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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.
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?
Why does Mercerism consider it a moral duty to breed and raise animals, even in the city?
We learn that the setting is San Francisco. Why do you suppose the film was set in Los Angeles instead? The Rand Corporation 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 affect?
What 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?
"Buster Friendly" 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 Carroll's "Jabberwocky":
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 outgrabe.
Version dated October 7, 1999.
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