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Blade Runner 2049: how Philip K Dick’s classic novel has stood the test of time

The year 2019 must have seemed like a long time in the future 35 years ago, when the original Blade Runner film was set. Based on the US science fiction writer Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott’s dystopian vision tells the story of a hunt for four dangerous “replicant” humans.

At the time of its release, the film was a rich source of predictions about the future world – or Los Angeles to be precise – a place ruined by pollution and lit only by giant floating billboards. But now, in 2017, as the world gets ready for the sequel, we are living in the future – videophones, androids, advances in artificial intelligence, it’s all happening. Okay so we don’t have the hover car just yet, but time always was always a complex and paradoxical phenomenon in the writings of the Philip K Dick.

The arrival of an update, set in 2049, as well as two teaser prequels, created at the request of the director of Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve, merely adds to the sense of a “time-slip” that Dick himself would have appreciated – temporal ambiguity being one of the authors favourite themes. These switches in the timeline of Dick’s stories produce feelings of uncertainty and paranoia for his characters. They also unsettle the reader and challenge our relationship to time.

The future present

Of course, from the book to the film, a lot has changed. In the book, the protagonist Rick Deckard is a simple and rather vulnerable character and is certainly no Harrison Ford. Large chunks of the text are also missed out in the film in favour of more cinematic landscapes and new material.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? shares the basic plotline of the film: the world has been ravaged by World War Terminus, most humans have departed the planet and cities are all but deserted due to the prevalence of radioactive dust. Bounty hunter Deckard is hired to retire “replicants” who have returned illegally to Earth. And over the course of a day, he hunts them down through a crumbling Los Angeles.

Rachael, a replicant played by Sean Young in the film. By Source, Fair use,

In the book, inhabitants of Earth are mostly “specials”, whose mental capacities have deteriorated as a consequence of contamination. Deckard owns and cares for android sheep and his ultimate ambition is to own a real animal – the war having caused the mass extinction of many species. Deckard needs to earn money as a bounty hunter to get enough to finance a real animal.

Technology at the helm

Part of the success of Dick’s stories and very much integral to the success of the first Blade Runner film is their proximity to the present. The technological landscape Dick explores – for which the first Blade Runner film is famous – includes many technological advances that have come to light since publication.

He prefigured both augmented and virtual reality. He described machines – such as lifts, cars and consumer durables – that talk back and argue with humans.

Not totally dissimilar to the strange dialogues I have with the voice of an automated self-service till in my local supermarket these days. The writer’s use of quirky technological artefacts that argue, answer back, joke, intimidate and use sarcasm, have become commonplace in the many interpretations of Dick’s output since the release of the original Blade Runner movie.

The rise of the machine

In his writing, Dick often characterised complex human relationships and interactions with technology. This can be seen in the original Blade Runner film, where many of these relationships are seen to be paradoxical and infused with paranoia – portraying many of the existential challenges that our relations to technology give rise to.

Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling both star in the new Blade Runner film. Blade Runner Movie.Com

But the technological landscape in Dick’s novels were not always their main characteristic – and certainly not as much of an obsession as it was for some of his contemporaries such as Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein. That said, a lot of Dick’s technological landscape has provided ample inspiration for other cinematic interpretations such as Total Recall, Minority Report as well as of course Blade Runner.

Ultimately, in his novel, Dick used the future to illuminate the present. But of course these are not optimistic or evangelical visions of the future. In all of these stories, whether in the novel or the films spawned, it is a future that is bleak, dystopian and full of struggles. If anything, this is a cautionary warning of what may actually happen. And given that no one knows yet what the world will look like in 2049, only time will tell if this is the future to come.

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