STUDY GUIDE FOR PHILIP K. DICK: Blade Runner (1968)
by Paul Brians
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
Recall), "Second Variety" became Screamers, and an
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
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
A word of warning: Dick's specialty is straight-faced satire.
If parts of this book strike you as absurd, they're supposed to.
Why is Rick Deckard in so
much better a mood than his wife? How does Dick satirize American's
dependence on television? The mention of lead codpieces as a common item
of apparel introduces one of the major themes of the book: widespread
sterilization as a result of nuclear fallout in the wake of a war. How
crowded is the city in which they live? What are the main causes of the
current level of population density? "Terminus" suggests the
war was an end of things; but the end is more gradual than other SF
writers have imagined. In the early sixties there was widespread anxiety
about the effects of fallout from nuclear bomb testing which subsided in
the wake of the signing of the atmospheric test ban treaty; yet Dick
continued to be concerned about the danger of nuclear war at a time when
most people were ignoring it. According to Greek mythology, the Thracian
Mares of Boreas were impregnated by the wind. We are introduced here to
the artificial mass-media religion of Mercerism, which will play an
important role later in the novel. It is characteristic of Dick's
fiction that people who live in an advanced technological culture
understand little of it and resort quickly to superstition and cultism.
What do you think of this view of modern civilization?
Mercerism consider it a moral duty to breed and raise animals, even in
learn that the setting is San Francisco. Why do you suppose the film was
set in Los Angeles instead? The Rand Corp oration has been the major
government-financed "think-tank" whose main job was imagining
various nuclear war scenarios in order to justify the building of more
and more powerful bombs and missiles. What effect does it have on you to
learn that no one knows who started the war or why it was fought? (This
is true of the overwhelming majority of fictional nuclear wars.) The
first dead animals to be noticed were owls. What is the traditional
symbolism of the owl, and why are they significant here? Dick here
anticipates the "nuclear winter" theory in a striking way.
What effect has the war had on the atmosphere? The term
"android" was invented by science fiction writers to denote an
artificial human made mostly of organic parts, in distinction to a
robot, made of purely mechanical parts (though Carl Capek, from whose work the term
"robot" comes, actually depicted androids). It comes from the
Greek word "andros" meaning "man" and the ending
"oid," meaning "similar to." George Lucas'
untraditional use of the term " android" to designate purely
mechanical robots who could be like R2D2, not at all
man-shaped, has hopelessly confused the terminology ever since. What
sales angle is being used in television advertising to promote the sale
of androids? What is a "special?" Sloat is the name of J. R.
Isidore's boss, but it's also the name of a major street in San
Francisco. "Mors certa, vita incerta" is Latin for "Death
is certain, life uncertain." Why does the silence have such an
impact on Isidore? "Kipple" is defined in Chapter 6. Mercerism
is based on the same principle as the kind of Catholicism illustrated by
the Stabat Mater: emotional identification with the
suffering of a martyr. What effects might such a religion be expected to
have on its followers? Why does Mercerism incorporate the belief that
resurrection has been outlawed?
How are escaped androids
distinguished from humans? The book makes clear the purpose of the weird
questions that are used in the test at the beginning of the film. Why
has Mercer's law that "You shall kill only the killers" not
led to a more humane world? Frank Merriwell was the atheletic hero of a
series of books for boys early in the 20th century.
"Flattening of affect" (pronounced
"AFF-ect") means lack of emotion. What is the significance of
the possibility that some humans experience extreme flattening of
kinds of responses are considered normal on the Voigt-Kampff test? If
only a bone-marrow test can distinguish an android from a human, there
can be little difference between the two. This underlines a major theme
of the novel. Why is it in the interest of the Rosen Corporation to
prove that the Voigt-Kampff test is invalid?
is a sort of non-stop television show that provides an alternative
reality for many people. Dick repeatedly treated this theme in other
stories and novels like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
What ominous qualities does Pris have? Why does she tell Isidore at
first that she is Rachael Rosen?
Milt Borogrove's name comes from the opening of Lewis
Twas brillig, and the slithey toves " "Mitteleuropäische" is
German for "central European."
did gyre and gimbel
in the wabe;
all mimsey were the borogroves,
and the momraths
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
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
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
Version dated October 7, 1999.