“A Tale of Two Cyborgs, Or Do Androids Dream of Reading Books?”
Upon watching Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017), my son Alex asked why on Earth the replicant cop, K (Ryan Gosling) would be reading Vladimir Nabokov’s experimental novel, Pale Fire (1962). The scene occurs early in the film. After K has retired (in other words, killed) a rogue replicant, the cop returns home. His holographic girlfriend, Joi, dressed as a traditional 1950s house wife, places a hologram of a beautiful steak dinner over the insect-filled protein gruel that people in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles are forced to eat to stay alive.
Joi senses K’s post-traumatic stress and picks up a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. She enthusiastically asks, “Would you read to me?” However, as Joi is an AI device programmed solely to please K, she adds: “It will make you feel better.” K responds, “You hate that book,” indicating that a) they have read it together before, and b) Joi does not share K’s love of 20th century experimental fiction. Joi immediately switches to a different tactic to please K: “I don’t want to read either. Let’s dance.”
I suspect there is a straightforward answer to Alex’s question. Nabokov’s Pale Fire is about a four canto, 1,000-line poem by author John Shade, published and edited by his supposed friend, the editor Charles Kinbote. An example of 20th century metafiction, the novel surrounds the poem with a forward by Kinbote, and concludes with the novel’s lengthiest section, a line-by-line commentary on the poem, also by Kinbote.
Much of the novel’s plot concerns the missing 1,000th line to the poem. As in all of Nabokov’s fiction, no information we are given is reliable: Did Shade or Kinbote write the poem? Are either of them sane? Is Kinbote the exiled King Charles whose story he claims to be narrating? Does the missing 1,000th line of the poem promise to reveal all, in an ironic replication of the hunt for Rosebud in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)?
Like the steak placed over the gruel, Pale Fire can be superimposed over Blade Runner 2049. In the film’s backstory, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and his replicant wife, Rachel, who flee failed civilization at the end of the original film, Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), have a daughter. This event causes considerable crisis because it demonstrates that robots can naturally procreate, further dissolving the distinction between human and machine. Deckard leads the authorities, desperate to commander the reproductive technology, on a wild-goose chase, all the time protecting his baby daughter.
Deckard spends most of his life in exile in irradiated Las Vegas not knowing his daughter, Stelline has grown into adulthood to become a beautiful and talented designer of memories. Both Pale Fire and Blade Runner 2049 weave convoluted narratives of misinformation. When the dying K takes Deckard to meet Stelline for the first time, presenting him in effect with the missing 1,000th line of Blade Runner’s “poem,” we are distracted yet again by the more interesting replicant who is not Deckard.
Outside in the snow, K dies looking up at the falling snow, a brilliant ending which invokes not Pale Fire, but the original Blade Runner. With a mere wisp of the Vangelis soundtrack in the background, K’s death re-enacts the poetically transcendent death of Roy Batty at the end of the original film. He reflects with sorrowful acceptance upon how fleeting life is, all his memories suddenly but inevitably disappearing “like tears in the rain.”
The mere appearance of Pale Fire in Blade Runner 2049 turns our attention not only to this one text, but more generally to the nature of reading. Why does K read in the first place, never mind difficult fiction only of interest in our present-day world to literature professors? K’s predecessor, Rick Deckard barely reads at all. At the beginning of the original film, in voice-over (loathed by Ridley Scott, beloved by yours truly), Deckard puts down a newspaper declaring that they didn’t advertise for killers. He is a replicant programmed to serve the city of Los Angeles as a police officer devoted to hunting down and killing other, more rebellious replicants. Reading is completely irrelevant to the successful completion of his death-producing missions.
In Blade Runner 2049, after waiting one hour and forty-five minutes for Deckard to appear, his first line, uttered off-screen to K behind the barrel of a gun is: “You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now? Would you boy?” K immediately knows that the line comes from 1881’s Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Deckard responds, “He reads. That’s good.” Replacing the Voight-Kampff test from the earlier film, this new Deckard uses literacy as a tool for identifying the human.
Deckard’s exile has turned even him into a reader, as he observes, having nothing else to do with his time in the evenings. Again, we could superimpose Treasure Island over Blade Runner 2049, both adventure plots of pirate exiles. But more important is the film’s argument that what makes one fully human is the ability and desire to read. Just as the AI device Joi is not interested in reading, neither was Deckard in the original film. In that film, Deckard’s lack of humanity is highlighted by the deeply felt emotions of the film’s supposed villain, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Batty adapts English poet William Blake’s “America, a Prophecy” to his own experience of the failure of American civilization: “Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.” Conversely, Blake’s original line allegorizes the rise of America: “Fiery the angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll’d.”
At the end of Blade Runner, Batty teaches Deckard how to be human. After a brutal climactic fight sequence, Batty saves Deckard from falling to his death atop the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles. Batty finally accepts his mortality, and heartbreakingly admits, “time to die.” Batty saves Deckard with a hand through which he previously drove a metal spike, turning his sacrifice for Deckard’s humanity into a Christ-like gesture.
K at the end of Blade Runner 2049 discovers this latter Deckard transformed by Roy Batty’s humanity. At first, Deckard fights with K, thinking he has come to discover the whereabouts of his daughter. They stop to have a drink after we see the first glimpse of Deckard’s humanity. He declares, “I like this song” as the two robot humans stand in front of a holographic projection of Elvis Presley singing, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” originally from his film, Blue Hawaii (1961), but performed by the Las Vegas-era Elvis.
Perhaps the more interesting question is not why does K read Pale Fire, but why does Blade Runner 2049 position human beings as those who appreciate written and other arts? In both films, Deckard is surrounded by superior robots, not only in terms of their physical strength, but also in their differing abilities to process complex art. Batty has his William Blake and K his Vladimir Nabokov, but the new and improved Deckard, now a self-sacrificing father, is a true human being in ways unimaginable in Ridley Scott’s film. Unlike the empty sex toy, Joi given to K as reward for his brutal service to death, Deckard 2.0 has his Elvis Presley, teaching us the importance of love to becoming fully human.