Blade Runner has become an iconic title not only in cyberpunk circles but in circles of all kinds. Even if someone hasn’t seen the movie, they’ve heard of it. For those of us more familiar with the film, we know that it is based on Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. If you’ve read the book, you’ll note there is no mention of Blade Runners, ever. So where did this title come from? It turns out the answer to that is pretty interesting.
In 1977, Hampton Fancher’s screenplay based on Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep was optioned. At the time the working title had been “Android” and “Dangerous Days”, but when Ridley Scott came on board the project in 1980, he wanted changes to the script. Fancher had obtained a copy of William S. Burroughs’ treatment of the novel, The Blade Runner (written in 1979) by Alan E. Nourse, and suggested the title. Scott liked it, and Michael Deeley obtained the rights. It also worth noting how similar Blade Runner’s iconic logo is compared to the original cover to Nourse’s novel.
William S. Burroughs is well known in the cyberpunk community as being one of the early influences on the cyberpunk literary movement. His indirect connection to one of the film movement’s greatest movies is of interest in and of itself. However, Burroughs’ adaptation of Nourse’s novel “was set in the early 21st century and involves mutated viruses and “a medical-care apocalypse”. Sounds pretty cyberpunk. The title came from medical smugglers, trafficking supplies like scalpels, rather than from a police division responsible for retiring rogue Replicants.
The plot of Nourse’s novel, The Blade Runner written in 1974, was very cyberpunk indeed. It was set in a world where there was free universal health care for anyone who qualified under Eugenics laws. If your genetic profile didn’t fit this legal definition and/or you refused to undergo sterilization, then you had no access to medical care. This created an underground black health care system. The protagonist is a Blade Runner, medical smuggler, named Billy Gimp, who is faced with averting the outbreak of a plague. This plot sounds reminiscent of the films Repo!: The Genetic Opera, Repo Men (based on the book The Repossession Mambo by Eric Garcia) and even Gattaca.
Nourse’s The Blade Runner acts as a prototype for the common Street Doc character that is seen in cyberpunk of all stripes. Personally, I’d have liked to see the Burroughs’ adaptation come to fruition creating a foundational film in the Cyberpunk Zeitgeist with the Street Doc archetype at its center. The Blade Runner could have come out alongside the excellent, inspirational film called Ridley Scott’s Dangerous Days.