Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
“Bladerunner 2049 and Philosophy” contains more than two dozen essays analyzing the ethics, ideas, moral dilemmas and ramifications of the “Bladerunner” series. This book draws heavily both from the original “Bladerunner” movie and “Bladerunner 2049” sequel, while several essays refer to the “Bladerunner 2049” shorts as well. I’ll summarize each chapter as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each.
A Review of "Blade Runner 2049 and Philosophy"
Section 1 of "Blade Runner 2049 and Philosophy" is titled “What makes us human?” I’ve always been interested in this theme. That’s why my own short story anthology was titled “Humanity’s Edge”. And Bladerunner takes us to that edge repeatedly.
Chapter 1 asks us if Joi and K are human. It explores the philosophical nature of the sex scene between Joi, K and Mariette, though this isn’t the only chapter to do so. (Others argue whether Joi or Mariette is really present.) At the same time, the author shows up all the different meanings of real used in the movie.
Chapter 2 asks if Joi is a person though she’s without a physical body and what would make her so.
Chapter 3 asks what real means and what it means to the various main characters. Depending on your definition, K, Joi and the dehumanized humans may not count as “real”. This is the only chapter to discuss how Joi’s attempts to make K happy and hatred of the book “Pale Fire” may hint as his disdain of the existing order and existing ability to lie.
Chapter 4 asks what sublime and aesthetics even mean. It also offers a good explanation as to how the baseline test works based on aesthetics, creating a better test for detecting emotional deviance in replicant bladerunners.
Chapter 5 is the replicant’s guide to being human. It starts by asking what it means to be human before explaining how the answer to this question leads to a path toward becoming human. This chapter also provides a good contrast between the popular definition of stoicism and the real meaning of the philosophy.
Chapter 6 asks us whether humanity is defined by thought, form or action before presenting examples within the franchise of how various characters meet several or even all of the criteria. It echoes the theory of how biology affects thought patterns such as when we equate looking to awareness and grasping with possession and understanding.
Chapter 7 defines both human and post-human for us. It toys with the idea that the post-human becomes human when it procreates like humans, gaining the same moral weight and, as K put it, a soul. This idea was also reflected in the Battlestar Galactica rebooted series. The humanoid cylons were determined to create a living child in their image. Because they said God was love, they decided that the reason they were sterile was that they hadn’t yet tried to combine bodies in love. Sharon and Helo made Hera, a revered Christ-like birth that the series then made the ancestor for modern humanity.
Chapter 8 is the first focused on Joi. Is Joi a person? Do others think she is a person? Does she think of herself as a person? All of these are separate questions and have different answers. This piece pulls a lot from Buddhist philosophy.
Chapter 9 discusses the ethical challenges posed by claiming birth equals souls and moral value. If you have to be born of a woman to have moral value, is this unfair to AI and post-humans like Joi and K?
Chapter 10 is an unusual departure from the other essays and discusses the ethics of designer babies in addition to limiting artificial creations. Is it ethical to make your child more beautiful, more intelligent or a better athlete? And what rights do parents/creators have over creations/children? The answer to this determines the rights of the created.
Chapter 11 focuses on AI like Joi. It pulls from Frankenstein and Genesis while analyzing, in part, Niander Wallace.
Chapter 12 is a pure character study of Niander Wallace, the main protagonist. We’re told how he fits the trope of the supervillain. There’s no analysis of the relative lack of detail or backstory of the character. Instead, he’s framed as “enigmatic”. The modern tendency to present both very blank or thinly sketched villains like Niander Wallace or heroes like Neo of the Matrix is a post-modern trend intended to both let as many as people project what they will on the main character and eliminate the challenges of fleshing out such characters. Just focus on the amazing visuals and sell the story worldwide.
Chapter 13 discusses the role of cops in Bladerunner and the associated moral/philosophical issues.
Chapter 14 starts with a discussion of how the Blackout was necessary to create the world of Bladerunner 2049. It then turns into a communist apologist piece and moral attack on capitalism. Unfortunately, it is only the first such chapter to do so.
Chapter 15 looks at the phenomenology of replicant life and death. It analyzes the presentation of replicants killing both each other and humans in both the original movie and the sequel.
Chapter 16 tries to puzzle out the nature of identity and moral agency in relationships. It is also one of the chapters that pulls heavily from Kant. This is the only piece that parallels Deckard’s final scenes in both movies, his continued life and hope only possible because of the (final) act of kindness of a dying replicant.
Chapter 17 analyzes both the religious terminology and ideas used in Bladerunner. Niander Wallace’s role as a false god or human possessing a Messiah complex is compared to the Demiurge in Gnosticism.
Chapter 18 draws from Kierkegard to compare the ethical journey of K to the character Luv.
Chapter 19 returns to the original premise – what makes you human or inhuman? The chapter discusses the fact that replicants don’t face a death penalty unless they flee service. Their offense is a violation of social norms, akin to the death penalty for an apostate/critic under Islam, equated to harm and violence though someone like Rachel has hurt no one. This penalty for escaping slaves isn’t unique in fiction; it is also seen in the Draka Domination series. This chapter also compares the incredibly inhuman humans to the very human replicants.
Chapter 20 starts with the original hero of sorts of the first Bladerunner movie, Roy Batty. He destroys his world’s holy trinity while seeking to prolong his own life. It then analyzes Bladerunner through an existentialist lens. Here, Niander’s combined role as an inferior false god and man with a God complex are fleshed out.
Chapter 21 is the first feminist/social justice chapter and the only one with strong merit. It analyzes the ethical dilemma Joi poses while comparing gender identity with human identity.
Chapter 22 starts to analyze the anti-narrative and precession of the removal of Rachel from the narrative. Rachel is the most important person to the story barring her daughter, but she’s absent but for various echoes, ghosts and recreations.
Chapter 23 is a pure women’s studies piece. It analyzes how replicant women undermine both gender and human identity. Chapter 21 is better.
Chapter 24 tries to argue that Bladerunner is a libertarian utopia, though it isn’t. It then falsely argues that libertarianism leads to and endorses slavery before discussing the various forms of slavery exemplified in the movie.
Chapter 25 is painful to read. It falsely compares replicants to illegal aliens, though the parallel to African slavery is valid. It then falsely equates illegal immigrants to African slaves. This is dishonest.
Chapter 26 tries to determine if artificial creatures can be an ethnic group. Its comparison of replicants to a despised minority group are valid, since we see K called a “skinjob” more than once and he lives knowing he can be killed for violating social norms. Then the author falsely inflates current issues in ethnic minority communities to historic harms. Yet no one discusses why the movie dropped the ethnic group parallel once K starts to think he’s the savior child.
Chapter 27 is another philosophical attack on capitalism, though this one attacks Big Corporations rather than libertarianism. Chapter 28 is repetitive, another Communist/social justice apology piece. Note – social justice is communism rebranded from a perpetual war of the classes to a war between demographic groups. The political prescription of a totalitarian nanny state micromanaging everyone’s affairs in the name of fairness are unchanged. The publisher needs to a hefty dose of ideology diversity to break up the repetitiveness.
Note: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for a review.
This book is a fine piece of analysis of the entire Blade Runner franchise. If it had not been for the disappointing final few chapters, I would have given it five stars. I have "Blade Runner and Philosophy" four stars.
© 2019 Tamara Wilhite
Robert Arvanitis on April 15, 2021:
Excellent - shows strengths and shortcomings of the book being reviewed, Net effect makes you want to buy.