Blue Wind Press published Blade Runner, A Movie, by William S. Burroughs, for the first time in 1979. Since then it has gone through two editions and I don’t know how many printings. The latest edition has just been released in paperback, beautifully designed by Blue Wind publisher George Mattingly.
He notes that Blade Runner, written in the mid-1970s, “predicts a coming health care apocalypse: a horror show straight out of Dante, brought to a boil by mutated viruses and right-wing politics.”
In 1982 the Ridley Scott movie came out with Burroughs’ title. It was not based on the Burroughs book but was loosely adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel by Philip K. Dick (an overrated writer whose acclaim baffles me). But never mind.
Burroughs’ narrator begins like this:
Now B.J. you are asking me to tell you in one sentence what this film is about? I’m telling you it is too big for one sentence — even a life sentence. For starters it’s about the National Health Insurance we don’t got. It’s about plain middle-class middle-income-bracket Joe, the $15,000-a-year boy, sweating out two jobs, I.R.S. wringing the moonlight dollars out of him to keep the niggers and the spics on welfare and Medicare so they can keep up their strength to mug his grandmother, rape his sister, and bugger his ten-year-old son. How much money does 15G Joe have in the bank after I.R.S. hits him for the service?
In 2008, when “Joe the Plumber” came along and claimed to be just another working stiff hit by draconian taxes, he was making a lot more than 15Gs. He was planning to buy a company making 250Gs a year. And now he’s a Tea Party poster boy.
Here’s the narrator again:
This film is about overpopulation and the growth of vast service bureaucracies. The FDA and AMA and the big drug companies are like an octopus on the citizen. You’re dying of cancer, see? The doctor gives you no hope, wants you out of his office as quick as possible because you don’t carry health insurance or qualify for Medicare. All he gives you is a grudging Rx for Darvon. Any croaker gives a dying cancer patient Darvon should be broken down to bedpan duty in an animal hospital.
In 1974 Burroughs moved from London to Manhattan, so it’s not at all surprising that he set much of Blade Runner in New York:
This film is about a city we all know and love, a city which has come to represent all cities. In the year 2014 New York, world center for underground medicine, is the most glamorous, the most dangerous, the most exotic, vital, far-out city the world has ever seen. The only public transport is the old IRT limping along at five miles an hour through dimly lit tunnels. The other lines are derelict. Hand-propelled and steam-driven cars transport produce, the stations have been converted into markets. The lower tunnels are flooded, giving rise to an underground Venice.
That future, which might have seemed distant even in the disastrous years of the 1970s and ’80s, is already upon us. Just take a ride on the New York subway.
Postscript: George Mattingly messages: “What few people know is that the movie Blade Runner was originally based on this book (though very little of that legacy remains) and was not originally directed by Ridley Scott.
“Filming of a screenplay lifted almost word-for-word from Burroughs’s Blade Runner was fairly far along when the production company was tipped off that the “screenwriter” had actually taken our book nearly verbatim. They contacted us for permission but then decided they didn’t want to pay. (Hooray for Hollywood. Writers: such a nuisance! And so unnecessary when Tinseltown has actual . . . auteurs!)
“The film then went through several ad hoc scripts (among them Frankenstein in Outer Space) before Ridley Scott took over the project and decided to base it on Phil Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
“William Burroughs’s influence on the Ridley Scott film remains in the look-and-feel of the degraded dystopian city of the future & in the attitude of its characters. Atmosphere, attitude & ambience are always lacking in Philip K. Dick & without them Scott’s film wouldn’t be memorable.
“I knew Phil Dick slightly (he lived in our neighborhood near the end). I’ve enjoyed many of his books because of the concepts he tosses off almost casually as he types his way through cardboard characters in forgettable prose. (You’re right about that.)
“I think Dick’s stuff is a guilty pleasure, but probably one that won’t be remembered. If only he had paid even a little attention to the writing itself (or to creating human personality).”