"Blade Runner" and the Cyberpunk Narrative. Is Cyberpunk a Dystopian Narrative or a Genre of its own?

Seminar Paper, 2017

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Content


2. Utopia and the Dystopian Fantasy
2.1 Utopia
2.2 The Dystopian Fantasy compared to Utopian Concepts —
2.3 Motives of Dystopian Fantasies
2.4 The Cyberpunk Fantasy
2.5 Cyberpunk and Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction

3. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner
3.1 The Depiction of the City of Los Angeles in Blade Runner-
3.1.1 The Architecture of Los Angeles in Blade Runner
3.1.2 The Population of Blade Runner Los Angeles
3.2 Blade Runner as Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

The reference “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” (Blade Runner: The Final Cut 01:52:48) marks one of the most iconic monologues in movie history. It perfectly describes the confusing life within a dystopian future from the perspec­tive of a being, whose existence is a comment on life itself.

Replicants, artificial life, flying cars, dirty streets, confusing architecture and big corporations fill the narration of Blade Runner, often claimed as the showpiece of the art form of cyberpunk. What is cyberpunk? What is cyber? What is punk?

This seminar paper will examine the origins of the cyberpunk narrative by ampli­fying its roots, the dystopian scenario. Furthermore the dystopian roots within the utopian narrative will be specified.

Using the example of Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner the significance of the city of Los Angeles within the cyberpunk narrative will be examined and the importance of the classic hard-boiled detective crime fiction will be put into con­trast to Scott’s visionary image of 2019 Los Angeles.

Is cyberpunk just another version of the dystopian narrative or is it a genre on its own? Is the narration within the cyberpunk universe still relevant or is the cyber­punk era already over?

By examining possible roots of the cyberpunk narration within the hard-boiled crime fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, a connection to Scott’s Blade Runner is tried to be reasoned.

2. Utopia and the Dystopian Fantasy

The dystopian narrative is very popular within contemporary mainstream pop- culture. The revival of the dystopian novel reached a new amount of popularity with young-adult novels such as the 2010 The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2009 The Maze Runner by James Dashner or the revival of the James Cameron Terminator-franchise with Terminator Salvation from 2009 and Terminator Genisys from 2015.

To understand the premise of the dystopian narrative, its foundation, the utopian narrative, needs to be explained.

2.1 Utopia

The term Utopia can be understood as a counterdraft to the concept of the dysto­pian fantasy. It is coined by the 1516 Thomas More novel De optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula Utopia in which More tells a story of a traveller who de­scribes his visit to the island of Utopia, home of a totalitarian society in a world, far away from the contemporary monarchy in England.

The questions raised in Thomas More’s philosophical travel report discuss the importance of conformity, political systems, religion in a pluralistic society, obe­dience of law and the general question of humanity within a totalitarian regime. The idea of an utopian society inhabits the concept, that this form of society is de- facto not possible to exist. The Utopian fantasy always includes questions or criti­cism towards society itself.

More’s writing was influenced by the fact, that the monarchy he lived in could not be criticized in any form without fearing harsh consequences like prison or death. Despite the hidden nature of More’s criticism in his novel, More was executed by the command of King Henry VIII.

The topics discussed in More’s work can not only be seen as a picture of a ficti­tious non-world (cf. Berghahn, Seeber 7) but also as a template for any society regarding the realization of the positive aspects of an utopian society.

A culture without utopian fantasies might be headed towards a society without vitality. Aspects of the utopian idea might influence an imperfect reality and may­be influence it in a positive way (cf. Berghahn, Seeber 8-9).

Oscar Wilde described in his 1891 essay The Soul of Man under Socialism the significance of utopian thinking for any society and how it can influence people’s actions and goals.

There will be great storages of force for every city, and for every house if required, and this force man will convert into heat, light, or motion, ac­cording to his needs. Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias. (Wilde 43)

2.2 The Dystopian Fantasy compared to Utopian Concepts

While the utopian concept consists of the imagination of primarily perfect socie­ties, the dystopian narrative can be perceived as the alternative draft to the utopian ideology. A dystopia consists of nightmarish visions of fear and danger. A society within the concept of a dystopian worldview can be regarded as a progression of the utopian concept. When utopian novels developed from Thomas More’s 16th century narrative to narratives from the 20th century, more aspects of contempo­rary socio-economic and political questions merged into the concepts of utopian narration. The questioned ‘perfect’ utopian society began to be perceived as a cir­cumstance, which definitely cannot be true. Science-fiction authors began to let simple questions challenge the perception of the world and maybe let them turn into narratives of alternative realities.

(...) the long observed phenomenon that a classic sf story frequently originates with a question beginning ‘What if . . . ?’ arising in the au­thor’s mind. What if a handful of people survived a nuclear holocaust? What if humanity came across alien intelligence on Mars? What if men were wiped out by a gender-specific virus? What if Hitler had won the war or the Roman Empire had never fallen? What if time-traveller kid­napped Jesus the night before the crucifixion? Or even, as a throw-away line in a novel, what if God’s corpse was discovered in deep space? (James 108-109)

The dystopian aspect influences the science-fiction narrative as a whole, for it mixes in new ways to perceive the non-worlds, the reader is already familiar with through the literary genre, Thomas More started. The new aspects which construct this new way of perceiving the utopian narrative are twist-questions like those mentioned above. The factor of hypotheses in such a context are declared as ‘novums’ by the Canadian critic and McGill University professor of Montreal.

(...) sf is usually just as much about history as it is about science. Sf writers have to construct new histories, of our own world or of others, in order to set their novum (or novums) in context and discuss its (or their) impact upon individuals or society as a whole- that is, to discuss the his­torical impact of the novum. (James 109)

Another aspect regarding the developing from dystopian concepts from utopian concepts is the question of a realistic practicability of utopian concepts. Some arguments regarding this question point out, that utopian societies tend to turn into dystopias because of factors like oppressive societies, the tyranny of the ‘perfect’ system, the aspect of the will of the individual in a society of conformity and the oppression of minorities. (cf. James, Mendelsohn 220)

2.3 Motives of Dystopian Fantasies

The dystopian narrative comprises of comprehensive attributes within its genre. To draw an image of a nightmarish alternative past, present or future, many au­thors and other artists depict their scenarios with images of many common themes. The most commonly used motives and of the dystopian narrative are listed down below with exceptional examples of this genre:

- Isolation: To be or feel alone within a confusing reality is a major theme of many dystopian narratives. The individual senses a fear of helplessness and overwhelming confusion in a misanthropic reality. In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 A Brave New World, society is divided into a class system consisting of hierarchical groups such as Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsi­lons. In the 1999 movie The Matrix by the Wachowski Brothers, the Pro­tagonist Thomas Anderson/Neo lives a lonely and isolated life in his small apartment. In this scenario, the protagonist senses that there is something wrong with the reality he knows and he starts to look for answers in the cyberspace.

- Collectivism: Thomas More’s imagination of the fictive utopian society introduced the notion of the loss of individualism within a totalitarian so­ciety. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character Win­ston Smith starts to question his government’s totalitarian doctrine, every citizen has to obey. To question the government means to question a sys­tem, everyone he knows believes in.

- Control: The 2002 Kurt Wimmer movie Equilibrium depicts a dystopian life script in which human emotions are oppressed by drugs, distributed by a totalitarian government. Equilibrium is set in the alternative reality of a major city after the Third World War. The main protagonist John Preston discovers the unbearable amount of dehumanization within an emotionless world and starts to realize that the whole system he lives for is a lie. By discontinuing to take his emotion supressing drugs, prescribed by the gov­ernment, he starts to feel emotions again which, lead him to dream of a new world in which emotions are allowed.

- Lack of Resources: The 2015 post-apocalyptic dystopian movie Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller, tells a story of the remaining parts of society after a nuclear holocaust. The narrative accompanies the main protagonist Max Rockatansky during his journey through the deserts of the ruins of the world. The supply of water as a life-providing element is short and reason for existential wars in the last remaining parts of human civili­zation.

- Religion: In the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a Christian fundamentalist group has gathered and brainwashed the last re­maining fertile women in a totalitarian system. Religion as an institution, which is always perceived as worldwide organized and distributed into every part of human life, stands as a canvas for the dystopian fantasy. Re­ligious aspects contain many of the aforementioned motives of the dysto­pian narrative. In the concept of religion within the dystopian narrative, aspects of control, collectivism and isolation can be found.

- Government: The concept of governmental systems is one of the major as­pects of the dystopian scenery. Like mentioned before, the government in 1984 Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four controls the lives of every citizen through its ‘Ministry of Truth’ manipulation or through the concept of the all-seeing ‘Big Brother’. In Collin’s 2010 The Hunger Games, the totali­tarian government controls every aspect of life in the post-apocalyptic North America of the future from its governmental district in the affluent district one.

- Dehumanization: Like mentioned before, the story of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in the deserts of the ruins of a post- apocalyptic earth. Religious cults control the population through the mo­nopoly on water. The religious soldiers are not considered individual hu­man beings but anonymous ‘War Boys’. Most women are divided into breeders and feeders. Another example of dehumanization is also por­trayed in the Wachowski’s movie The Matrix. In this dystopian vision, machines have enslaved the human species and use them as resources of energy. Human life is only considered as fuel for the post-apocalyptic ma­chines roaming the remaining parts of the earth.

2.4 The Cyberpunk Fantasy

The development of science fiction went through many phases and gained a lot of new stylistic and narrative movements within its own genre. From sto­ries of extra-terrestrial life, the discovery of new worlds on earth or the narra­tive of dystopian societies in post-apocalyptic worlds: Science fiction is a mul­tifarious form of art.

One of the many sub-genres of science fiction is cyberpunk. This genre, which is indispensable in today’s diverse range of contemporary science fiction, started in the 1980s.

(...) the 1980s appear to be overshadowed by a new New Wave, labelled ‘cyberpunk’. It responded to the changing icons of the time, and appealed, or aimed to appeal, to a new generation of sf readers: ‘cyber’ from ‘cy­bernetics’, the study od systems in machines and animals, and ‘punk’ from 1970s rock terminology, meaning young, aggressive, alienated, an- ti-Establishement. (James 193)

Bonner argued in the essay Separate Development: Cyberpunk in Film and TV that movie adaptations like Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner or Lisberger’s 1982 Tron can be put into context with the determination of pieces of the cy­berpunk genre. Bonner’s argumentation claims movie adaptations to follow a certain pattern: they all discuss the frenetic pace within societies, the excess of information, the inverted millenarianism in forms of decaying city-structures, and the concentration on the four “C’s of cyberpunk film plotting”. (Slusser, Shippey 191)

Those are concentration on computers, corporations, crime and corporeality. Byer comments the corporate character of the cyberpunk narrative in Blade Runner as a capitalist future which has gone wrong.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


"Blade Runner" and the Cyberpunk Narrative. Is Cyberpunk a Dystopian Narrative or a Genre of its own?
University of Wuppertal  (Anglistik)
Narrating Los Angeles
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Los Angeles, Cyberpunk, Blade Runner, Dystopia, Metropolis, Utopia, Literary Studies, Anglistik, American Studies
Quote paper
Mike Gallo (Author), 2017, "Blade Runner" and the Cyberpunk Narrative. Is Cyberpunk a Dystopian Narrative or a Genre of its own?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/418903


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