The confetti has been swept up, the hangovers have almost faded, and there is nothing before us now but huge swathes of 2019.
Which is, as any nerd knows, the year in which the 1982 classic Blade Runner officially took place. And whatever else may happen in this likely very insane year, it’s safe to say that we have utterly failed to live up to the future we imagined back then.
Oh, sure, we created a generalized dystopian atmosphere of despair. That part was easy; we were already well on our way to crumbling infrastructure and rising inequality in the 1980s. The fact that the movie (sort of) predicted an out-of-control climate is no big whoop either; anyone working at an oil company or paying attention to scientific literature back then knew global warming was about to be a thing.
But the Ridley Scott movie, and the Philip K. Dick short story on which it was based, both anticipated major leaps and bounds in our adventurousness and our technological prowess that compensated for the gloom.
Here was a future where most people have departed years ago for “off-world colonies.” Hence the giant blimp seen advertising a new life in them to the remaining residents of grimy Los Angeles. Not only that, but we had created lifelike artificial intelligence in the form of replicants to help build those colonies. True, that part didn’t work out too well, at least not for the victims of six dying rogue replicants who fled back to Earth. But still, pretty impressive tech there, Mr. Tyrell!
On the one hand, it’s something of a relief that we are not as smart as we liked to think. Best not to have malfunctioning robots running amuck, giving poignant yet snooty speeches about all the things they’ve seen that we wouldn’t believe. On the other hand, it would be kind of nice if somebody would go far off-world and see things so they could come back and brag like a hipster about it.
Rutger Hauer, who wrote that space fantasy death monologue himself, has never explained how attack ships off the shoulder of Orion could actually catch fire in the vacuum of space. (Maybe that’s why we wouldn’t believe it.) Nevertheless, I say we build attack ships, send them to Orion, and test his hypothesis! (Spoiler alert: We won’t be visiting Orion, or any other star, any century soon.)
We’ve even failed to achieve more modest space goals. The late President Bush once promised a Mars landing in 2019 — but if NASA even meets its 2023 commitment for the first crewed test of the Orion launch system that may someday take us there, it’ll be a minor miracle. The only place any of us alive today are ever likely to fly in Orion is at Space Camp.
True, the New Year has brought some pretty amazing space news: the New Horizons craft has reached Ultima Thule, which is not in fact a new Marvel villain but a pristine lump of space rock billions of miles beyond the orbit of Pluto. It’s fascinating, it looks like a double beach ball, and it’s a balmy minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit.
We won’t be building an Ultima Thule colony or sending Roy Batty and his ilk there any time soon. AI has a genuine role to play in space exploration, but right now it can’t even hear properly when an astronaut on the International Space Station asks it to turn the music off.
These days it seems almost like a false implanted replicant memory, this notion that we ever had dreams of expanding across the cosmos with robot pals at our side, for good or ill. But we did, and it’s important for everyone who was there at the time to remember that spirit and pass it on.
To risk sounding like the great Carl Sagan, who was inescapable on TV screens around the time of Blade Runner, we once found it not only plausible but likely that our questing species would very soon venture far from the cosmic shoreline. We were already flying there on our “ship of the imagination.” We had been on the moon six times in three years less than a decade earlier. George Lucas often said he wrote Star Wars to help inspire future missions to Mars and beyond.
It’s worth reading this letter from Philip K. Dick to the producers of Blade Runner, rhapsodizing about a TV segment that featured some of the upcoming movie. (Tragically, Dick died mere months before its premiere). He approvingly quoted Harrison Ford describing the film: not science fiction, not fantasy, merely futurism. “It is super realism,” he wrote, “authentic and goddamn convincing.”
And now we know the only super-realistic thing was the pervasive advertising. But hey, at least we don’t have to go to a phone booth if we want to make a video call! And who needs the replicant-creating entrepreneurs of the Tyrell corporation when we’ve got Elon Musk tweeting about imaginary Mars colonies while on Ambien?
So how come we got the shape and direction of the future so wrong? Did we just not anticipate the in-built limits inherent in space travel and intelligence creation? Or did we just lose our nerve and close our national wallets, frightened by deadly setbacks in the space program and terrified by movies like Terminator and, ironically, Blade Runner?
The answer is quite a lot of both. But fear not: at least we have until 2049 to make the future a little bit dustier and nastier but with virtual sex robots. Just make sure to give Ryan Gosling his Blade Runner badge.