Although both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner are now considered genre classics, it took a few years after their releases for either of them to fully achieve that honor. Similarly, writer Philip K. Dick turned out massive amounts of science fiction in a time when science fiction was considered to be written for children and teenagers, making him another writer who was not initially recognized in his time. That changed ever so slightly before his death with the 1982 release of Blade Runner.
Likewise, the concepts behind the film, although wrapped soundly in a hard-boiled detective story, confused many audiences upon its release. The sequel, 2017's Blade Runner 2049, didn’t fare much better and is considered to have been a box office failure, but both original and sequel have always had their fair share of fans. While it’s impossible to say how 2049 will age or if it will achieve cult status in the coming years, there is still the matter of the impact of the book and the far-reaching influence of the original film.
Content warning: There are questionable gender politics and violence against women in both book and film that will be under discussion in this article.
As with many writers, Philip K. Dick had themes he would revisit throughout his career, but the foremost of those things was the changeability of reality and the impossibility of a shared existence for humankind. For Dick, individual perception would always dictate what was considered to be the truth, so the trope of the unreliable narrator makes frequent appearances in his works. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is no different, and its protagonist Rick Deckard questions his own status as often as the reader is encouraged to and as much as the writer himself seems to.
In the book, the story begins on an Earth that has been poisoned and mostly evacuated after a massive war. Those that remain have no prospects off-world. As an incentive to stay, they are given personalized servants in the form of androids called Replicants, which are difficult to distinguish from humans. Deckard and his wife Iran argue over which moods to access for the day in the opening chapter. He attempts to buy an animal because they are all but extinct and thus have become a status symbol. In the meantime, he has an electric sheep.
Deckard is a bounty hunter who “retires” (or kills) Replicants. Due to the surprising empathy Deckard exhibits towards the Replicants, his more mercenary partner accuses him of actually being one, which shakes Deckard to his core. Because Replicants are identified by their lack of empathy, he gives a so-called “empathy test” to his partner and to himself, discovering that they are both human, although doubts remain.
Meanwhile, a disabled man named Isidore befriends the outlaw Replicants Deckard is hunting, and the group tries to develop a plan to stay alive and be friends forever. However, Deckard eventually comes upon the group and shoots them all down in cold blood, traumatizing Isidore for life. Rachael, a particularly benign and obedient model of Replicant, manipulates Deckard into having sex with her, then reveals that she often has sex with bounty hunters to throw them off of their mission. Despite how cool that is, Deckard continues to not be that great of a person by threatening to kill Rachael and then leaving. Later, she just shows up and murders the goat Deckard finally bought with the money he earned from killing the Replicants before exiting the story entirely.
At the end of the book, Deckard gets very into comparing himself to the messiah figure Mercer, who is shown to be climbing up a steep hill while being pelted by rocks. During a climb similar to Mercer’s, Deckard finds a toad and excitedly brings it home to show Iran. For her part, Iran started the book depressed and now has been traumatized by the small matter of the aforementioned goat murder, so she isn’t very excited for anything Deckard has to say. She points out that the toad is clearly an android. Deckard is disappointed at first, then states that he’s happy to have it either way.
As for the film, there are several different available cuts of Blade Runner, so many people have seen slightly varied versions of it. In any case, the plot is much the same premise as the book, although animals are seldom mentioned save for an electric owl that reappears throughout. Memorably, a Replicant named Leon appears at the beginning of the film, murdering a man in the middle of an empathy test, which immediately gives the film a darker tone than the story on which it was based. Despite their tendency to commit murder on a fairly regular basis, all the Replicants in Blade Runner are highly entertaining, and the actors behind them bring a lot to the table by making them so believable.
On the screen, the end for the Replicants is slightly more drawn out and tragic than it was in the book, with the Replicant known as Roy waxing philosophical as he slowly dies while cradling a metaphorical white dove. As Deckard goes to return home to Rachael after the Replicants all die, his partner says, “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?” Still, Deckard ends up with Rachael, so Blade Runner has a surprisingly happy ending for a sci-fi movie from the ‘80s. The couple leaves the city behind, smiling and excited to begin their new life together.
Despite the fact that their relationship is played as a happy love story in the end, the worst aspect of Blade Runner is unquestionably the dynamic between Rachael and Deckard. There’s a scene halfway through the film where Deckard roughs Rachael up by slamming her into a wall when she tries to leave and then angrily kissing her. Because Rachael’s existence lacks all possibility of autonomy, the scene stands out as particularly difficult to watch in what is otherwise an interesting sci-fi story.
In life, Dick’s personal views and treatment of women was abhorrent; he not only attempted to kill his third wife, but he also had her involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital when he became convinced that she was trying to kill him. Theoretically, his personal life has nothing to do with the books he wrote, but an inability to extend empathy to the female characters defines much of the tone of the story in both book and film. Dick did not write the screenplay for Blade Runner, but in Androids, Deckard’s wife is portrayed as needlessly cruel in the opening of the tale, and he goes on to sleep with, slut-shame, threaten to kill, and ultimately abandon Rachael, who is simply programmed to be the way she is.
Blade Runner went on to influence countless filmmakers and their movies and thus created a ripple effect that audiences are still seeing to this day. Both book and film are excellent science fiction premises, and it’s difficult to object to the imaginative qualities of the writer behind the concept. On the other hand, the gender politics have aged terribly (though they weren’t great to begin with). In a present which is not so unlike the dystopian world imagined in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner, the oppression of women so often regarded as an afterthought can read as a writer missing the point of his own story.