Nabokov’s Blade Runner

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‘[Pale Fire] unlocked my understanding of K.’
Ryan Gosling

Spoiler alert
Recent years have seen a succession of thoughtful movies about robots, artificial intelligence, and aliens: Her, Ex Machina, and Under the Skin, among others. As well as concerns about technology, these also explore current anxieties about society and what it means to be human. Also noticeable is the sympathy invited for non-human entities (a strategy cleverly exploited by the plot twist in Ex Machina). In this, they are faithful to the origin of almost all robot-themed stories for the last two centuries, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

‘I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.’

It was not only Frankenstein’s monster which was ‘born’ in 1818, but one model of the Romantic hero: a misunderstood outsider, persecuted and hunted by society for being different. This archetype has lived on in books and movies, evolving to reflect our changing concerns and anxieties.

Blade Runner 2049 must have surprised even avid fans of director, Denis de Villeneuve, by its beauty and depth. The terrible and majestic visions it conjures (reminiscent of the paintings of John Martin) combine with a poignant attention to the emotional life of the characters. First among these is Agent K, a replicant employed by the LAPD to find and destroy any surviving Nexus-8 replicants, which had developed free will and revolted in the 2020s. Ryan Gosling’s muted characterisation perfectly conveys the replicant’s calm, ruthless efficiency at killing.

When all is said and done, Agent K is, after all, just a very smart toaster with good looks, who’s handy with a gun.

Gosling also hints, though, at the curiosity and emotional turmoil which well up inside K after discovering the mysterious ‘6.10.21’ inscription which sets the plot in train. As a Nexus-9 replicant, K is designed to be obedient and truthful; increasingly, though, he learns to lie and disobey, as though experience and memory inevitably lead to development of free will and imagination, despite his programming.  Like the protagonist, K, in Kafka’s The Castle, Gosling’s character is alone and treated with disdain in an indifferent, broken world. LA in 2049 has little civil framework and seems dominated by a technology corporation expert in AI and contemptuous of the law (does that sound familiar?).

As the Shelleys and others recognised 200 hundred years ago, the new industrial capitalist economy would break down existing social relationships and drive people into isolation as individual workers and consumers. To recognise and revolt against this is to be condemned as an outsider: a Romantic tragic hero, like Frankenstein’s monster and all his children, like Agent K.

Blade Runner 2049 is not shy about acknowledging this literary and cultural context which contributes to its richness. The most prominent – insistent – presence in the movie, though, is Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant, perplexing 1962 follow-up to Lolita: the novel Pale Fire. Lines from the work are twice used in a ‘Post-Trauma Baseline Test’ on K, and he has a copy of the novel at home. His virtual girlfriend, Joi, offers to read it to him, but he says, ‘no, you hate that book,’ showing that they have discussed it before.

Pale Fire has variously been called, ‘a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel’ (New Republic), and ‘the great gay comic novel’ (Edmund White in the TLS). The novel purports to be the critical edition of a 999-line poem by John Shade, with a copious critical apparatus by his supposed friend, Charles Kinbote. The poem concerns Shade’s drowned daughter, time, and death, but Kinbote’s notes soon reveal him as a quite unreliable, mad fantasist, interpreting the entire poem as being about him and his secret life as the exiled king of a non-existent Ruritanian kingdom. It is perplexing, delightful, funny and moving all at the same time.


The parallels between Blade Runner 2049 and Pale Fire run deep, beyond the overt references, to enrich our understanding of the movie.

Worlds within worlds
In 2049, Agent K is an artificial being (with the same initial as Kinbote). As a replicant being, he seems defined by the corporation which created him. After discovering the mysterious inscription which matches a childhood memory, though, he begins to imagine himself within an alternative narrative: that he is actually the secret child of Deckard and Rachel. He then finds this is not true: that he was given the DNA and memories of their daughter, Ana, as a way of hiding her existence. By the end, we are left with the question of whether K was actually programmed to find Ana, not operating under free will after all?

In Pale Fire, a poem by John Shade, is published within a critical apparatus by scholar, Charles Kinbote. The reader knows these are actually both characters in a novel, each with their own conflicting fictional world. Kinbote’s mad reveries are actually no more ‘real,’ then, than Shade’s moving reflections on death and the imagination. A convincing case has been made that Shade is intended by the author to be the invention of Kinbote. An equally convincing case can be made that Shade playfully invented Kinbote, and is not even dead when the work is published. Nabokov himself stayed mum on the topic, just as the films’ makers cannot be drawn on whether Deckard is a replicant.

Pale Fire also has a little-known place in the history of computer science. The novel was well-known to Ted Nelson, renowned inventor of hypertext and one of the fathers of the World Wide Web. Working at Brown University in 1969, he recognised Pale Fire as a revolutionary literary metafiction and received permission from Nabokov’s publisher to create an electronic version, to demonstrate the possibilities of a hypertext document.

 

Agent K’s pale fire
‘The moon’s an arrant thief, And her pale fire she snatches from the sun,’ wrote Shakespeare in Timon of Athens – the source of Nabokov’s title. He uses this quotation to muse on whether memories and imagination can be as ‘true’ as actual events. In Blade Runner 2049, a major theme is whether a replicant with ‘memories,’ experience, emotions, and free will – a pale reflection of a human – can be as real as natural-born person. If so, we bear them the same responsibility as a god to its creations, as a parent to its children.

 

Blade Runner 2049 - eyeCheck the eyes
Eyes – the ‘windows of the soul’ to the ancient Romans – are a dominant motif in the Blade Runner movies. In both, examining the eye is a way of identifying a replicant. Eyes and sight are important in Pale Fire too. In the opening lines, we read:

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit
Or, with a silent shiver, order it, Whatever in my field of vision dwelt –
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte Stilettos of a frozen stillicide –
Was printed on my eyelids’ nether side
Where it would tarry for an hour or two,
And while this lasted all I had to do
Was close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,
Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.

There are 15 references to eyes in Pale Fire, principally as a way of recording memories or conjuring imagined or remembered scenes. Ridley Scott explains this in an interview: ‘The eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It’s like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn’t only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot.’

 

The secret letters
When K examines DNA records to search for Deckard and Rachel’s child, he finds two identical people: a dead female and a male. (This is a rare scene in the movie that doesn’t work: he identifies the matching records by supposedly scanning millions of GATC sequences with his bare eyes. It would also mean the two people would look identical, which K and Ana do not.) Nevertheless, this typographic discovery is a revelation to K: he realises that the child existed, is a male, and still alive. He discovers otherwise later, but this typographic sequence starts him on the trail that leads to Ana.

In Pale Fire, Shade recounts a vision he saw while having a heart attack:

A sun of rubber was convulsed and set:
And blood black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem, And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark,  tall white fountain played.

This is the exact wording chosen by the scriptwriters for K’s post-mission test on K in Blade Runner 2049. Coming across another person’s near-death experience which also mentions ‘a tall white fountain,’ Shade seizes this as evidence of an after-life, that his daughter may still exist after death. Soon, though, he discovers it was a cruel misprint – the word was ‘mountain’ not ‘fountain’.

This mistake was the point, Shade realises: that he is somehow being played with, stumbling through life in search of patterns. He has a revelation that he is part of ‘a game of worlds promoting pawns/ To ivory unicorns.’ In the original Blade Runner, of course, a much-discussed topic is the unicorn dreamed of by Deckard, and then seen as an origami figure left by his colleague, Gaff in the final scene, suggesting that Deckard may be replicant himself. In Blade Runner 2049, K’s DNA sequence of GATC similarly contains misleading typography which inspires, disappoints, and finally takes him nearer the truth.

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Snow falling on replicants
Snow is a persistent motif in Blade Runner 2049. Joi, K’s AI companion, holds out her hand to catch snowflakes, but sees them pass through her hologram body. Later, Ana (Deckard’s daughter) creates a virtual mini snow-storm which falls just over her, saying, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ to her father. What neither of them know is that K is dying outside at that moment, lying supine while real snow falls on him. He has a faint smile on his lips, happy that he has given his own life to save Deckard and reunite him with his daughter – proving to himself that he is not just a machine but a living thing. At this moment, the ‘Tears in the rain’ music from the original Blade Runner plays. It inexorably reminds us of replicant Ray Batty’s dying words after saving Deckard’s life 30 years before: ‘I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.’

In Pale Fire, snow is also mentioned a total of five times, evoking ‘that crystal land’ of his imagination where all things might be possible, where his dead daughter might still be alive. As in the movie, Nabokov’s novel ends in a death which is accepted and valued as a necessary part of life; the poem is ‘completed’ by an absent 1000th line, missing because the poet has been shot at that moment.

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Father and daughters
Despite the extraordinary visuals of Blade Runner 2049 and the literary pyrotechnics of Pale Fire, the emotional power of both movie and novel is drawn from their quiet heart: a father’s love and loss of a daughter.

After the death of Rachel in childbirth, Deckard lives in hiding with their daughter, Ana, first-born of a replicant. While she is still young, he gives her up and deliberately loses contact as a way of saving her life if he is ever hunted down. As far as Deckard knows, he will never see again the only person he loves – sacrificing his feelings for her sake. The climax of Blade Runner 2049 is their reunion, brought about by K, who has willingly sacrificed his own life for their sake.

In Pale Fire, John Shade has lost his daughter – awkward, unhappy Hazel – to suicide or an accident. He is riven by grief, yearning to be reunited with her. The entire poem is a meditation on how this might happen, dabbling and rejecting absurd spiritualism, and finally realising that, while accepting her death, they can be together through the power of memory, imagination, and art which transcend time.

For Deckard, Ana, and Agent K – and for us as the audience – this is as good as it gets, and that is good enough. As John Shade writes:

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.

Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link and bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

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Bradley on the Beach

Clade: cover

CLADE by James Bradley (Penguin, 2015)

Note: plot disclosures.

Climate change. Genetic engineering. ADHD. How to be a parent of teenagers in the twenty-first century. The mysterious worldwide collapse of bee colonies . . .  Add a discussion about the Apple Watch, and a list of topics covered in James Bradley’s new novel would read like the front page of The Guardian.

Writing a serious novel that draws overtly on contemporary social concerns is a fraught project at the best of times. To begin with, it can date badly within a few years; issues that consume the chattering classes’ attention soon become out-of-date because of inevitable changes in circumstance or attitude. (When did you last discuss George Bernard Shaw or CP Snow over the dinner table?) There is, too, the thumping drum beat of Good Intentions which all too often drowns out any subtler artistic music. Even Ian McEwan did not escape this trap in Solar, his 2010 comic novel set against a background of global warming.

What to make, then, of Clade, James Bradley’s latest novel, his first since The Resurrectionist (2007). The tale opens with Adam, a scientist at an Antarctic research base, calling his wife, Ellie, from the snow-covered shoreline. They are going through the frustrations of conceiving by artificial insemination. Adam is researching climate change. ‘The planet was on a collision course with disaster,’ we are told. ‘In the United States and India, floods covered millions of square kilometres; in Africa and Europe the heat was becoming ever more intense.’

For some reason I’m reminded of Neville Shute’s On the Beach, unforgettably filmed in Melbourne in 1959. With the rest of the world destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, scientist Julian Osborn (played by Fred Astaire) realises that as soon as winds from the northern hemisphere reach the city, the last humans on earth will die too. Ava Gardener and Gregory Peck’s characters fall tragically in love. Others grab what pleasures they can before taking suicide pills as the radiation clouds approach. The film ends with a dead city: shots of an empty, windswept Swanston St, and a plea for nuclear disarmament. I settled down to read Clade, confidently expecting another tale of human love and tragedy set against an apocalyptic backdrop of climate change.

It’s here that something curious happens. Adam and Ellie have a daughter, Summer. With a turn of a page, time leaps forward and she is a troubled teenager. With a group of friends, Summer breaks into luxurious empty apartments to party as fires rage around Sydney. They take drugs and ransack the owners’ possessions and even their memories. Technology has continued to evolve even as the planet is racked by the effects of global warming. Summer slips on a pair of ’lenses’ and has virtual reality access to the apartment owners’ files and home videos. There is another lurch in time. Years later, Adam is in England to track down Summer and the grandson he has never seen, Noah. Just as he finds her in a remote East Anglian cottage (near Randolph Stow’s final home in Harwich, perhaps), a typhoon smashes into England causing catastrophic flooding. Summer disappears and Adam (by now divorced) takes Noah home to safety in Sydney. Once again, the story lifts off and whirls into the future. Little Noah is now an eminent scientist himself, about to make an astonishing discovery . . .

The effect of these repeated temporal disjunctions is disconcerting, as thought Clade were a literary TARDIS, unexpectedly whirling the characters through time and space into yet more unfamiliar situations. It is also strangely exhilarating, even when characters we are just becoming curious about fall into the slipstream of the story: Lijuan, the Chinese schoolgirl, Amir the mysterious beekeeper, and Meera the dangerously attractive teenage friend of Summer. We quickly learn to delight in the unexpected, while asking ourselves the question every author prays will form in the reader’s mind: What is going to happen next?

Another pleasure in Clade is the deft handling of how to describe future developments in technology. How easy this is to get wrong, falling into the trap of over-describing and revelling in self-indulgent sci-fi geekery. Bradley keeps his enthusiasm for the genre on a tight leash so that we barely notice the self-driving cars and virtual reality worlds or ‘vulchies’ into which some the characters escape. In this, it is part of  Bradbury’s deft skill at storytelling which carries the novel forward.

Most of all, though, Clade is a profoundly human story, in common with the great dystopian novels. Orwell’s 1984 is not simply about the dangers of totalitarianism. Camus’s The Plague is not about a disease or even the Nazi occupation. Clade, too, is not a polemic about climate change, profoundly concerning as that is. Like any novel worthy of the name, its true subject is how we respond to each other and the world around us: to our evolving relationships, to the inevitable death of ourselves and those we love, to the numberless baffling perplexities of being human – what Nabokov termed as ‘having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence’. At the ending of Clade – especially after Noah’s extraordinary discovery – there is an unexpected optimism and exuberance in the infinite variety and possibilities of life. The motif of the bee, so prominent on the cover as well as in the text, comes to mind. Ellie recalls seeing fossils of bees over 140 million years old; they had buzzed around the dinosaurs to collect their pollen, adapting to evolve and survive over unimaginable distances of time until the present. That too must be our future if we are to endure.

Loving the alien

Under the Skin – the new movie from Jonathan Glazer – begins with a beautiful and eerie sequence, disconcerting the audience so that we are unsure what, or who, is on screen. This introduces the entire mood of the film.

Note: plot details revealed.

Scarlett Johansson’s character arrives on an alien planet. Here are monstrous creatures. They are grotesque and unpredictable. Though she knows their language, the gabbling, howling sounds they make are almost incoherent. Now and then they launch into random acts of violence. Yes, welcome to planet earth. These are ordinary humans going about their various business in modern Britain.

Johansson has arrived on earth to harvest us. She cruises the streets of Glasgow in a white van, looking for the lonely and the friendless to lure home. Here they are seduced into another dimension where the flesh is sucked from their bodies. She delivers her chat-up lines in a perfect English accent – who would not follow Scarlett wherever she led you? The images of streets, shopping centres and clubs are seen though her eyes, as bizarre, chaotic, noisy – Glazer makes them seem alien and strange to us too.

In the most chilling scene, she is walking at the beach and sees a child get into trouble in the water. She watches calmly as the parents throw themselves into the waves, to save him, making no move to help herself. They all drown, leaving a toddler alone and screaming on the beach as dusk starts to fall. Johansson turns and walks away. This inconceivable act shocks the viewer into realising that she cannot be called ‘callous’, simply because she is not a human. She is merely indifferent, as one would be to see ants scattering in panic underfoot on a woodland walk.

Later she trips in the street and is puzzled by the efforts that strangers make to help her. She hurries away in search of her next victim. Johansson’s unnamed character soon comes across a suitable prey: a friendless young man, disfigured by neurofibromatosis, the condition which affected ‘the elephant man’. She seduces him with remarkable sensitivity (‘You have lovely hands . . . do you want to stroke my face?’) The lonely, disabled young man at last provokes some empathy from Johansson’s character. She lets him go. After this ‘human’ act of betrayal, she flees, hunted herself now by her alien ‘controller’ on earth. She discovers the beauty of the Scottish landscape, the tenderness of a loving man and the horror of a violent one who wants to rape her, until the inevitable end.

Glazer is an elegant filmmaker. Under the Skin is not cluttered with sci-fi tropes, but delights with original imagery that is breathtaking and moving by turn. Johansson’s house: dingy and ramshackle on the outside but with an interior that is a limitless black sea. The football scarf which one of her victims innocently flies from her van window. Johansson’s fingers hesitantly beginning to tap as she discovers music. The curiosity with she examines her naked self, discovering beauty in the ordinary curves and angles of a human body. It is a testimony to the actor and director that there is nothing voyeuristic in this scene, only a curious poignancy. The final moments of the film are as beautiful as they are horrific: doused in petrol and set alight by the attempted rapist, Johansson’s alien walks through a forest as a column of fire, as tall as a tree.

As well as in its originality, Under the Skin is reminiscent of a number of films which bring an alien consciousness and viewpoint to bear on the human condition. Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. Kubrick’s 2001. Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. In all of these, aliens, angels, or replicants encounter the mystery of humanity, with varying results. Glazer’s alien is first indifferent, then intrigued by the people she meets – all down-to-earth Glaswegians. In the end she discovers an empathy for our infuriatingly complex species. Like the little mermaid in Hans Christian Anderson’s story and a host of gods in mythology before her, Johansson’s alien creature is seduced by mortal life and pays the unavoidable price.