Little-known sci-fi fact: The strange origin story behind Blade Runner's title

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Sep 3, 2019, 8:02 AM EDT (Updated)

As the build-up to Blade Runner 2049 winds down, many fans are probably asking the same question when they see Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling running around a neo-noir future in those action-packed trailers:

"Yeah, but why are they called blade runners?"

In the film universe, blade runners are, as you may know, police officers tasked with the specific duty of "retiring" the synthetic humanoids known as replicants. Their job really doesn't have anything to do with blades, and they don't necessarily have to run. "Blade runner" sounds more like a weird phrase you'd use to describe a speed skater. 

So where did it come from?

Well, it definitely didn't come from Philip K. Dick. The film is based on his story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in which the term "blade runner" never appears. That particular addition came from screenwriter Hampton Fancher as he was developing the tale into the film.

In a fascinating deep dive into the term's origin story over at The Verge, it's revealed that Fancher (or co-writer David Peoples; Scott doesn't specify in the original interview) got the term from Blade Runner: A Movie, a novel by legendary Beat writer William S. Burroughs. In an interview from the time of the film's release, director Ridley Scott said he just really liked the term, and "it just stuck, because it was fun." So a film with the working titles Android and Dangerous Days became Blade Runner.



This wormhole goes even deeper, though, because it turns out the term doesn't originate with Burroughs, either. Blade Runner: A Movie is actually an adaptation (which Burroughs initially wanted to make into a film; he settled for a novel when that fell through) of a 1974 sci-fi novel called The Bladerunner, by Alan E. Nourse. Nourse, a doctor who wrote sci-fi novels on the side, imagined a dystopian future America where healthcare is regulated to the point that sick people are sterilized if they want to get care, because the government's belief is that if they're sick they shouldn't be allowed to reproduce.

Burroughs expanded on and adapted the concept in his own way, but one thing that stuck was the title phrase. In the story, "bladerunners" are rogue runners for back-alley doctors, smuggling drugs and surgical supplies ("blades") so people can get care in an underground system. It's a fascinating concept in any era, but particularly now, given some of our current ideological debates in America.

So that book caught the eye of another writer, who wanted to make it into a movie but then made it into another book instead, and then that book caught the eye of a third writer who thought the titular term would sound cool in an unrelated movie about future android cops based on a story by yet another writer.

Genre fiction's a weird place, y'all.

For more little-known sci-fi facts, just check out the tag. And if you're game for a deep dive, go read The Verge's piece on this. It includes very thorough explanations of the plots of each book and how they relate, and it's a great read.

Watch Blade Runner: The Final Cut on SYFY on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 CT, plus get an exclusive look at Blade Runner 2049.