William Burroughs, “Blade Runner: A Movie”

Source of disappointment and confusion for two generations of fans of Ridley Scott’s eponymous sci-fi movie, William Burroughs’s unrelated book Blade Runner: A Movie is republished by Tangerine Press. The short text – which is comprised of a series of prose scenes or routines – was originally published in 1979. It appears here in a new edition, with a frontispiece photograph of the author and an introduction written by Burroughs expert Professor Oliver Harris.

In the introduction, Harris explains the indirect, accretion-evolution of Blade Runner. Burroughs read Alan E. Nourse’s novel The Bladerunner (1974) soon after its publication and by 1976 (newly arrived in New York, roughly three decades since his departure) had embarked on writing his version. It was nominally a movie treatment, nothing close to a conventional script. Burroughs had been stimulated by the lifting of many restrictions on pornographic cinema in the early 1970s, which he had seen on visits to New York prior to his move there in 1974. Completed in 1977, Burroughs realistically accepted that his text was not suitable for even the most outré of independent cinéastes of the era. Burroughs then repurposed the treatment as a novella-length book.  

It was Nourse’s novel about medical smuggling in a sci-fi future that provided the name for Burroughs. It was from Burroughs that Hampton Fancher took the title for his film script adaptation of Philip K. Dicks’s novel Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep?, that would become Scott’s 1982 film. As it happened, neither Burroughs or Nourse’s books influenced the content of that script, beyond the title.

So, what of Blade Runner itself? It bears little resemblance to Nourse’s novel. Burroughs gives us the rollicking foul-mouthed satire of the excesses of the politico-medical complex in the near future. Burroughs’s text is both Modernist and Post-Modernist. It is Modernist in that it is deliberately dense, self-aware, assertively artificial, alienating and politically provocative; it is Post-Modernist in that is ironical, destabilising, self-negating.

It opens with an unnamed narrator pitching the Blade Runner film to a studio executive. “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.” The film will be a satire of the crippling medical insurance/services racket in the USA and the social collapse resulting from a system of exploitation growing to epic levels. The critique could appeal to both the big-state socialist and low-tax conservative through its depiction of a dysfunctional system that fails to provide adequately to the average-income man while taxing him exorbitantly. “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.”

In reaction to the insane costs and bureaucratic resistance, the population of Manhattan has turned to underground medicine – the smuggling of medical supplies – a rare direct link to Nourse’s novel in Burroughs’ narrative. Societal collapse gives rise to a nightmare New York. The subway is reduced to a sluggish partial service. “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. The upper reaches of derelict skyscrapers, without elevator service since the riots […] Buildings are joined by suspension bridges, a maze of platforms, catwalks, slides, lifts.”

Protagonist Billy will save humanity from a deadly virus. His story is told in a series of impressionistic scenarios described in Burroughsian poetic-satirical eroticism, generating a flickering delirium of a montage of scratched silent footage or jumbled phantograms.

In many ways, Blade Runner is a recapitulation of Burroughs’ greatest hits. The comic routines here are from Burroughs’s pre-existing roster of scientifically-shrewd dystopian medical science and anarchic exploits in doctoring – half prophecy, half silent comedy. There are glimpses of a failing metropolis that resembles strike-ridden impoverished London and riot-scarred New York on the verge of bankruptcy. Both were cities with which Burroughs had deep familiarity. Touches of archaic technology being used to replace broken modern systems will remind some readers of steampunk. Escape from New York (1981), Robocop (1987) and the Deathwish vigilante films are also handy comparators for this failed and feral metropolis.   

Burroughs presents us the racial conflicts of tribalisation in Balkanised city, the dream of post-racialism impossibly distant. Considering the race riots in the USA of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Burroughs was as much re-presenting a pre-existing reality to his readers, as he was using his powers of imagination. It is difficult to tell if the legalisation of heroin is satire, considering the methadone programs of various local and national public health systems. In another scene, a taxpayer complains of being forced to fund “Queer sex orgies and injections of marijuana”.

The people work to combat the forces of the medico-military complex, using their ingenuity and improvised weapons. Life-lengthening drugs have caused dysgenic deterioration of the population in a manner predicted by social Darwinists. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics has rendered the population of Western cities as vulnerable as “the Indians and South Sea Islanders on first contact with the whites.” An ancient virus is released by a scientist to combat an accelerated form of cancer. All the while, the population is deprived of basic medication and access to Wilhelm Reich’s orgone treatment. (Burroughs was a supporter of fringe medical figure Reich, who was hounded for his quasi-spiritual theories and whose writings were destroyed by the American government. This also comes up in the original manuscript of his first published novel, Junkie (1953).)

Blade Runner includes scenes of homosexual sex and gun action, as well as social commentary and comedy, making it typical of Burroughs’s writing. With Burroughs, we cannot be sure he is not relishing depravities even as he mocks them. Burroughs is the most complex of all writers because of the interleaving levels of ethical and artistic contradiction present in his life and writing. Burroughs can be legitimately interpreted as Stoic, Buddhist, moral patriarch, Modernist, Post-Modernist, decadent, individualist, communitarian, post-humanist, conservationist, reactionary and libertarian.

Burroughs advocates for affordable healthcare as he delights in describing scenes of mayhem, wherein elaborate boobytraps are deployed against soldiers. Not that these points are necessarily in contradiction – and Burroughs should not be read as anything less than primarily a writer of the freewheeling imagination and comic paradox – but it makes constructing a settled, coherent, moral narrative from Burroughs’s fiction nearly impossible. One might draw absolutely multiple opposing interpretations from a Burroughs text and all be valid.   

Overall, Blade Runner is a short, accessible romp, lacking involved plot and differentiated characters. For fans of Naked Lunch (1959) and Interzone (1989), this book is an ideal addition, with its own tone and content. Although Burroughs is in the habit of recycling material, collaging and overlayering it in hectic fashion, the distinct setting and common threads make Blade Runner more memorable than some of the other Burroughs books of the 1970s. Recommended for enthusiasts and those wishing to sample classic Burroughs for the first time.

William S. Burroughs, Oliver Harris (intro.), Blade Runner: A Movie, Tangerine Press, (second printing) 2022, paperback, 96pp, 1 mono illus., £9, ISBN 978 1 910 69 1908

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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