Cyberpunk and Blade Runner

Blade RunnerI watched Blade Runner this afternoon. I always associate it with William Gibson’s Neuromancer. According to Gibson, the book was about to go to press when Blade Runner appeared. There were many similarities, so Gibson went back and changed a number of things in the book. Both works are generally seen as the beginning of cyberpunk, which is best described as the nexus of high tech and low life.

But there isn’t actually a lot of similarity between the two. Blade Runner is just film noir set in the future. It doesn’t deal that well with the low life aspect of the genre. In particular, Gibson is as focused on drug use easily as much as he is high tech. In Blade Runner it is all cigarettes and alcohol. Of course, in a fundamental sense, Gibson is as derivative as any modern novelist. As I’ve written before, he basically just writes William S. Burroughs without the sex. And without the groundwork laid by Philip K. Dick—who was a true visonary—no one would have even understood Gibson, least of all Gibson himself.

Shortly before The Matrix burst onto the scene, Gibson helped turn his short story Johnny Mnemonic into a feature film. Now given that this film has been widely panned, I feel that I must defend it before continuing. Johnny Mnemonic is a good example of the kind of art that I think needs to be respected. I don’t much like it. But it is everything it intends to be. The artistic vision may not be what I like, but it is what the filmmakers intended it to be. And in this age, I think we should applaud that.

Let us not forget, that Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic is hardly some of his best writing. And more than anything, some of the ideas were even tired when he wrote it. In particular, the super intelligent dolphin is almost comical. But in its defense, Gibson does get low down. In order to get the dolphins to do the data processing work, the military got them strung out. And as I recall, in order to get Johnny’s access key, the price is a packet of dope. All of this is taken out of the movie, of course.

As much as the film is wanting, it still provides a better representation of the cyberpunk world than does Blade Runner. In particular, cyberpunk is never about cops. Cops are just an extension of the corporate power structure. What’s more it is a world where corporations have their own cops and armies. Rather than call Blade Runner cyberpunk, we should call it pre-apocalypse.

None the less, Blade Runner is still a damned good film—the director’s cut, anyway. But there is far too much undeserved mythology associated with it. In particular, I don’t accept that Deckard is a replicant—except in the thematic sense that we all are, or might be. And that makes it more like Witness than Neuromancer. And Blade Runner has no standout scene. Johnny Mnemonic, on the other hand, has this scene that sums up our classist society in one and a half pithy minutes: