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Countdown to Blade Runner 2049: Part I – the novel


This year's most anticipated sequel, Blade Runner 2049, is just under two months away, and is set to plunge us back into a nightmarish future world.

Harrison Ford returns alongside Ryan Gosling for Arrival director Denis Villeneuve's follow-up to the 1982 Ridley Scott masterpiece. We're counting down the days until the sequel's release by breaking down eight aspects of the Blade Runner universe. 

To kick things off, we're going back to where it all began with author Philip K. Dick's seminal source novel.

The writer

One of the most influential scribes in the history of pop culture, Dick exerted a massive development over both literary and cinematic science fiction.

Does the name ring a bell? That's because Amazon's brand new, all-star anthology series Electric Dreams is incoming. Check out the trailer.

Born in Chicago in 1928, Dick famously imploded our ideas of reality and identity with groundbreaking works including the recently adapted The Man in the High Castle, which posited a world in which the Axis powers won World War II.

Something of a troubled soul whose drug use and mistrust of authority fuelled the development of his stories, Dick also drew on his own beliefs in theology, religion and mysticism. His remarkable 1969 story 'The Electric Ant' is a classic example of his work, centreing around a man who wakes up after a car accident to discover he is in fact an android.

Dick wrote 44 novels and 121 novels during his lifetime, although he struggled to break out as a writer in the 1950s, lamenting: "We couldn't even pay the late fees on a library book." His first novel was Solar Lottery (published in the UK as World of Chance), focusing on a dystopian world where a random individual is chosen by a lottery to become leader, alongside another person whose job it is to assassinate them.

The novel

The movie universe of Blade Runner all stems from Dick's groundbreaking 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

Although the basic plot line is the same, based around the Blade Runner bounty hunters whose job it is to hunt down and destroy the android 'replicants', there are many significant differences between the source and Ridley Scott's celebrated movie.

For one thing the book is set in an irradiated San Francisco of 1992, as opposed to the acid rain-flecked, neo-noir nightmare of the film's Los Angeles 2019 setting. In the book San Fran is a city devastated by World War Terminus, a devastating nuclear war that has eradicated most animal and plant life on Earth.

As a result owning a live animal is highly prized and a symbol of social status. Most have to make do with electronic simulations of real creatures, including central character Deckard who seeks to replace his eponymous electric sheep and help stave off both his and his depressed wife's ennui.

Much of this was replaced in the original movie's script by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, whose vision of towering, neon-infused buildings and flying vehicles both enhances and deviates from Dick's original vision.

And although the movie features the famous Voight-Kampff test, used to determine whether someone is human or replicant, the movie leaves out the novel's Penfield mood organ, used to induce particular moods when necessary.

By contrast the idea of robot slave labour and off-world colonies, whereby replicants are exploited and put to work preserving humanity's future, is present in both.

The sequel

As the title reveals, the movie picks up in 2049 with a new Blade Runner agent named K (played by Ryan Gosling). The plot remains somewhat murky at this stage but we know that K's quest involves tracking down former bounty hunter Deckard (Ford) whilst hovering in the background is a murky conspiracy involving Jared Leto's Niander Wallace, a replicant developer.

The movie is in the hands of Denis Villeneuve, already a master of moody and enticingly dark drama having helmed Prisoners, Enemy and drug cartel thriller Sicario.

Even more significant is last year's foray into science fiction with Arrival, a critically acclaimed and award-garlanded success that touched on many of Dick's influential themes including the malleable nature of time, language and human identity.

Nevertheless Villeneuve (working from a script by original writer Hampton Fancher) was trepidatious about following in Ridley Scott's footsteps.

"Ryan Gosling and I made peace with the idea that the chances of success were very narrow," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I came on board because the script was very strong. But no matter what you do, no matter how good what you’re doing is, the film will always be compared to the first, which is a masterpiece. So I made peace with that. And when you make peace with that, you are free."

Philip K. Dick's legacy

So contentious and all-consuming are Dick's ideas that they've lived on well after his death in 1982 (sadly the year in which the original Blade Runner was released).

In fact, Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott are still at odds as to whether Deckard is in fact a replicant or a human, a 35-year disagreement fuelled in part by Dick's provocative writings. It also stems from the much-cited sequence in the Director's Cut of the movie (more on which in the near future), which sees Deckard dream of a unicorn running through a misty glade. Is it an implanted memory, thereby implying that Deckard is a replicant?

"Harrison and Ridley are still arguing about that," Villeneuve tells Cinemablend. "If you put them in the same room, they don't agree. And they start to talk very loud when they do. It's very funny."

And if you were expecting the new movie to provide a neat solution to Dick's elusive, brain-nagging mysteries, think again.

"So I decided that the movie... Deckard, in the movie, is unsure, as we are, of what his identity is. Because I love that. I love mystery," says Villeneuve.

Further watching

Dick's trippy stories have inspired a whole host of adaptations, including the uber-violent and satirical Arnie adventure Total Recall, Ben Affleck flop Paycheck and riveting Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg thriller Minority Report.

Burrowing down into our psyches with their themes of reality vs fantasy, predeterminism vs chance and man vs machine, these movies (and indeed all other adaptations of the author's work) only help cement Dick as one of the most extraordinary, influential writers the 21st century has ever known.

His imagination is poised to take flight on the big screen again when Blade Runner 2049 is released on 6th October.