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Learning episode 8:


Purpose and use of this learning episode: podcast 2a & 2b, Blade Runner and the essence of humanity

On the myclasses portal where this learning episode was found there were several, striking images from Scott's Blade Runner, but these have been removed for copyright reasons on this internet site, pending permissions. The text presented in this learning episode comes mostly from secondary sources stressing Philip K Dick's importance in SF, and particularly the importance of his ideas. This learning episode also presented the second instalment of the two, short podcasts for the last part of the brave new world theme area.


Students attending a face-to-face class for this study watched the DVD version of the film Blade Runner as part of their studies in class with computer and overhead projector, while students studying as flexible learning were offered a copy of the film on CD-ROM, copied under the special provisions of local Copyright laws.



Forum topics for discussion
Philip K Dick and Science Fiction
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner
How do we know we are not replicants?
Podcast 2 for the brave new world theme area
Resource list
Readings and links
Further reading and links




The points at the start of these notes are to be discussed in the Forum area. You are asked to jump to the Forum area, using the link here and making a comment in the appropriate Forum thread. Please remember, your participation in discussions is expected in this study, as part of your overall participation.


Forum topics for discussion:



What does the future city we see in Blade Runner look like? Is it an Utopia or a Dystopia? Would you like to live in this future world?


Is Deckard right in retiring the Nexus 6 Replicant group led by Roy?


What philosophical themes seem to you to be the most important in  Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and why?



Philip K Dick and Science Fiction


Some authors recur in any study of Science Fiction by themes, like the use of aliens, or the focus on genetic engineering. One of these authors is HG Wells writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and another is Philip K Dick, who has had many remarkable novels and short stories adapted for film.


Philip K Dick is a crucial figure in modern science fiction and a walk into Borders or any of the larger book stores will find a whole cabinet with different novels and collections of Dick's work. Some critics of Dick's work say that he was "too prolific for his own good, churning out dozens of novels for cheap paperback publication, often in such haste that their conclusions tend to be their weakest part" (Brians, 1999). What is very clear, especially to many film directors was that Dick's ideas were very strong and that Dick has come to be looked on as a master of SF.


Many of Dick's novels can be difficult as his narratives can be blurred and unreal. Other critics note that Dick liked to play games with his audience, lulling them into thinking the story is going in one way, then having a trap-door open and the reader falls through to find quite a different story and new perspectives on the characters, some of whom can be split personalities. In his novels drug-induced hallucinations can be more real than reality and a consistent question is raised - what is reality, anyway? Very few of Dick's novels or stories are available as electronic texts on the internet as his popularity over the years has meant that different editions of his works are still available as books. At least ten of these books have been made into films, including the most recent animation, A Scanner Darkly.


Dick's titles are often "strikingly surrealistic" (Brians, 1999) and this applies to the original title for the film Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


The original novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) was very different from the film studied in class. There are characters from the original novel omitted from the film and other characters added in for the film adaptation. This is true of several other Dick novels translated to film where the stories have been simplified and some themes have been ignored or deleted by the directors. There  is a great deal of information on both Dick and his writings on the Web and major sites are listed in the links section, below.


In the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the story does have the same interest in the central idea of the difference between humans and genetically engineered or created humans, called Replicants in the film version, and the novel version blurs the distinction between humans and these Replicants. As the book continues "the blur becomes more pronounced" (Baierl, 2005).


Baierl (2005) shows that Philip K Dick explained the use of Replicants in the future society in which the novel is set as follows, "In connection with this a weapon of war, the Synthetic Freedom Fighter, had been modified; able to function on an alien world, the humanoid robot – strictly speaking, the organic android – had become the mobile donkey engine of the colonization program. Under U.N. law each emigrant automatically received possession of an android subtype of his choice, and, by 2019, the variety of subtypes passed all understanding, in the manner of American automobiles of the 1960s” (Baierl, 2005).


One of the first Relicants that Rick Deckard interviews using the Voigt-Kampff technique is Rachel, a beautiful female working at the Tyrell Corporation. Other characters play important roles in the novel, such as the spiritual leader Mercer in this futuristic society and this spiritual leader only appears to some of the characters in the novel. This is seen by some critics to indicate that Replicants can not experience spiritual relationships and this is supported by the character Rick who says, "An android, no matter how gifted as to pure intellectual capacity, could make no sense out of the fusion which took place routinely among the followers of Mercerism.” Androids would not be able to experience true faith, redemption or grace because these require a two way relationship between a human and God (Baierl, 2005).


The novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) has remained an important SF text but this is mostly because of the adaptation into the film Blade Runner, by Ridley Scott. The novel's main benefit for reader is in raising questions in a "descriptive, believable and entertaining way" (Palmer, 1991) about issues that are important today, such as the role of genetic engineering in society and the moral and ethical problems found through further use of genetic engineering, as explored in learning episode nine.




Ridley Scott's Blade Runner


The film Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott was based loosely on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but there were significant changes for the film version, as noted, above. The film has a huge following and in 2006 it was released as a DVD in the Director's Cut version in Australia where it has sold well. Not all critics believe it to be a masterpiece and Brian Aldiss says of the film that it was an overheated farrago of SF crossed with private eye machismo and dragged down by pretentious sets. Part of its storyline and at least one of its characters was roped in from another Dick novel, We Can Build You." (Aldiss, 2001:306).


Blade Runner is offered here in the Brave New World theme area because gene therapy was used in the construction of the Replicants. However, the film is usually treated more as a film about the differences between machines and people, as an 'artificial person' problem, rather than a genetic engineering film (Kirby, 2000). The SF critic Telotte saw the film as within the sub-genre of genetic engineering and says the main theme of the film was to examine "the ethics behind the creation of artificial life in the form of replicants who have a programmed life span of only a few years and bear implanted memories designed to keep them from an awareness of their constructed existence" (Telotte, 2001:109). Telotte says that Blade Runner has become one of the best examples of a text that is warning about the technology of genetic engineering as it advances in our society.


Ridley Scott as director of Blade Runner threw away the original title and used instead the title to another novel owned by the film company, Blade Runner, even though this term was never used in the novel. The film version eventually called Blade Runner "was shaped along the "lines of a mean-streets detective novel by Raymond Chandler. In it the pervasive confusion is a puzzle to be solved, not an exercise in mind-bending" (Brians, 1999). The film turned out to be "one of the most influential pieces of SF in recent decades" (Brians, 1999) and the film is credited with having influenced many other films, comic strips, anime productions and a whole genre called Cyberpunk that we study in other theme areas.


The backdrops to the film Blade Runner are very memorable and some stills from the film are seen on this page. Their look and feel of the Greenhouse city always drizzling with acid rain, the perpetual gloom, the neon light and advertising everywhere has been found in many other films since 1982, and this style (that some say originated in French comics) has survived into 2007. Telotte calls this night cityscape a "peculiar backdrop, one that draws simultaneously on medieval Japanese traditions, on American cyberpunk styles, and on an imagery of ethnic and cultural mixture ...that never quite evokes any specific human society, but that in various ways hints of the American dream of a multicultural society and suggests the extent to which the American science fiction film has become a key narrative type for much of contemporary culture" (Telotte, 2001:113).


While the film backgrounds have been influential, so have the ideas. Even in 2007 the two released versions of the film (the 1982 version with a voice-over narration by Harrison Ford and the later Director's Cut with additional scenes and no narration) still cause intense debate amongst students as to whether the main male protagonist, Rick Deckard is himself a Replicant. Unlike the novel, the film has different criteria for deciding is a person is a Replicant and non-human and many questions are posed to the viewer. One of these questions concerns the nature of self and consciousness. Another, explored below, concerns the nature of death for both a human and a Replicant.


If the Tyrell Corporation can record human memories, grow a Replicant and then implant these copied memories into the Replicant, then the Replicant has no notion that they are not human. They remember yesterday, last week, and before they were awakened from their growth pods in the same way. They remember a childhood playing on swings, riding a bike, having a birthday party, their mother, and so on. These memories seem as real to them as your memories and mine.


However, Rick Deckard finds that several Replicants have the same memories, because they are the same Model type produced by Tyrell. He is sure who is a Replicant and who is human, after all that is his job, but then doubt creeps in if he is not a Replicant, created to do the job of retiring other Replicants who have turned into Frankenstein monsters and risen up to kill Tyrell.


Rick Deckard starts to question his own life and his own memories and the audience shared his discomfort. After all, how do we know we have real memories and real lives? The different versions of the film have different solutions to this problem with one suggesting love is the answer and matters more than anything else while the other version leaves us in doubt that Rick and Rachel can survive at all.





How do we know we are not replicants?


Like many other stories, novels and films in the brave new world theme area, there are many moral and ethical points raised in Blade Runner. As in Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and then The Island of Dr Moreau, it is clear that Blade Runner is very concerned with the nature of humanity. Just what exactly is it like to be human and how do we know we are human?


The theme area looking at artificial intelligence and the difference between humanity and machines is called The Ghost in the Shell and this theme area follows this interest, examining  behaviours that are human and those that seem human, but may not be. In Blade Runner it is very disconcerting for the viewer to start to think that the main protagonist, Rick Deckard, the person they follow through the film may in fact be the same sort of artificial being as the Nexus 6 Replicants he kills.


In fact, as SF writer Rowlands notes, the best lines about the experience of being human comes from a Nexus 6 Replicant, the efficient killing machine Roy. Rowlands says, "Roy then dies, and in perhaps the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history leaves us with the following words, ones that nicely capture the human (and also, apparently, the Replicant) predicament 'I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. I've entered attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched sea-beams dance by the Tannhauser gate. Now all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.'" (Rowlands, 2003:234)


Roy the Replicant has turned out to be deeply human in sensibilities but he is the deadly killing machine. At the same time, he has saved the life of Rick Deckard and now appears more merciful than any of the humans. SF critic Telotte also sees this as a major part of Blade Runner and she says that when humans create "ever more perfect imitations of the self" like the Replicants (and the other genetically engineered dolls seen throughout the film) then put this technology right in the centre of our world, humans risk becoming just "spectators of the world", looking through the window of technology at the world, with no place in this created world for ourselves (Telotte, 2001:110). Humans might become strangers in a world we created, drifting ghostlike through our own lives.


The philosopher Mark Rowlands also uses Blade Runner to discuss philosophical questions, like the nature of death. Even though we assume that death is a bad thing that humans fear, this assumption is not as easy as it looks. The reason why it is not easy is because death is not part of a normal life. Death does not occur in our lifetimes. Instead, death is a limit of a life. A limit "is not something that can occur within that life, any more than the limit of a visual field is something that can occur within that field. A limit of some thing is not part of that thing - otherwise it wouldn't be the limit of it" (Rowlands, 2003:237). Death for Roy the Replicant comes after only a few, short years of life, but a life full of artificial memories, then his (its?) own real memories from the time the Replicant is activated.


The Replicant treasures life just as much as the human Deckard. In fact, he seems to treasure life more than Deckard because he spares Deckard's life and releases the white dove in the last scenes on the top of the building in the rain. If this Replicant has a notion of both life and death, treasures memories and acts with human characteristics of kindness and mercy, then what is not human about the Replicant?


Is the Replicant human in the same way that a human born with a genetic disease that means they only live for a few, short years is human? Does a human being have to be born to be human, or can that human be created in a laboratory? After all, the only real difference is in parentage between a mother and a father and a fertilized egg, compared with an artificial womb, cloning and a more rapid growth cycle.


We look at these issues of moral and ethical rights within genetic engineering in learning episode nine, when we focus on the much more minor text of The Island (Bay, 2005).





Podcast 2 of the brave new world theme area


The first part of podcast two of the brave new world theme area covers the short stories and some of the films rapidly, then moves on to Greg Bear's 'Blood music'. The second part of podcast two comments briefly on Blade Runner and then moves to the weaker text The Island. This last film does allow discussion of important topics  like therapeutic cloning linked to The Island, as well as the way society might treat cloned humans, linking this discussion with current religious arguments on the nature of life.  




Resource list:


Aldiss, B. & Wingrove, D. (2001). Trillion Year Spree: the History of Science Fiction. House of Stratus: Thirsk, New Yorkshire, UK.


Baierl, K. (2005). 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' by Philip K Dick'. Retrieved 22 January, 2007 from


Bay, M.   (Director). (2005). The Island. Produced by McDonald, Parkes and Bryce. Warner Home Video. DVD version.


Brians, P. (1999). 'Study Guide for Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner'. Washington State University. Retrieved 24 January, 2007 from Runner.html


Kirby, D. 'The New Eugenics in Cinema: Genetic Determinism and Gene Therapy in GATTACA'. Science Fiction Studies. Number #81 = Volume 27, Part 2. July, 2000.


Palmer, C.   'Postmodernism and the Birth of the Author in Philip K. Dick's Valis'. Science Fiction Studies. Number #55, Volume 18, Part 3. November, 1991.


Rowlands, M. (2003). The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained through Science Fiction Films. ISBN 0 091903882. Ebury Press: London.


Scott, R. (Director). (1992). Blade Runner. Director’s cut. Based on the novel by Philip K Dick. DVD Version. Warner Home Video, 2002.


Telotte, J. (2001). Science Fiction Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




Readings and links:


Wikipedia page devoted to Blade Runner


Notes on Ridley Scott and his making of Blade Runner


Wikipedia page on Philip K Dick


The official Philip K Dick website


A review of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" from a cognitive science perspective




Further reading and links



Short story 'It' by Theodore Sturgeon


Short story 'The Dead Man' by Fritz Leiber


Short story 'The Furniture of Life's Ambitions' by Brian Stableford


Short story 'Blood Music' by Greg Bear

  Short story 'Soft blows' by David Rade


Brave new world theme area podcast 1a - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF


Brave new world theme area podcast 1b - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF

  Brave new world theme area podcast 2a - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF
  Brave new world theme area podcast 2b - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF



Michael Sisley



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