Before Blade Runner, there was “The Bladerunner”

Sure, most fans know that Ridley Scott’s seminal science fiction classic, Blade Runner, is a film adaption of the equally classic science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick.  What most people don’t know is where the title came from; while Decker’s job is referred to as a “blade runner” within the film, this job is instead called a bounty hunter in the novel. Clearly, Blade Runner is a more evocative title – and definitely a dicier job title – but what inspired the change?

Where did that title come from?

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The answer to that question, my friends, is that a sci-fi author and physician by the name of Dr. Alan E. Nourse wrote a book called The Bladerunner in 1974.

Now before anyone gets too excited, Nourse’s The Bladerunner has absolutely nothing to do with the Ridley Scott’s movie, other than both of them sharing a futuristic setting.  In 1979, Nourse’s novel was adapted into a screenplay by William S. Burroughs, also titled Blade Runner, which went unproduced and unmade. So, when Ridley Scott and co went about making their film version of Philip K. Dick’s novel, and started bandying about titles – understandably, a mouthful like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? wasn’t going to fit so well on the posters – one of the screenwriters, Hampton Fancher, suggested the title “Blade Runner” based on Burrough’s screenplay. Ridley loved it, bought all rights to the title, and the rest is history.

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So, that said. Now that we know that Nourse’s The Bladerunner has nothing to do with the movie, a new question is raised: is the original Bladerunner any good? And for that matter, what’s it about?

Nourse’s pre-cyberpunk, edgy political story – which deals with themes that are remarkably topical in today’s economic climate, to the point where one wonders why no studio executive has scooped up the rights yet – is, at its core, a science fiction thriller about healthcare. Yes, healthcare, that familiar word we’re hearing on the news everyday. In The Bladerunner, Nourse envisions a future where the costs of healthcare have skyrocketed to such an extent that the government can no longer afford to provide decent healthcare coverage to the general population.  To combat the problem, a new law is passed.  A controversial law.  A law that provides excellent healthcare to anyone willing to pay the price for qualification – and that price is sterilization.

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Photo taken at Body Worlds Vital in Boston.

Basically, this means that only a few people get treated; seriously, even when those harsh flu symptoms last a bit longer than they should, do you really want to destroy your ability to ever continue your lineage, in one fell swoop? Luckily, there is one solution: underground doctors, and the so-called bladerunners that supply them with their illegal medical supplies.

So our primary protagonist is a club-footed teenager known as Billy Gimp, a bladerunner who works together with Doctor John Long and nurse Molly Barret to perform illegal surgeries on those who aren’t willing to pay the sterilization price. The risks are high, the potential legal ramifications deadly – but when a viral infection spreads rapidly across a population that isn’t willing to go to the hospital, the underground doctors and the bladerunners that supply them are about to become more important than anyone could have ever imagined.

Nourse’s novel is a story that’s focused on big ideas, a feature that is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The concepts that Nourse explores – from the downsides that come from overmedicating the population to the even worse problem of under-medicating – are fascinating, and the terrible “solution” that the government institutes in this novel is painted credibly. The fallout is equally believable, as anti-healthcare extremist groups break out, Big Brother-style monitoring becomes increasingly prevalent, and the lack of new medical students leads to the development of computerized robot doctors to replace the human ones. Nourse does an excellent job of portraying these ideas with enough verisimilitude that none of it feels over the top, and all of the futuristic technology is practical and down to earth. The future United States that is portrayed in The Bladerunner feels terrifyingly real.

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But while the ideas of The Bladerunner are intriguing, the novel suffers a bit when it comes to the human element. It often seems that the novel is so focused on debating its ideas that the actual characters never quite come to life. Billy Gimp is by far the most fleshed out character; Billy is a child trapped in an adult world, longing for fatherly acceptance from Doctor Long and hoping that someday the doctor will fix his clubfoot.   Still, the reader is left wishing to know more of Billy’s back story. What was Billy’s life like before he was a bladerunner?   What events shaped him into the person he is today? For that matter, what does he do when he’s not on the job? The author never really explores the characters in any depth , which is probably the only thing that has kept this novel from being recognized as a science fiction classic.

But overall, The Bladerunner is a book that deserves more acclaim. Its area of focus is highly unique, its allegorical message is interesting and most importantly, it asks hard questions that don’t come with easy answers. And although it deals with dark subjects, The Bladerunner possesses an endearing earnestness that makes it impossibly likable; a strong sense of idealism runs through the narrative, a belief that nothing is ever hopeless.  Putting the title aside, hopefully Alan Nourse’s The Bladerunner will someday receive the recognition it deserves.

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7 thoughts on “Before Blade Runner, there was “The Bladerunner”

    • I’ve read that original working titles were fairly generic, including such unexciting samples as “Dangerous Days” and “Android.” Compared to something like Dangerous Days, I can see why Ridley jumped at the Blade Runner title!

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