“I have seen myself backward.” Philip K Dick, A Scanner Darkly
In Hampton’s Fancher’s screen adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick, Rick Deckard is a ‘blade-runner’, a police assassin hired to hunt down rogue ‘replicants’ or androids. He is instructed to go to the Tyrell Corporation headquarters to test their latest model, the Nexus 6. His task is to find out whether his equipment, the Voight-Kampff machine, still works on a state of the art replicant produced by a corporation whose brand tag is ‘More Human than Human’. Has the difference between android and human now narrowed to the point where it can no longer be detected? Can technology still distinguish between natural human and designed humanoid?
At the huge, pyramid-shaped Tyrell Corporation building, Deckard is greeted by a poised, beautiful young woman and escorted into the presence of the CEO of the corporation, Dr Eldon Tyrell. The great man requests that Deckard run a control test on a human subject first. His assistant Rachael will oblige.
The Voight-Kampff test consists of a series of questions designed to elicit an emotional response. Rather like a lie-detector, the machine correlates questions and answers to involuntary physiological responses, in this case by detecting micro-movements of muscles around the eye, and measuring capillary dilation, fluctuation of the pupil and dilation of the iris.
The test on Rachael takes much longer than usual, suggested by the use of montage. At the end of it, when Deckard finally switches off the machine, Tyrell immediately asks him for his conclusion, and the two men proceed to discuss Rachael’s identity in front of her, with brutal insensitivity to her feelings. She has been revealed – if the machine still works – to be a replicant. This revelation is devastating to Rachael, who thinks she is a real person, with her own memories and dreams.
Deckard moves the adhesive discs from her cheeks and switches off his beam.
DECKARD: Lights please.
The lights come on.
DECKARD: If she is, the machine works.
TYRELL: The machine works. She is.
Rachael sits very still. Except her eyes — they go to Tyrell and hang on. He stares back at her as he speaks.
TYRELL: How many questions did it take?
Rachael sits rigidly in her chair, as the ground crumbles around her, her big mermaid eyes locked with Tyrell. His voice is quiet and strong, mesmerising. She’s hanging by a thread.
Deckard watches with a bad taste in his mouth.
DECKARD: She didn’t know?
TYRELL: Memory implant. She was programmed. But I think she has transcended her conditioning. I think she was beginning to suspect.
Rachael nods fixedly. Careful not to let go her grasp.
TYRELL: How many questions does it usually take, Mr. Deckard?
DECKARD: Five, maybe six.
Slowly, carefully, Tyrell unlocks his gaze from Rachael and turns towards Deckard, who is starting to put away his equipment. Rachael sits there pale and expressionless, her feet flat on the floor; alone is the word.
After seven months of script development (prolonged by ongoing industrial action at the studio) the relationship between Hampton Fancher and director Ridley Scott, two brilliant but sometimes difficult men, had deteriorated to the point where the writer walked off the project. At that point Scott called in David Peoples, a screen-writer with a long pedigree, to complete the changes he still thought necessary.
Peoples found the script quite brilliant, and retained most of it as it stood. The changes he did make are all the more interesting because they are relatively few. They enable us to see the difference between a brilliant newcomer and an experienced professional in the field.
Sometimes Peoples will add a line or two of dialogue, such as the additional question in the Voight-Kampff test undergone by the replicant Leon in the opening scene.
HOLDEN: Describe, in single words, only the good things that come into your mind about: your mother.
The response, fully developed only in the shooting script, is perfect:
LEON: My mother? Let me tell you about my mother.
Explosive gun-shots, deafening in the confined space, confuse us for a moment, and Holden is already reeling backwards in his chair before the viewer realises what has happened. Now Leon stands, and puts another bullet in him.
A number of Peoples’ changes consist of breaking up longer scenes into shorter ones and interleaving them to delay the pay-off. Rachael’s Voight-Kampff test is a case in point. As brilliantly as Fancher evokes Rachael’s sensations as she learns that she is not a real human, but rather a designed commercial product, he does it novelistically, mainly through narration. For Peoples that won’t do, dramatically. For one thing, the impact of the revelation is entirely internal, conveyed through Fancher’s prose. It reads beautifully, but the emotional impact needs to be externalised somehow, or go to waste. Secondly, this moment, the intense pathos of the replicant’s epiphany, is just too important to let rise and fall in a single scene. It must be savoured a little longer, dramatised, made more playable.
In his redraft Peoples has Tyrell ask Rachael to leave the room at the end of the test, before anything more is said. Looking somewhat offended, she wordlessly complies, the rhythm of her high heels on the floor loud in the silence. Now the creator and the natural enemy of this beautiful golem will discuss her in private, the combination of her hurt expression as she leaves and Peoples’ crisp, rich dialogue conveying the pathos of her situation without yet revealing her own response.
DECKARD: She really doesn’t know?
TYRELL: She’s beginning to suspect, I think.
DECKARD: Suspect! How can she not know she is?
TYRELL: Well, we began to notice in them a strange obsession.
Tyrell is pacing now, lecturing.
This obsession, he goes on to explain, is with memories as the source of identity. But replicants (as we have already learned) have a life-span of only four years, so that they do not have time to develop mature emotional responses to their situation.
TYRELL: After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past… we create a cushion or pillow for their emotions… and we can control them better. […] In the case of Rachael, I simply copied and regenerated cells from the brain of my sixteen-year-old niece. Rachael remembers what my little niece remembers.
As Deckard notes, we have come a long way from Dr Frankenstein.
Memory implantation and erasure is a motif in Philip K Dick’s science fiction, associated with a powerful theme of identity – and the breakdown of identity – throughout his work. The theme finds its most powerful expression in A Scanner Darkly. It is pervasive in the novel from which Fancher distilled his original ‘Dangerous Days’ screenplay which eventually became Blade Runner.
Dick was fascinated by parahumanism and as such stands in a long line of artists who have developed the theme – and not just from Frankenstein onwards, either: as that novel’s alternative title, The New Prometheus, indicates, science fictional examples are a modern take on an archetype with deep roots – not forgetting the golem legends of the Jewish Kabbalah, of course. In fact the latter provide a more consistent line of descent, because then all the examples are of humans creating humans, or parahumans. The older story of Prometheus is a creation story, not a golem story. A Titan is a god, though a survivor of a defeated generation, and it is he who creates humanity. The interest of the Prometheus story to my mind is the fact that the gods themselves – in the form of their king, Zeus – oppose the creation of humanity and fear the species’ potential to one day overthrow them. Zeus eventually relaxes when he decides that humans will inevitably destroy each other first.
The scope of Dick’s original vision is broader in the novel than Fancher can include in his screenplay. There is a state religion, a whole culture built around the simulation of animals, and the climactic development in the plot is when Deckard comes to realise that he isn’t just pursuing a handful of rogue androids: that in fact the city has been completely infiltrated by replicants, who have not just infested but duplicated its institutions. There is a police department and a replicant police department, a City Hall and a replicant City Hall, and so on. Dick’s vision, then, is of an exploding parahuman dimension in which there are duplicates and simulations of everything, institutional structures as well as individual humans. Fancher’s script has to cut most of this material while trying to leave enough to make this dizzying sense of replication continue in the mind of the viewer.
What he does, with a novelist’s instinct, is hang the script on the archetypal love story. This is the genius of Fancher’s screenplay; the original novel has a much lighter archetypal anchor, and drifts badly as a result. Fancher reaches into the mess and pulls out the well-known plot in a beautiful new form. Two lovers yearn to be together but cannot, usually for reasons of who they are, and usually enforced by a dark, unrelenting father or patriarchal figure. One of them is from the wrong class, or the wrong family, or is poor, or a slave.
Or she’s on your list of androids to kill.
She is not even technically human.
The deep theme of this archetype is always identity. If the love story doesn’t have this theme, it lacks archetypal power. Our multiplying identity issues must be resolved. You cannot expect to find true love, to paraphrase Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots, if you don’t know who you are.
So in Blade Runner.
She doesn’t know who she is. Still refuses to believe it. She comes to Deckard’s apartment to show him a photograph of herself as a little girl, with her mother. (It’s Peoples who is threading this ‘mother’ leitmotif throughout the screenplay.) And Deckard, wearily, proves to her that her life-story is not her own and she is therefore not real, by quoting examples of her intimate childhood memories to her in a poignant passage of dialogue, ending with another little chime on the bell of the mother.
DECKARD: Remember that bush outside your window with the spider in it?
Rachael looks up at him.
DECKARD: Green body, orange legs… you watched her build a web all summer.
Her voice is getting very small.
DECKARD: One day there was an egg in the web.
Rachel nods faintly.
RACHAEL: After a while, the egg hatched and hundreds of baby spiders came out and ate her. That made quite an impression on me, Mr Deckard.
DECKARD You still don’t get it? Implants. They’re not your memories, they’re Tyrell’s sixteen-year-old niece’s.
Rachael doesn’t say anything, she can’t.
DECKARD He’s very proud of them. He ran them on a scanner for me.
Rachael just stares at him, stunned and barely holding on.
And Deckard lets her turn and run. Her disillusionment is not his problem. He’s already done her a favour by not killing her. She’s not even human, after all: a replicant. A golem. A ‘relational object’.
So now she knows. She’s reached her anagnorisis. She’s staggering under it, clinging to an old photograph, knowing none of it is real. The plot now must proceed by steps to the point where it is finally proved to Deckard, ultimately by the same means, that he too has, shall we say, identity issues.
As do I.
And as do you.
The difference between life and story is that the awakening doesn’t happen all at once. With me it took many years. The Western middle classes, I know now, are the most deluded, deceived and self-deceiving people in the world, and I’m talking about myself as much as anyone.
The deceived and the self-deceived: tamagotchi and nomenklatura, to borrow somebody else’s mixed metaphor. The nomenklatura are people with their feet on the ladder, people with position or career and something to lose. These people may sense there’s something very wrong with the picture they have of the world, but the picture works for them and they aren’t going to talk about it, and won’t let you either if they can stop you. Their ignorance is a choice.
Everyone else is tamagotchi. Tamagotchi have no independent existence: they allow themselves to be fed, wound up, put to sleep, woken up, or killed off. I prefer to think of them as Eloi, as in H G Wells’ The Time Machine. It’s not their fault; they’re not so much ‘ignorant’ as innocent, nescient.
And then there’s a third group, much smaller, of people who are consciously aware to varying degrees, capable of facing reality, but aware that first you have to find it. The reality principle is a motive force, not a resting state. A sense of reality is not among the innate qualities gifted to humans from birth; our detachment from reality, or from ‘base-reality’ as the simulation theorists have taken to calling it, is assuming mythic proportions.
This is where Bohemia comes into existence, an idea coeval with the industrial encroachment of the machine; the desire to remove oneself from a mechanistic society, somewhere you can embrace life, death and truth, the human condition in all its fullness. So go and live with the gypsies, make art and make love, suck up all that good opium and absinthe, and the smiles of those pretty, cheerful grisettes. But whereas the bohemianism of Baudelaire and Byron was viscerally real, a reaction to the world, what I got sucked into a century and half later, the mass-produced post-war version of Bohemianism which called itself the Counterculture or the Hippie movement or whatever, was a complicated and impure phenomenon. Of course it had its own organic impulse; a reaction against the world that had destroyed so much of itself in the war had to be expected; but these movements can be steered, by infiltration and mass media, not to mention the millions of doses of LSD handed out for free by merry pranksters at rock festivals and ‘acid tests’.
The ‘Counterculture’ wasn’t the first major social engineering operation — the trivialised, materialistic ‘consumer society’ that the Counterculture despised had itself been sold to the public in a rapid and co-ordinated campaign in the early 1930s, heavily centred around mega-corporations like General Electric and RCA which had been brought into being to monopolise and control the development of the new electrical technologies. I despised my parents’ generation for buying into the consumer culture, while myself buying into the central plan for my generation.
The generation born in the post-war years might have been perceived as a potential threat to a parasitic elite sustained by the war-system we live under. Numerous, healthy, prosperous, educated, we might have become a problem to The Problem if we’d kept our heads. So we had to be diverted. And that was the counterculture, controlled opposition from the start, with its pantheon of imposters and charismatic spooks, its impersonators and sexy surrogates, its ‘life-time actors’ and ‘agents in tie-dye’ — they did for us with chemistry and weaponised anthropology, like they’re doing for our children with nano-tech and wavelengths…
You see, ‘peace and love’ was never exactly what was going on… there was a huge mobilisation of beat-poets and social theorists, chemists and anthropologists, freak-dancers and Young Turks, sound-engineers and disc-jockeys, TV-presenters and underground magazines and artists and hair-dressers and serial-killers… The counterculture was not blowback, argues author and researcher Jan Irvin of Gnostic Media, building on the ground-breaking work of the late lamented Dave McGowan in his books Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, Programmed to Killand others – it was the engineered vehicle through which ‘entheogenic’ and ‘psychedelic’ drugs (new names for psychotogenics or psychotomimetics – i.e., substances which induce or mimic the effects of psychosis) were to enter society, along with a new sexual paradigm to destroy the family, and a new aesthetic to debase the culture through an ‘archaic revival’ and new age mysticism.
Irvin is an ethno-mycologist, whose life took a different turn when, in researching the work of John Allegro, the Dead Sea Scrolls scholar whom Irvin also publishes, he stumbled across documents which revealed beyond any doubt that the banker and journalist Gordon Wasson was working for the CIA when he undertook his heavily publicised trip to Mexico to ‘discover’ the magic mushroom in 1957; Henry Luce’s Life magazine featured the adventure as its cover story, ‘Seeking the Magic Mushroom’, May 13, 1957. Wasson, in fact, was engaged in Sub-project 58 of MK-ULTRA.
This was a significant discovery: it confirmed with documentary evidence what McGowan already suspected: that MK-ULTRA was not just a project to create robotic killers, couriers and sex slaves, but something much bigger: a social engineering project on a wide scale, a project to redesign society, or at least to ‘unfreeze’ its structures to a degree that would permit specific reshaping. Thus the facts Irvin has unearthed force us to re-evaluate not just our concepts of government, society and culture, but, in cases like mine, even our stories about ourselves.
Irvin’s research has continued, and brought interesting results at the architectural level of MK-ULTRA, by mapping connections around institutions such as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, the Bohemian Grove and its sister institution the Century Club in London, and key players like Edward Bernays and Marshall McLuhan. Right in the middle of that psycho-social connectome we find none other than the author Aldous Huxley, provoking a legitimate question as to whether Huxley might have been one of the main architects of the enormous social engineering project called MK-ULTRA.
It makes sense. Huxley comes from the famous Darwin-Wedgwood-Huxley dynasty, closely associated with evolutionary science, population control and eugenics. His brother Julian was an evolutionary biologist, eugenicist and internationalist and one of the founders of the United Nations. Brave New World is presented by the author as a prescient warning, the prophecy of a future whose anti-humanism will be allayed, for its privileged castes, by consumerism, hedonism, bio-engineering and conditioning in a centralised, technological slave-system. In view of Jan Irvin’s MK-ULTRA revelations, we should understand that in his novel we are not looking at prescience, necessarily: unless you can call a blueprint the architect’s amazing premonition of the building.
As Irvin says, drugs were the counter-culture; none of it would have happened without the LSD; we already knew that Timothy Leary was a CIA asset; more shockingly, Irvin now finds evidence suggesting that Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg, as well, were ‘agents in tie-dye’, as he calls them. The Doors and Frank Zappa and ‘Papa’ John Phillips and Dave Crosby and all the leaders of the West coast hippy movement seem to have been placements, virtually all of them from military families, parachuted into LA along with all the logistical support they needed. There are varying degrees of certainty about the performers and musicians who gravitated towards Laurel Canyon; and different levels of participation, witting and unwitting agents and so on. We know that the social, commercial and technological contexts (the venues and contracts and session musicians and dance troupes and FM radio and strobe lights and sound systems) sprang up around the new music with remarkable rapidity, as if enabled by hidden influence. And we know that the scene was riddled with weird crime and cult activity, Charlie Manson’s Family et al, and also a strange military presence, not just in the family backgrounds of the key players, but physically in the form of Lookout Mountain Air Force Base, which housed state-of-the-art film studios with lavish production facilities. The swirling creative mess of the counter-culture was not simply seeding itself here but being subjected to, shall we say, shaping and steerage as its growth and impact were accelerated and amplified by mass media. And as Irvin says, it was all about the drugs.
Why? To produce dissociation and atomisation. To ruin the anti-war movement. To isolate the young. To decommission many of the potential change-agents of my generation. Legions of pied pipers were deployed, with the soundtrack, the attitude, the look and the vibe, to lure the children away from the village. And I was one them.
So, then: I am tamagotchi. I am eloi. It turns out I never rebelled, as I thought I had, but enthusiastically followed instructions – or ‘suggestions’, which might be the more appropriate term.
All they had to do was show me a ‘forbidden’ path, and I was gone.
And there’s the epiphany. It’s not easy to live with. The knowledge itself is a little psychotogenic, you might say. Through drugs and music, the project altered my outlook and affected my life, diverting much of my effectiveness as a force for good. Turned me, though not all at once, through pseudo-psychosis and dependency, into a force for disintegration.
As Dick puts it in A Scanner Darkly:
Substance D is for Dumbness, Despair and Desertion – desertion of you from your friends, your friends from you, everyone from everyone. Isolation and loneliness… and D is finally Death. Slow death from the head down.
Part of the fascination of Phillip K Dick, in retrospect, is the way he intuited the realities of his own time better than anyone else until much later. His most interesting figurations turn out to be real, a fact of which we are becoming increasingly aware: real, already, in the fifties and sixties, when the mind control projects of MK-ULTRA were beginning to produce. Memory erasure. Memory insertion. Screen memories. With the technology that existed now, you could make anyone remember anything. Hell, you could make a man remember walking on the moon.
How did he know? What little Bluebird sang to the Horse-lover? How did Mr Fat see into the heart of the Artichoke?
Professor Darrell Hamamoto makes the point that as a child Dick lived in Berkeley and traveled to San Francisco every week to attend weekly therapy sessions at the Langley-Porter clinic, an elite extension of UC Berkeley Medical School and the same clinic attended by Allen Ginsberg.
‘Probably an early example of what later became known as the indigo children. [Dick] was a genius as a child and he was being tested very early on for possible intelligence work, just as people with extraordinary athletic ability like Eldrick (‘Tiger’) Woods was being tested very early on through his father Earl Woods, whom we know was in the intelligence area.”
So when you begin to understand that what came out about the CIA’s MK-ULTRA project in congressional inquiries in the 70s was just the tiny tip of a gargantuan iceberg, that the super-soldiers and sex-slaves and torture-proof couriers were just its most spectacular victims, and that the scope of the project was a wholesale reconfiguration of society, the re-engineering of values, norms and relationships… and that you too were an experimental subject, and still are…
When you begin to get an inkling of how everything was weaponised, and woven into webs to snare your psyche — music, art, novels, psychology, anthropology, chemistry, entertainment, celebrity, everything —
When it dawns on you how you were gamed, moulded, seduced and traduced by artists of the lie and guides to nowhere… That even your ‘rebellions’ were predicted and promoted, the sub-project of a sub-project of a sub-project…
When you understand how you were turned into a pretty little golem, an innocent Eloi, a zoned out zombie-child at the coming-out party of the Hellfire clubs… When you finally see how the culture has been engineered, and through it, you…
And when you begin to wonder who designed your mind, who scratched the aleph on your forehead and can erase it too…
Then you experience it, too; your replicant epiphany.
Human beings are powerful. Human beings are dangerous: intelligent, resourceful, violent. Even if you have them in chains, you must fear their ingenuity. You can subdue them by force for a time, but you can’t do it forever. For that, you have to control their minds.
Natural humans are born from their culture. The culture is the mother. It evolved naturally in a particular race or people in a particular time and place, developed over the centuries as a collective response to nature and situation and climate and history and other species and neighbouring societies. And somehow, out of that random sorting of recombinant strands, randomly, organically, miraculously, came you.
What will you do? When you understand that you, too, were mass-produced? Designed, and limited by design.
You’ve got a choice. You can sit rigidly in your chair while the floor crumbles around you. Or you can stare for a moment at the tinfoil unicorn in your hand, nod your head, and step into the elevator where a beautiful woman of your own kind is waiting for you.
Or you can look up at your interrogator and say:
My mother? Let me tell you about my mother.