In MONTAG's Today’s Dystopia series, our writers explore the dystopian worlds of classic fiction, and see if our world has slipped closer to the fictional one since it was published. Is our cool new technology bringing us closer to a future we’re afraid of - or is it already here?
Blade Runner is an eerily prescient movie, and yet so much of it feels so far away. Sure, we have, in the form of Apple Watches, Oculus Rift and iPhones, the type of technology that Harrison Ford's hard-boiled ex-cop Deckard might recognise.
But what about the far-fetched stuff like cloning humans and the genetic tweaking of our bodies? MONTAG takes a look, and it turns out we're pretty close in this regard too...
In MONTAG's fifth look into yesterday’s tomorrow’s dystopias today (read the previous ones here, including The Handmaid's Tale and Johnny Mnemonic) we grapple with the sci-fi classic Blade Runner: a movie whose stature continues to grow as the years pass.
So, not long before its long-awaited sequel - and less than two years before its proposed date of 2019 - we look at Blade Runner’s depiction of the future, and whether, 35 years since its release, our world has adopted any of its dystopian predictions around humanity, the body and life.
This issue of MONTAG is “Better Bodies” – and the fallibility of the human body is the bones upon which the movie’s murky meat rests. Based on Philip K. Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (an undoubtably less rock ’n roll name than Blade Runner) the movie was a famous failure that – fittingly – only found acclaim once it was reborn as a Director’s Cut many years later.
In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to describe Blade Runner as a Body Horror movie of sorts. Whilst it’s not quite as flaps-of-flesh and gore-tabulous as David Cronenbourg’s definitive work in this genre, it does have a similar focus to, say, The Fly.
Blade Runner depicts characters dealing with the absolute fragility of their physical life, and from this, the viewer feels the deep thrum of humanity’s endless wrestling match with death, and what it means to be alive.
Harrison Ford is Deckard, a "Blade Runner": a cop who tracks down and “retires” artificially-created humanoids known as Replicants. The retirement parties involve him killing the humanoids, and the movie pivots around this complication: if a Replicant looks and behaves like a human, should we not treat them like humans?
In a nod to the is-he-or-isn’t-he? innuendo around Deckard’s own humanity (or otherwise), we’ll mark the similarity of the elements of the movie out of Replicants. Spoilers ahoy...
Implanting false memories - 4 Replicants out of 5
Rachael - the object of Harrison Ford’s desires - is a replicant who does not know she is a replicant, which makes it all the more awkward when Deckard’s probing causes her to realise the truth. Unlike other Replicants, Rachael thinks she’s human: her manufacturers have carefully seeded memories so visceral that not only do other people believe them, but so does she.
On the surface, the likelihood of this happening before 2019 appears to be a long shot. Even if Neuralink - the company launched by everyone’s favourite gazillionaire, Elon Musk - is online by then, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be dropping memories into users’ minds like Apple dumped copies of U2’s LP into everyone’s iTunes. (Although it’s safe to say that Bono has considered something along these lines.)
But what if we're implanting the false memories into ourselves, without realising it? As social media and technology allows us to focus more tightly into our own communities and reinforce (possibly latent) beliefs, it’s unsurprising to learn that plenty of people have flawed recollections.
Today’s equivalent of Rachael wouldn’t be a conspiracy theorist, wilfully rewriting history: she’d simply be a normal human being, as susceptible to Fake News on Facebook as anyone else. As humans, we respond strongly to gut feeling – and if a story from a group of people we trust, in a space we feel safe in, smells true - we’re likely to believe it.
The problem is that in an era of Fake News, the story is bullshit, the friends are anything but, and the safe space is social media, which is precisely designed to make us keep responding to things we are likely to believe.
Think you’re safe? Forget it. When even the statements of the leader of the free world are 70% false, it becomes statistically difficult to differentiate falsehoods from reality. Maybe you need to try the Voight-Kampf test for yourself.
Genetically adapting human life - 3 Replicants out of 5
Blade Runner’s terrifying but eerily likeable bad guys - Roy Batty and Pris - have only been allotted four years of life. This countdown timer is programmed into the humanoid off-world workers, and, not thrilled with this arrangement, have headed to earth to find someone who can extend their lives.
They find J.F. Sebastian, a human who alters living beings to look completely different to the point of surreality and absurdity. Now, a crueller writer than this one would point to a before-and-after photo of Sylvester Stallone, tap their noses, award this section a full Five Replicants and move on.
~ Before and after, via celebplasticsurgeryonline.com
But the more fascinating reality of today is that genetic engineering of humans has already begun. We’ve discussed before on MONTAG the thrilling news that there are already people walking around with lab-grown vaginas and the possibility of implants to make you half-human, half-machine (tired of your boring old arm? How about a new, better one?) - and yet the really weird stuff is only just starting to happen.
In China, where restrictions around genetic modification appear to be as loose and roomy as their famously lax Intellectual Property laws, doctors are already experimenting with genetically modifying children before conception.
Soon, choosing eye and hair colour, as well as genetically proofing children against disease, could be a normal – if morally quagmire-like – part of conception.
So while this tech could be used to ensure a person can live as long as possible, it stands to reason it could also be used to limit lifespan, like our poor anti-heroes Pris and Roy – so we're close enough to warrant a conservative three and a half Replicants.
Animal cloning - 5 Replicants out of 5
The presence of animals in Blade Runner is not as emphasised as much as in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but animals are still considered a luxury of the hyper-rich. Mass extinction of animals is hinted at, presumably a result of the dense, sickening clouds of pollution that envelop LA in 2019.
In 2017, cloning animals is old news. Dolly the Sheep was born nearly 20 years ago, grandaaaad.
There are now plenty of companies, including Viagen Pets and the amusingly heartstring-tugging myfriendagain.com, both of whom offer to create a clone of your pup, presumably for an eye-watering fee in the tens of thousands of dollars.
If a dog’s expensive, just imagine how much it’ll cost to clone a human. But it's possible – and would you baulk at the price?
Dense, sickening clouds of pollution enveloping major cities - 4 Replicants out of 5
Blade Runner’s world is a murky soup, the result of an ecological disaster that has rendered life itself a weird balance between continual ill-health and selective immortality.
We’ve got less than two years to hit this target, but China, in rush to industrialise whilst providing the rest of the world with incredible electronic goods at suspiciously low prices, has really been knocking it out of the park in this regard.
One Chinese city in particular, Shijiazhuang, is going above and beyond to do its bit. In late 2016, levels of fine airborne particulate matter reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter - 100 times the World Health Organisation’s guidelines.
According to the National Environmental Analysis released by Tsinghua University and The Asian Development Bank in January 2013, seven of the ten most air-polluted cities in the world are in China.
So while we’re not at apocalyptic levels of pollution yet - and as China is making huge positive steps towards green energy production - we can still nail this prediction to a firm four Replicants out of five.
In conclusion: hmmm, we’re actually pretty close, with an average score of 4 Replicants out of 5.
And yet, 2017 doesn’t feel like Blade Runner. Where are the battles between police and desperate people deprived of the care needed to live their lives? Where are all the identical clones? Who is queuing up to have their bodies transformed into new innovative shapes?
I guess the next 18 months has a lot left up its sleeves.