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

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art


Arthur Conan Doyle: Playing with Fire

Reception of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional output has been unbalanced by the huge success of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Mike Ashley, editor of this selection of Doyle’s stories of the uncanny and incredible, notes that Doyle’s horror and supernatural stories outnumber his Holmes stories. Playing with Fire brings together his best stories, as well as the essay “Stranger Than Fiction” (1915), in which Doyle addresses his experiences in spiritualism and inexplicable (or highly improbable coincidence). He spent a night in a haunted house and was awoken by a fearful hammering coming from inside the house. He found no person or other cause was found; the doors and windows were bolted and locked.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a devoted reader and teller of strange tales. The morbid and uncanny often intrude into the Holmes stories and sometimes form the basis of them. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” and “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” both play on the reader’s innate repulsion towards the unnatural. Doyle’s first submission to a professional story magazine (at the age of 18 or 19) was a horror story to Blackwood’s. They declined; the manuscript was discovered and published in 2000. He was published soon after that initial rejection. During his years as a medical student he published stories occasionally, along with some medical papers. In addition to his detective stories and weird tales, Doyle wrote historical novels and science-fiction stories.  

Doyle’s attachment to rationality, science and logic warred with his fixation – even obsession – with the macabre and supernatural. Fascinated by telepathy and parapsychology, Doyle was in contact with the Society for Psychical Research during the late 1880s and joined the organisation in 1893. He exposed hoaxes, as well as considering some experiences potentially authentic. Doyle treated seriously the quest to communicate with souls and spirits, considering such activity as an extension of science rather than a contradiction of it. This took on a painfully personal aspect when Doyle’s son died during service in the Great War. He was caught out by the 1920 Cottingley Fairies hoax, which damaged his credibility. The editor notes, “Doyle’s ability to convince himself of what others saw as fakery was the same ability with which he could create living and breathing characters in his fiction, and powerful and memorable imagery.”

“The Captain of the ‘Polestar’” (1883) is inspired Doyle’s voyage on board a Scottish whaler in the Arctic. His narrator writes a diary of a whaler steaming ever deeper into the ice floes, commanded by a captain blind with ambition that seems irrational. They risk being frozen in and their ship being crushed to matchwood by the power of the ice. The captain seems gripped by madness, while the crew see visions of a ghostly apparition on the sea ice. The narrator is a man of science, sceptical, attempting to ward off his disquiet with rationalisation. It is powerfully atmospheric tale, that should have been longer. As is common with Doyle, he tended to end his stories before the mystery was wrung out of them.  

“The Winning Shot” (1883) is a tale about a mysterious Swedish sailor whom a couple meet on Dartmoor. The sailor is invited to stay in the family home and he develops an infatuation with the female narrator. When he is rejected he wreaks his revenge. “John Barrington Cowles” (1884) is about a beautiful femme fatale who destroys the men who fall in love with her. Her powers may come from the Orient, though the exact connection is left for readers to infer. Other stories are “De Profundis”, “The Parasite”, “The Story of the Brown Hand”, “Playing with Fire”, “The Leather Funnel”, “The Terror of Blue John Gap”, “How it Happened”, “The Horror of the Heights” and “The Bully of Brocas Court”, which deal with ghosts, visions, mesmerism, spirit communication, monsters and mental imbalance.

Most could be called stories of mystery or the weird, a few (especially “The Leather Funnel” and “The Terror of Blue John Gap”) fall into the category of the horror story. The stories have the characteristic brisk pacing, broad well-judged vocabulary and crime story format of the author’s Sherlock Holmes tales. As was a common trope, many of the stories are framed as diary extracts or dialogues between fictional characters. Although some work better than others – the aerial dogfight with a gelatinous monster is as fun as it is silly – all are diverting and worth becoming reacquainted with. All the stories have been collected in different volumes; seeing them together in one volume themed on the supernatural is very welcome. They work very well as a group, building a feeling of unease. It is an ideal companion for long winter nights.  

The only fault in this book is a notice apologising for any offence taken by readers upset by racial stereotyping or outmoded idioms. “We acknowledge therefore that some elements in the stories selected for reprinting may continue to make uncomfortable reading for some of our audience.” This is unnecessary. The publishing arm of a national library should not be apologising for reproducing the work of classic authors loved and respected by generations of readers.     

Arthur Conan Doyle, Playing with Fire: The Weird Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, The British Library, 2021, hardback, 288pp, £14.99, ISBN  978 0 7123 5425 7

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art