In the name of comprehensive academic research, I have taken the time to study the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel upon which the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner (1982) is constructed. Obviously, the hype surrounding Blade Runner 2049 provided an opportunity for an anniversary reassessment; that is to say, to find out how the “blade runner” Rick Deckard is making out after 30 years … even though Harrison Ford (who adopts the Deckard role in both films) has actually aged 35 years in between the original and the sequel. In Dante’s terms, that is exactly one-half of a human lifetime (which may be expected to last: “threescore years and ten” according to Psalm 90).
From Dick’s novel — which has the truly off-putting title: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — I learned two very important facts:
- The words “Blade Runner” appear nowhere in the course of the novel.
- (And to cite the great David Mamet:) “I forget what the other fact is.”
Ostensibly the designation of Rick Deckard as a “blade runner” — that is to say a police officer, who works on “commission” and who “retires” ersatz humans — is taken from the title of a novel by William S. Burroughs. The “blades” in Burroughs’ futuristic novel refer to surgical scalpels … presumably items of the very greatest utility, and apparently leftovers after Burroughs’s “naked lunch”.
There are some other significant differences between Blade Runner (1982) and the novel:
|i.||The novel’s Rick Deckard works for the San Francisco Police Department, and the catastrophe in California (and elsewhere) is the result of nuclear warfare and fallout; the catastrophic appearance (and emptying out of the film’s Los Angeles setting) is the result of acid rain.|
|ii.||The androids of Dick’s novel come to the movie screen as “replicants”; the android designation (already appearing in the novel’s title) is consciously avoided in the film version. The word “replicant” — which does not appear anywhere in the novel — was substituted instead. Ridley Scott, apparently, did not want his movie to be placed within the genre of already existing cheesy science fiction films on the subject of “humanoids”.|
|iii.||In the novel, despite the obvious danger they pose, there hardly seems to be any point in “retiring” androids, since they have a total lifespan of only four years. In Dick’s novel, the properly functional androids are conceived as individual, personal assistants, “off-world” servants with duties way beyond those of butlers, maids and servants. They belong to the owners in the same way as pets. But it is useful to remember that Dick’s “labour-saving” fantasy was conceived some 40 years before the first iPhone … Dick showed the way forward for the planned redundancy of those essential personal assistants — which like the iPhone need to appear everywhere with theirs owners, must always be visible, turned on, and ready to hand. In the last 10 years Apple has managed the reduce the serviceable lifespan (the uncharitable way of speaking is “planned obsolescence”) of your must-have, daily communications assistant to a replacement target of much less than 4 years, perhaps as few as 2!|
The language employed in the novel fully justifies its addition to a central position in our Fake or Facsimile (ForF) Series. Dick not only uses the word “fake”: but also adds artificial, counterfeit, ersatz, false, inauthentic, mechanical, synthetic (as adjectives), and acting, constructs, fraud, imitation, masquerade, replica and simulation (as nouns)
And to cap it all off, the “25th Anniversary Edition” of Dick’s novel — which is actually celebrating 25 years of the Blade Runner movie rather than the very nearly 40 years of Dick’s novel — adds, in the blurb on the back cover, the plural “simulacra” to the list provided — which places it directly in the ForF flightpath.
Philip Dick’s androids (Ridley Scott’s replicants) are organic entities, at one and the same time humanoid and synthetically artificial. They are “custom-tailored” to individual clients, and sometimes even kitted out with “implanted memories” of growing up with a human history behind them (this is especially true in 2049 version). But what makes them “just like us” is their capacity for knowing that their time alongside humans will have an end. In the case of the “replicants” this becomes a termination date. The replicants are — as rational beings — actually able to anticipate dangers that might prematurely hasten their demise, so they are as fully capable of anticipating their “retirement” as we are.
There is a famous question which comes from the great Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. It points to the greatest mystery surrounding human beings: all of us know that we are going to die, but we all behave as if we are going to live forever. Why should these replicants, these manufactured organic intelligences, be any different?
Just as we do, these replicants — responding to their capacity for imaginative lives — want to “exist” as fully as possible: they have a desire to have all the variety of experiences that human life makes available to their creators. For this reason these “manufactured” individuals escape to Earth (according to the narrative), and having arrived from the extra-terrestrial “colonies”, they try to fit into the rhythms of modern day California, by “masquerading” as human beings.
Recognizing that these artificial “humans” have the same aspirations for happiness and longevity that we do, this puts the Blade Runner (Rick Deckard) in an awkward spot. He is a bounty hunter being paid “to retire” entities with recognizable human wants and desires, and his task of eliminating one after another of these replicant “humanoids” has, of course, the inevitable effect of “dehumanizing” the protagonist. This bounty hunter is snuffing out entities — one after another — whose primary goal and purpose is to keep interacting with the world into which they have been released, or if you will forgive the philosophical jargon, into which they have been “thrown”.
All of this is already perfectly familiar to us as we approach the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. In Shelley’s world famous novel, the nameless “monster” learns through his intensive reading of Goethe’s Werther, Plutarch’s Lives, and Milton’s Paradise Lost what make up the moral sensibilities of a human being. About Goethe’s tragic account of The Sorrows of Young Werther, the “monster” has this to say:
But I thought Werther himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined; his character … sunk deep … I inclined towards the opinions of the hero, whose demise I wept, without precisely understanding it.
Who exactly is the monster here? The unnamed creation, or Dr Victor Frankenstein, whose family name is thrust upon the monster as if thus identifying the origin of this monstrosity? Frankenstein, the novel, tells us that it is, in fact, the “monstrous” creator who is the real source of this fictional tragedy. The “monster” himself, having been educated in the refined nobility of humanity (by his own study of literature) principally then seeks companionship and compassion; these are denied by his “parent” who divests himself of all responsibility for this appalling folly, and so the tragedy becomes the only source of escape for both inventor and humanoid.
The Dick novel is also full of delicious ironies: a genetically damaged human (through the ever present radiation) becomes a servant to the androids; the replicants do not, in fact, have any capacity to understand themselves as assembled factory-line models, as if they were “bottle caps” stamped out identically by a machine. On Earth – because of the environmental catastrophe, the androids/replicants are treated as lesser beings than the — soon to be extinct — earthworms and slugs; as the 2049 version of the story makes clear, the best “Blade Runners” are the replicants themselves (LAPD’s Nexus-9 Officer K, aka Ryan Gosling); and most poignantly the highest ambition of the replicants is actually to be released from imprisoning domestic servitude and “forced labour”, as if they were on “chain gangs” — for which kinds of bondage they were originally “manufactured”.
There are other famous examples of the same bizarre reversals. Olympia the wind-up doll of Offenbach’s 1881 opera Tales of Hoffmann is based on another story (also published in 1818) by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Olympia, although she is a “replicant” is given the most stunning music by Offenbach, so naturally the Hoffmann character can do nothing other than fall in love with her. Or think of the well-known action figures in Toy Story, who are only capable of living fully human lives in the absence of their owners! Or most tellingly, the infamous HAL 9000 — who has become an iconic example of “artificial intelligence” (A.I.) — HAL having more recognizably human emotions that the “robotic” crew members whom he is supposed to serving in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another worthy example is Steven Spielberg’s poignant 2001 film A.I. (based on a short story by Brian Aldiss). The confusion occurs when we are forced to remember that these “manufactured” and artificial entities — whether toy or doll or Frankenstein’s monster (literally sewn together from bits and pieces of corpses), or Spielberg’s boy, truly a “replicant” — are all organic machines. Yet, in every case, the true “humanity” is expressed by these synthetic realities, and the “inhumanity” is always more fully expressed by their creators, their exploiters and their consumers. Apparently, there is no better way to criticize our human behaviour than to consider how we treat the intelligences we create for our own welfare and benefit.
If you want a real example of “robotic behaviour”, then look no farther than the first few pages of Dick’s novel, where Rick Deckard is considering the various settings available to him on his “Penfield mood organ”; Deckard tries to alter his wife’s mood by suggesting that she should dial setting #888: which engenders “the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it”.
No self-respecting A.I. would ever sink that low: the replicants would leave that totally mindless, robotic activity … to their owners!
Oh, and I finally remember the second thing I learned from reading the entirety of Dick’s novel: “the future is not what it used to be”. According to Dick in January 2021 (the original date when the novel is set): everybody still smokes (including even in the offices of government buildings); all calls are put through by receptionists and operators, with their gender roles fully intact; and the most important documents are only provided as “carbon copies”, often printed on the flimsiest of onion skin paper. Who could possibly have predicted that?