into wakefulness. The machine has a clinical, inhuman feel to it. It’s similarly disorienting to hear that Rick is a killer and yet hasn’t killed any humans—it’ll be a few chapters before we understand what he means.
Rick gets out of bed and thinks about buying a real sheep, as opposed to the electric one he and Iran own. As he thinks, he fiddles with a small machine, a “mood organ,” that can control the chemical balance of his brain. This mood organ could make Rick furious, if he set the dial high enough. Rick mutters to Iran, who’s climbing out of bed, that he’s going to follow his “mood schedule” for the day, which is January 3, 1992. Iran looks at her own schedule and notices that she’s supposed to go through a “six-hour self-accusatory depression.”
Right away, we see where the title for Dick’s novel comes from—in his vision of the future, people own artificial pets instead of the real thing. What’s even more disturbing is the idea that in the future, emotions can be controlled with machines. One reason this is so disturbing is that all humans will be exactly the same when their emotions are controlled by the same machines—i.e., one person’s interpretation of “depression” will be identical to every other person’s. Another reason is that it suggests that humans now can’t feel strong emotions at all without the help of a machine.
Iran continues talking about her mood settings. She mentions 481—the mood setting that corresponds to a sense of “awareness of the manifold possibilities.” Rick uses this setting for his work all the time. Iran complains that she doesn’t like watching TV in the morning, and Rick tells her to dial 888, the setting that makes people want to watch TV. Rick sets his mood organ to “a fresh and creative attitude,” a setting that Rick usually feels anyway.
Although most emotions are controlled by machines, there’s a glimmer of hope—some people, like Rick, are capable of feeling emotions without mechanical help. This means that Rick is the only character so far who’s recognizably human.
Rick finishes breakfast and heads outside, where he sees a flock of sheep—the pets of his neighbors—grazing. Rick’s electric sheep grazes, too—Rick thinks that his neighbors have probably purchased electric sheep in secret, too, in order to fool each other. Rick breathes in a cloud of dust and smog. Ever since World War Terminus, or WWT, he thinks, the air has been horrible in San Francisco. Rick has to wear an “Ajax” brand lead codpiece in order to stay healthy and fertile. Rick has a medical checkup with his Police Department coming up soon. Healthy people are encouraged to “emigrate” away from the Earth. Rick, however, doesn’t leave Earth because of the nature of his job.
As with most sci-fi novels, there’s a lot of expository information in these first few chapters. Here, for instance, we see why it’s so important to own mechanical sheep—most real sheep have been wiped out by some kind of environmental catastrophe. The mention of Rick’s “Ajax lead codpiece” is also an amusing bit of satire. Codpieces were used in medieval times to accentuate the size of men’s genitalia, and “Ajax” is the name of a famous Greek warrior—basically this product is meant to reinforce a man’s masculinity while also serving a health purpose in preserving his fertility (which is ironic in this case, as Rick and Iran don’t have any children). It’s also ironic in retrospect, as the dangers of lead poisoning weren’t fully understood in the 60s, so the lead codpiece would probably cause more problems than it fixed.
Rick greets his neighbor, Bill Barbour. Bill owns a horse, which is pregnant with foals. He explains that he bought “fertilizing plasma” to impregnate her. Rick is jealous of Bill’s horse, and wishes he could afford to buy a real animal instead of an electric one. He suggests to Bill that he buy Bill’s horse, paying Bill in monthly installments. Bill refuses, explaining that he put in a lot of effort to buy his horse—he even had to fly to Canada. Sadly, Rick shows Bill his electric sheep, pulling back the wool to reveal a metal frame. Bill is saddened by this sight. Rick explains that he used to own a real sheep, Groucho, but it died of a strange disease. To avoid embarrassment, he replaced the sheep with a machine. Bill promises not to tell the neighbors about Rick’s sheep—he knows that the neighbors look down on anyone who doesn’t take care of an animal.
This is one of the funnier, more overly satirical scenes in the novel, and it reminds us that Dick isn’t just writing about the future—his purpose is also to critique the present-day culture of the United States. Here, Dick makes fun of the beloved American tradition of “keeping up with the Joneses.” In the future, we learn, people brag about their wealth and power by buying animals—an appropriately arbitrary form of conspicuous consumption that isn’t too far removed from reality. Just as in the present, people are judged for refusing to participate in the “game” of competition—the only thing worse than being unable to afford a sheep is not caring about it.
Bill suggests that Rick buy a cheap animal, such as a cat or a mouse. Rick ignores him and walks toward his hovercar, prepared for work.
Bill’s suggestion is appropriately condescending—Bill has more money than Rick, and they both know it.