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BLADERUNNER 2: THE EDGE OF HUMAN by K.W.Jeter
Bantam Spectra, 1995, hb,ISBN: 0-553-09979-5, $21.95
A Quickie Review by Dave Hyde
For this fan of Philip K. Dick the prospect of a sequel to DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? was an emotional one. Excitement. Cynicism. Hope. Despair. All these emotions flowing through my breast. Who, I thought, would have the presumption to attempt such a task? Who the confidence to pull it off? The ability! I surveyed the current writers in my mind and the only person I could come up with was Rudy Rucker. But, as it turns out, it was not Rucker who accepted the task but K.W.Jeter, Phil's old pal and sometime "Kevin" in VALIS -- and a writer of the first rank himself. And it was not to be a sequel to DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? but one to the movie BLADERUNNER.
This makes all the difference. The movie BLADERUNNER was only roughly related to the original novel and, as they say, was nothing like it. It was merely a film version. Good on its own terms, I suppose, and influential in its way in a medium that is numbingly conventional for the most part. But, still, BLADERUNNER was just a movie. OK it was even a good movie. I've watched it several times and inflicted it on my friends. I'm familiar with it. Got three versions on videotape. But its attraction to me lies not in its value as great filmic art but simply in that it is based on a novel by Philip K. Dick. One likes to make comparisons between the novel and the book, note the similarities and omissions. The distortions and slights. One wishes, in other words, to see the fidelity of the Director's version to the novel. Of course it never meets our expectations. There's always something left out and some nonsense left in. That's the nature of the Beast. But looked at this way some of the burden is removed from the back of the sequelist: K.W.Jeter.
His task now becomes somewhat easier. The sequel is merely a novel based on a film and only a prequel to another movie. In the marketing business that is Hollywood and the Publishing Industry that's the way they would look at it. How much money is it gonna make, and what's the cost? K.W.Jeter himself could've approached it like that if he'd wanted to. I'm sure the thought crossed his cynical mind -- and was instantly dismissed. He knows that Philip K. Dick refused to write what he called a "quickie novelization" of BLADERUNNER no matter the blandishments laid before him by the Studio execs. Jeter could do no different. If he was to write a sequel to BLADERUNNER, the movie, then he would do the best job of which he was capable. He knows that this is Philip K. Dick we're dealing with here, not just any old hack.
So how did he do?
Well, I guess the answer to that will depend on the success of the eventual BLADERUNNER 2 movie that will be based on Jeter's book. All we can do here is note that the novel almost seamlessly follows on from the original BLADERUNNER movie. The characters are all there, many seemingly resurrected from the dead. In fact, when you stop and think about it there are no new characters in BR 2! Roy Batty is there and so is Rachael -- two Rachaels. Pris is still nominally alive. Dave Holden is there and so, possibly, is Bryant, the Chief of LAPD's Blade Runner Unit. Didn't notice no sheep though... Oh, okay, there is one new character, Jack Isidore. In the novel Isidore acts as the conscience of the Tyrell Corporation in that his singular role, other than to die, is to berate Deckard over his real nature and tell him a few unpleasant truths. Sebastian is still in the cast though in somewhat truncated form. And that's about it, other than a few spear carriers.
Essentially, then, Jeter has reprised the entire cast of BLADERUNNER in his novel. But its not the same cast. These characters are different. All, that is, but Rick Deckard who is, of course, Harrison Ford. And Harrison Ford is always Harrison Ford. And Roy Batty is Roy Batty, or is he? That's the sort of problem one has when trying to figure out who's who in BR 2. And, more importantly, which if any of them is human? In this novel we cannot be too sure. For Jeter, an intimate of Dick's when the Master was still alive, has found the dilemma at the heart of DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? The existential question of what is human. And how do you tell? Dick, as Jeter says, never found a satisfactory answer to this and Jeter doesn't really try because he knows, perhaps, that there is no real answer. Or is there?
But that path leads to idle philosophical speculation. Concentrating on the main characters themselves -- there can be no more than ten -- we can see that most of them are impaired in some way, whether physically like Dave Holden and Sebastian, or mentally like Sarah Tyrell and Rick Deckard. Some can be said to be not even alive in the accepted sense. Bryant, for instance, who Deckard discovers is only a responsive video image. And Pris, a wretch from hell, yet a wretch who is loved. But perhaps the oddest character of all, and the most sympathetic, is Sebastian. For Sebastian is not singular but is only the name for a conglomerate consisting of a teddy bear, a toy soldier and the bare minimum that is physically necessary to maintain human life.
Definitely its in the characterization that Jeter lets his imagination roam free, unconstrained by the movie leaning over his shoulder. And this, to me, has always been Jeter's main strength; recall with a chill the deadly pas-a-deux in MANTIS. The characters in BLADERUNNER 2 were at hand, ready made from the BLADERUNNER movie. What could he do with them? The answer, as I've tried to indicate, is plenty. Overall, looking at the character set, you could not say with certainty that any particular character is definitely human in a common sense sense. For all we know the irony of Jeter's novel is that every one of the main characters is an android and the angst of the novel is merely memory implants playing themselves out. That would be a thrust after the Master's own heart.
Other Dickisms abound in BR 2. There's Rachael in half-life (UBIK) and the 'Pris-thing' could refer to SOLAR LOTTERY and WE CAN BUILD YOU. There's the armed rat from Dr.BLOODMONEY and even Sebastian has a nodding acquaintance with Hoppy Harrington of Dr.BLOODMONEY. The Nazis even get in there tangentially; one of PKD's bugabears. But the main influence from PKD is the uncertainty that shrouds everything in BR 2. Nothing is quite what it seems, few motives are clear.
And motive is what this book is all about, after all. Why do the characters do what they do? You gotta have a plot. Something has to lead the reader from page to page until the end.
In BR 2 the plot is multi-threaded. Deckard just wants to get back to his love Rachael entombed in half-life. To do this he must find and kill a nebulous 'sixth replicant'. He doesn't want to do it but is forced to by the power of Sarah Tyrell and the Tyrell Corporation who have framed him for murder. The cops are on his ass though they play the usual bumbling role. On the surface Sarah Tyrell's motives are straight-forward: to find and kill the missing replicant so that an unhappy United Nations won't destroy her corporation. The UN is unhappy because of all these maniacal replicants wandering around all the time. They want to end the whole android business and to hell with the colonists Off World. But, underneath, Sarah has more complex motives. She is fascinated by Deckard's love for Rachael, her identical clone. She wants it for herself and all the other characters are caught up in this dynamic between Deckard and Sarah Tyrell. Most of them are mightily confused, each operating on an individual interpretation of events that fit their assessment of their circumstances. But, basically, each is looking for the sixth replicant so they can kill it. Each for their own reasons. And each sees in the others the possibility that they are the missing replicant. So they all want to kill each other at one time or another and some hair-raising fights ensue. Half the main characters end up dead. But it's not all violence. Love is invloved too. A warped kind of love for the most part but genuine nonetheless. One is reminded of the poignant relationships in several Philip K. Dick stories: of Horselover Fat and his doomed love for Gloria and Sherri in VALIS; of Felix Buckman for his sister Alys in FLOW MY TEARS THE POLICEMAN SAID.
K.W. Jeter has always had a dark side for me in his characters' relationships with the opposite sex, they lack the innocence of PKD's characters in similar situations. Love does not conquer all for Jeter in BR 2, there is always a dark side, a drawback to the relationship. Sebastian's love for Pris, perhaps the purest in the book, is doomed, and Pris's love in return for Sebastian and Batty is pitiful to contemplate. As is the sad relationship between Deckard and Rachael who can only share their love in snatches over the drawn-out months of her inevitable demise. Sarah Tyrell herself wants to be loved but she has been abused. She is now only capable of manipulation. Like Mary Rittersdorf in CLANS OF THE ALPHANE MOON she uses people without regard to their feelings. One can sense here the conscious reference Jeter made to PKD's stories and life.
The denouement caught me completely by surprise. It should've been obvious but I completely missed it. I won't give it away but it was a satisfactory ending for me (although I feel Rick Deckard will have cause to maintain his moroseness).
So what of the overall opinion of this awkwardly placed book? It feels like the movie BLADERUNNER. It has the same Harrison Ford gloominess that characterized the movie. It ties up loose ends from the movie and is a credible sequel. The plot moves and the characters are interesting as well as bizarre. One can read the book voraciously, as I tried to do, and it would probably be best read that way because there is so much going on. Jeter's prose is transparent for the most part and occasionally spectacular; it doesn't get in the way of the story. It's a good science fiction novel given its basis in the movie. And for the PKD fan its fun to pick out the references. Yet for the critic much material can be found to carp at. For instance, a common complaint is the absence of the religion of Mercerism in the BLADERUNNER movie. This absence, necessarily, is also in Jeter's sequel. No complaint there. But the slight substitute -- the Blade Runner 'curve' that Jeter offers, is minimally developed. One can understand why: Hollywood can't deal very well with religion in an action flick. Now this might seem a minor complaint but it goes to the heart of BLADERUNNER and BR 2. The constraints of the modern sf action movie mean that the writer with one eye on Hollywood can only go so far. In the case of BR 2, some of the limitations of the movie are evident. Fortunately for the success of the novel as novel Jeter is an imaginative writer who doesn't like constraints so, given half a chance, usually when director Ridley Scott'e movie allows him too, he expands the BLADERUNNER world in positive directions. This is most notable in the characterizations. If there is to be a sequel to BR 2 to be written by Jeter, one would expect him to come into his own now that he has dissmissed most of the movie's original cast. That would be a story to anticipate.
But I haven't mentioned that for the semi-serious critic of this novel and of the BLADERUNNER movie there is much to be reckoned with in Jeter's sequel. The state of universal kippleization has advanced in the word of the novel, it has extended to what passes for life within its pages, the nature of love itself, though still shining clear, is under great pressure. The definition of 'Human' is more elusive than ever. The nature of the oppressive State is accepted as normal. Intrusive technology is also the norm. Privacy is no longer possible: if someone wants you bad enough they will come and get you. Why this bleak vision in science fiction these days? Why can't the Off World colonies be virtual Edens like the UN says? With BR 2 K.W.Jeter continues this dark trend and sharpens the crisis within the field of science fiction itself: a field in the throes of an unconscious struggle with itself over the cold reality of physical science. The stars are an impossible dream, we'll never reach them, we must turn inward now, cyberspace is the future of mankind, spaceships are out. So say the cyberpunks. And the traditionalists have no answer but limited horizons. In BR 2 Jeter makes this clearer.
The bottom line, however, for fans of Philip K. Dick is that Jeter's sequel to BLADERUNNER can only be a positive thing. We don't care who makes all the money following Dick but only that his name and work continue to be appreciated. The inevitable success of BR 2: The Movie means, perhaps, that other stories of PKD will be mined by Hollywood. We can only hope that a reissue of the original works will accompany any such gold-digging.
NOTE: Since I wrote this review I understand that K.W.Jeter has indeed written a follow-up novel to BR 2. I think its titled 'BR 3: Replicant Night. I haven't read it. -- lordrc