Among the various works that have left their mark in the history of science fiction,are the Burning Chrome from literature and the Blade Runner from the world of cinema. They were both produced in the 1980s, a decade where the cyberpunk heroes portrayed in sci-fi books and films had to face a world of darkness and decay. In this paper, a brief account of the two stories, analysis of their common themes and symbolisms, and argument that, despite the differences that arise from the use of a different medium, text and film can be equally effective will be provided.
What is Science Fiction?
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Before examining the two stories, one needs to understand what science fiction stands for. Basically, it is a popular genre of fiction that lies somewhere between the imaginary and the real, between fantasy and science (Baldick, 230). In fact, it is actually quite difficult to define what it means, that is why Damon Knight’s definition sounds so tempting. According to him, “science fiction is what we point to when we say it” (Knight, 1). Science fiction usually involves technological innovation, and its narrative is one that envisions an alternate world that falls within the range of possible futures in terms of technological progress. Science fiction exposes a relationship of familiarity-estrangement between humans and technology: we become familiarized by constantly making use of it without knowing exactly how everything works, while at the same time, we feel estranged since we are never sure what to expect next (Roberts, 147). Science fiction is an important genre both in literature and in the film industry, each one of them with its own advantages and disadvantages.
William Gibson’s Burning Chrome, was originally published in 1982, and was later published again with nine more of Gibson’s stories in a book under the same title (William Gibson). The story takes an almost twenty-year leap to the future, to the year 2000, portraying the beginning of the new millennia as a period characterized by computer information technology. The advancement of computer science has made available simulating machines, which grant the user access to the cyberspace, a matrix of information where the relationships between data systems appear as an abstract representation (Gibson, 196). The world is ruled by the rich, either large corporations with the technological means, or computer geniuses-turned-criminals and dominating the cyberspace. The story evolves around two hackers, Bobby Quine and Automatic Jack, who are software and a hardware expert, respectively. They are both shadowy characters: Bobby is described as a thin and pale figure, usually wearing dark glasses, while Jack is described as a mean-looking guy with a myoelectric right arm. None of them is really motivated as a person. The one is drawn to a meaningless pursuit of women, while money for rent and a clean shirt would suffice for the other (Gibson, 197). Somewhere along the way, Bobby decides that it is time for him to make the score of his life and hack the system of a very powerful criminal named Chrome. Jack is very reluctant to follow Bobby’s plan, but at the end he goes through with it, while a Russian virus, a killer program that has fallen into his hands coincidentally, provides them with an excellent opportunity to do so.
Blade Runner is a Ridley Scott film produced in 1982, and it takes place in Los Angeles 2019. It portrays a dark future of a world in decay, where everything looks filthy and miserable. There are two social classes that clearly stand in opposition to one another: the poor, who are condemned to a ground-level existence of a polluted environment, and the rich, who enjoy the luxury of enormous pyramids that rise above everything else (Beard, 5). The protagonist, Rick Deckard, is a retired cop asked to return and track down a group of humanoids that have escaped governmental control. The escapees are the most advanced kind of robots called replicants, and their leader is a very clever and physically superior replicant, namely Roy Batty. After their escape, they could have fled never to be found again; instead of that, they chose to come back to the earth and look for their maker. The reason is that they want their maker to find a way to prolong their lifespan, since they are designed to last no more than four years. At the end, Deckard faces two great challenges: on one hand, he has to defeat the powerful replicant leader, and on the other, he has to decide what to do with Rachel, a female replicant whom he falls in fall with.
The two stories have many common elements. As products of the science fiction genre, they both present an alternate future that is the direct result of technology and the use we have made of it. The stories’ success depends on the metaphorical effectiveness of that technology, because it is technology that materially embodies the concept of alterity (Roberts, 147). In the Burning Chrome, the world has changed so much that the cyberspace is the latest achievement of science; an infinite and transparent matrix of information systems and data. In Blade Runner, the concept of alterity is materially embodied by the replicant; a robot, an inorganic life form that makes its claim for a meaningful existence.
Both stories envision a dark future for humanity: therefore, the world is a post-apocalyptic one, where no apocalypse has actually taken place. Everything seems gloomy, and the material surrounding is rust-covered and dirty; even the atmosphere feels heavy as a result of pollution. It follows that people appear in an analogous way. In Blade Runner, the viewer is presented with a depressing image of humanity; where everyone keeps his head down, and no one ever laughs. As for the Burning Chrome, despite the inevitable lack of visual images, Gibson does not miss out on the opportunity to describe his two main characters as either thin, pale, with dark glasses, or mean looking with a myoelectric arm; two characters that neither aspire to, nor hope for anything.
This dark portrayal of our future in both stories is not a coincidence. As mentioned above, the Blade Runner and the Burning Chrome came out in 1982, during a decade when the movement of cyberpunk greatly influenced science fiction (Baldick, 56). Up until the eighties, science fiction depicted technology as man’s greatest accomplishment. Instead, cyberpunk was revolutionary in openly questioning the usefulness of technology. It drew people’s attention to science not as a kind of positive, innovative, almost magical, force, but as a dangerous and destructive one, that would eventually bring mankind to its knees (Beard, 10). As a result, science fiction of the 80s does not aim in warning the reader – or viewer – of an impending catastrophe, or suggesting a solution to the problem. It rather states that the fall of humanity is inescapable (Beard, 7).
As mentioned above, the cyberpunk movement places its fiction characters in a dehumanized world, where everyone is equally worthless (Beard, 8-9). In both stories, the fall of mankind has become a living reality. The hero is not there to save the world any more; he does not fight for all of humanity, or at least a large part of it. In this post-apocalyptic era, every hero fights for his own survival. Furthermore, Deckard in the Blade Runner does not care for the future of his kind, or the future of replicants. He may have been instructed to kill the escapees, but this is simply part of his job. In reality, he is only interested in saving himself, and this is why, he eventually chooses to save the replicant he fell for. The two hackers in the Burning Chrome, accordingly, do not represent a certain social class; their hacking Chrome’s system is not done in the name of social justice, but in the name of their own personal advancement. All in all, the cyberpunk hero stands alone in his efforts to reinvent himself, and, in effect, reinvent the concept of humanity (Beard, 9).
From Text to Film
As aforementioned, the two stories have many similarities. However, one should not forget that the Burning Chrome is a literary text, while Blade Runner is a movie. Inevitably, the medium used to portray a story accounts for many differences, and consequently, writing a sci-fi text has nothing to do with producing a sci-fi movie. A movie production involves several people, where each one entrusted with a different job. There is a story writer, and probably, a professional screenwriter. There are actors who bring the characters to life. There are makeup artists, decoration artists, and costume designers, who take care of all major and little details; from the foreground to the background; from the actors and their costumes, and even to the colour of the walls behind them. Finally, on the top of this hierarchy stand the director and the producer. The director is the one who always supervising the rest of the crew, so as to ensure that the outcome will be the desired one. He is the person assigned to transform the material that the camera records into the actual movie, which the viewer gets to see in the end. There are no doubts that equally significant to the director is the producer, as he is responsible for hiring everyone involved and, most importantly, raising the funds to produce the movie.
On the other hand, writing a literary text is a completely different process. It does not rely on a large crew, but on the sheer talent of the writer. Obviously, this does mean that a text is easier to produce, or that it is less effective than a movie. The writer does not cast actors for his characters, but he creates them with his pen; he establishes relationships between them; moreover, he dresses them with words; and he draws the picture of the material surrounding in a way that it creates mental images. Instead of makeup artists and costume designers, the writer has various literary devices in his arsenal like similes, metaphors, imagery, personification, narration, etc (Baldick, 64). In other words, the writer is concerned with creating a distinct mental image for the reader, while the film-maker wishes to produce the perfect visual image for the viewer. The writer is to the text, what the whole production crew is to the movie.
In addition, there is also a conceptual difference between text and film, for instance, the success of a text depends on the writer’s ability to excite the reader’s imagination, while the success of a film depends on the successful representation of an imaginary world. Especially when it comes to a science fiction film, special effects are the determining factor. The higher the budget is, the better special effects are and the more impressive the outcome. In effect, it comes as no surprise that Blade Runner, a movie with a budget of nearly thirty million dollars, became so successful (Box Office for Blade Runner). Accordingly, it makes perfect sense that Gibson is considered as one of the greatest science fiction writers of the 20th century, since he had the creativity and the ingenuity to coin terms like the cyberspace and the matrix, and introduces them as new concepts.
Overall, in a text, the focus is mostly on the ideas, rather than the actual word used to describe it. The text is one grand narrative open to different envisions depending on the psychological makeup and the imagination tools of the reader. This means that the same text, the same words used to describe an idea, could incite a different image in the mind of two different people. A film, on the other hand, is the cinematic transfer of only one of those envisions. In other words, when reading a book, one is more likely to admire an idea, while by watching a movie; one will probably admire the technologies of reproduction (Roberts, 153).
All in all, the difference between the two mediums is like a battle between the power of money and the power of words; a battle between sight and vision; one between special effects and imagination. In the end, though, despite their differences, the two mediums can be equally successfully in portraying an alternate world and in conveying the desired meaning, and also equally enjoyable.
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