What is a Blade Runner, anyway?

Digging Into the Odd History of Blade Runner’s Title

Digging Into the Odd History of Blade Runner’s Title

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 5 2017 10:43 AM

Digging Into the Odd History of Blade Runner’s Title

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Why’s this guy called that thing?

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

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This article originally appeared in Vulture.

The Blade Runner franchise operates with a kind of dream logic where questions that might otherwise frustrate a viewer are subsumed by the overall ambience. Why would replicant manufacturers make their humanoid products so hard to identify? Why is the USSR still around as of 2049? How did Pris’s hair dry off so quickly? But perhaps the biggest incongruity that we take for granted is the title. Why the hell is Blade Runner called Blade Runner?

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Though the viewer is told in the opening text of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original that “special Blade Runner units” hunt renegade replicants—and though the term “Blade Runner” is applied to Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard a few times in the film—we’re never given an explanation of where the proper noun comes from. “Blade?” Deckard uses a gun, not a knife or sword. “Runner?” Sure, he runs at times, but not more than the average person might. Blade Runner 2049 has a few scenes that prominently feature scalpels, but they’re not wielded by a Blade Runner. The novel upon which Blade Runner was based, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, offers no clues: Deckard and his ilk are just cops, never referred to as Blade Runners. The term is impressionistic at best and nonsensical at worst.

That’s to be expected because, as it turns out, the term predates the original movie by eight years and was invented to apply to an entirely separate work of fiction. It was coined by a doctor who moonlit as a sci-fi author, fleshed out by none other than William S. Burroughs, and tossed into the mix of Ridley Scott’s seminal epic as something of an afterthought. The tale of how the words “blade” and “runner” got mixed up with one another and applied to one of the most acclaimed movies of the 20th century is a truly odd one.

Our story begins with a mysterious writer by the name of Alan E. Nourse. According to the Des Moines Register, he was born in that city in 1928 to Bell Telephone Company engineer Benjamin Nourse and a woman named Grace Ogg. Young Alan moved to Long Island with his family at age 15, attended Rutgers, served for a couple of years in the Navy as a hospital corpsman, and was awarded a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955 before moving to Washington state to practice medicine.

Whatever Nourse’s skills as a doctor may have been, they were outweighed in the scales of history by his other passion: writing about the medical profession and fantastical worlds of the future. Before he was even done with medical school, he was publishing sci-fi on the side: first came short pieces in anthology magazines like Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction, then he started publishing novels with titles like Trouble on Titan (1954), Rocket to Limbo (1957), and Scavengers in Space (1959). In 1963, he retired from medicine to focus on his writing, but wrote about learning the healing arts in a 1965 nonfiction book called Intern, published under the intimidating pseudonym “Dr. X.” Sci-fi author-editor Robert Silverberg, who knew Nourse, tells me the latter book “brought him much repute and fortune,” but in general, he just “wrote a lot of very good science fiction that no one seemed to notice.”

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That changed on October 28, 1974. Sort of. On that day, publishing house David McKay released a Nourse novel that combined the author’s two areas of expertise into a single magnum opus: The Bladerunner. It follows the adventures of a young man known as Billy Gimp and his partner in crime, Doc, as they navigate a health-care dystopia. It’s the near future, and eugenics has become a guiding American philosophy. Universal health care has been enacted, but in order to cull the herd of the weak, the “Health Control laws”—enforced by the office of a draconian “Secretary of Health Control”—dictate that anyone who wants medical care must undergo sterilization first. As a result, a system of black-market health care has emerged in which suppliers obtain medical equipment, doctors use it to illegally heal those who don’t want to be sterilized, and there are people who covertly transport the equipment to the doctors. Since that equipment often includes scalpels and other instruments of incision, the transporters are known as “bladerunners.” Et voilà, the origin of a term that went on to change sci-fi.

The novel itself is perfectly fine. Billy is a bladerunner, Doc is a doctor who does legal and illegal work, they live in the greater New York metropolitan area (one way in which the novel coincidentally resembles Blade Runner is the setting of a massively overbuilt city where people are often transported via flying car), they run into trouble with the law, they race to stop an epidemic, and their virtue is rewarded by a change in national policy that makes their brand of medical care legal. The prose is relentlessly simple, the medical procedures are described in the detail you’d expect from an M.D., and the dialogue is almost comically expository at times (e.g. “‘Doctor, we can’t bring ourselves to take them to the Hospital,’ the woman said, ‘they’re both over five years old, and they’ve both been treated more than three times in the Clinic. That means that they’d both have to be sterilized before they could qualify for any legal care at all’”). It’s easy to imagine it disappearing into the mists of time.

But fortune smiled on Nourse, as did one of the finest writers of the past 100 years: the obscene eccentric William S. Burroughs. According to literary scholar Paul Ardoin, Burroughs somehow obtained a copy of the second printing of The Bladerunner around the end of 1976. Burroughs was in a transitional stage in his life, having kicked heroin only a few years before and having moved back to New York after a self-imposed exile in Europe. He was rebooting his career with the help of a new assistant named James Grauerholz, turning in columns for pop-culture mag Crawdaddyand soaking up the nascent downtown punk scene. On December 5, 1976, Grauerholz wrote a letter to Burroughs’s agent, Peter Matson, saying the scribe had “liked the book very much, and in fact has begun to consider a film treatment for it.” As far as I can tell, writing a film treatment was something new, or at least quite rare, for Burroughs, but he dove into it with fervent passion. Matson negotiated the rights with Nourse, got the go-ahead, and Burroughs wrote the treatment in less than four months, delivering it to Matson by March 1977. He called it The Blade Runner, adding a fateful space to the titular noun.

Burroughs’s take on Nourse is, to put it mildly, a wild ride. Indeed, it barely has anything to do with The Bladerunner and is as over-the-top as the original was buttoned-down. It’s written not as a screenplay, but rather as a novella-length explanation of the movie to someone named “B.J.” (Burroughs periodically included this mysterious figure as the recipient of his words in other works, as well.) Like many Burroughs texts, the adaptation is highly inscrutable, which is what makes it so entertaining. He doesn’t even get to the main plot of the movie until nearly halfway through, having spent the first portion just setting the scene with the difficult-to-follow backstory of how the world of the film got to be so screwed-up: Overpopulation led to government intrusion into the lives of private citizens, the state’s attempts to control the population begat multiple Health Acts that were received poorly by the populace and led to a bloody civil war in greater New York in which the white middle class battled the poor and people of color, and from the ashes rose a new America where “the unfit” have to undergo sterilization in order to receive health care.

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That last bit is more or less where any comparisons to Nourse’s original end. We meet Billy and Doc, but they’re radically changed. Billy is introduced not as a bland cipher, but rather as a passionate queer man who, in his first scene, engages in profoundly explicit sex with his partner (“They look at each other and their throbbing phalluses pick up the same rhythm—throb throb throb—heartbeats like drums in the dark room”); while Doc is a combative asshole prone to verbal abuse (“‘Shut up, you’ll give my patient an engram,’ Doc screams back”). Their saga is somewhat incomprehensible, not least because it’s eventually conveyed in two separate movies, intended to be screened either by alternating scenes from one of the film with scenes from the other, or by projecting them on two screens simultaneously. It concludes with Billy realizing he’s not living in 2014, as he once thought, but is actually somehow in 1914. The magic lies not in the story, but in the insane images Burroughs describes: “They toast each other with insect claws,” “Naked leper with a hardon,” “Rioters release zoo animals. They dump fish from aquariums into the rivers,” “A flourishing black market in sperm heralds a long-range genetic war. ‘Boy sperm Meester?’”, “Mad scientist: ‘With this culture we can rule the world!’” and so on.

The Blade Runner was patently unfilmable. Grauerholz reported in July 1977 that nobody they took it to was interested, and an alternative arrangement was made with Nourse, whereby the treatment would be published in book form and all film rights would be forfeited. In order to distinguish it from Nourse’s book, a title change was necessary, and although the adaptation would never be a movie, Burroughs and Grauerholz confusingly chose to call it Blade Runner: A Movie. It was first published in 1979 by Blue Wind Press and was never considered a major Burroughs work.

However, a copy of Blade Runner: A Movie found its way into the library of a struggling actor and writer named Hampton Fancher. In the early 1980s, he, producer Michael Deely, and director Ridley Scott were working on an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and stumbled on a question. “Ridley, after a few months of us working on a draft, when he first came into the project, asked me a question that was so obvious I hadn’t really addressed it before,” Fancher tells me. “What is it that Deckard is, professionally? ‘He’s a detective,’ I said. ‘Well, that was obvious, but what kind of detective exactly, what should he be called?’ I didn’t have an answer, but I’d better get one fast.”

He turned to his collection of tomes. Per Fancher: “That night, I was looking through my books and came across a thin little volume by William Burroughs called Blade Runner. Bingo! Everybody liked it, then later, we needed a new title other than the ones we’d been considering and Michael Deeley, the producer, said, ‘It’s staring us right in the face.’” According to Scott, they approached Burroughs, he said yes, they bought the title of his book for “a nominal fee,” and Blade Runner—a work that otherwise had nothing to do with The Bladerunner or Blade Runner: A Movie—was released on June 25, 1982. When I ask Fancher why there’s no in-film explanation of the term, he replies, “I think ‘explanations’ are the bug-bears of screenplay writing and I like to stay clear of them.” A comic-book adaptation of Blade Runner written by Archie Goodwin attempted to explain the term by having Deckard’s narration at one point read, “Blade runner. You’re always movin’ on the edge,” but anyone searching for the term’s meaning within the movie was denied it.

Try as I might, I haven’t been able to find out what either Nourse or Burroughs thought of the eventual film. Nourse died in 1992 and his ashes were buried on a hill in his rural hometown of Thorp, Washington. Burroughs died in 1997 at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Both perished due to heart issues. Nourse’s novel is available in a spottily copy-edited ebook edition, and you can find used copies of Burroughs’s text, though it’s never been released by a major press. They have, perhaps unfortunately, been eclipsed by the wholly separate piece of art that plucked their name. However, by including scalpels, Blade Runner 2049 has quietly and inadvertently brought the tale into full circle.