The singularity arrived on the first day of November. We had known it would be coming all along. I don’t mean this in the big picture sense, in which artificial intelligence finally surpasses us, but rather in a more small-bore local incarnation: the moment Los Angeles gets out of its own way.
November 2019, after all, is the month and year in which Blade Runner takes place, a flashpoint in the imagined future of Southern California, rendered (as it has largely ever been) in the most dystopian way. For nearly forty years, Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction thriller has represented a kind of scanner darkly through which to view Los Angeles as a landscape of disorder, its center crumbling, its streets lit up with neon and with rain.
That this was true, or truer, in 1982, should go without saying; the city of that era appeared on its way to breaking into enclaves, what Mike Davis labeled “Fortress L.A.” in his book, City of Quartz. Blade Runner makes that sensibility explicit through its locations, most notably the Bradbury Building, a 19th-century masterpiece that still stands on the corner of Third Street and Broadway. The Bradbury was built in 1893, from a design influenced by Edward Bellamy’s 1887 utopian fantasia Looking Backward, which may or may not be the earliest American science fiction novel; its interior presents open corridors and iron latticework arranged around a central atrium.
“It was the first interior of a 20th-century public building that I had ever beheld,” Bellamy writes, describing a structure that might as well be the Bradbury, “and the spectacle naturally impressed me deeply. I was in a vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above.” This suggests another form of singularity: past and present overlapping as they lay the groundwork for the future, the notion of history as a lingering presence, the trace of (yes) an animus or soul.
Don’t get me wrong: I come to praise Blade Runner, not to bury it. When I arrived in Los Angeles, less than a decade after its release, the movie’s sensibility, its vision of the city as disrupted and chaotic, was a signifier I thought I recognized. From where I lived — first in the Fairfax District, then Pico-Robertson — downtown glittered in the distance like the Emerald City, but it was ghostly after hours, given over to the homeless, who wandered it like wraiths. The local narratives were about dislocation: Rodney King, Northridge, O.J. Simpson. The local narratives were, as they have long been, about the balance between artifice and authenticity.
In its way, Blade Runner addresses both; a piece of science fiction filtered through the lens of noir, it consciously sought to play with, or against, the city’s myths and its reality. Hence, the darkness and the nightscapes. Hence, the desolation and the desiccated streets. At the movie’s outset, its protagonist, a cop named Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), is assigned to hunt down a group of replicants, or cyborgs, who have come to earth illegally. The question, of course, is how to distinguish them from humans.
This is a key concern in the film, which takes place in a highly artificial environment, where billboards come to life in three-dimensions and technology has altered the fabric of the world. In such a landscape, what is real and what has been created? Is there any way to distinguish between the two? If we make meaning out of memory, out of the sum of our experiences, what happens when those memories are revealed as an illusion, bought and paid for at the point of a microchip?
Such a question motivates much of the writing of Philip K. Dick, who created the Blade Runner universe in his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? For Dick, the only issue worth considering is that of substance: How do we know we’re real? That such an inquiry seems more relevant now, in a world of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, goes without saying, and yet, calling Dick’s novel or the film prescient is, in some essential fashion, also to miss the point.
The future, after all, is never just the future; it always arrives rooted in the past. This is the case with both history and science fiction, which plays out less as prognostication than extrapolation, the act of imagining a new world from the seeds of contemporary life. In the 1980s and 1990s, Southern California film and fiction was rife with apocalypse. I think of Steve Erickson’s Rubicon Beach, published in 1986, which imagines a flooded Los Angeles. I think of Cynthia Kadohata’s 1992 novel In the Heart of the Valley of Love, which jumps six decades into the future to describe a city in the midst of environmental and social collapse. I think of Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film Falling Down (the production of which was disrupted by the Rodney King riots), which portrays a city at the breaking point.
The Los Angeles these works evoke is not dissimilar to that portrayed in City of Quartz, which was regarded as a definitive, and long overdue, corrective when it came out in 1990. And yet, from the perspective of the present, it’s that corrective that may need to be corrected, that seems as incomplete, as conjectural, as the 2019 city imagined by Scott. Davis, as it turns out, was mistaken: Los Angeles did not split into microclimates, breakaway republics; if anything, the city has coalesced. Mass transit, neighborhoods, community: These are the terms by which Los Angeles aspires to reframe itself. That is not to say the divided city doesn’t linger: terminal gridlock, income inequality, climate catastrophe. What’s most compelling about Southern California in 2019 is not that it is one thing or the other, but rather, its polarities.
All the same, Blade Runner … well, let’s just say that it is hard to shake off, that it remains as evocative as a set of memories implanted from an invented source. Scott’s vision of the city — dark, storm-swept, a landscape of neon and cultural cross-pollination — is still suggested by the visual landscape we daily navigate. It’s an inverted vernacular, or maybe a self-fulfilling prophecy, a story we told ourselves about the future that turned out to influence that future, if not quite as we thought it would. Imagine L.A. Live, the entertainment complex across from Staples Center: an artificial cityscape, public space as destination, dominated (not unlike Times Square) by HD advertisements and video displays. That both is and isn’t the territory of Blade Runner, or perhaps it’s a less dystopian version, or dystopian in a kinder, gentler way. The city, in other words, is not a vast slum but a vast gallery of amusements. This is the future we’ve been constructing all along.
Here, we see the fallacy of near-future science fiction, because it never works out as planned. Time is too short, but also too malleable; reality takes too many unexpected turns. Harry Harrison’s 1966 dystopia Make Room! Make Room!—the source for the movie Soylent Green—was set in 1999, in an overpopulated Manhattan of 40 million souls. The book’s dedication reads, “To Todd and Moria – For your sakes, children, I hope this proves to be a work of fiction.” By the time 1999 rolled around, Manhattan faced a different set of problems, but Harrison’s imagined future was impossible to erase. So, too, Blade Runner’s vision of Los Angeles, even though the city it represents is now behind us, rather than the one in which we live.
In some sense, this is as it should be. We are always caught between reality and perception; we are always deceiving ourselves. That is the purpose (or one of them) of movies, to draw us into an imagined landscape that we believe as if it were our own. Now we find ourselves living, as we always do, in a transitional moment, in the shadow of the singularity. Or no, not the shadow, but the after and before life, suspended between science fact and science fiction, in which the present and the future can’t help but overlap each other within the crucible of the real.
David L. Ulin is Alta’s Books editor. He edited the Library of America’s Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s.