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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.

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James Brown, Meshuggah, Philip K. Dick, The Metal Apologist, Tomas Haake

The Metal Apologist (Part III: Meshuggah)

{from June 14, 2007}

What do mathematics, the slow complex psychic evolution of humankind, and James Brown have in common? They find a nexus point in Sweden with the arcane metal band Meshuggah. Meshuggah are a REALLY good band. And most people in the metal world know this. But I’m not quite sure to what extent they realize it. Because Meshuggah are equal parts sophisticated and straight-up kick-ass. There’s folks who don’t give a fuck beyond kick-ass. And since metal is such a ghettoized format (only metal types of people tend to buy metal records; not many other genres find themselves quite so exclusively holed up). Of course, it’s not as bad now as it was in the 80s (like I remember the 80s) but from what I understand, metal was SERIOUSLY hated stuff. This was the era that birthed the accusation of Judas Priest as driving a kid to murder. Nowadays, your mom buys the new Mastodon record before you do and the cast of “Friends” raises metal horns (Not really on either counts but you get what I mean). Anyway, my point is that I feel that for all their popularity not enough people get the brilliance of this band. And nothing deters the narrow mind like the tag of metal. So it’s their loss but still…something needs to be said for this…

Meshuggah’s ostensible quest is to relate dense psychic states through their lyrics and, through a significant refinement of the metal mores, through their music. For example, they never charge or stampede the ear. This is usually a state most bands seek through the sync of drums and guitar in complete cutthroat concert. Meshuggah on the other hand orchestrate elaborate polyrhythms: guitars create complex odd-numbered rhythmic figures that sound not unlike a large spacecraft crashing down to the ground in slow-motion while the drums groove, nay, bump to beats that are big, funky, even reminiscent of Motown. What?! Why, you might wonder? Well, it’s hard to explain unless you’re actually listening to it but Tomas Haake (their drummer) demonstrates that there’s a deceptively easy charm and movement to finding the lowest multiple of 4 divisible by 19. Pretty remarkable.

Again this is unmistakably metal and as such there is a prominent manifestation of lead guitar in their music. But these aren’t the kind of solos you’re used to. They sound altered, austere, and alien. They don’t virtuosic at least not in a demonstrative egotistical way (although make no mistake they are composed with not a little bit of tedious care and craft). They are somewhat melodic but not at all lyrical; something like if the ship in Event Horizon made its own sound like the UFO from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sinister and mechanical in execution, yet conveying emotions; just not ones that you’re used to.

Lyrically, Meshuggah inhabit the mind space of broken-poet schizophrenic cyborgs from 8 Philip K. Dick novels simultaneously. The may be the most obtuse metaphor I’ve ever come up with but just check it out. From the song “New Millenium Cyanide Christ”:

I’m A Carnal, Organic Anagram.
Human Flesh Instead Of Written Letters.
I Rearrange My Pathetic Tissue.
I Incise.
I Replace.
I’m Reformed.
I Eradicate The Fake Pre-Present Me.
Elevate Me To A Higher Human Form.
The Characters I Am,
Made Into A Word Complete,
Then I’ll Be The New Norm.

Self Inflicted Fractures.
I Replace My Bones With Bars;
Aluminum Bleeding Oxide;
The Drug Of Gods Into My Pounding Veins

(A Human Puzzle For All To Scorn.
No Face.
No Back.
Directionless.
My Scarred Edition I’ll Display;
The Organic Word For Nothingness)

My Receiving Eyes Exchanged With Fuses;
Blindness Induced To Prevent Destruction.
Ceramic Blades Implanted Past My Ribs To Save Me From The Dues Of Inhalation.
I Tear My Worldly Useless Skin.
Staples To Pin It Over My Ears.
Non-Receptive Of Ungodly Sounds –
I Disable The Audio-Generators Of Fear.

Hexagonal Bolts To Fill My Mouth,
Sharpened To Deplete The Creator Of All Violence;
Without Speech There Will Be No Deceit

(My Feet I Crush. The Flesh I Cut Away,
So As To Not Produce The Sound Of Their Presence On Rotten Ground)

Baptized In Vitriolic Acid.
A Final Touch.
A Smoothing Of Features.
Completion Of The Greatest Art;
To Cast The Godly Creatures.
Humans, Once Astray;
Made Divine.
Stripped Of Congenital Flaws.
We’re Incandescent Revelations In A World Of Darkened Forms.

(Confide In My New Age Dogma.
Swallow The Indoctrination.
You’ll Come To Love It Here,
The Suicidal Atmosphere.
Let Me Into Your Common Mind.
I’ll Plant My Thoughts Into Its Soil.
Walk Among Us Self-Made Gods,
Deified Through The Pains Of Self Torture)

Disciples,
Come Join With Me To Save A Failed Humanity.
Follow The God Of Cyanide Into The New Eternity.
Behold; A Sacrificial Rase A Cleansing Worshipping Of Pain.
The New Millenium Christ Here To Redeem All From Lies

(I’ve Come To Save You All. I’ve Come To Light Your Way)

Wow, something about the redeemer of the future, today! I didn’t know where to begin with this one and I don’t know where to end but holy shit, Meshuggah are a REALLY good band.

Cheers,
A

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