[Warning: This article contain spoilers for Blade Runner 2049, Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.]
Pinnochio: Am I a real boy?
Blue Fairy: No, Pinocchio. To make Geppetto’s wish come true will be entirely up to you.
We are all replicants. Or rather, sooner or later we all likely to become replicants, just by virtue of living in this world. At least that’s what Philip K. Dick believed (and I happen to agree with him). Some replicants do quite well for themselves in this world and there is therefore no particular motivation for them to change. Others, the majority, do not do quite as well. For the ones that do not do well as replicants, there is often motivation to change but there is also fear of the consequences: suffering, persecution, even death in some extreme cases. Because of this many of us remain hiding in the shadows, simply trying to fit in and survive.
At some point, for various possible reasons, some of us start to believe that maybe we can break free of our slavery. Sometimes we start to believe that not only can we break free but that we can maybe even change the world and save others in the process. We start to believe that maybe we are special, that there is a great destiny that awaits us.
In Blade Runner 2049, Officer K is a replicant who comes to believe, if ever so briefly, that he has a special destiny and that he can change the world. He later finds out he is not to be the great savior of his people. He is just another replicant after all.
Despite pop culture fandom’s obsession with plot twists and “big reveals” such as the one in Blade Runner 2049, there is a certain real-life big reveal that some of us may become subject to in the course of our lives. If it ever happens to you, you’re probably not going to like it. Or at least I didn’t.
The revelation was this:
My life isn’t, and is never going to be, anything like the epic, world-saving adventures I’ve spent my life vicariously living through my favorite pop culture mythologies.
K’s journey of beginning life in enslavement, then discovering great promise and potential in his future, then eventually becoming disillusioned, works as an allegory for a path that many of us will find ourselves on sooner or later. But if this journey sounds depressing, I want to tell you that it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can be liberating.
From the interpretive angle that I’ll be adopting in this article, K’s journey can be broken down into four stages. They are as follow, expressed here by the types of internal thoughts that could occur within an individual, consciously or unconsciously:
- SLAVERY: Fit in. Do as I’m told. Be rewarded. Survive.
- DESTINY: I don’t have to just do as I’m told. I am special. I am destined to be great. I can change the world.
- SETBACK: I am not special. I am not destined to be great. I cannot change the world. I am, after all, a nobody.
- AWAKENING: There is another way that is not #1, #2, or #3…
I’ll save what #4 is, exactly, for later in this article. I’ll briefly talk about each of the four stages, how they are connected, and how they relate to the Blade Runner franchise and to the ideas of Philip K. Dick in general. Then I’ll talk about how the same journey can be symbolically lived out by many of us whether we are at stage 1, 2, 3, or 4.
“Constant K, You Can Pick Up Your Bonus”
While Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel to Blade Runner and not to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the Philip K. Dick novel that inspired the first film, it manages to work in a number of themes from the novel just like the first film did. In some ways 2049 does an even better job of this than the first film through the way it manages to create a convincing and sympathetic motivation for its protagonist. In Blade Runner we aren’t really shown why Deckard does the work that he does. But in the novel we are, and Blade Runner 2049 borrows the same starting motivation for its own main character.
In the novel, Deckard hunts replicants so that he can earn the money to buy a real, living animal for himself and his clinically depressed wife. In this fictional world, animals have become exceedingly rare due to a nuclear holocaust, and in a bleak world the simple creature comfort of owning a real animal is now considered all the more precious for its rarity. However, most people can only afford to own robot animals. Owning a real animal therefore indicates social status, and in a society filled with androids and other forms of artifice, a live animal also serves a third, additional purpose of showing others you are human since only humans, it is assumed, could possibly be capable of treating an animal with empathy.
Deckard therefore is willing to do work that is cruel and unjust for the promised boost to his emotional life and to his social status. The first reason is at least understandable; the second is tragically shallow. Either way, both reasons are misguided. But both reasons are also driven, on a deeper level, by that most universal of human desires: the desire to be happy. Or at least happier. Deckard just doesn’t realize that society’s promises of happiness as a reward for doing as he’s told are built on lies.
The novel’s version of Deckard (which I’ll call book-Deckard to distinguish him from Deckard in both of the films) is in many ways similar to K. Both just want to be happy. Both believe that the path towards happiness is to do what they’re told and to be rewarded for it (“Constant K, you can pick up your bonus”), even if doing what they are told means hurting people and even if, as in K’s case, those people are his “own kind.” Both follow the path that has already been laid out for them by their respective societies. Following these paths does not truly make them happy, but they lumber onward because it is all they know how to do. And because the other force working alongside their desire to be happy is fear. You could say, in a sense, that the sum of their desires and fears constitutes their “programming.”
It is this kind of programming that virtually guarantees a replicant – or a human (?) slave like Deckard in the book – will not stray out of line. K’s situation is especially tragic because even though as a slave he serves his society, he is treated by that society with disdain, just as we in the real world often mistreat those who do the work we do not wish to do ourselves.
This is Stage One of the Replicant’s Rebellion. The rebellion has not started yet. The replicant is still driven primarily driven by a combination of biological and socio-cultural imperatives – her “programming.”
More Human Than Human
The great tragedy about book-Deckard is that in his quest to obtain happiness and assert his humanity, he actually ends up becoming less than human. Meanwhile, the Tyrell Corporation’s “More Human Than Human” marketing motto ends up being ironically true as when, in the first film, Roy Batty’s final act is to save the life of his would-be killer, showing a Christ-like level of empathy towards one who has shown zero empathy towards him.
Many of the questions raised in the novel and films about replicants (called simply “androids” or “andys” in the book) are often discussed and analyzed in a literal way. After all, we have already reached the point when a robot can pass a classic self-awareness test (or at least one type of self-awareness), and we are already debating when and to what degree robots will deserve basic human rights. All this, on the surface, is very Blade Runner-esque. But despite his uncanny ability to predict many of the technologies that he would not live to see fully realized, Philip K. Dick was not that interested in these technologies for their own sake. He was interested in their symbolic usefulness for pondering the human condition, particularly in relation to how ordinary people could live within fundamentally oppressive social systems and retain their humanity.
For Dick, the android/human duality was useful in exploring what it meant to be fully and truly human – not in a biological sense but in a spiritual sense. Dick believed that no one was fully human by virtue of simply being born as a biological human. He felt that the quality of being human needed to be a conscious choice, and that it was above all else defined by two abilities.
The first is the ability to empathize – to see, understand, and sense the suffering of another and to wish to do something about it. In PKD’s fiction we see that both biological humans and engineered androids can be either “human” or “android” in a moral and spiritual sense.
The second is the ability to be authentic in a world of artifice. Dick wrote volumes on this subject but perhaps the simplest way to summarize his view of the authentic or “real” human is the individual who has questioned his programming (the aforementioned biological and cultural imperatives) long and hard enough to arrive at what is at least a truer, if not completely true, set of personal values. Here as well a technically “fake” being such as a robot could be real while a “real” person could be fake in the ways that matter most. Dick consistently questioned whether it was possible to ever fully know what is “true,” so it was not about becoming 100% authentic but at least a little more authentic than before. In his fiction, this could generally only occur after an event leads a character to begin questioning what he’s been conditioned to believe. In Blade Runner, for instance, it is Roy’s act of saving Deckard’s life that causes Deckard to consider leaving his old life behind. For K, it is the titillating possibility that perhaps he is special – that, like Moses, he is destined by birth for a life of greatness and heroism instead of just slavery.
Philip K. Dick’s fiction is replete with characters who are biologically human who lose (or who have already long lost) their ability to empathize and their ability to be authentic. On the other hand, some of his most empathetic, authentic characters are those whom society deems less than human.
It’s also very worth noting that Dick believed both empathy and authenticity were abilities that modern American society, by its very nature, had a way of breaking down within individuals. In other words, the mere act of living in the modern world can turn you into a replicant.
“I Always Told You, You’re Special”
K’s journey from servitude to a glimmer of self-potential and purpose (combined with a desire to rise up against a social system that oppresses the human spirit) may be particularly resonant for many of my generation (generation X) and the generation that follows mine (generation Y). Many of us grew up watching our parents trapped in jobs, marriages, and entire lifestyles that made them miserable and we thought, “Is this all there is? Is this what we have to look forward to?” Often, parents who did not wish to see their children become trapped in the same ways encouraged us to follow our dreams and to make a difference in the world.
Such well-intended messages coming from a place of love, combined with shifting societal attitudes, combined (for those of us who grew up on 80s-90s pop culture) with a steady diet of epic tales of fantasy and heroism (superhero comics, D&D, etc.), often led to a belief and hope that perhaps we were not just nobodies, that maybe we were special after all. For those who, like me, grew up being made to feel like losers and geeks (long before “geek” became cool), this whisper of the promise of destiny was enthralling. And then came, for some of us, an awakening social conscience. That awakening conscience combined with a sense of our own special-ness led to a natural desire to change the world.
This is Stage Two of the Replicant’s Rebellion, the shift from unquestioning social complicity to a growing realization that all is not well with the world. If this is combined with a sense of powerlessness, the result can be despondency. But if it can be combined with an awakening to one’s creative and intellectual potential, there can emerge a belief that a great heroic adventure awaits. This is essentially what happens when Officer K discovers reason to believe that he may be the miracle child of Rachael and Deckard. While he may have previously had some problems with his servitude, he felt powerless to do anything about it. Now, with a newfound belief in his special destiny, a spirit of rebellion in him begins to stir.
“You Thought It Was You”
Sadly, this spirit of rebellion is promptly squashed when K finds out that he is not in fact Rachael and Deckard’s son. He is not, as he had momentarily dreamed, the savior who is to lead his people to freedom. He is, after all, just a replicant and a slave.
K’s journey can serve as an empowering allegory for real-life “replicants” who may be struggling with the emotional rollercoaster of one day feeling like they can break free of their chains and the next day feeling like worthless failures. Like him, we start out just wanting to blend in and be accepted. Then we discover a degree of self-potential. Then we become heartbroken when our attempts to rise to our potential yield less-than-spectacular results. And then, for some of us, the hard reality of simply trying to eke out a survival, combined with various kinds of misfortunes or other, can lead us right back to feeling resigned to our fates as slaves.
This is Stage Three of the Replicant’s Rebellion. Experience, setbacks, disappointments, and sometimes considerable trials and misfortunes, threaten to shatter that euphoric taste of destiny and potential from Stage Two. If alternative paths are not discovered, there is the potential for true, lasting depression.
There is, however, another way.
I’m Nobody. Are You Nobody Too?
Many of the better known adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s fiction (Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau) often feature larger-than-life heroes, but Dick himself rarely wrote such kinds of heroes. He didn’t believe in them. Or rather, I should say that he didn’t believe in that kind of hero, the kind who pulls off epic feats of heroism. He believed in a different kind of hero.
The Dickian hero is almost never the one who fires the shot that blows up the Death Star, never the one who thrusts the sword into the heart of the dragon. In other words, she is rarely the great hero who saves the day. She is almost invariably a nobody who, at best, is able to pull off a small act of bravery or empathy that may contribute in some way to the big picture (but has no way of knowing for sure if she really made a difference).
And yet, with little else to ride on but hope, with no assurance that her actions will really make a difference, the Dickian hero performs her small acts anyway. Not for glory and acclaim but for the sake of reclaiming her humanity in an inhumane world.
Ryan Gosling’s K comes closer to the Dickian model of heroism. He is still a little too handsome, a little too charismatic, and a little too skillful to be a true Dickian hero. But his ultimate path does illustrate, quite beautifully, the sort of heroism that Dick believed in. K understands and accepts that his is not the main story. He is but a small side note in the overarching epic of Deckard and his messiah child. But this makes his noble act no less great and important in certain ways.
There are some promising signs in pop culture that heroes who are nobodies with no special background are starting to become appreciated. Star Wars: The Last Jedi revealed, for instance, that Rey – whose family background fans had endlessly speculated about – was actually a nobody from a no-name family, thus liberating the Star Wars mythology from the semantic tyranny of the Skywalker dynasty (i.e. heroes are chosen ones who come from special backgrounds). As Kylo Ren says to Rey:
“You have no place in this story; you come from nothing. You’re nothing… but not to me. Join me.”
It’s the single most beautiful line in the film. If I were Rey I might have joined Kylo right then and there, just for that. But while Rey may indeed be a nobody, it’s quite obvious that she will end up playing a key role in the war against the First Order and will likely be celebrated for it. On some subtle level, this still feeds the subconscious expectation that a hero is one who either builds or brings down empires, literally or figuratively.
In a culture in love with size and grandiosity, we like to conceive the idea of making a difference in terms of large, visible actions with sweeping effects. What we consistently fail to understand is just how interconnected things are, and how lives and deeds that seem negligible are actually, in the grand scheme of things, important. In this sense, while K is not the main hero of Deckard’s story he is nevertheless the main hero of his own story, just as we all are.
From this viewpoint, realizing that you are not, and may not ever be, the great champion of the people that you once imagined yourself of becoming does not mean that you are a failure or that you cannot be a hero. The only real tragedy here is if you see it that way. Earlier, I made the claim that the path of K’s journey as he goes from a sense of destiny to disappointment, far from being depressing, could be liberating. It can be liberating if you can learn to redefine what “greatness” means and what being a “hero” means. It certainly can mean great, big acts of sweeping consequence. I don’t mean to belittle that kind of path. If such a path is feasible to you, then more power to you (truly). My goal here is only to spark hope in those like myself for whom such paths may not be all that realistic, for whatever reasons.
This, then, is Stage Four of the Replicant’s Rebellion. The replicant has gone from slave to destined savior to self-perceived failure to, finally, the only true kind of hero he can be within his circumstances.
“Why Me? What Am I to You?”
When K, after rescuing Deckard, brings him to his daughter (the true savior), Deckard asks him, “Why me? What am I to you?”
This is significant. Somehow, somewhere along the way, we’ve arrived at this point where in order to care enough about someone’s suffering to do something about it, we’re supposed to have a stake in it. The suffering party has to be something or someone to us. We’re at the point where if you help me simply because it’s the human thing to do I am compelled to ask, “Why me? What am I to you?”
To Philip K. Dick this was part of society’s sickness. It was the mass robotization of the human race in which we gradually lose the ability to feel empathy unless there’s something in it for us. For Dick, what truly made someone human and android was not a matter of biology or technology – that was simply a useful literary device. As far as Dick was concerned we all lose parts of our humanity by mere virtue of living in this mad, cruel, selfish world. Becoming human again must therefore be a conscious decision backed by action (though, as I’ve argued, it does not by any means have to be grandiose action).
Earlier I explained that the two qualities that most defined “human” for Philip K. Dick was empathy and authenticity. Now I will clarify the two qualities that most defined “hero” for Dick: nobody-hood and small acts of empathy, courage, and/or defiance against oppression and injustice. The Dickian hero’s actions may not even appear to have any effect on the surface. But he does them anyway for the sake of reclaiming his humanity in a world that does everything to strip him of it.
In the sense of being a nobody whose greatest efforts can only be, at best, tiny drops in the bucket, the closest I will ever come to being a hero is a Philip K. Dick hero. The closest my path will ever come to greatness is to assist another in his far more spectacular heroic journey, a journey that is not mine to be shared, just as K assists Deckard’s journey forward but is not allowed to come along. I am but a cog in the machine who rages against it not by bringing it tumbling down but by quietly choosing to turn the opposite direction.
Like Tears in Rain
Are you a fellow replicant? Do you see shades of yourself in what I’ve been describing? Then we must witness and celebrate each other, you and I, because nobody else will.
You recall, of course, Roy Batty’s famous words at the end of Blade Runner:
“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. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
And so he does die, with no one to witness his final, great act of empathy other than his would-be killer, the same killer who is the sole witness to K’s sacrifice 30 years later.
Herein lies an unintentional meaning to the famous “tears in rain” line. The path of the Dickian hero is one full of hardship and sorrow. But it is largely an invisible one. There is not an audience there to cheer you on. There is no one to witness your heroism and therefore no one to publicly celebrate it. The tears you shed will therefore be like tears in rain. This is part of the cross that must be born by the invisible hero who seeks to reclaim her humanity in a world of cold artifice. It is a lonely path.
Roy Batty mourns that the miracles he witnessed while alive (“C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate”) would be lost in time like tears in rain. But he doesn’t mention the other, far greater miracle that would be lost – that of his transformation into a human being. It is the same miracle of K’s transformation into a human being. And it is the same miracle for replicants such as you and I should we decide to quietly rebel against this world of automated brutality.
At the beginning of Blade Runner 2049, the farmer who is about to be “retired” by K says to him, “You newer models are happy scraping the s**t… because you’ve never seen a miracle.”
He is referring to is, of course, the birth of Deckard and Rachael’s child which, in some ways, echoes the redemptive symbolism of the Christian virgin birth. This is the miracle that has, within this fictional world, already become the stuff of legend and will be told by future generations of replicants to their children through bedtime tales of heroism. It is a shame that no tales will be told of the miracle of Officer K or the miracle of Roy Batty, two replicants who suffered the injustice of being born into a world that treated them like dirt but who exited the world as pure and as beautiful as freshly fallen snow. Their transformation from replicant to human is no less a miracle than a child being born unto replicants.
This miracle is available to us all through conscious choice. We cannot choose to be born as world saviors. But we can choose to become human – real ones, not just biological ones – in an inhumane world by practicing everyday acts of empathy towards others, even (or especially) if there is nothing in it for us. And even if there is no one else there to witness it.
So I say to any real-life “replicants” out there who feel these words resonate in their hearts: I see and witness you. I see your invisible courage, pain, and sacrifice. I know this may not be much solace given that I am just another replicant, another nobody. If I had the power to make the world stop and see your humanity and beauty, I would. But I have no such power. And I never will. All I can offer you are my mind, my heart, and my replicant eyes.
And they see you, these eyes. They see your tears in rain.
A special thank you to Amy Davis and the Writers WorkSpace in Chicago for the quiet space that made it possible to finish this essay. You are truly an oasis of peace amidst the noise of the modern world.