Consideration of Works Past: Androids vs Blade Runner

Picture from here.

I am, of course, talking about Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

There. Will. Be. Spoilers.

Dick’s novel takes place after a nuclear war exchange where large swathes of animals have been rendered extinct. The list includes spiders, owls, bees, hummingbirds—most animals living in the wild are gone. Only those human beings care for remain in any number.

Humans are also greatly reduced after the war. In addition, the war has become the gift that keeps on giving. People are growing sterile and feeble-minded from the lingering radiation. There are many empty, ruined buildings.

Animals have become precious. To own an animal is essential. Not owning an animal signifies you have no empathy and are little better than an inanimate object. Animals are also a means of signifying status. A small animal denotes small status. A large animal, larger status. If one can’t afford an animal, an electric, robotic substitute can be purchased. The deceit is debilitating to the owner.

Essentially, the entire society has been taken over by a sort of survivor’s guilt. People live close to terminal depression and to combat this is the Penfield Mood Organ, where a user can select a desired mood. There is also a kind of post-devastation religion called Mercerism. People join together empathically via an empathy box and join with Mercer as arises from the dead, ascends a mountain while being struck by rocks, attains the summit where he is killed, and falls back among the dead.

The government has given up. They are trying to get humans to leave and colonize Mars with the promise of wealth and androids that can cater to their every desire. In spite of that, many humans desire to live on this decaying world until they inevitably succumb, mentally or physically, to the encroaching radiation and dust.

This cheery place is where we meet Rick Deckard, a free lance bounty hunter that works for the San Francisco Police Department. Androids escape and Deckard’s job is to hunt them down. At this point, androids are nearly indistinguishable from human beings save for a significant lack of empathy. This is, in fact, the main way that Deckard determines android from human: the administration of the Voigt-Kampff personality survey test.

Deckard has an electric sheep, replacing his real one that died the previous year. He yearns for a real, large animal. A goat. Or a horse. He gets an opportunity: his supervisor was shot while trying to “retire” an android. The remaining six are now still at large. With the money from all six, he can buy an animal.

The androids that have come to earth are the new Nexus-6 types—so sophisticated is some doubt that the V-K test won’t work. He’s sent to the Rosen Corporation to try one out. He’s presented with a human, Rachel Rosen, as a human. The test almost fails but Deckard has an idea and asks Rachel some additional questions that reveal her to be a Nexus-6. Shaken, he returns to SF to hunt down the androids.

One after another, he succeeds but with escalating cost to his equanimity. Until finally, he retires Luba Luft, an opera singer. This embitters him—how could her beautiful voice be other than an asset to society? He is reminded by a co-worker that each of these androids had to kill, or allow to be killed, the family that had owned them in order to escape back to earth. It doesn’t matter. Deckard has begun to feel empathy for androids.

Okay. I’m departing the summary here to make some points

By this point in the novel, it’s become clear that there is a sort of “life” and “death” principle at work here. Humans and animals, though incredibly flawed, exhibit the life principle. They bond in their limited groping way. They can extend their nature to include someone or something else. Androids cannot. In the middle of the novel, the experience of killing the androids is too much. Deckard uses all of the bounty he has collected so far and the promise of more to purchase a beautiful goat.

To contrast, there is this lovely scene involving the two women androids, Pris and Irmgard, and JR Isadore.

Isadore is a “chickenhead”—a human whose mentality has been damaged by the radiation below acceptable norms. Isadore has found a spider in the ruins and is terribly excited. He brings it back to the apartment where he and the androids are hiding. Pris and Irmgard decide that the spider has too many legs. Eight is extravagant. It should be able to get along with four. They cut four of its legs. Roy Baty—Irmgard’s husband—urges it to move with his cigarette lighter.

JR is utterly horrified with the entire experience. The androids don’t really understand.

There is a subplot involving a set of radio and television personalities that appear to be unflagging and inexhaustible. It’s fairly clear early on they must be androids. That said, no one seems to twig to that or don’t consider it important. Continually, they harp on a great discovery. When it is broadcast, they have found the seedy, alcoholic actor that played “Mercer.” The Mercer experience is a fraud.

Deckard succeeds in killing all six androids and it is too much for him. He flees north into Oregon where he confronts a hallucination of Mercer. Mercer admits the fraud. He judges no one, least of all himself, since all are flawed. Mercer points out that the androids will not understand when their revelation makes no difference. When Mercer disappears, Deckard finds an extinct toad—one of Mercer’s totem animals.

He returns from Oregon to his wife excited with his discovery. Once home, he is told that Rachel Rosen has killed his goat. Then, his wife discovers that the toad is an electric copy. He is depressed beyond despair but his wife puts him to bed with care and love.

It’s not by any means a perfect book. I very much like Deckard’s wife, Iran, though she doesn’t get much air time. At one point, when she and Deckard are fighting, he suggests they end the fight by choosing the moods they had scheduled for that morning on their Penfield Mood Organ. Iran says she has scheduled a three-hour existential depression. Deckard is appalled. Why would she pick that? She says the world they live in terrible enough that someone should feel it.

Where the book shines is in what Dick is saying and how he says it. The sense that we must be in this together. Not in some perfected sense but because of and in spite of our terrific flaws. The things that we create cannot substitute for us. The things we invent outside of ourselves must, without exception, embody that death principle. The only source for the life principle is life itself.

Okay. (Deep breath.) Blade Runner.

There’s no wife. Deckard is still a bounty hunter and there are still V-K tests. But where Deckard-Androids understands Saint Augustine, Deckard-BR has more in common with Mickey Spillane. The androids are vicious killers, without much in the way of empathy for anything other than themselves. Scott got that part right. But Deckard isn’t much different. The androids they aren’t very smart, either. They’re more like vicious four-year-olds than sociopathic adults.

Rachel-Androids is methodically attempting to destroy every bounty hunter she meets, by sleeping with them if not by other means. She has a goal. Rachel very nearly succeeds with Deckard. That fact that she fails is why she kills Deckard’s goat.

Rachel-BR is a lovely woman, aching to be human. (I will gloss over what appears to my 2021 eyes as Deckard coercing sex from her.) At the end, Deckard fails to kill Roy Baty. Instead, Roy manages save Deckard. As Roy dies on cue, he decides to become a sort of human.

Deckard-BR’s world is wet and teeming with life. There is ferment in crowds. The air and water are foul but it’s a foul from too many people, rather than nuclear dust.

I very much like DADOES in spite of its flaws. It’s not particularly sexist for the time. Women have agency. There are very few detective cliches. The world is completely realized. I don’t necessarily agree with Dick’s point, but I understand it.

I think that Scott’s point is more that we are as human as we want to be. That if there is no discernible difference between humans and machines, there is no difference. He goes further in Blade Runner 2049, where Rachel has had a child, erasing the last difference between humans and androids—between, in effect, humans and machines.

I can understand this point, too. But I don’t think Scott realized it as well in BR as Dick did his in DADOES. Even in the most recent, final cut, there is still very little actual discussion of the consequences of acts. Very little realization of the implications of their world. Roy still thumbs out his creator’s eyes. Deckard runs from him but he can’t hide. Roy releases a flying dove as his last living act. Deckard watching, dumbfounded. (It looks to me like it’s Harrison Ford wondering what the f***, Ridley?)

My biggest problem with Blade Runner is that it is not Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. If anything, it’s a refutation of DADOES. A counter argument. An opposition.

DADOES is a dark and complex book. The characters revolve around the world they live in a close and broken orbit. An opposition film, like BR, would have to be equally dark and complex world. And it just isn’t.

I’ve spoken of Dick’s work before. (See here. And here.) I’ve been thinking of going over his novels in a more systematic way. Let me know if this is of interest in the comments.




Consideration of Works Past: Androids vs Blade Runner — 4 Comments

  1. Scott tends in most of his work to rely heavily on ambiance, but he doesn’t worry too much about the underpinnings except (as with the V-K tests) when they’re a plot point. I think Blade Runner works as itself, but I’ve never wanted to compare it with Androids–it’s like comparing apples and blueberries: both are fruits, and there are some other similarities, but really, they’re not the same.

  2. I agree with Madeleine — the two stories are so different that it’s hard to compare. I enjoyed both! (Though I really hated the Blade Runner sequel.) Steven, you’re making interesting points about the “point” of each – thanks. And do continue your analyses, please.

  3. When I read DADOES, I saw a sterile white world with little or no growth in it — I don’t remember it the way you do.

    When I saw BR, I was surprised by the jungle-lie world it depicted, but I’ve seen it several times now — It’s one of my favorite movies. And I’ve always felt that it embodies the book’s theme in a way that many movies fail to do.

    The question is still there — how human are the androids? Can they grow? One of the scenes showed the hulking android as having taken many pictures of his companions, in order to keep those memories. Just as Rachael has kept her own. And then the question gets turned on its head — just how human is Deckard, after all?

    There are clues in the original movie (and in interviews, Scott admitted to having planned those) that Deckard is not, in fact, human, but an android like Rachael, implanted with memories not his own, and sent to hunt down creatures like himself.