Doing it Write: "Blade Runner"

by Shoji Minakuwachu






Blade Runner Movie Poster
Blade Runner Movie Poster


I was reading a short story in a magazine a couple of weeks ago.  And I have to say I was impressed with the writers' style and subtlety.  The beginning of the story was so well described and in such intricate and vivid detail I couldn't wait to read more.  There were aliens, and tastefully done sexuality.  I was hooked on the story from the first paragraph.  I read the entire thing quite quickly and despite the fact that the author maintained the same excellent level and style of writing, I found the story as a whole, lacking.  I spent the rest of the day thinking about what it is that had gone wrong that I had such a negative reaction to it.  Later as I was having a discussion with a friend and fellow writer about it it occurred to me.  The story, despite its appearance in a Science Fiction magazine, it wasn't a Science Fiction story.  There was a social justice theme to the story, which was fine.  As a person of color, I believe that Science Fiction is a place where social justice themes can be used effectively.  However, the story must still be a Science Fiction story.  It cannot be a story about some social justice cause or theme with Science Fiction used as a backdrop.  The Science Fiction must be an integrated aspect of the story or else it comes off as disingenuous.  For all the craft and precision that went into writing the story I speak of, the integration of themes was ham handed at best.

As I continued to discuss the story with a friend and as we spent some time watching movies over the last week I searched my memory for a good example of what I am speaking about.  I thought about the usual tropes in Star Trek and other big franchises.  Eventually, as I was watching "Blade Runner" I found the example I was looking for.  Did Phillip K. Dick write the original book as social justice message?  Did Ridley Scott direct the film with intent of influencing some policy that could affect change for millions?  I doubt it.  Despite it being ahead of its time, I don't think either was gifted with sufficient clairvoyance to know what our modern world would become.  Though admittedly, Dick, did write on matters that afflicted those that were close to him.  "A Scanner Darkly" was one such work.


The film didn't have to be written with a specific social theme in mind in order for us to unearth one.  I would like to think that most of it ends up being this way inherently.  Much in the same way that writers subconsiously map archetypes to characters, I think we are prone to expressing persistent human conditions in our stories as well.  I suppose that is just art imitating life.  What occurred to me when watching "Blade Runner" what the story was about, and how it mapped to an issue that has never been more relevant: Immigration.  The film, is about five "Replicants", or biomechanical androids, who escape a life of servitude and bondage in space in an effort to build lives on Earth.  These machines are built to do everything from assassinations, and fighting wars, to prostitution.  They were built to be sentient so they could better serve their human masters.  Once they escape from these "Offworld Colonies", and make their way to Earth, they are hunted by elite police units called "Blade Runners".

The part that I find particularly poigniant is when one of the replicants named Leon is about to kill Harrison Ford's character, he says "Painful to live in fear ain't it.?"  Initially I thought he was just referring to the built in obsolescence that would lead to his eventual death.  But I realized since he was torturing Ford a bit and addressing his comments to him, especially after witnessing Ford killing a fellow replicant, that the fear he was living in was the fear of being hunted.  He was referring to the fear of perpetual servitude, and having a life that was lived at the whim of his human masters.  Doubly cruel is being imbued with a sentience that gave them the power to understand their predicament.  Going back to the original point; we live in a day and age where immigration has become a controversial issue again.  And on a scale that is probably unprecedented.  Millions of people are fleeing to escape the horrors of war in Syria and Iraq, only to be met with uniformed men with guns and batons, arraying themselves against them and their plight.  Millions of undocumented immigrants now reside in the United States.  All live in a perpetual fear of being caught and sent home.  But all are here risking everything to make a better life for themselves.  The themes in "Blade Runner" can't be dismissed easily.  The bigotry leveled at replicants, as well as the implication that they do the jobs that humans can't or won't do is ubiquitous in the story.The overall point of this post is that it is completely ok to address social issues thematically in Science Fiction.  But the way in which it is being done is often an insult to Science Fiction writers who have spent years perfecting a very particular craft.  Clumsy drop ins, or backdrops of Science Fiction insults the readers intelligence and maligns the art.  Most of all it alienates the market.  Are you writing a Science Fiction story with racial themes?  Or are you writing a story about race that takes place on a spaceship?  If you are doing it right, then the reader won't be able to tell.