More Real Than Real: Philip K. Dick’s Visionary Post Humanism

(Originally published in Strange Horizons Science Fiction Magazine June 27, 2011)

“Being Human is aspiring to be human. Since it is not aspiring to be the only human, it is an aspiration on the parts of others as well. Then we might say that being human is aspiring to be seen. This is a positive interpretation of [the stories] Frankenstein and Pygmalion. Their shared limitation is then that they could accept being seen only by their own creation.”

Stanley Cavell, The Claim Of Reason

“I have observed that I cannot be an object for an object. A radical conversion of the Other is necessary if he is to escape objectivity.”

Jean Paul Sartre, The Existence of Others

The Very Near Future

The more we debate the potential merits of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics, a topic inundating the zeitgeist with weekly leaps in smart technology, the more relevant the 1982 film Blade Runner becomes.  Add our addiction to social networking, first person role-playing games, and every other facet of life involving a “simulated” self, and the film appears to be nothing short of prescient.

The movie was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip. K Dick.  Though somewhat different in plot, both narratives pose the same fundamental question: what does it mean to be human?  The answer in the dystopia of 2019 Los Angeles is that humanness has become a matter of degree.

In a text scroll preceding the opening frame, we learn that the Tyrell Corporation has advanced their “replicants” to the Nexus 6 stage.  Nexus: a crucial intersection of elements, in this case, between humanity and technology.  The question becomes: how does one tell a replicant apart from a human other than cutting it open to search for clockwork?  Is it ethical to question, much less cut?  And what happens if all you find is flesh?  These issues seem like anything but science fiction in the trajectory of today’s nearly unconscious integration with technology.

Blade Runner teeters between answers, expertly blurring the lines between human and automaton, and culminating in questions more thought provoking than the last: what happens when machines behave more authentically than their creators?  Where are we when androids learn to feel alienated or write poetry or fall in love?

Realer Than Real

In the film’s maiden sequence, fire plumes from industrial towers set against a jet-black cityscape.  The relentless pursuit of commerce may have advanced robotics to its highest pinnacle but not without a cost.  This future is distinctly nature-less, and more often than not, glistening with acid rain.  Like so many dystopias, Los Angeles has become a metaphoric hell.

An establishing shot reveals the futuristic architecture of the Tyrell Corporation.  The building, a decapitated pyramid, is the symbol of the Mason’s Guild found on the back of every dollar between the Latin sentences “New Order Of The Ages” and “God Has Favored Our Undertaking.”

The image is preceded by a screen-sized eyeball which introduces a visual system that runs throughout the narrative.  In this instance, the eye above the pyramid (and apart from it) represents the all-seeing eye of God.  The gap between man-made structure and eye is one that humankind cannot surpass– without a nexus.

Tyrell, the “God” behind the replicants’ design, lives at the top of the pyramid as the creator of this “undertaking”, but he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent.  His Aryan looking replicant, Roy, will eventually over throw him: a manifestation of the Übermensch at the vanguard of a “new order.”

The corporation’s motto, “More human than human”, foreshadows our current “poststructuralist” understanding of simulation: in the future, originals will cease to exist, and few will know the difference.  In the post-human world order, imitations are as authentic if not more than the things they have copied.  One aspect has become troublingly clear: our senses can no longer tell the difference.  Technology’s relentless forward march has pushed us so far from an empirical experience of the organic that empathy, even if simulated, has become a highly coveted experience.

Man Vs. Machination

Dehumanization has been a predicament since long before the industrial age.  But the further we move into post-modernization the more the problem gains in momentum and complexity.  Leaps in A.I. are making machines more and more human-like, while dependencies on automation are bending human behavior more and more toward the robotic.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, humans enhance the drudgery of their noxious worlds by dialing into a device called the “Penfield Mood Organ.”  They have reached the point where they can’t experience their own emotions without the aid of an interface.  When Deckard’s wife awakes in the morning, she feels nothing whatsoever but she has a vague sense of depression, so she punches a number into the mood organ like a jukebox, and the “organ” channels the emotion into her.  That she chooses a negative emotion attests to how detached humans have become from their feelings.  Feeling depresses is almost a novelty.  Deckard admits to dialing into the mood organ more often than he’d like.  His number is 481 and it projects “an awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future.”  Or hope… albeit through a surrogate.

The line between simulation and the real is further blurred in Deckard’s professional life when he learns he must use the Voight Kampf Test to determine a replicants’ “humanness”.  If cops are famous for one thing it’s hunches.  But in this future, instincts are attenuated by technology.  Voight is an anglicization version of ‘Vogt’, which does mean something like supervisor or manager, usually of a household or farm.  Kampf means struggle.  That a machine has become the “supervisor” of this “struggle” further displaces humanity from its only distinguishing trait: the ability to feel.  The Teutonic etymology is no accident either.  An inquisition is taking place in the world of Blade Runner, and the final solution is nothing short of the termination of a species.

But on what grounds?  What are the algorithms for determining humanness?

The All Too Human Condition

In this world of Blade Runner, replicants and humans suffer from the same existential crisis.  Both seek answers to same elemental questions.  Where do I come from?  Where am I going?  How much time do I have left?

Mid-century language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would answer that our ability to formulate questions like these doesn’t necessarily mean intelligible answers exist.  Language isn’t a tool for unearthing “deeper” meaning.  It’s a tool for connecting on the surface.  That we endeavor to ask the big questions is far more useful than endlessly confabulating over some metaphysical conundrum.  If we’re able to find meaning or get relief from an insightful exchange with another being, does it matter if their insides are circuitry?  Once an android masters empathy, once it develops an independent “will to power,” all previous distinctions are moot.

The opposite is true for humans.  The more we taper our instincts and emotions, the more we regress to mechanical status.  Empathizing through language is how we assimilate ourselves into the human community.  Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell advances Wittgenstein’s claim by agreeing that language is limited, and adds the point that it is in struggling with this very deficiency that makes us most human.

The Voight Kampf test is nothing more than a language game employed by humans to determine what has fast become an irrelevant distinction.  By posing a series of questions intended to “provoke an emotional response” the machine probes the depths of feeling by monitoring the eye, the so-called window of the soul.  An involuntary fluctuation of the iris reveals the subject to be an android.  Cavell would tend to say, so what?  It’s not a forgone conclusion that replicants are soulless because the machine says so.  Cognitive Neuroscience, with its formidable computational modeling, still can’t fathom a satisfactory answer to where the soul actually resides.  In Philip K. Dick’s world, a being’s internal constitution, their morphology, is not a measure of the authenticity of their emotions.

Blade Runner is ultimately a story of the struggle for acceptance.  Its characters are manifestations of varying degrees of empathy, and the determination to create a new order where natural biology is second to bona fide social interaction, grounded in a publicly accessible language.

Dick struggled with this throughout his own life, battling depression, paranoia and varying degrees of psychosis. Despite his growing literary success, and concomitant financial success, he never felt that he quite fit in.

The Vocal Opposition

Captain Bryant, Deckard’s boss, is the embodiment of the “privatization” of language.  Bryant refers to replicants as “skinjobs”, a pejorative meant to dehumanize and exclude.  As is the case with most slang, “skinjob” is outside the formalized lexicon.  It has no place in a dictionary, just as replicants have no place in the community. Prejudice relies on rhetoric that denies its subjects access to the public sphere.

The same motivation belies his use of the word “retire”.  By not saying “kill” he intends to neutralize the implications associated with murdering something that thinks and feels and engenders a will to life.  It’s a tactical language choice that regards the replicant as object instead of subject. Deckard struggles with this dilemma throughout.  His first lead takes him to a burlesque club where he experiences a wave of guilt over Rachel, Tyrell’s secretary, who was earlier revealed to be a replicant.  It’s the first sign of empathy in a man whose job requires him to have none.  He vid-calls Rachel to apologize and is rebuffed, only to have his attention drawn towards Zora, the replicant in the club he’s supposed to “retire”.

The announcer introduces Zora’s routine with a boa constrictor by referencing the fall from Eden.  “Watch her take pleasures from the serpent that once corrupted man.”  It’s the first reference to our collective “fall” from Eden. The temptation for knowledge, leads to the loss of innocence.  When Deckard “retires” Zora, his conflicted inner monologue is heard in voice over.  “The report would read, routine retirement of a replicant.  It still didn’t make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back.”  Deckard does his best to quell the emotion, but his stoicism is far from stable.  An ember of empathy burns in our hero, but the obstacles blocking him from turning it into a blaze are towering.

Bryant’s comment, “If you’re not cop, you’re little people”, is a rhetorical attempt to bully Deckard into his exclusionary worldview.  “Little people” are stuck on toxic earth because they can’t get off.  Those left to perform essential services like police work are in a caste above.  The implication is that if Deckard doesn’t take the job of retiring replicants he’s no better than the planet’s captive denizens, or worse, the robots he’s been enlisted to destroy.  But as Hegel in the Phenomenology, and Cavell reiterates in The Claim of Reason, the master who sees the slave as his possession must necessarily see himself as owner of that slave.  He is linked, by definition, to the object he wishes to distinguish himself from.  The social nature of language prohibits its users from existing in a vacuum.

A complicated chess match will follow, both literally and figuratively, culminating in an existentially ambiguous endgame.  In spite of Bryant, however, the answer to the question of what it means to be human will be definitively resolved.

The Language of Symbols

Gaff, Bryant’s second in command is a mixed breed Angeleno with searing blue eyes who communicates through origami figures at three points in the film.  The first appears at police headquarters as Bryant pressures Deckard, the reluctant hero.  Gaff folds a gum wrapper into the universal symbol for coward: a chicken.  Deckard is too entangled to notice, just as he’s too preoccupied with investigating an apartment later to see Gaff’s second origami, a toothpick figure with a phallus. Deckard has accepted Bryant’s call to action and crossed the threshold into the dangerous world of bounty hunting.  In Gaff’s judgmental eyes, Deckard is no longer one of the “little people” but a man on a mission: one that will eventually transform him.

Gaff’s final figure is a tinfoil unicorn, the mystical animal of transcendence.  At the climax, Deckard overcomes death and chooses Rachel as his romantic partner.  Gaff is complicit in this arrangement.  He knows a relationship between man and android can’t last forever, but it doesn’t between two humans either.  Love is the apex of empathy, even when it’s temporary, or with an outlawed replicant.  Thus, human and replicant will co-exist with blessing of the previous establishment.  The new order of the ages has been seeded.

Origami is one of the film’s many prognostic nods to the Asian influence in future Los Angeles.  California is the continents’ first stop from the Far East and has maintained a steady immigration of Asians since before the Second World War.  Blade Runner was produced at the onset of Japan’s dominance in technology when a latent paranoia that the homeland could be overtaken presided.  Asian technological hegemony is represented throughout the film.  Floating blimps cycle non-stop commercials promising a better life to droning Buddhist chanting, and entire sides of buildings project LED advertisements with kimono clad geishas (another example of how “programmed” human behavior can be).

When Gaff first approaches Deckard to enlist him, he is arguing with the chef at a crowded sushi bar, (of which there were how many in 1982?).  The chef barks Chinese, Deckard answers in English, and Gaff mutters a “mish-mash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you.”  It’s a wonder any of them can communicate at all, but the publicly shared surface is enough for them to interact intelligibly, just as they do in today’s culturally juxtaposed LA.  It’s not so subtle foreshadowing in the end.

Seeing as Believing

Moments before Roy confronts Chew, Tyrell’s hermit-like optical scientist, a group of cyclists in conical hats rides through reflective puddles outside his laboratory: a common enough sight in China, perhaps, but for Los Angeles, it seems a little too authentic.  If one weren’t well informed, they could easy mistake the scene for any of Beijing’s urban centers.  Future Los Angeles, like the people who inhabit it, is not what it seems on the surface.

Roy enters Chew’s lab in the midst of this skewed reality, with Roy reciting a foreboding line from William Blake’s poem, America: A Prophecy.  “Fiery the Angels fell and as they rose deep thunder roll’d /
Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc.”  In Blake’s prose, the angels “rose,” not fell.  But as a fallen angel, Roy must pass through Hades before returning to challenge his Creator at the top of the pyramid. It’s reminiscent of Milton’s treatment of Satan in Paradise Lost. Chew recognizes the threat instantaneously.

“You Nexus, right?  I design your eyes.”  And yet, Chew is unable to help Roy see the bigger picture.  Not unlike his nemesis, Chew is merely a cog in Tyrell’s machine.  “Chew,” Roy says through a simper. “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”  The paradox reinforces the postmodern theme: the simulation (Roy) has experienced more than the creator of its parts (Chew).  It’s also a veiled Marxist critique of the debilitating results of the division of labor.  The parts don’t add up to the whole until the master designer brings them together.  Chew’s eyeballs are thus reduced to meaningless simulacra. Leon, Roy’s thug, demonstrates their uselessness in toying with a lose eye to intimidate Chew.   They demand information regarding Tyrell’s whereabouts but Chew has no answers.  “I only do eyes…”  Roy and Leon exit unfulfilled, leaving Chew exposed to the freezing elements of the very lab that gave him sight.

What Roy hasn’t fathomed yet is that by engaging with Chew, by questioning and demanding and remonstrating, he’s already as human as his creator.  The articulation of the desire to know– the aspiration itself– is the most authentic drive any living being can possess.

Making Friends

Sebastian is the most accepting human in the story; a lonely soul happy to care for anyone, be they flesh or faux.  He suffers from an affliction known as Methuselah syndrome, a disease that causes his glands “to grow old too fast,” the very problem endemic in replicants.  As a genetic designer, he’s made toys that allow him a degree of normative linguistic interplay.  The personalized greeting given by the Toy Soldier — “Home again, home again, jiggety jig”– establishes the call and response dialogue of mundane domesticity, the simple human banalities Roy, and his replicant girlfriend Pris, long for.

It’s in Sebastian’s safe haven where the only romantic scene between replicants occurs.  In the novella, Deckard contends that, “an android doesn’t care what happens to another android. That’s one of the indications we look for.”  But in the future, humanity is not conditioned by morphology.  It is instead, a trait that can be gained and lost, learned and forgotten.  The Nexus 6 model is a redoubtable learner.  When Roy and Pris kiss, it looks like two adolescents intoxicated by how good it feels.  Emotional intimacy is an overwhelming experience for all of these characters; a point that’s driven home when Roy struggles to articulate himself about Zora and Leon’s death.

“There’s only two of us now,” he says with a juvenile frown.  Pris’ response is equally impetuous.  “Then we’re stupid and we’ll die.”  Their immaturity is not lost on Sebastian, but he withholds his judgment: that they’re androids doesn’t detract from his desire to be a part of their raw emotional interplay.

“There’s some of me in you.”  He rejoins. “Show me something…”

“We’re not computers, Sebastian.”  Rebuts Roy.  “We’re physical.”

“I think, Sebastian, therefore I am.”  Adds Pris, quoting Descartes.

“Very good, Pris.” Says Roy.  “Now show him why.”

Pris not only recites the cogito ergo sum, she manifests it physically by scooping her hand into a tube of boiling water (a mirror gesture to Leon’s icy scoop for the eyeball in Chew’s lab) and tosses Sebastian an egg.  Replicants are more human than human.  Their paraphysical capabilities allow them to enact whatever they say.  The egg, a symbol for the birth of the New Order, is bobbled and dropped by Sebastian.  Though his biology is organic, his disease will preclude him from being a part of the future he has participated in designing.  Sebastian is not human enough, unfortunately; a deficiency Roy will gerrymander in order to reach Tyrell at the top of the pyramid.

Role Playing

Prior to Rachel’s entrance in the film, an owl swoops through Tyrell’s amber lit lobby.  The owl is the dedicated animal of Athena, goddess of wisdom and poetry.  As a predator, it’s infamous for its penetrating sight.  Rachel, we soon learn, is Tyrell’s special creation.  She doesn’t have a four-year expiration date like other replicants.

“Do you like our owl?”  She asks.  “Of course, it’s not real.”  Real animals are prohibitively expensive, and require a sophistication of care that has atrophied in most humans.  But Deckard would never have known the difference, just as he can’t tell whether Rachel is real or replicant without the Voight-Kampf test.

Deckard plays the role of detached interrogator during questioning.   Rachel, meanwhile, is experiencing a myriad of emotions from the ordeal.  The role reversal between human and android is another successful parry in obfuscating the difference between the simulated and organic.  After one hundred some odd questions Rachel learns the truth that she is in fact a replicant, and is asked to leave.

“How can it not know what it is?” Deckard asks Tyrell.  But the inquiry applies as much to him as to anyone struggling with identity.  It begs the question Rachel boldly asks a few scenes later.  ”Have you ever taken that test yourself?”  One can safely assume that in a future where the line between man and machine is fast fading, there would be any number of humans who would fail.  In the novella, Deckard is directly confronted by a replicant after witnessing his unemotional behavior. “You must be an android,” says the replicant.  The comment triggers a debilitating moment of uncertainty in Deckard.  After all he’s seen, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he is, and when he searches inside himself, he’s unable to find any certainty that he’s not.

Rachel is in an identical position, albeit reversed.  She’s certain she’s authentic.  Absolutely nothing in her routine has led her to believe otherwise.  But she is turned away when she confronts Tyrell about her origins.  For her creator, she’s “nothing more than an experiment”, a feeling-less, almost mechanical response to a desperately convoluted issue.  But little more can be expected from a tyrant.  The denial forces her to seek out Deckard at his home, in hopes of being seen as something more than a microprocessor covered inn flesh.  Their exchange yields anything but the desired results.  Instead of proving herself real, she receives proof that her most intimate memories are nothing more than implants.

“You remember the spider that lived in a bush outside your window…?  Watched her build a web all summer.  Then one day there was a big egg in it.  The egg hatched—“

Rachael continues.  “The egg hatched, and a hundred baby spiders came out. And they ate her.”

The allegory parallels the film to perfection. Blade Runner, along with Frankenstein, and Pygmalion are all self-fulfilling prophecies.  In the cycle of life– one commencing with the inception of an egg and ending in death– the creation must inevitably supplant its progenitor.

For Rachel, it’s simply an intimate memory, the very thing Tyrell inputs in each replicant to “cushion” their experience of reality.  Memories are essential to how we empathize.  By comparing past incidents with present ones we create a context for emotional depth.  During her most intense exchange with Deckard, Rachel hands him a picture. “It’s me, with my mother.”  This is a grounding memory for her, one that transmutes the threat of the present moment into evidence for the humanity now in question.  Her articulation of the memory is filled with confidence.  But it crumbles under cross-examination.

“Those aren’t your memories,” Deckard states bluntly.  “They’re Tyrell’s niece’s.”

The revelation is nothing short of seismic for Rachel and her reaction is anything but “programmed”.  She breaks down and bolts from the room.  Deckard’s bittersweet voice over follows.  “Tyrell really did a job on Rachael.  Right down to a snapshot of a mother she never had, a daughter she never was.  Replicants weren’t supposed to have feelings.  Neither were blade runners.  What the hell was happening to me?  I didn’t know why a replicant would collect photos.  Maybe… they needed memories.”

It’s not until Rachel saves Deckard’s life by killing fellow replicant Leon that Deckard fully recognizes her simulated life as equally worthy.  This is the reciprocity held sacred by Cavell who asks, what are we willing to do for the “automaton” when the doctor draws a scalpel to cut it open? If we leap to its defense we have recognized the possibility of its’ being: we are defending its right to live.

It’s after this turning point when an erotic language game between human and replicant unfolds.  Against noir shadows cast by venetian blinds, Deckard attempts to kiss Rachel, who denies him and runs off.  Deckard stops her, and then linguistically “reprograms” her by giving her the dialogue she can’t create for herself.

“Say, kiss me.” He instructs.  But Rachel resists.  “Say, kiss me.”  When Rachel finally does, empathy overtakes her.  Deckard’s emotional reciprocity, coupled with his linguistic authorship, results in Rachel’s newly found identity: an identity that has the ability to author language of its own.  “Put your hands on me,” she says without direction, and Deckard complies.  It’s a colossal moment that establishes Rachel as an equal in a romantic relationship.  We can assume from the last scene in the theatrical cut, the first time we see blue skies and green grass in the entire film, that a fruitful future awaits them.

The Brain Behind The Avatar

In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer played a series of games against then world champion Gary Kasparov.  The computer was programmed with over 700,000 previously played grandmaster games and capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second.  After defeating Kasparov, accusations were made that the computer had employed a level of creativity beyond the heuristics any microprocessor was capable of, the implication being that the human minds behind it had intervened with moves of their own.  IBM denied the accusations and the debate still simmers.

Similar accusations are made in the climax of Blade Runner, but this time it’s the machine pointing the finger.  By championing Tyrell in chess, Roy successfully gains access to the top of the pyramid.  He wears all black, Tyrell in solid white.

“I’m surprised you didn’t come here sooner.”  Says Tyrell.

“It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.”

“What can he do for you?” Tyrell wonders.

“Can the maker repair what he makes?”

Would you like to be modified?”

I had in mind something a little more radical.” States Roy.

What seems to be the problem?”

Roy steps into the light. “Death…”

When Tyrell back peddles and says, “…I’m afraid that’s a little out of my jurisdiction–”

“I want more life, fucker.”

Roy cuts to the linguistic chase by using the strongest language possible: profanity.  A verbal chess match ensues where Roy provides scientific alternatives for extending his life span.  What he hasn’t accounted for is Tyrell’s “teleological deism”: he may have created Roy, but he can’t interfere once the creation has taken on a life of its own.  The DNA dice and subsequent biological processes have been cast.

“You were made as well as we could make you.” Consoles Tyrell. “…Revel in your time.”  But Roy is not mature enough to heed the advice.  To free himself he must kill the master, which he does by Oedipally mashing in Tyrell’s eyes.  Extinguishing the All Seeing Eye is the beginning of a transvaluation of values for Roy.  He’s free from his maker’s tyranny, but a new void engulfs him: with his creator gone, who will see him for what he aspires to be?

The Power Of The Word

The film culminates with a dramatic chase.  After leading the hunt, Deckard is now pursued and must rely on the most basic animal instincts to survive as Roy traps him on a rooftop, supplanting Tyrell.

In an effort to relieve the excruciating pain in his right hand, Roy forces a rusted spike through his palm.  The “son” of the film’s God, nexus between man and machine, has usurped the role of crucified savior.  He will die not only for his own sins, but for all of humankind’s.  It’s in these last moments that Roy transcends his biomechanical interior and becomes more human than human in the spiritual sense: a first for any replicant, and the greatest imaginable success for the Tyrell Corporation.

Deckard, meanwhile, has regressed into a desperate survival mode.  He leaps from one rooftop to another and slips, hanging by a fingertip from the gaping abyss below.  As he falls, Roy catches him with the nail-punctured right hand and raises him dramatically to safety.  Perhaps his own irreversible circumstances have allowed him newfound empathy for the value of Deckard’s life.  Or perhaps it’s less altruistic.  Roy killed Tyrell to be free from the relationship that defined him as non-human.  By saving Deckard, he preserves the only witness to the potential of his being more than an android.  His apotheosis occurs in a self-authored elegy that he gives in the highest form of human expression: poetry.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near Tan Hauser Gate…

All those moments… will be lost in time… like tears… in rain.

Time to die.”

Computers don’t communicate in metaphor and simile, people do.  With Deckard as his witness, Roy definitively expands the definition of what it means to be human.  The final close-up of Roy closing his eyes and releasing a dove completes the film’s optical image system with chilling finality.  Rain falls on both figures, cleansing, absolving, baptizing.  The dove is Roy’s pure and innocent soul, freed from death, flying as hopefully from bleak cityscape as a phoenix from the ashes.  A new order of the ages has begun.

The Future and The Present

In 2007, director Ridley Scott claimed in an interview that Deckard was a replicant after all, using the galloping unicorn scene in the Director’s Cut to support his argument.  The unicorn appears in Deckard’s dream.  It’s his “electric sheep”. Gaff makes the tinfoil unicorn at the end of the film, revealing that he knows what’s in Deckard’s mind because it’s an implant.

Screenwriter Hampton Fancher rebutted the statement inciting a contentious public debate.  Harrison Ford chimed in, saying he couldn’t play the character as anything but a human, and argued with Scott on set about it.  It’s a testament to brilliant story structure that this many years later, the movie’s well-crafted ambiguity leaves us with a question that’s still debatable, even among its most intimate collaborators.

An argument for Deckard being human can be made from one simple character trait: he loves to booze.  Deckard does a shot with Bryant when he accepts the mission.  A red band of his blood is noticeable in the shot glass as he sets it down.  Androids don’t bleed.  Deckard has another few drinks at the club watching Zora and her snake.  He lugs around a bottle of Johnny Walker (magnificently art directed for the year 2019) after killing Leon.  “Sometimes I get the shakes real bad.”  He says to Rachel.  “It’s part of the business.”  Rachel responds with characteristic glibness, “I’m not in the business.  I am the business.”  She does not accept the drink, nor does any other replicant eat or drink during the film.

Alcoholism would be a serious feat of programming if Deckard were a replicant.  And one can’t help but wonder how half a bottle of whiskey would affect such sophisticated circuitry.  But the film’s central tenets– acceptance through empathy, assimilation into a shared language, and reciprocity without judgment– are achieved either way.  If Deckard is not human, the onus of acceptance falls to Gaff who says, “It’s too bad she won’t live.  But then again, who does?”  The line is echoed when Deckard discovers the origami unicorn in his apartment at the end of the film.  He and Rachel are free to go, and by not pursuing them, Gaff endorses their assimilation.

Deckard being a replicant doesn’t make for a very strong story structure, however.  Any author worth his salt is not gong to leave the film’s central action of transformation to a supporting character after spending two hours with the lead.  Deckard is human, and his acceptance of Rachel in the theatrical version is the requisite Hollywood ending.  The verdant landscape and cloud filled skies they drive off into might as well be a sunset.  We’ve seen nothing like it the whole film long.

The question remains open to debate: do androids dream of electric sheep?  The answer from a postmodern language perspective is irrelevant.  That they dream at all is what matters most.  According to Philip K. Dick, in the future, dreaming is an act even most humans won’t do.

(Hungry for more on Blade Runner? Check out Dave Addey’s brilliant study on the film’s myriad typeface.)



  1. One of the more thorough posts on PKD! I rewatched the film last night with an entirely new set of eye, pun intended. This should be published in a sci-fi journal. Are there any left???

  2. Very good post. I am experiencing a few of these issues as well.

  3. Wow, fantastic blog. Love your content!

  4. This is one the best PKD essays on the web. I will most certainly will recommend!

  5. We share some of the same twisted interests. Nice to know I’m not alone out there!

  6. Heya excellent website! You’ve amassed a lot of content here. I was hoping to start my own blog and guess I just need to pull the trigger. if you have any tips please share. Like where you get your wacky ass ideas from!!!

  7. This is very well written. I love what youve got to say. And your pictures too… Are you going to remount any of your plays back in NYC? I guess LA needs you more, but you are missed!

  8. I think that Ridley Scott/PKD must have read Jung, no? Glance through the pages of the infamous red journal and you’ll see all kinds of imagery

  9. My favorite version of Blade Runner is the one with VO. That’s not trendy to say, and to hell with Ridley Scott if he hates it, but it’s better than the director’s cut without.

  10. Smart PKD piece.

  11. Some impressive analysis here… The movie will be 30 years olf this year, I think. Amazing that no movie since B.R. has come close to tackling the issue. HER was in the area, certainly. And it looks like Transcendence with Johnny Depp will be decent until the 3rd act when it becomes a Hollywood shoot’em up. Ironically I find those parts of B.R. to be the most humdrum. I do find myself wondering what sex with a pleasure model replicant would be like!

  12. This reads like an essay from Philosophy and Science Fiction. A killer compendium of thought provoking pieces covering everyone from Asimov to Lemm to Kubrick. Check it out.

  13. Fuckin smart points, Al. Going to re-watch B.R. now with new eyes… “Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with YOUR eyes…”

  14. Very curious what PKD would have made of the legs his story had in the present day. Did anyone see Jodorowsky’s Dune? Totally inspirational.

  15. Fuckin’ A man… Love the study of symbology in Blade Runner. There was a doc on PKD on Netflix that was just terrible. Suffered through it cause I’m a sci-fi addict, but learned very little about the man. Need to read Do Androids Dream and then watch the movie again now. Wish they would screen it for me in a movie theater.

  16. You’ve spent a lot of time on this movie! Amazing to rewatch it after reading this. I remember the movie as a flop. Something Harrison Ford did after Starwars that was sci-fi but I was a kid and thought it was boring. It’s anything but. So many layers. Such beautiful cinematography, and more than anything, a very probably look into a future that is becoming a reality in Los Angeles….

  17. This movie should be required college reading for everyone in philosophy, sociology, biology, history, poli sci and so on…

  18. This was spot on. Now they are making a sequel or prequel? Am I wrong to be pessimistic?

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