Saturday, 16 April 2011

Bladerunner, A Movie
by William S. Burroughs

(Blue Wind Press, 1986)

Guaranteed to provoke “whaaat, he didn’t write ‘Bladerunner’…?!?” reactions from moody, trenchcoat-clad adolescents the world over, this slim volume from Berkeley’s Blue Wind Press doesn’t really go to great lengths to try to explain it’s existence.

My initial assumption was that sometime during pre-production for the film that became Ridley Scott’s ‘Bladerunner’, some bright spark asked Burroughs to write a treatment for a possible screenplay, with predictably unfilmable results that eventually ended up here.

As you might expect from Old Bill, the text herein has nothing whatsoever in common with Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’. But in fact it was never supposed to; a brief note on the copyrights/ISBN page reads; “the author wishes to thank Alan E. Nourse, upon whose book ‘The Blade Runner' characters and situation in this book are based”.

I’d never heard of Alan E. Nourse, but turns out he was a fairly prolific science fiction writer, and did indeed publish a novel entitled ‘The Blade Runner’ in 1974. For some obscure reason, the Ridley Scott film ended up stealing the title of Nourse’s book, despite having no other connection to it, whilst this Burroughs treatment dates from an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to adapt that book for the screen.

Reading ‘Bladerunner, a Movie’ prior to researching this, I would have sworn blind that the storylines and ideas within it, with their unmistakable mixture of vicious social satire, weird science, post-apocalyptic utopianism and gay sex, were pure uncut Burroughs, but reading the plot synopsis of Nourse’s novel, it sounds like it was a pretty Burroughs-esque venture to begin with:

“The novel's protagonist is Billy Gimp, a man with a club foot who runs "blades" for Doc (Doctor John Long) as part of an illegal black market for medical services. The setting is a society where free, comprehensive medical treatment is available for anyone so long as they qualify for treatment under the Eugenics Laws. Preconditions for medical care include sterilization, and no legitimate medical care is available for anyone who does not qualify or does not wish to undergo the sterilization procedure (including children over the age of five). These conditions have created illegal medical services in which bladerunners supply black market medical supplies for underground practitioners, who generally go out at night to see patients and perform surgery. As an epidemic breaks out among the underclass, Billy must save the city from the plague hitting the rest of the city as well.”

Working within this structure, Burroughs uses the screen treatment as an excuse to rattle off a non-linear series of scene ideas and situations that take in some of the more familiar tropes of his own work, as Billy Gimp and his fellow bladerunners are reimagined as feral, homosexual ‘wild boys’, the black market medical facilities are used to revive the stoned surgery nightmares of Dr. Benway et al, and the idea of an economy based around the illicit supply of drugs and medical equipment naturally gives Burroughs much space to hold forth on his ideas regarding the supply and demand of narcotics and the forces of social control that lurk beneath them.

Whilst the random sprawl of Burroughs’ novels can get a bit much even for his fans, I’ve often thought that his writing works best when applied to shorter projects; the posthumous novelette ‘Ghost of Chance’ is a strong enough work to win over folk who’d rather eat glass than try to wade through ‘Naked Lunch’ again, whilst the unfinished ‘Queer’ is probably the most direct, emotionally affecting work of his career, complete with an essential introduction that basically functions as a key to understanding all of his cut up era work. ‘Bladerunner’ can easily be filed alongside these slim volumes – picking it up after keeping Burroughs at arms length for a few years, it was a refreshing and slyly funny read – a welcome reminder of what a unique and (no other word for it I’m afraid) visionary voice in the wilderness he was.

I still have no idea who the hippie guy pictured on the front of this book is, by the way.


JohnBem said...

Thanks for the info Ben; I'm something of a Burroughs fan and didn't know about this book. I also was unaware of Nourse. Thanks for the information, for turning me on to more content to seek out and devour. Yay!

JRSM said...

Intriguing--I'd heard that there was some Blade Runner-related Burroughs book out there, but had no idea what it was all about until your post. Definitely agree with you about Burrough's being best when kept short--Queer is probably my favourite of his books for that reason.

Danmark said...

I wanted to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked your site to check out the latest stuff you post.

Ben said...

Thanks for your comments folks - glad to be of service.

I've actualloy had this book lying around for a while, and can't remember where/when I bought it... I don't think it's very well known for whatever reason, but definitely one of the better bits I've Burroughs ephemera I've picked up.

wytchcroft said...

nice to see this get a mention for a change compared to some of old Bill's more notorious work.

if you enjoyed the book then i recommend you check out another screen play by Burroughs; The Last Words of Dutch Schultz. Bill's Bladerunner gets a fairly decent mention in the big bio Literary Outlaw by Ted Morgan.

And Nourse was a decent writer - his book is well worth tracking down.