Once More With Feeling: Philip K Dick And Blade Runner

With Blade Runner 2049 in cinemas now, Robert Bright looks back at the interior and exterior worlds of Philip K. Dick

Philip Kindred Dick died on March 2nd 1982. A couple of weeks earlier he’d been found unconscious in his apartment, diagnosed with having suffered a stroke. In the hospital he fell into a coma and was hooked up to machines by tubes and wires. Eventually, the EEG monitoring electrical activity in his brain flat-lined and the machines keeping him alive were disconnected.

Who knows what, if anything, was going on in Dick’s mind during those last few days, but one imagines it would have felt like familiar territory to him. For decades he’d gnashed away at his typewriter, exploring the half-worlds between the living and the dead, wandering past the waltzers and carousels to the dark end of the fair with its freaks and funhouse mirrors. He’d mainlined the Apocalypse in over 40 novels, and now here he was, about to set foot in the Undiscovered Country.

And what might Phil expect to find on the other side? Could it be as he describes in Ubik, where those who think they’re alive turn out to be dead and vice versa? Perhaps having made it across the border, he got straight to work sending back data, hoping some of us among the ‘living’ might pick up the signals. Surely we’ve noticed how the current zeitgeist points to nefarious inter-dimensional interference? How else to explain nationalists marching us down a road whose ultimate destination we know to be industrialised mass death? Clearly these clowns strutting the stage are the mere stooges of infinitely more malevolent forces operating behind the curtain.

But who might these figures be? In his novels and in his life, Dick’s answers veered wildly from prosaic hypotheses revolving around politicians, corporations and secretive ‘state actors’, to baroque assertions of Soviet telepathists, a ‘Roman Empire that never ended’, and VALIS, a demiurgic alien located somewhere in the region of Sirius.

What to believe? How far to follow the thread? Given Dick experienced profound hallucinations throughout his life, it ultimately came down to the credence you gave your private, inner world in relation to your shared, outer world. This, in turn, raised another dilemma: if we can only know consciousness from the inside, how do we know other people are experiencing consciousness at all? All we can rely on is a process of deduction based on their behaviour. And between what I can know and what I have to gamble on being true, a struggle is going on between faith and fear, empathy and paranoia.

It’s the paranoia that so often overwhelmed Dick, to the point where the outer world could be cast as a chimera, little more than shadows dancing on Plato’s Cave. Who’s to say he, along with everyone else, wasn’t part of some vast simulation? What if we actually existed in ‘a horrid slave state world’ and were simply ’programmed’ into seeing it otherwise? He said as much to a stunned audience at a science fiction conference in Metz in 1977, although it’s a notion more familiar to us from The Matrix or smoke-filled student bedrooms.

Dick also experienced visions of seeing into people’s bodies and finding a tangle of wires and electronic components, causing him to speculate that he’d seen beyond the ‘organic’ simulation to the deeper reality. Was he, too, like this on the inside? Was Philip K Dick an android?

Just over three months after Phil Dick died, Blade Runner was released at the cinema. Based on his 1968 book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the production had been exceptionally fraught, many among the cast and crew developing deep and abiding grievances for the director, Ridley Scott; the budget had ballooned from $15million to $30million, causing Tandem Productions to ‘fire’ Scott and producer Michael Deeley, although they stayed on to complete the picture anyway; and on its release the film was a critical and commercial flop, met with a mixture of bemusement or outright hostility. The critic Pauline Kael declared that, “If anybody comes around with a test to detect humanoids, maybe Ridley Scott and his associates should hide.” Others described it as ‘muddled’, ‘overheated’, ‘pretentious’ and ‘depressing’.

Although Dick didn’t live to see the finished film, in December 1981 Ridley Scott invited him to a private screening of twenty minutes of special effects footage. The writer’s reaction couldn’t have been further from those of the film’s critics. “How is this possible? How can this be?” he spluttered. “The environment is exactly how I’d imagined it! How did you know what I was feeling and thinking?!” (Had anyone been aware of Dick’s typical state of mind, they might have had some fun with him at this point.) Dick went on to write a letter to the Ladd Company in support of the film: ‘You may have created a unique new form of graphic artistic expression. I think Blade Runner is going to revolutionise our conceptions of what science fiction is and can be.’

What was staggering about Blade Runner was the sheer amount of visual information on the screen, the fully immersive world Scott created. “There are certain moments in movies where the background can be as important as the actor,” said the director. “The design of a film is the script.” Harrison Ford appeared to concur when he wryly commented that, “There was nothing for me to do on the shoot but stand around and vainly attempt to give focus to Ridley’s sets.”

Scott’s apprenticeship was in painting and graphic design, and he could draw on a deep well of influences for Blade Runner, most notably the French graphic artist Jean Geraud, aka Moebius. As the film’s reputation grew through the 1980s, in part thanks to the arrival of home video, it spawned an entire aesthetic, cyberpunk, as well as attracting impressionable architects and designers into its orbit. Through this process, the past’s idea of the future has come to define the present – look at any modern city skyline at night and you see glimpses of the worldBlade Runner created. Like Dick, Scott had a prescient sense of where everything was going. Interviewed while shooting the film, Scott said, “One futuristic notion I am absolutely sure of is that, in 2019, everywhere you look you’ll be assaulted by the media.”

Given Dick only saw SFX footage, he didn’t get to experience how his story played out on screen, but he did read a couple of drafts of the screenplay. He hated the original Hampton Fancher script but warmed to the David People’s rewrite. One area he never came to agree on with Scott was the portrayal of the replicants. In Sheep, he regarded them as the opposite of human, what he called ‘simulacrum’, copies but also fakes. Rutger Hauer, the actor who played Roy Batty, put it succinctly when he said, “The book’s whole moral boiled down to this: “Does a computer love you? No, a computer does not.”’ Dick was fascinated by the Turing Test, which poses the argument that, if in an interaction with a computer you don’t realise you’re talking to a computer, what right do you have to say it isn’t ‘thinking’?

But thinking is one thing and feeling is another, and in Blade Runner, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) tells Deckard (Harrison Ford) that the Nexus-6 model produced by the Tyrell Corporation is so sophisticated it has begun to develop its own emotional responses. Dick had no truck with this idea of the feeling android since, as far as he was concerned, no matter how sophisticated its emotions appear to be, the android remains purely performative, its tears the product of calculations made up of ones and zeroes. In the book, the distinction between human and android is made even starker by a technology called an ‘Empathy Box’, which fuses its human user with a Christ-like figure called Mercer, enabling them to share in his suffering as he endlessly repeats a Stations of the Cross-style pilgrimage.

But there is a grey area between empathy and indifference that Dick explores in Sheep. At one point in the book, Bryant tells Deckard that people in certain states of paranoid psychosis or schizophrenia have failed the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test designed to tell androids from humans, owing to a ‘diminished empathic faculty’. Dick knew such dissociative states from the inside – he frequently experienced panic attacks, and his enduring amphetamine habit made him vulnerable to psychotic episodes, as well as providing a trigger for his hallucinations. He particularly related to Aldous Huxley’s description in Doors of Perception of how this state was apt to manifest itself on a bad trip: ‘every object becomes intensely unreal, every self-styled human being a clockwork dummy, grotesquely going through the motions of work and play, of loving and hating – the robots are nothing if not versatile.’ Huxley is describing someone whose withdrawal into the self is so complete they’ve become trapped in their own solipsistic labyrinth, unable to relate to the exterior world or believe it exists as anything other than as an elaborate set populated by automata.

There’s a scene in the book where Deckard and another bounty hunter called Phil Resch are looking at Edvard Munch’s The Scream. “I think that is how an android must feel,” says Resch. It seems an odd comment, until you contemplate the consequences of an android becoming self-aware. If it could genuinely feel, its reaction would indeed be one of existential horror. After all, it’s awakened to the knowledge it was brought into this world to function as a mere tool for another species, to be a slave. Its creator is nothing but a purveyor of false consciousness, an evil demiurge of the kind that, at certain points in his life, Dick was convinced ruled our own world. No wonder that, like their Gothic precursors (most famously Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), these sentient technologies eventually decide they’ve had enough of humans and go looking for payback. From this perspective, the Terminator can be cast as a cyborg Che Guevara…

It’s in this spirit that Scott presents the replicants in Blade Runner. They are, by turns, counterculture rebels, Baader Meinhof gang, mischievous children and Manson Family, but they’re also more empathic than most humans in the film. They act together and support each other as a group, and when they die they’re mourned by the surviving replicants. Despite Hauer’s canny critique of Dick’s book, he plays Batty as a tragic hero, famously improvising his poetic dying words. More human than human indeed.

As for those humans, we have the cynical indifference of Bryant and Gaff (Edward James Olmos), and the neo-fascism of Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), brilliantly conveyed in the gigantic set that constitutes his office. “That was the character of the man,” said Blade Runner’s Production Designer Lawrence G Paull. “He was omnipotent, a member of a rich, powerful class who had so cloistered himself away from the masses that he literally ran his empire from a tower.” (See the reference to clowns presently strutting the stage at the start of this article.)

Deckard, too, can be difficult to sympathise with, despite the everyman appeal of Harrison Ford. The only replicants he ‘retires’ are women, shooting one of them in the back, and he’s involved in a violent sexual encounter with another, who earlier saved his life! Ridley Scott, of course, further blurs the lines on Deckard in his Director’s Cut by forcing us into the conclusion that he, too, is a replicant, but that’s a whole other rabbit hole…

Even if, as Dick insists, empathy is what separates humans from androids, in Sheep it’s failed to save the species from nuclear war, the reason so many people are escaping to the offworld colonies. Nuclear war was the go-to nightmare both when the book was written and when the film was released, and Dick’s obsession with empathy in Sheep implies an anxiety over its absence in such an environment. What place does empathy have in cultures prepared to kill hundreds of millions of people under the auspices of defending their own civilisation? Or how to react to the bombardment of fake empathy from advertisers and salesmen in a rapidly expanding media? Seen in this context, a ‘diminished empathic faculty’ seems inevitable, and puts Dick in step with contemporaries like psychiatrist RD Laing and theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who considered paranoia and schizophrenia to be the inevitable symptoms of a culture that had become intrinsically sick.

It seems no less true today, living as we are through a period of pernicious and infantilising binaries that pit ‘the will of the people’ against ‘the enemies of the people’, the loyal citizens of the State against the ‘citizens of nowhere’, believers in the coming Rapture against the ‘so-called experts’ or the feckless young. And the first casualty of such polarising strategies, of all this with-us-or-against-us rhetoric, is inevitably empathy. With Blade Runner 2049 now showing at the cinemas, it’s this theme running through both Philip K Dick’s novel and Ridley Scott’s film, that should give us pause.

Follow Robert Bright on Twitter @MKUltraBright

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