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:

0 thoughts on “Cyberpunk and Blade Runner

  1. I always associate "Blade Runner" with that period in my life where I was a movie nerd and friends with movie nerds, so it’s a teensy bit painful to think about. It’s hugely overrated. The stylish look is more appropriate to Ridley Scott’s "Alien" or "The Duelists." In "BR" the fancy visuals just seem to be covering up the story’s lack of dramatic oomph. That said, I remember vividly some of the side performers; the creepy head of the robot corporation, the eye vendor, Daryl Hannah.

    What William Gibson did best was open up sci-fi for better writers in generations that followed. I didn’t know about this until recently a relative suggested several sci-fi/fantasy titles for me to check out. I’d avoided those genres since I was 13 or so. They’re much more fun now than they used to be. Not anything profound, but fun. And I think that’s directly due to Gibson and his ilk taking sci-fi out of its "Twilight Zone" comfort zone (ahh, The Bomb, what does it mean) by adding things ’80s kids could relate to (e.g., computers.)

    Now those ’80s kids have grown up and are writing fantasy/sci-fi which breaks from the traditional, Asimov/Tolkein conventions. It’s amusing stuff. Not hugely memorable, but less pretentious than older imaginative fiction often is. (Asimov/Tolkein/Clarke/Heinlein were always trying to teach us a moral lesson — as were Wells/Verne/Shelley/Poe, for that matter.)

    One that actually has stuck with me is Paolo Bacigalupi; he presents a future dystopia which is very vivid. I liked his novel "The Windup Girl" a lot and his short book "The Alchemist" a lot more. I have had people say they didn’t like his work because it was just too bleak; "Too bleak" shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for this blogsite’s author. And of course Ursula LeGuin is in her own category of terrific.

  2. @JMF – I’m not familiar with Bacigalupi. He sounds interesting. I’ll let you know.

    I like Gibson, but I also think he’s over-rated. You might be right about his effect on later writers though. I would tend to push back to Dick. The truth is that I found Asimov and Heinlein and their ilk almost unreadable. Today, the work is much better. When I was in the hospital several years ago, I read some kind of "the best short science fiction of the year" book. I was amazed how good the writing was. In general, I’m not that into science fiction. But I like fiction about the mind.

    When I was younger, I liked LeGuin when she wrote science fiction. I don’t really like her fantasy stuff, but then, I don’t really like any fantasy stuff.

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