Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Recollections - 2013-14 Session Five: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

The Gothic Reading Group met for our first session last week, with a screening of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and an accompanying discussion of its source novella, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? As always, we were keen to break some new ground. This was our first meeting discussing two different media and, perhaps, our first meeting discussing material that wasn't as obviously 'Gothic' as our usual fare. Part of our remit with the Gothic Reading Group is to explore materials at the periphery of the accepted 'Gothic canon' (or beyond!) and our discussion did us proud in using these materials to tackle the relationship between Gothic and Science Fiction. In the following blog post Kathleen reviews some of that discussion and asks how we might use the Gothic as a route into interpreting related materials.

Generic Benefits and Hazards: Should we 'Retire' Gothic Replicants?

Kathleen Hudson

As I was getting ready to go to the first of our Gothic Reading Group meetings for the new semester, I got a message from a friend:  “I can’t make it today, but tell everyone that I don’t think Blade Runner is Gothic.  That can be my contribution.”

Way to be incendiary, I thought, but, in all fairness, arguments about the classification of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as either Gothic or Science-Fiction thriller could easily go either way.   Once again as a group we were forced to define and redefine “Gothic” and the wide range of reincarnations of modern Gothic: coming up with some pretty interesting conclusions for both sides of the debate.  The film and novella draw upon classic Gothic tropes such as absent mothers and persecuting fathers, and take these a step farther towards reconstructed creation myths in the style of Milton and Shelley.  As Mark has already pointed out in previous posts, Blade Runner has a lot in common with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), but what is it that makes Frankenstein Gothic?  Is it just the Classic Universal and/or Hammer Horror aesthetic which, after all, does pervade the sci-fi dystopian futures of films like Blade Runner?  Is it just that you know it when you see it?

Is it Gothic now?
Arguably any structure in a dystopian future could be read as a haunted house: a place in which literal and metaphorical ghosts attempt to insert themselves into the spaces of the living.  In this case Earth itself is the ‘haunted house,’ a decaying place full of unhappy remnants dealing with moral and historical fall-out while the idealised superior situation waits off-world in the colonies.  Those who cannot move to this new place are stuck on earth because they are physically damaged (is is emphzises in the novella and suggested in the film that only physically viable humans are allowed to leave earth) or otherwise too poor or too attached or too necessary to Earth to leave (like Deckard, whose job “retiring” Replicants forces him to remain behind).  Those who stay have to deal with the consequences of human failure and injustice, destroying the runaway slaves of the ‘perfect’ off-world space (an indication, as found even in classic Gothic texts, that the normalised space of ‘home’ is still not perfect and in fact only functions through the repression of certain social groups) and navigating some aspects distinctive to sci-fi, such as the blending of cultures and languages (an interesting phenomenon given some treatment of Gothic as culturally specific), the fallout of decay and war, and the impact that human actions have had on the environment and on the degeneration of personal physical and mental health (degeneration being another familiar Gothic concern).


Obviously attached to the idea of human-like non-human creations is the idea of demonic doubles and the mirroring of Replicant and Human identities.  We discussed that ever important question of whether Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is a Replicant. The introduction of a dream unicorn, especially given the importance of animals in the novella version and the emphasis that is placed on artificial and real animals as an indication of self-hood, seemed like pretty good evidence. So too did the inconsistent expression of Deckard’s emotions.  His interaction with Rachel, while somewhat uncomfortable, suggested that he was indeed trying to experience human emotion and force her to feel a reaction as well, through an extreme kind of empathy training in which intense physicality and the repetition of words and phrases structures a human experience.

In creating a human or Human-Replicant hybrid experience Blade Runner explores another Gothic element in its engagement with ‘found manuscripts’: in this case the Replicants’ appreciation of visual and vocal cues of humanness.  Replicant Leon values photographs he has taken almost enough to get killed retrieving them, and the Replicant leader, Roy, recites snatches of the Blake poem “America: A Prophecy” with off-handed confidence.  If we buy the theory that Deckard himself is a Replicant, (indeed even if we accept him as a human), then the plethora of black-and-white photos in his apartment and Rachel’s own attachment to a photo as a symbol of her false humanity signify a manipulated past and a construction of ‘self’ as ‘thing’: made up of choices and memories. The Replicants are thus taking the means of recording and narrative expression - in both basic and advanced forms - and making them their own; in seeking to construct their own past, present and future they unite themselves with the rest of humanity. 

Blake Runner

In this attempt at anchoring identity we see Roy misquoting William Blake’s poem “America: A Prophecy.”  Roy, talking to the scientist who constructed his eyes, states: "Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc."  This is a variation of the original text: "Fiery the angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll'd. Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc."  Roy is possibly equating himself to the regenerative and destructive hero Orc and connecting the plot of Blade Runner to the story of slavery in America and the promise of moral destruction that results from the systematic enslavement of a race.  The parts which he misquotes are also notable both for the specifics of what he changes and the fact that he changes anything at all.  Roy removes the idea that angels “rose” and, by extension, that they are elevated beings and instead asserts that that they “fell,” suggesting a Miltonian reference to Lucifer falling just as the Replicants fell to earth from their original placement off-world.  Interestingly, Roy also removes the word “indignant” which is problematic given the Replicants’ general discussion of slavery as a life “of fear,” and the single-mindedness with which they seek out their creator (as does the creature in Frankenstein), all in order to gain more gain more time and more life.

In and of itself, the quotation from Blake (and from such an arguably Gothic poem by an arguably Gothic poet) suggests that Roy and the Replicants understand culture and human creativity.  Moreover, by modifying the poem and employing other snatches of literary scripts and original poetry, Roy demonstrates that he is both a modification of the human experience and a creative being in his own right.  Roy is ultimately framed as a Christ figure and in connection with this (though also perhaps, in contrast with it) we see the importance of individual body parts such as hands and eyes.  The focus on such specific parts constructing a mythical figure offers another aspect of the creation myth in which Replicants are the ultimate accumulation of human experience – it is suggested that each of their body parts are made from different people (like the Frankenstein creature a Replicant’s identity is compromised because he is in fact many different people sewn together), and each scientist is a surrogate parent who has put something of themselves in their creation.  Thus the rebellion and subsequent destruction of Replicants takes on a whole new meaning and their story has drastic implications for the ‘body’ of humanity.

Add our written text for the session, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, into the mix and the whole thing becomes even more complicated.  While still engaging with Gothic ideas such as haunted spaces and doubling and working with an aesthetic of dilapidated emptiness (as in the film, the depopulation of earth has left lots of haunted buildings and degenerative bodies as well as the ubiquitous and all-conquering litter Dick terms “kipple”) there is something in the novella distinctly different from the relentless darkness of the film version.  It was pointed out that there is a distinction between pulp sci-fi and the science-fiction of Androids, Clockwork Orange or Brave New World: sci-fi novels with a more philosophical and almost metaphorical goal.  The androids of the novella, having constructed a fake police station with the trappings of authority, repeatedly attempt to convince Deckard that he is also an android. The resulting moral quandary, heightened by Deckard’s own relationships with human friends and partners, causes him to mull over similar discussions of humanity, identity, and the value of self-knowledge.

In the final director's special edition director's final cut of finality,  this is folded from a page of Otranto. . .
The discussion concluded that Blade Runner can be read as a Gothic text, and that if we debate the definition of Gothic the ultimate deciding factor might be whether or not reading a text as Gothic provides insight into the goals of the text itself.  In this case, while Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? perhaps fit into other categories of genre more clearly than they do Gothic, there is still much to be gained from reading such texts as pseudo-Gothic creations.

Also, the dystopian future is apparently happening in 2019.  Better get a move on!


Kathleen Hudson is a PhD student in the School of English, working on the role of the servant narrative in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Gothic fiction. Feel free to leave origami on her desk.

No comments:

Post a Comment