Part 5 of an occasional series of essays presenting more verbiage on books too much has been said about already

Today, a double feature: back-to-back reviews of Blade Runner and its source, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? These aren't so much reviews as the notes I took after watching and reading.

Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

The best Dick I've read so far-- a fascinating read, suspenseful enough that I read the whole damn thing in one setting, thought-provoking... everything you could ask of sf, plus it's damn weird.

Dick is preoccupied with metaphysics. Many sf writers are, but they're just playing; this stuff is real for Dick. Famously, Dick had an experience of God, or the divine, or something; and spent the rest of his life trying to understand what had happened. (That's good sf and good theology right there: we encounter an alien or divine intelligence, and our brains explode. If you can understand your god, that's a good sign he or she is a fantasy...)

You see this in his treatment of 'Mercerism', for instance. Any other writer would set it up as a fake, and we often suspect Dick is doing so as well-- the banality, the silly name, the feeling that we've seen this sort of satirical prole-religion before, even the inevitable unmasking. But Mercer turns out to be real; the unmasking doesn't unmask everything; you can even wonder if Mercer turns out to be God, playing his own divine trick on the tricksters who set up the false cult.

And the animals. You'd never guess from Blade Runner that half the book is preoccupied with animal husbandry. It's just plain odd, and yet gives a real sense of a parched, ruined future.

The central science fictional idea, however, is the androids (Dick never calls them replicants), and the central concern is their humanity. (That always is the central concern with robots, going back to R.U.R.) Dick sets up the conundrums expertly. On the one hand the androids are merciless killers; on the other hand Rachael behaves with a touching irrationality. The androids are maladroit in their role-playing (such that one can hardly believe that it's as difficult to detect them as the plot demands); at the same time, the dehumanizing nature of Deckard's job is driven home, and there's an unsettling reference to the pre-Civil War South. We simultaneously root for Deckard and for the androids.

The most original and chilling part of Dick's treatment is the cat-and-mouse game played by the android manufacturers and the police. It's very '60s, really: distrust of big companies, as well as confidence in the idea of global law enforcement, came easily back then.

(You have to wonder why, given the myriad ways sf has envisioned things going wrong, so many sf fans are libertarians. It's as if the writers have wracked their brains to come up with mind-bending and disturbing ideas about our possible futures; and the readers come along for the phasers and spaceships. Whee! Zap! Zoom!)

Admirably, Dick had a good sense, way back in 1968, of which human abilities would be easy and hard to replicate that still holds up today. Duplicating human intelligence won't be a problem-- the androids are smarter than we are. The body's capabilities will also be no problem-- artificial blood, artificial vaginas, artificial bone marrow-- merely technical puzzles. But emotions will be trickier; and empathy, that impure and complicated thing; and even the desire to live when reason tells us there is no hope, a drive bred into us during eons in which to survive and reproduce again was the greatest goal.

One surprise, by the way, is that the book doesn't lay much stress on the possibility of Deckard being an android. There's a hint of it in the marvelously confusing scene where Deckard is arrested by the false cops, and in the scenes with the other bounty hunter, Phil Resch (if we suspect him, we might as well suspect Deckard). But we don't return to this theme; Dick is more interested in the devastation that overcomes Deckard over the killing of increasingly humanlike creatures.

Ridley Scott: Blade Runner

This is the first time I've seen Blade Runner since it first came out, and the first time I've seen the "Director's Cut" (notably, without the voiceover). Initial thought: it's a good movie, but damn is it dark in there.

It's dedicated to Philip K. Dick, without betraying for a moment any real interest in what a Dick novel is like. It explores precisely one idea from the novel-- whether you can tell androids from humans, in a world where the police want to be able to and the manufacturers do their best to make it impossible. But it leaves out the weirdness of Dick, including bits (such as the alternate police force) that would have contributed to this theme.

I think Blade Runner was the one of the first sf films to realize what sf films can and should be... which is, not ideafests, in the way of good written sf, but celebrations of visuality and atmosphere. They should show us worlds and sights that we could never have experienced or imagined. Do you remember the plot of Blade Runner, or the philosophical points made by the replicant sociopath, Roy? Perhaps; but what you certainly remember is the atmosphere-- endless night and rain, canyons of streets, the huge pyramid housing the Tyrell Corporation, blimps passing overhead bearing inscrutable commercials, the battle in the warehouse, Pris's spray-painted eyes, Rachael's photographs.

Yeah, yeah, there's 2001. But who the hell understands 2001? It's remembered for being the first sf film with convincing special effects... the prototype for sf films that deliver visually.

The one thing that got a bit old, on this viewing, was the darkness. It's stunning and all, but it becomes almost a joke... "It's too light in here," Deckard says at one point... when we're already in a twilight glow. I began to feel that Scott cared more for his noir moments than for the ideas behind the world, or for simple plausibility. (How could Sebastian and Tyrell have failed to see a mate two moves away?)

Without the voiceover, it's also damned tricky to follow. I'm still not sure I can explain the snakeskin... I suppose it must have been explained at some point that it was left behind in an attack, but I don't recall, and it makes Deckard's adventures seem anarchic. You never can really follow the logic in Raymond Chandler, either, but at least each move seems motivated at the time.

Curiously, it's not as fully imagined a future as I remembered it being. You never get any real feeling for how this world works. There's lots of Japanese imagery, and no hint why; no hint of what the "colonies" mean or why super-intelligent 'slaves' are needed; no idea of what all these people in the streets do for a living, or what they feel about replicants. Scott has admirably conceived what the world looks like, and that's it.

Now I really want to see Brazil again, and The Fifth Element. They really picked up where Blade Runner left off: creating not just plausible-looking realities, but varied, amusing/creepy, and well-lit ones.


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