Study Guide for Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner (1968)
By Paul Brians.
Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 15, Chapter 16, Chapter 17, Chapter 18, Chapter 19, Chapter 21, Chapter 22
Philip K. Dick is one of the crucial figures in modern science fiction. He was too prolific for his own good, churning out dozens of novels for cheap paperback publication, often in such haste that their conclusions tend to be their weakest part. He was obsessive, disorganized, and in his later years paranoid. Yet his conceptions were often brilliant, and he has come to be looked on as one of the masters, though only a small fraction of his work is in print at any one time. His titles are often wonderfully surrealistic, as in the striking Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said; and Blade Runner was originally titled (for reasons that will become apparent as you read it) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
When Ridley Scott made his 1982 film based loosely on the novel he eliminated the electric sheep (along with much else), and Dick's title no longer made sense (nor would it have been very effective on a marquee). The film company bought the rights to another novel by a different author and threw away everything but the title--Blade Runner--a term which occurs nowhere in the book. The film eventually gained great fame, and the novel was eventually retitled to match. Since then others of his works have been filmed ("We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" was turned into Total Recall), "Second Variety" became Screamers, and an opera has been based on Valis, all after his death shortly following the release of Bladerunner. (His non-SF novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist was also made into an obscure French film in 1992 as Confessions d'un Barjo.)
He came out of a generation of 50s SF writers who took as their task the criticism of American mass society. As a result, certain themes recur frequently in his works: the threat of nuclear war, the evil effects of rampant capitalism and marketing, and the influence of mass entertainment media, especially television. But another theme which pervades Dick's work is more personal: an obsession with the blurring of reality, dreams and waking confused together, mechanical replicas indistinguishable from their originals, drug-induced hallucinations more real than reality. His books are often structured as a series of unexpected trap doors: you think you know where you are and who is whom, then suddenly the bottom falls out and your certainties are thrown into doubt. He loves to play games with his readers, keeping them constantly off balance. The film version, on the other hand, was shaped along the lines of a mean-streets detective novel by Raymond Chandler. In it the pervasive confusion is a puzzle to be solved, not an exercise in mind-bending.
The film turned out to be one of the most influential pieces of SF in recent decades. Without Bladerunner it is hard to imagine Max Headroom or the whole cyberpunk phenomenon. Yet almost none of its influential elements are present in the novel, which has quite different concerns. (The influential visual style of the film was largely derived from the style of French cartoonist Moebius in Heavy Metal comics.) This is not to say that one is bad and the other is good: each is an outstanding example of its own kind and should be judged on its own merits.
A word of warning: Dick's specialty is straight-faced satire. If parts of this book strike you as absurd, they're supposed to.
Twas brillig, and the slithey toves" "Mitteleuropäische" is German for "central European."
How does Dick begin to multiply the confusion in this chapter? What typically Hollywood change was made in Luba Luft's occupation in the movie?
Pamina's song means "If every brave man could find such little bells, his enemies would be made to vanish without any trouble." Entropy is the principle in physics which says that on the largest scale, over time, order tends to disintegrate into disorder. "Derain Associates" are named after the French artist André Derain, who painted human figures composed of machine-like forms. How does Luba Luft turn Deckard's logic against him when he tells her what defines an android? This chapter is classic Dick. What characteristic discussed in the introduction to these notes is illustrated here?
The first sentence speaks of "baroque, ornamented spires; complicated and m odern." At the time the novel was written, the "international style" of rigid geometrical shapes shorn of all decoration was triumphant. Clearly Dick anticipated a reaction, though so-called "postmodern" architecture has not gone so far toward a neobaroque style as this suggests. But here is the source for the film's memorable architectural style. Dick continues to play with the reader here, but more is going on than mere obfuscation. Think about what Rachael, Luba Luft, and these policemen have said about Deckard. Even if he is not an android, what evidence is there that could cause him to be mistaken for one?
What argument does Phil Resch offer at the end of the chapter to try to convince Deckard that he is human?
The painting hanging in the opera house is Edvard Munch's famous "The Scream" (1893). Note how Resch's example continues to blur the lines between androids and humans. Besides creating suspense, what is Dick trying to accomplish by increasing the confusion? Munch's "Puberty" is a typically harrowing adolescent nude. How does Resch seem to show Luba that she is right about him? What signs are there that Deckard is beginning to have doubts about his profession? How does the outcome of Resch's test further blur the lines?
What slip does J. R. Isidore make that makes Pris think he is like an android? What is the function of science fiction in this period? What kind of comment is Dick making on SF?
What is ironic about Deckard's using his new money to buy an animal? How has he changed? What lesson about life does Mercer try to teach him?
Note the line "Do androids dream?" which was reflected in the original title of the novel. Why do you think Dick put his title into the form of a question? How does Rachael say she feels about Pris? Why is this significant? How about her feelings for Deckard?
What important and tragic fact about androids do we learn only at this point? Why has Dick postponed giving us this information? What is Rachael's real motivation for getting involved with Deckard?
What effect does the revelation about Mercer have on the novel? How does it fit with the novel's themes? "Al Jarry" is a tribute to the wild French writer Alfred Jarry, much admired by the Dadaists, author of Père Ubu and other plays. Why does Pris look so much like Rachael? Why is Roy Baty's reaction to the death of his wife significant? Has he proven Rachael wrong about him by carrying out the "retirements?" What else has he proven?
How does Rachael take vengeance on Deckard?
Why is it appropriate for Deckard to fuse with Mercer now?
Does this story have a happy ending? Explain.
Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020. Copyright Paul Brians 1995
Version dated October 7, 1999.
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