Philip K. Dick, Science Fiction

There, But Not There: Intertextual Encounters with Blade Runner

I used Grammarly for proofreading because I’m just too tired, okay?

It’s hard to imagine a world without Philip K. Dick (aka PKD for brevity and to avoid the obvious joke of the last-name-appellation standard for authors). His way of thinking is so perfectly suited to our contemporary style of ingestion—short, persistently relevant chunks of compressed information. His ideas were just barely coming into vogue before he died in 1982 but the recent onset of surveillance culture, multiple online masks/personalities, and the generally persistent breakdown of what constitutes “the real” make him seem like a freakin’ prophet in retrospect.

Dick’s ideas are, in fact, so important to the modern way of living and thinking, they’ve been translated from the confines of his short, easily digestible books and immortalized on film, more than any other contemporary author perhaps, save Stephen King. These include, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and Blade Runner, to name only the more successful and enduring examples. In a way, this inadvertent legacy as an ex post facto film producer is the highest honor our culture can offer him, to say, “What you’re trying to say is so important, even people who don’t read shouldn’t miss this.”

With all due respect to those other films, Blade Runner, based on the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the only masterpiece adaptation of a PKD book, a complex work of art that extrapolates from the themes of its source material to create its own vibrant atmosphere. If you are in need of convincing of this fact, please, check out thedocumentary covering the creative cottage industry that yielded the film’s visionary set designs and performances. It’s certainly a favorite of mine and one that I’ve revisited for nearly two decades.

Yet, even as a fan of PKD, I hadn’t gotten around to reading the source material (he’s written a lot of books; at 7 titles deep, I am light in the proverbial shit) for reasons that aren’t too compelling. I think the title was a big sticking point: as a rhetorical question devoid of any context,Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is genuinely, impenetrably uninteresting. The fact that it’s based on a subplot from the novel that the creators of Blade Runner neglected—the adoption of android animals by a post-war populace severely lacking in the real thing—is the crucial missing bit of information that turns this frankly goofy prompt into a poignant thought to consider upon completing the book.

My reasons for reading it now? To learn the book’s stance on Deckard’s status as a replicant versus the film’s. The question of whether or not Deckard is a replicant was purportedly put to bed by Ridley Scott at some point (he is) but a quick YouTube search turns up this rather ambiguous response. So the answer is “maybe,” which is a perfectly PKD answer and one supported by the book. The fact remains, however, that he must be, simply, one or the other. The book, as PKD himself was, is much more interested in how its characters perceive the possibility of their own artificiality rather than the firm truth of whether or not they are. This wasn’t navel-gazing, either. PKD’s fascination resides in the ways in which we can read our reality with the simplest tools possible, namely our perceptions. Why is deception and darkness so convincing if they’re untrue or refutable through scientific fact? Why are humans still in the dark ages, emotionally, when so much more is known about the universe in which we live than ever before? And—getting back to the book itself—why are we to regard humans who rely on empathy boxes and programmed psychological states as more real than androids who require none of these mediations and are, in fact, actively seeking their own freedom?

With many of these dilemmas removed from the film, the question becomes balder and harder to determine, and perhaps for the best—existential dithering is not as powerful of a narrative tool in filmmaking as some wish it to be and the film’s focus on in-the-moment action serves it well. This makes the moments when the dialogue veers towards “fortune cookie” territory—most notably in antagonist Roy Baty’s (a show-stealing, and improvising, Rutger Hauer) “Tears in rain” speech. The possibility that Deckard is a replicant is never verbalized. It’s presented through memories, memories of a white horse triggered by Deckard’s spotting of an origami figurine, memories that could be his…or implants. The question is left up for grabs through his conversations with other replicants, his doubt presented to us as a quiet stoicism (in keeping with the strong and silent gumshoe portrayal by Harrison Ford).

In the context of the film, then, Deckard himself isn’t the big question; he is merely a clause within it. But by glossing over the relevance of his replicant status, we miss an important implication: if he is, in fact, a replicant, that implies that he was not only an android being sent to kill other androids, but an android designed to kill other androids. In other words, it was not an incidental part of his task but the sine qua non of his existence. Consequently, his memories, along with his expert ability to determine whether or not someone is a replicant, become significant barriers to the plausibility of his android status, and presumably, palliate the violent Nexus-6 desire for humanity.

(Then there’s this.)

Of course, in keeping with the source material, this is the fundamental irony of Do Androids…: an expert at identifying and decommissioning androids may be an android himself. It’s not, however, the story’s primary preoccupation. The book gets far screwier with this question as Deckard is arrested, told the police station he reports to is obsolete and that the android test he administers does not exist, and is, consequently, accused of being an escaped androids. As it turns out, the people implicating him in this conspiracy are—you guessed it—androids themselves! With the added component of a strange religion called Mercerism and the notion of characters artificially dosing themselves with emotions, PKD spins us around so often and so thoroughly, the book effectively leaves the reader in the “what is real?” state he, apparently, often found himself in in life.

That’s not necessarily the aim of the film, however. The film takes an interest in these issues only insofar as they generate atmospheres and textures that are sufficiently compelling in and of themselves. Baty’s speech, the interview with the replicant in the first scene, and Deckard’s reverie at the memory of the horse—these are all colors in Ridley Scott’s palette.

Which brings us back to the question of how best to adapt a PKD book. There’s a style to it and ample precedent for the approach. In the case of A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s slavish adaptation yields one of the least compelling PKD-based films. He gets every detail right and even produces some innovative effects with his rotoscope animation portraying the story’s “scramble suit” as accurately as one could possibly imagine. The problem? Everything is there. There is an art to omission and adapting a novel into film is one of an artist’s key opportunities to practice it. This is because the process of intertextuality gives all involved permission to leave out so much exposition simply due to the existence of the source material. No one need intend or announce it; it simply is. No matter how far transposed PKD’s source material may be, it still exists in dialogue with the film it became. In the case of A Scanner Darkly, the problem then is one of redundancy—why make a film that is exactly like the book? What understanding of the latter’s themes can the former present?

In the case of Blade Runner, a sci-fi noir was pulled out of a prototypical PKD existential crisis, one which calls into question our relationships with God, reality, and each other. And yet, I was surprised to find that it was missing a very special questionable relationship from his repertoire—our relationship with ourselves. Again, being relatively light on the man’s substantial oeuvre, I’d presumed from A Scanner Darkly, VALIS, and Minority Report that the schizophrenic’s theme—in which the pursuant subject becomes the pursued object—was a constant in his stories. That’s why I thought reading Do Androids…would lend more ballast to my notion that Deckard was a special hunting model of the Nexus-6, not less. There was a passage suggesting many varieties of replicants beyond what Deckard imagined but other than that, the topic of his replicant-ness was almost a red herring—apparently not a very interesting topic to PKD!

Blade Runner is where the question of his artificiality has more weight, and in its empty spaces, we can project much. The Deckard of the novel is complex, troubled, and starving for human (and animal—not in that way) contact. The Deckard of the film may be as well but he’s a cypher—macho and reserved, not letting on about much of anything. We’re led to believe that his game face is part of the job, part of why he’s so damn good at decommissioning replicants. If the Deckard of the book were designed exclusively for that reason, I’d send Tyrell Corp. back to the drawing board until they came up with something like the Deckard of the film.

But after reading the book, I’m always going to see Harrison Ford’s Deckard as crying on the inside.