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How Blade Runner got its name from a dystopian book about health care

How Blade Runner got its name from a dystopian book about health care


It’s even more complicated than the Director’s Cut saga

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Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

As of November 2019, we’ve officially caught up with Blade Runner’s dystopian future. But we’re already ten years past the very different book that inspired its name.

Most fans of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film are aware that it’s based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, and that the book is not called Blade Runner. If you pick up Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, you’ll notice the term never appears in it. Even in the movie, “blade runner” is a slick but random name for mercenaries who hunt replicants. But it isn’t meaningless. Blade Runner’s remarkably weird title has its own backstory, which has nothing to do with androids, bounty hunters, or tears in rain.

Blade Runner owes its name to screenwriter Hampton Fancher, who drafted the film’s first treatments under titles that included Android and Dangerous Days. In the midst of extensive rewrites, Scott caught a reference to a “blade runner,” loved the name, and asked Fancher about it. “I thought, Christ, that’s terrific!” Scott said in a 1982 interview. “Well, the writer looked guilty and said, ‘As a matter of fact, it’s not my phrase.’” It was the title of a book by Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs — “oddly enough,” Scott said, called Blade Runner: A Movie. The team got permission from Burroughs to use the name, and after that, “it just stuck, because it was fun.”

But the real story of Blade Runner starts several years earlier. The original blade runners were actually “bladerunners,” created by Alan Nourse, a physician and science fiction author who often channeled his professional experience into his stories. Published in 1974 and set in the distant future of 2009, The Bladerunner was one of Nourse’s last novels. In it, a confluence of overpopulation, advanced surveillance, and computerized records has ushered in a totalitarian eugenics experiment: anyone who needs medical treatment must submit to sterilization, since the government has concluded that a sick or injured person is by definition unfit to reproduce.

‘The Bladerunner’ actually does involve people running with blades

In The Bladerunner’s future New York, underground doctors have set up a parallel hospital system, threatened by police on one hand and anti-medicine rioters on the other. With medical supply sales strictly controlled, every practitioner needs a good bladerunner: a scrappy youth who fences pills, syringes, and scalpels. It’s a stable system, until an epidemic of deadly meningitis hits the city — and because it starts as a mild flu, nobody’s willing to get treated until it’s too late. It’s up to bladerunners to spread the word and save the city, at the potential cost of their freedom and their lives.

Nourse’s 2009 Manhattan is as gritty as anything in Scott’s 2019 Los Angeles, divided into the bustling Upper City and the dingy, dangerous Lower City. But it’s a distinctly pre-cyberpunk piece of high-concept science fiction, extrapolating a disastrous future out of contemporary anxieties. In 1974, The Population Bomb was still considered an urgent warning. Recent films like ZPG and Soylent Green (based on an earlier novel by Harry Harrison) depicted crowded futures sustained by cannibalism, suicide parlors, and draconian birth-control mandates. And forced sterilization wasn’t science fiction at all — some states still condoned it for the “feeble-minded” or mentally ill.

But some elements of Nourse’s book are timeless. Its premise is “bureaucrats control society through universal healthcare,” which has inevitably been interpreted as an indictment of Obamacare. Characters spend a lot of time evading biometric surveillance and spoofing location trackers to stay ahead of an overbearing police force. Surgeons are being replaced with “pantographic” robots that record and replay operations, and a subplot follows one of the protagonists’ comically elaborate plans to confuse them.

You can look for a critique of surveillance, scientific solutionism, or Obamacare

And above all, The Bladerunner criticizes thoughtless, overly neat scientific solutionism that makes sweeping changes without looking at the effect on individual human lives. Nourse hasn’t written a literary masterwork; the characters aren’t deep or interesting enough, and the conflict wraps up too easily. Still, it’s an engaging story that feels dated yet not quaint, and unlike a lot of little-known mid-century fiction, it’s easily accessible as an ebook.

The Bladerunner didn’t make a huge splash in the science fiction world. But a couple of years after its release, Burroughs — at that point an influential New York counterculture figure — found a copy and was enthralled by the idea of filming it. Burroughs quickly negotiated a rights deal and spent the next four months churning out a treatment, which his assistant James Grauerholz assured Nourse’s agent had “extraordinary possibilities as a movie.”

This praise was somewhat hyperbolic. Burroughs had a serious interest in cinema — he’d filmed an experimental project called The Cut-Ups in the 1960s, alongside exploitation-film distributor Antony Balch. But his forays into Hollywood hadn’t ended well. A script called The Last Words of Dutch Schultz was relegated to a written work, the fate that eventually befell Blade Runner as well. And a quest to film Burroughs’ seminal novel Naked Lunch went nowhere, after failed attempts to work with Mick Jagger and The Gong Show producer Chuck Barris. (David Cronenberg eventually adapted it in 1991.)

As an added challenge with Blade Runner, Burroughs emphasized and expanded the weirdest elements of his source material, ending up with a story that would have required blockbuster-level funding to film. His introduction of the city begins like this:

In the year 2014 New York, world center for underground medicine, is the most glamorous, the most dangerous, the most exotic, vital, far-out city the world has ever seen. The only public transport is the old IRT limping along at five miles an hour through dimly-lit tunnels. The other lines are derelict. Hand-propelled and steam-driven cars transport produce, the stations have been converted into markets. The lower tunnels are flooded, giving rise to an underground Venice. The upper reaches of derelict skyscrapers, without elevator service since the riots, have been taken over by hang-glider and autogyro gangs, mountaineers, and steeple-jacks…

In Burroughs’ vision of New York, two walls cordon off Midtown Manhattan, while skyscrapers are webbed with connective catwalks. Zoo animals roam the parks and waterways. An extended narrative setup introduces, among other things, a paradisiacal colony of welfare-leeching radioactive lepers and a civil war started by Christian extremists.

Filming Burroughs’ vision would have required blockbuster-level funding

Burroughs’ Blade Runner focuses less on medical theory than on the culturally transgressive potential of bladerunners. Health care isn’t rationed just because of a wrong-headed scientific analysis, but because it’s a chance to rid society of anyone who’s black, gay, or otherwise “undesirable.” The final novella — a disjointed series of frequently repeated vignettes with slight differences — has a typically Burroughsian drug-fueled surrealism. Instead of meningitis, the country faces an accelerated cancer pandemic treated with an ancient virus drawn from a crystal skull, which itself causes bizarre mutations and uncontrollable sexual frenzy. His story ends with the protagonist Billy apparently hallucinating that he’s traveled to 1914.

There were occasional moves toward an actual movie, but Burroughs almost immediately acknowledged that it was unlikely the project would ever come to fruition. In a mid-1977 lecture series, he said a screenwriter friend had advised him to scrap the project, warning him that “you’ll have to tear down New York for this film.” Burroughs estimated that it would cost $5 million just to film the riots in the prologue. Art curator Diego Cortez did later option the rights for a movie, but he couldn’t raise enough money to film it. So Blade Runner: A Movie became one of Burroughs’ most obscure written works, with the “movie” descriptor serving mostly to distinguish it from Nourse’s book.

The only true ‘Blade Runner’ adaptation is about militant feminists brainwashing Bill Paxton

Just as Nourse’s work resurfaced in Burroughs’ novella, though, Blade Runner made its way back to the film world in the 1980s — and not just through Ridley Scott. The name went to Scott, but Burroughs’ dystopian future went to a young filmmaker named Tom Huckabee, who used it as the backdrop for an avant-garde project called Taking Tiger Mountain. Huckabee recruited Burroughs himself for the film, having him narrate a voiceover using clips from Blade Runner: A Movie. But Huckabee’s film dropped the underground medicine plot in favor of having Billy, played by a young Bill Paxton, kidnapped by a group of militant feminists, who brainwash him into killing the head of a sex trafficking ring.

Taking Tiger Mountain remained virtually unknown for years. (You can see the trailer for a rare public screening, featuring distinctly not-safe-for-work audio, below.) In 2019, though, it was finally released on home video — alongside, in the true spirit of Blade Runner, a controversial “revisited” director’s cut that substantially changes the film.

Taking Tiger Mountain premiered not long after Blade Runner, and in a 2014 interview, Huckabee even claims to have broken the news about Scott’s final title to Burroughs. “There had been talk about them using the name,” he says, and Grauerholz had agreed on a price of $5,000, “which at the time seemed like a good deal to them.” But according to Huckabee, they didn’t realize it was actually being used until Huckabee — killing time at one of Burroughs’ book signings — stumbled across a magazine’s promotional spread advertising Blade Runner.

While Burroughs doesn’t appear to have been involved in Scott’s Blade Runner, he did have a major influence on the cyberpunk genre — he was a favorite author of William Gibson, who published Neuromancer in 1984. And Fancher himself personally met Burroughs while trying (unsuccessfully) to work with him on a film project. But the real credit for Blade Runner’s memorable title doesn’t go to him. It belongs to Nourse, who coined a phrase so evocative that it transcends any fictional context. Whatever a “blade runner” does, it has to be cool.

So Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel to a movie based on a book but named after a completely unrelated film treatment of yet another book, which was itself published as a third book with the subtitle “A Movie.” In case that’s not confusing enough, the latest reissue of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is also titled Blade Runner. And we won’t even get into the three Blade Runner sequel books by K.W. Jeter.

The name was a happy coincidence for Scott. Who knows whether audiences would have been as intrigued by a film called Dangerous Days. But it’s a shame that we’ll probably never see Nourse’s novel, or better yet, Burroughs’ science fiction fever dream, get its own turn on the big screen. Either one would make for a great movie — but you’d need a new name for the bladerunners first.

Update November 1, 2019: Updated on the official date of Blade Runner’s future.