Review of The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe
Lou Tambone and Joe Bongiorno, eds. The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe. Sequart Organization, 2018. Paperback. 416 pg. $19.99. ISBN 9781940589183.
The edited collection The Cyberpunk Nexus seeks to explore the film Blade Runner (1982, 1992, 2007), the wider Blade Runner franchise, and the film’s enduring influence throughout popular culture. Published by the Sequart Organization, who specialize in popular (i.e. non-scholarly) criticism, the collection blurs the distinction between academic and non-academic criticism through its formal mimicry of academic norms: the inclusion of footnotes, a contributor section, and the use of ambiguous language. This ambiguity can best be seen in the collection’s blurb that states that the book is written by “film historians” and “subject-matter experts.” However, despite this, and in contrast to many other examples of popular criticism, The Cyberpunk Nexus seems far more comfortable with its non-academic pedigree, with arguments and observations that are self-consciously embedded in the personal or subjective, with only the occasional dalliance with pseudo-academic objectivity.
The book is broken into five sections that respectively cover the texts that inspired Blade Runner, the music and multiple versions of the film, the themes of the film, the further adaptations and spin-offs from Blade Runner, and a final section covering Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Most of the essays are a mixture of compendium and opinion from well informed fan-commentators/researchers. Among the many contributors to this 28-essay collection are popular critics, media practitioners, and academic scholars. With a foreword by Paul M. Sammon, it acts as a (sort of) companion piece to Sammon’s own Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (1996), supplementing Sammon’s focused and detailed accounting of the ‘making of …’ with a broader discussion of Blade Runner as a complex and evolving intertext.
There have been two previous scholarly essay collections on Blade Runner. Retrofitting Blade Runner (1991), edited by Judith Kerman, focused more specifically on debates arising from the film itself with some attention paid to the adaptation process, while The Blade Runner Experience (2005), edited by Will Brooker, engaged in a wider discussion of the reverberating influence of Blade Runner throughout popular culture. Other than updating the discussion, and including responses to the 2017 sequel, the true value in this collection can be seen in the fan perspective many of the essays offer and the testimonials from creatives who have added their own texts to the ever-expanding Blade Runner intertext.
To highlight the non-scholarly nature of the fan essays that dominate this collection is not an attempt at stigmatization. Rather, it is to recognize that these essays have not been produced in light of academic stricture or in an effort to satisfy the machinery of analysis. Therefore, the use-value of these essays can be seen in the, sometimes quite lengthy, accounts of preferred textual readings. Whether this collection is indicative of the wider genre-fandom community or is a more limited reflection of the specific communities engaged with Blade Runner, there are two key takeaways to consider. The first is that, where adaptation has occurred, fidelity to the original persists as an important measure of success. Second, fidelity is not a straightforward measure, applied as it is in this collection with nuance and complexity.
Across the collection, contributors discuss the necessity and desirability of divergence from the source material, citing the vagaries of filmmaking and the expectations of cinema audiences as part of their justification for this. Whether these arguments are convincing or not, they reveal a sophisticated approach to adapted texts by engaged audiences. Therefore, fidelity is deployed to critique the success of any changes or divergences from the source, rather than being used to denounce the differences themselves. The engaged audience whose voice is well represented by this collection combine, as part of their critical apparatus, preferred readings of both source and adaptation while also juggling questions of authorial intention through engagement with extant critical (popular and otherwise) literature and paratexts. This sophistication somewhat flies in the face of the logophilia that continues to haunt Science Fiction Studies and the denunciation of fidelity criticism that remains a shibboleth of Adaptation Studies.
A further usefulness of The Cyberpunk Nexus is the inclusion of an essay by Bryce Carlson, who was part of the team that produced the graphic-novelization Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (2009) for BOOM! Studios. This memoir-essay covers Carlson’s evolving role in the adaptation from novel to comic book, as well as describing some of the practical and legal challenges that the project had to overcome. Carlson notes, with lawyerly finesse, that:
It wasn’t an adaptation because Blade Runner was the adaptation and had all the rights that went along with it. And it wasn’t an illustrated novel because we didn’t have novel publishing rights … It was a “graphic novelization” in the true sense of the term. (265-66).
This question of rights didn’t just affect how the project conceived of itself but also impacted the design choices available. Carlson goes on to state that they had “one big artistic obstacle … We were not allowed to do anything that looked like Blade Runner” (267). Rights ownership and exploitation is a hot topic right now within media studies generally and also within the hard sciences with discussion of vaccine patent ownership entering mainstream discourse. Therefore, this is a timely account by Carlson that will be of interest to any science fiction scholar engaged in the debates about copyright and its Janus-faced impact on contemporary creativity.
The primary weakness of this collection is in the lack of reliable citation or attribution in the essays that cover production and release histories. The usefulness of these essays is undermined by the inability to return to the origins of the data points. This is shame, as it turns exhaustive research and compiling into hearsay. And one would need to redo the research oneself in order to be confident in its veracity. Furthermore, and as already pointed out, this is not an academic collection. Therefore, any scholars seeking an academic introduction or interrogation of Blade Runner, adaptation, genre cinema, or cyberpunk as a cultural force are looking in the wrong place. Instead, this collection provides many valuable insights and signals a number of trailheads for future study, while also serving as a choice example of contemporary genre fandom that reveals a continuity with the origins of sciences fiction criticism; that is, criticism carried out by a community of highly motivated, articulate, and, mostly non-academic commentators.
Terence Sawyers is a film and media scholar who insists he is not a SF scholar; despite this the vast majority of his research continues to overlap with SF scholarship, go figure. His primary research area is the adaptation of SF writer Philip K. Dick into film and television. He also side-lines as a conspiracy theory theorist and is a dabbler in the history of occultism. When not sifting through layers of simulated hyperreality he can be found hosting About Film (aboutfilmedinburgh.wordpress.com), a regular public engagement event held in the meat-space that is Edinburgh, Scotland.