Science fiction is plagued by the slow march of time. What might have looked sleek and futuristic ten or more years ago might today look fantastic-but-unrealistic at best, or silly and outdated at worst. But whatever the case may be, the bottom line is this: no speculative sci-fi, not even cyberpunk, survives contact with the time period it portrays.
Of course, the point of science fiction isn’t to make our best attempts at clairvoyance. In fact, one may argue that, since the genre’s birth, science fiction is more like a subgenre of fantasy; it draws upon concepts that are simply more plausible to modern sensibilities (and thereby more capable of suspending disbelief) than magic and sorcery. Early works within the genre depict grand feats of science unreachable by the technological constraints of the time period, (such as defeating death, traveling through time, or voyaging through space) and remain unfulfilled to this day. Even today, we make stories that stretch the truth of what humankind is capable of in our near future, enjoyable as they may be.
The future is an intangible thing. No matter how close we come to it, it will always be a step ahead of us. And even though the point of this site is to point out how closely our own world is beginning to shape into certain dystopian science fiction concepts, part of me wonders if the more fantastic elements of cyberpunk–artificial intelligence, perfect simulated realities, flying cars–will remain mere fantasies. After all, the point of speculative fiction, in general, isn’t really to show us an accurate vision of the future; it’s meant more to reflect our current world, to satirize and highlight certain aspects of it if they are allowed to survive and flourish in our societies. No matter how creative a writer’s mind may become, it will never be able to fully grasp all of the elements that drive society and make a concise story out of it. It’s oftentimes better to distill the story down to a single idea and build a universe around it.
For instance, let’s trace the cyberpunk genre back to its genesis, the 1980s zeitgeist which includes Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s vision of the future as of 1982 portrays a version of Los Angeles so darkened and warped that it’s nearly unrecognizable–and the changes were all supposed to occur within a 40-year timespan. Of course, Blade Runner implies that something cataclysmic must have happened on its strange version of Earth. But ultimately, the film was never even meant to reflect Los Angeles, or speculate on what might be technologically possible in the year 2019, or even predict disasters that would permanently alter how our society operates. Instead, it focuses on what it means to be human–to be alive–within the confines of a world without empathy.
That said, I thought I’d put Blade Runner under the microscope and see how it holds up to today, with two years left on the clock and in the wake of its sequel Blade Runner 2049.
Designed Slave Labor
Nearly indistinguishable from humans, the replicants in Blade Runner are used as slave labor on the off-world colonies. Though their construction is never explicitly detailed in the film, it appears that they are cloned, genetically modified, and encoded to fit the needs of their buyers. The only differences replicants have that separate them from humans are these: replicants are designed with planned obsolescence, expiring after four years of use and they have enhanced strength.
The Real-Life Equivalent: Modern Cloning and Robotics
While scientists have conducted successful experiments in editing human genes and growing sheep in artificial wombs earlier this year, respectively, that’s a far cry from perfecting the processes involved–and more importantly, legalizing the production of genetically engineered individuals.
You might be asking why our society would prefer to steer itself into the moral fiascoes accompanying the mass production of slave labor when we could stick more closely to Blade Runner’s source material and build more machines and/or simulacra that will put us all out of work. While we are coming up with more creative ways to pass the Turing test as time goes on, we just haven’t figured out a visual representation of the human form in motion that can do the trick just yet. I mean, just look at this, we can’t even make robots that can walk without falling over:
Urbanization and Mass Pollution
Los Angeles of 2019 is an eternally dark, stormy place. Even during the day, the sun is so obscured by the clouds that it seems little light filters down into its congested city streets. Again, the reason for this is never explicitly given to us in the film, but we can use the source material, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, as a sort of benchmark to give us insight on Blade Runner’s moody setting.
In the novel, a nuclear war (World War Terminus) has reduced the world to rubble and ash, driving most of its animal and plant species to extinction. While the description in the novel doesn’t portray an overcrowded, constantly-rainy version southern California, seeming to share more in common with nightmarish films like Eraserhead or Delicatessen, it does share the element of an environment that appears to be openly hostile to its inhabitants.
The world of Blade Runner might or might not have been ecologically devastated by nuclear war, but one thing is for certain: our appetite for merciless industry has not been satiated, resulting in a constant stream of pollutants pouring into our atmosphere, thereby producing averse, hazardous weather conditions. It’s no coincidence that the setting moved from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’s San Francisco to Los Angeles, one of the most polluted cities in the United States.
The Real-Life Equivalent: Beijing
Despite our best efforts to destroy the world that we live in, Southern California still has fairly clear visibility and fairly stable weather patterns, and the planet’s ecosystems are still fairly habitable.
The same cannot be said for Beijing.
If you haven’t seen that image before, I assure you, it’s very real. That is the Dragon Building in Beijing’s Pangu Plaza during their unfortunate smog season. Yes, Beijing, a city of twenty million people, has a smog season—the most wonderful time of the year, when the air tries its damnedest to kill its residents.
This is due to Beijing’s rigorous industrial practices–and because Americans buy so much of their product during the holiday season as part of our yearly consumerist binge ritual. Even though the situation is far from ideal, at least the pollution is relegated to Beijing’s borders–for now.
While corporate anxiety had been a common theme in American film and literature for decades prior to Blade Runner’s release, it presented to its audience something new: a future oversaturated by a corporate presence so autocratic as to be suffocating. Rarely can one turn a corner without bumping into a stories-tall advertisement, and the Tyrell Corporation’s headquarters are housed in a complex so massive, they seem to dwarf any other buildings in LA’s darkened skyline. Tyrell, presumably the sole manufacturer of replicants, seems unregulated by government forces.
The Real-Life Equivalent: Corporate Conglomerates, Boeing Everett Factory
Today, we might not have a single tech corporation dominating the global market and wielding so much power that a single flex of its little finger might send entire economies reeling (we’ve got five). However, it’s become nigh impossible to live one’s life without living under some sort of corporate shadow.
In terms of architecture, society as a whole hasn’t exactly made leaps and bounds towards creating buildings that outright declare corporate power over the individual–not that corporations wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to create something so imposing, mind you, but there are costs to keep in mind. Whether or not construction of a mega-pyramid comparable to the Tyrell headquarters is even structurally possible with the building materials we have at our disposal almost isn’t even a question worth asking, but even if substances like graphene or cellulose went into mass production within the next two years as building materials, there are still the costs of maintenance and especially proper ventilation to consider–in a building so massive, the vast majority of the interior would not be exposed to airflow from the exterior without artificial means, thereby allowing toxic particles to build up and create hazardous working environments.
The closest we’ve come to the Tyrell Building in terms of volume is the Boeing Everett Factory, which requires large amounts of interior space to assemble the jetliners it produces.
It doesn’t look like much in comparison. Assuming that it has similar width and length to the Tyrell Building, it seems as though at least ten of these factories would need to be stacked upon one another to reach a similar height.
Blade Runner makes a point out of making the street life of 2019 LA look as radically diversified as possible. A simple stroll down one of Los Angeles’ many avenues might result in exposure to a hundred different cultures. Prominently featured are Japanese and Chinese influences on marketing and local cuisine, which suggests a turn from the mainstream’s quasi-British roots. The most pointed example of this convergence of societies is in Gaff’s use of Cityspeak, which uses bits and pieces of the Japanese, German, Spanish, Hungarian, Chinese, and French languages. The world presented is one without borders, seemingly without a sense of national identity. It’s become a much smaller place, and while they remain distinct for the time being, the world’s cultures are beginning to run together and create something new.
The Real-Life Equivalent: East Asian Influence, Hate Groups in America
Of course, exposure to a wide array of cultures is not uncommon depending on where one lives, and Japan and China’s influence on American lifestyle and economy are more than apparent. Case in point: many entries into our own databases have been brought into the world by Japanese and Korean creators, and while not all cyberpunk works feature overt influences from various cultures, this element’s presence might suggest an underlying desire for the dissolution of national identity in this ever-growing postnational world.
But, while it’s certainly true that the United States grows more diverse by the day, there is an unfortunate side effect of these changes occurring at such a rapid pace: there is malignant, tumorous resistance from backward-thinking hate groups. This appears to be a hideous casualty of humanity as it stands, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away. Furthermore, despite the growing population of Asian Americans and other ethnicities in the United States, their ways of life either seem to remain distinct from one another or otherwise sacrifice cultural identity to contribute to the monoculture.
While we don’t get to see what space travel is like in Blade Runner, it is described on several occasions. Blade Runner predicted that humans would have colonized the other planets in our solar system at the very least before the year 2019–which, compared to the current state of NASA’s budget, is almost laughable.
The Real Life Equivalent: SpaceX, Blue Origin
There is, however, some hope for the space race. Of course, it’s taken a more corporate turn in recent years, and the plans laid out by any spacefaring organization always seem to be delayed indefinitely, but if things go well, humankind might see a colonization attempt before the singularity occurs. The main contenders are Blue Origin, funded by Amazon (who else?) and based in Washington, and SpaceX, led by fan-favorite tycoon/David Sarif equivalent/potential alien Elon Musk.
Our world as it is now is not the world of Blade Runner. Despite how full and developed it may feel, it, like the many, many cyberpunk worlds following it, pursues certain stylish fantasies over realism. But sometimes, it’s easy to forget what the world we live in is like; we have come so far, and many of the predictions that science fiction authors have made have indeed come true, even if it’s not exactly how they imagined it.
One thing is clear: these are exciting and terrifying times. Revel in them while you can still breathe.