And I'm beyond excited for Blade Runner 2049 (the only reason I haven’t seen it yet is because I’ve committed to going with a group of friends and the first time everyone is available isn’t for another few days).*
The original Blade Runner was always one of my favourite movies, and seeing it again on a beautiful HD TV screen last week reminded me of how groundbreaking and beautiful it was. And it also reminded me of how influential it was. It was one of the first examples of the cyberpunk genre being truly brought to life, and the pieces of art that came after it or at the same time were hugely influential on how we view and use computers and technology today.
So I put together this (non-definitive) list of books, movies and more that owe at least a bit to the original Blade Runner. I’ve probably missed your favourite book, and there are probably some that you’ll argue shouldn’t be included.
Note that I also say "Blade Runner" rather than "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," the book upon which it was based. That's because as good of an author as Phillip K. Dick was, and as ground-breaking as ""Do Androids..." was I don't think either the author or the original story would have had nearly as much fame as they do today if it hadn't been for the film becoming such a cultural hit. Up until that point, cyberpunk was a relatively obscure (though growing) genre of science-fiction literature that was dealing with the creeping intrusion of technology into our lives and resulting isolation. Worlds, concepts and stories had been fleshed out by authors like Dick, John Shirley (City Come A Walkin', 1981), Alfred Bester and George Alec Effinger (see below), but it took the Blade Runner film to really give us the visual texture and iconic "high-tech, low-life" look of and feel of the cyberpunk genre.
So what defines the genre? For me, the core component is a world where technology can possibly replace part or all of everything a human is, from body parts to thinking processes, ultimately asking the question what it means to human. Well that could describe a lot of sci-fi, it's that "low-life" aspect of it that puts it in it's own genre: isolated, marginalised or countercultural characters are at the forefront. Hackers don't necessarily reign supreme, but the symbolize independence and anti-authority sentiment. There's "dirt in the corners," as William Gibson puts it and, many of his contemporaries were heavily influenced by the punk rock of the 70s and 80s. Rudy Rucker, considered one of the founders of the literary movement, compared it to punk music in that both were informationally dense, cared more about being interesting than in conventions.
So, back to my list:
Neuromancer by William Gibson is the obvious choice for inclusion - the 1982 book was a defining piece of the "cyberpunk" genre. Case's Chiba City could have been Deckard's Los Angeles without almost a single change, and it captured a combination of the gritty, marginalised characters on the edges of society with bigger questions about what it meant to be human, artificial or otherwise. While it probably wasn't directly "inspired" by Blade Runner (author William Gibson famously avoided watching the film while he was writing Neuromancer because he was worried it was too close to what he was writing), the fact that the two came out at almost the same time is in itself significant. The way that Case, the main character (I wouldn’t necessarily call him a “hero”) accessed the internet in the book (diving in, jacking in) heavily influenced the way it was portrayed in countless other movies and shows afterwards, particularly Ghost in the Shell (which I go into further down) and The Matrix, both of which were hugely influential in their own right. With Neuromancer and some of his other early books, Gibson gave us the vocabulary of the near-future.
The Maurid Audrain books by George Alec Effinger (AKA: "The Budyadeen Cycle: When Gravity Fails, A Fire In The Sun, and The Exile Kiss") is one of my favourite series, and one that will stay with you long after reading it. It follows titular character Maurid Audrain in a futuristic middle-east, and has familiar cyberpunk themes of altered personalities due to invasive technology along with characters and settings at the edge of society. The books are an acknowledgement that some of the most interesting impacts and use-cases of technology won’t happen in established cities or in North America, but will more likely happen in developing nations and on the fringes.
But if it's the guns and action side of cyberpunk you like, you're probably better off reading the Takeshi Kovacs books by Richard Morgan.
(I know i should probably at least mention Snow Crash on here, but I don't think I really enjoyed it as much as other people. The fact that the main character's name is "Hiro Protagonist" really annoyed me).
(And if you really went to get deeper into the layers of literary influence, the term “Blade Runner” itself comes from an earlier science-fiction book about the future of health care in America. )
if you want to see what Blade Runner would have looked like as a video game, Hideo Kojima’s SNATCHER is your best bet. The plot follows Gillian Seed, doing his best Harrison Ford impersonation with brown trench coat, oversized handgun and lonely life as a JUNKER, whose job is to hunt down and destroy SNATCHERS, aka robots who are able to look like humans.
The plot and images might sound derivative, but the game was instrumental in launching Kojima’s career. His later Metal Gear games, though with the tagline "Tactical Espionage Action," had deep and convoluted plots about implanted memories, cloned humans and cybernetic implants. The games are famous for breaking the fourth wall, drawing attention to the fact that you’re playing a game yet at the same time blurring the lines between the virtual game world and reality. Examples of this are when the game forces you to unplug your control and plug it into the second port so that you can defeat an enemy with psychic/mind-reading powers, and again when an artificial intelligence within the game attempts to stop you from defeating another boss by telling you that you’ve been playing for too long, and should put down the controller.
Shadowrun, though, is probably a closer stylistic relative to Blade Runner. Everything from the rainy streets, neon signs and seedy, gritty city seems almost like it was pulled directly from Deckard’s Los Angeles. The game was released on Steam a few years ago, and is based off of the pen and paper RPGof the same name from the 80s. The basic premise is that you’re the leader of a crew of mercenaries who take on jobs ranging from corporate security to hacking, except there are also demons, elves and trolls. And magic. It’s a bit of a leap, but it actually works.
However stylistically perfect the game is, it stops short of asking the bigger thematic questions that cyberpunk does well, about the nature of humanity or the role technology plays in our live. It’s fun and visually interesting, but ultimately shallow.
(Yes, I know that Cyberpunk 2077 is probably a better example of a game in the genre but considering it’s been in development for years and doesn’t have a confirmed release date means it’s probably vapourware at this point. And there was also a Blade Runner game, but I haven’t heard anything good about it. )
Ghost in the Shell remains one of my favourite movies, and recent viewings of both it and Blade Runner remind me of just how much the former owes to the latter. At the surface, it’s the same 21st century cyberpunk city with it's katakana and kanji neon signs shining brightly through rain-soaked streets.
But the similarities go further than that: Section 9, the quasi-governmental agency for which the main characters in Ghost in the Shell work, is also a good stand-in for Blade Runners. Both are tasked with reigning in or otherwise dealing with rogue intelligences. Ghost in the Shell's Kusanagi and Blade Runner's Deckard both live solitary, isolated lives. They've got hobbies, sort of. But nothing beyond that. And at the end we’re left not really being sure how much of them was truly human, and what that means to the bit of soul (or “ghost”) we saw in each of them.
The parallel scenes of characters coming to grips with implanted memories (Leon in Blade Runner, the garbage man in GitS) make you realize this is something more - and that even the main characters might not be exactly as they seem.
The live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell is worth watching, also. The plot is a bit different, and it doesn’t get quite as deep but it’s visually almost perfect. Watch the original anime, then watch the remake just for the shot-by-shot comparisons.
Likewise, Chappie takes us on a familiar journey: escaped Artificial Intelligence living on the fringes of society is hunted down by the megacorporation that created it. Where Chappie works is by giving heart and soul to a much more machine-like "shell" than the replicants that live on the other side of the uncanny valley. The garish colours and “gangster” aesthetic that Die Antwoord bring to Chappie’s life and their role as his caretakers are a perfect evolution of the punk-inspired cyberpunk of the 80s.
If you’re still with me on this list, it’s worth exploring the world of Archillect for two reasons. The first is that the imagery posted on Archillect’s social channels is, at times, heavily cyberpunk inspired. The second is that Architect itself is almost almost an intelligent artefact. Is Archillect an art object itself? An artist? Or a semi-autonomous curator? I think that all three can be true, but your opinion will likely vary.
You might notice that most of the examples I’ve provided above are older. I don’t think any are from ideas that came anytime after the mid-90s (Chappie might be the exception, but it can be excused because it so perfectly captures then evolves upon its predecessors). And that’s because cyberpunk is essentially a dead genre. At best, it’s mired in nostalgia. We’re too far past the initial exploratory period of how technology will infiltrate society. The technology of cyberpunk, though based on code, was always physically invasive: jacking into the net via wires in Ghost in the Shell and Neuromancer. The mechanical clicking of Deckard's equipment as he runs another Voight-Kampf test. It all seems old-fashioned in an age of ubiquitous wifi, wireless charging and the sea of information at everyone's fingertips via mobile phones.
Instead, cyberpunk been replaced by a cleaner, more polished vision of the future. Ex Machina is a perfect example of this, as are the more modern William Gibson stories. Even The Avengers films, with Jarvis, the Vision and Ultron as various sides of the Artificial Intelligence coin. They're still asking those same questions about what defines a human or intelligence, but without some of the dirt, grime and noir of cyberpunk.
It’s still worth reading science-fiction, even the older cyberpunk stuff. The “present” is becoming “the future” at a rate far faster than ever before. Science-fiction doesn’t give us answers. But it provides frameworks for understanding the way technology will change, how it will impact society, and how it will affect what it means to be human.
If you stuck with this post all the way to the end, you might also a list of my favourite science-fiction books.
*I've since watched Blade Runner 2049. Twice. It was amazing both times, and deserves a post itself.