The Like Tears in Rain

The future has arrived, or nearly so, and it bears scant resemblance to the nightmarish world of 2019 portrayed in Riley Scott’s futuristic film noir, Blade Runner, released in 1982. We have as yet no flying cars or off-world colonies, and a lot of the brands advertised on Blade Runner’s ubiquitous electronic signs are long extinct (Pan Am, Atari). One thing the film got right was the Tyrell Corporation, a dead ringer for Google, Apple and other high-tech firms that are rapidly propelling us into the brave new world of artificial intelligence. In the film, the Tyrell Corporation, headed by Dr. Eldon Tyrell, is the maker of genetically engineered android slaves called replicants that the firm claims are “more human than human.” They are stronger and more agile than real humans and are at least as intelligent as the geniuses who created them. This makes them formidably difficult to hunt them down when they go rogue, as four of them do in the movie. The job of killing them is left to a hired gun (played by a young Harrison Ford), a so-called “blade runner” who is beginning to suspect he is also a replicant.

By presenting replicants as more human than human, Blade Runner begs the question of what it means to be human – a theme explored exhaustively in the film. Replicants are outwardly indistinguishable from human beings; in fact, it takes specialized equipment to measure their physiological response to a series of questions that would normally elicit empathy in humans. The replicants might not even know they are androids, because the latest models have been implanted with false childhood memories and are even supplied with photographs of their nonexistent parents and themselves as kids. In reality, however, they have no past -- and no future either, since they are programmed to cease functioning after four years. This is to forestall any unruly behavior if they do become too human. Ironically, the prospect of their forced retirement is what causes the rogue replicants to return to earth from an extraterrestrial colony to confront their maker at the Tyrell Corporation.

Although the ability to feel empathy is presented as the hallmark of our humanity, the replicants generally appear more empathetic than the humans portrayed in the film. Since they are also stronger and smarter, what human qualities do they lack? The film makes clear that the replicants’ implanted memories give them emotional resonance. The only difference is that the memories aren’t real. And if the memories aren’t real, neither are the emotions derived from them -- and presumably neither is any claim to genuine humanity.

Memory and identity were twin obsessions for the pulp science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the basis for the Blade Runner film. In a 1966 short story entitled “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” customers can buy fake implanted memories of exotic vacations. In The Imposter (1953), the protagonist is unaware that his mind and body have been taken over by a robot. In Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), a man wakes up in a seedy hotel and discovers that all traces of his identity have been erased. The protagonist of Time Out of Joint (1959) believes he is living in 1950s suburbia only to discover that he is actually living 40 years later.

The common denominator of these and other of Dick’s works is that they are based on premises that would be regarded as delusional if anyone insisted on them in real life. With Dick, in fact, the line between art and madness was perilously thin. For example, he believed he had been contacted by extraterrestrials who told him he was living in first-century Rome and his life in modern-day California was a counterfeit reality. Not to put too fine a point on it: he was a drug-addled mental case, a danger to himself and others, having tried to kill himself and at least two of his five wives. Dick was not unaware of his aberrations and was able to draw on them in his fiction. As one of his colleagues put it, “Phil developed paranoid schizophrenia into an art form.”

Delusional or not, Dick explored some important issues in his work. He picked up where the philosopher Rene Descartes left off in probing the nature of reality. In a quest for philosophical certainty, Descartes had asserted that he could not rely on the evidence of his own senses, since he might be deceived by an evil demon. He could doubt just about everything, he reasoned, but he could not doubt that he doubted. Hence, his famous cogito: I think, therefore I am. Here’s where Dick took things a step further. If an evil demon could trick you about everything else, why couldn’t he also put fake thoughts in your head, false memories of a vacation you had never taken or of a childhood never lived?

“Fake realities will create fake humans,” Dick wrote in a 1978 essay. “Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans.” Was he talking about androids in some dystopian future or about the effect of saturation advertising and marketing today? If real humans buy into fake realities, what does that make them?

The replicant villain in Blade Runner knew his childhood memories had been implanted by the Tyrell Corporation. Lacking true memories, he was nothing more than a genetically engineered android without past or future. But wait -- he had acquired real memories in his short life as a slave working on an off-world colony. Realizing that his lease on life was about to expire, he told the blade runner who had been pursing him, “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.” With his dying breath he revealed that he had a poetic soul after all. “All those moments will be lost in time,” he said, “like tears in rain.”

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