Zhora and the snake

My essay on Blade Runner for BBC Radio 3 as a part of the Year of Blade Runner essay series was broadcast last night and you can still listen to it here, along with links to the other four essays in the series

Here is the text version:

In Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner, in a seedy part of town, Rick Deckard drowns his sorrows in Mezcal without ice, sat amongst dodgy shisha smoking patrons. Unable to tempt his love interest to come join him, even after calling her on a videophone with a filthy screen – he’s fallen into despair and alcohol. He fits well into the mass of denizens looking for a night of neon entertainment and flesh to distract them from their lives.

But Deckard is a Blade Runner. A bounty hunter. And he’s hunting someone.

He looks up as the main attraction appears, introduced by a rasping off-screen voice:

“Ladies and gentlemen. Taffy Lewis presents Miss Solamay and the snake. Watch her take the pleasures from the serpent that once corrupted man.”

The compere at what is The Snake Pit club has just introduced an erotic dance from a woman who is actually the rogue replicant Zhora in disguise, she is one of six artificial beings who have fought their way to Earth, fleeing the ‘off-world colonies’ and killing twenty-three people. Now she is a moving target for Deckard, the Blade Runner, the ‘replicant hunter/killer’. He has tracked her down to Taffy Lewis’ seedy strip club both to seek any information about the other runaway replicants and to cut her artificial life even shorter.

Retirement they call it.

This scene forces us to think about the ethics of sex robots, or ‘sexbots’. Their use also ties into bigger questions around artificial personhood, freedom, agency, what makes us human, and why humans imagine particular dystopic futures.

However, many of these questions remain unanswered in Blade Runner.

While Blade Runner presents us with a future containing sexbots, it doesn’t give us details of this alternative 2019 world where they are so common that humans can be blasé about them. Such as when Police Chief, Captain Bryant, describes Pris to Deckard as ‘your basic pleasure model’, dismissing her.

‘Real-world’ conversations about the ethics and social impact of sexbots can be more vocal – however basic the technology actually is at the moment! There are fears that they will cause even more sexual objectification of women and abuse. More positive views see them as just a new sex tech and helpful for self-determination. But science fiction, in films such as Blade Runner, can push these two arguments in new directions by showing us imaginary sexbots with the ability to make choices and to be autonomous.

In Blade Runner, the rogue replicants definitely make choices to ensure their future. After an unsuccessful raid on the Tyrell Corporation to try to find a cure for their limited lifespans, one replicant, Leon, goes undercover to infiltrate the company.

He is outed through the Voigt-Kampf empathy test performed on a wheezing infernal kind of laptop that stares into man-made eyes as a series of questions determine fake from real  – it does not go well. But Leon has been able to change his career programming. He has taken on a brand-new role to help himself and the other escaped replicants. We are told about his previous job in a scene in which Bryant and Deckard discuss the rogue replicants and their designated roles in this future world of 2019.

Leon is described as being an ‘ammunition loader on intergalactic runs’. He has been given enhanced strength and an increased tolerance for pain, with a corresponding low intelligence – he’s ‘a workbeast’. Roy is a blond Aryan ‘combat model’ with ‘optimum self-sufficiency’, we and the film assume that he will be the replicants’ leader. Pris is a ‘basic’ pleasure model, as mentioned, and Zhora is an assassin. But each of them arrives on Earth and redefines their role in alignment with the greater good for their companions.

Zhora’s shift from assassin to erotic dancer ‘Miss Salomay’ is perhaps the greatest change. But it is also a transformation that isn’t just about the needs of her fellow rogue replicants. Do the replicants need money? It’s never mentioned. If they do, then why did Zhora raise funds to buy an expensive synthetic snake for her dance? Also, why is Zhora the exotic dancer and not Pris, the basic pleasure model?

Her characters origins are very loosely based on that of Luba Luft, an android opera singer from Philip K. Dick 1968 source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Luba is performer who does not know that she is artificial. As one of the least dangerous androids in the book, she – and her death – make Deckard question his increasing empathy for the synthetic humans. And his own humanity as he talks to her, before her ‘retirement’:

“An android,” he said, “doesn’t care what happens to any other android. That’s one of the indications we look for.”

“Then,” Miss Luft said, “you must be an android.”

That stopped him; he stared at her.

“Because,” she continued, “Your job is to kill them, isn’t it? You’re what they call — “She tried to remember.

“A bounty hunter,” Rick said. “But I’m not an android.”

“This test you want to give me.” Her voice, now, had begun to return. “Have you taken it?”

The rewriting of the opera singer Luba Luft into the sexbot Zhora is also an example of the cinematic sexism of Blade Runner’s time. The film is not just a clever recombination of the Science Fiction and Film Noir genres. It also folds together different times and the attitudes that come with them. 1940s Film Noir is tangled together with the 1980s of the film’s production and release, while also presenting an alternative 2019. ’80s cinema gave us both the businesswoman and the murdered babysitter, and it sexualised both of them. “I’ve got a mind for business and bod for sin”, Melanie Griffiths tells Deckard, I mean, Harrison Ford, in Working Girl in 1988. Zhora and Pris are working girls of another kind, and their deaths – stalked by the Blade Runner before dying screaming or covered in blood – reminds us of the victims and scream queens in the Halloween films.

Leaving behind the ethics of such depictions of women and staying within the internal logic of Blade Runner, we should recognise that Zhora also has more agency than Luba Luft. Zhora knows what she is from the beginning and she makes her own decisions about her role in the team of escaped replicants. And she is loved by them, Leon especially. This is important to any consideration of the ethics of sexbots with apparent agency, and dare we say it, consciousness.

There are some AI philosophers who argue that intelligence and consciousness are orthogonal to each other. That creating AI systems and even robotic entities to help us with physical and intellectual labour doesn’t necessarily lead to ‘really’ conscious beings. Such artificial non-conscious beings could be best thought as a kind of ‘zombie’, or perhaps as being like the ‘non-player characters’, or ‘npcs’, in computer games: mindless agents that successfully perform intelligent and intelligible tasks. And humans generally don’t worry themselves about the internal life of the minor computer character and their suffering as they rack up points shooting them or blowing them up.

We might pat ourselves on the back if we had created such skilful agents and had still managed to avoid increasing the overall suffering of sentient beings.

But in Blade Runner it’s clear that replicants like Pris are created to be sexbots with no say in the matter, or their fates. So where actually were humanity’s ‘good intentions’ in the first place in this alternative 2019?

And, it’s hard to argue that the rogue replicants of Blade Runner are ‘zombies’ or ‘npcs’. Again and again, we see them reacting emotionally to their plight. We see them afraid, angry, and taking action. Leon’s relationship with his companions also demonstrates the replicants ability to make emotional connections, even if those connections are the very thing that brings the dark figure of the Blade Runner to their door.

Detective Deckard has been brought to the Snake Pit club by a couple of clues: the artificial snake scale and an enhanced photo showing Zhora reflected in the mirror in Leon’s hotel room. Roy refers to that picture and the others Leon has taken as his ‘precious photos’. Unlike the photos of fake family members that replicants are gifted by their creators – along with their counterfeit memories of them – Leon has a picture of one of his real companions, the replicant friends he escaped with. The replicants have not only agency but also emotional ties.

Blade Runner audiences have made much of the fake memories that the replicants are given. Especially in discussions of whether Deckard is himself a replicant, or not. Many focus on his unicorn daydream as a sign that he has false memories as well. But very little is said of the replicants’ ability to form new memories and new relationships. Leon’s collection of photos suggests that he has an authentic relationship with Zhora.

Zhora’s dance also introduces another relationship. Between synthetic owner and synthetic snake.

The sexuality of the dance is perhaps uncomfortable. Deckard himself looks away, so the actual dance is a mystery to the audience, even if we can make assumptions about Miss Salomay taking her pleasure from the snake. But this moment also raises questions about the nature of ‘realness’. A fake snake and a fake woman perform synthetic bestiality on stage. If both are artefacts rather than ‘real’, why should the scene be so disturbing? If the snake is no more ‘real’ than an animatronic dildo, and the woman inhuman enough to be disposed of by a Blade Runner just moments later, why the concern?

Questions around simulation and simulacra are essential in current discussions of the ethics and nature of AI. In 1950, Alan Turing highlighted the role of simulation in the article that formed the basis of the ‘Turing Test’ for genuine artificial intelligence. And more recent science fiction has also asked about the impact of simulation, as in the television series, Westworld. “Are you real?” a guest asks one of the android hosts, another sexbot. “If you can’t tell, does it matter?” she replies provocatively. Ultimately, though, the androids’ creator wants ‘real’ consciousness for his favoured creations and again they end up showing real agency and autonomy in their own rebellion.

Simulation forces us to think about how we know the ‘real’ that we seem so certain about. Certain enough perhaps to reassure ourselves that the use of ‘fake’ humans as slave labour and sexbots is alright to be skimmed over in the dialogue of the human characters in Blade Runner. Zhora is capable of agency, change, emotional ties, and new memory formation, as well as being physiologically indistinguishable from humans. She is perhaps only different in her physical enhancements and her lack of empathy.  What does it say about the society in the world of Blade Runner that it is okay with slave replicants who fight our off-world wars and fulfil sexual needs for colonists?

Actually, it gets worse. What does it say about a society that is okay with slave replicants who are not even four years old? Basically children.

The limited lifespans of the replicants are another method of control. Even after escaping from their enslavement, they aren’t free from the binds of time itself. Most of the replicants actions on Earth are driven by a desperation to survive. Was that programmed into them? Discussions around controlling AI in the real world often discuss the need to avoid intentions that could lead to harmful outcomes for humanity – we generally call this ‘Value Alignment’. Recently, it was suggested by AI experts Anthony Zadar and Yann Lecun that to avoid the classic dystopic ‘Terminator’ scenario we should not design AI with the survival instincts that evolution has ‘programmed’ into humans. Returning to the fictional world of Blade Runner, Zhora and the other replicants fight for survival, even kill to progress their mission on Earth. Our response is meant to be one of horror and fear. We’re well-prepped to view machines as predators through decades of science fiction, and older horror stories that inspire us still, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Victor Frankenstein’s experimentations with reanimation are also often recognised as a commentary from the time on the hubris of the male genius in trying to create and control life outside of the normal order of nature. In Blade Runner, there is also singular ‘mad scientist’ creator figure, Tyrell, but the corporation also fulfils the Frankenstein role; showing its own hubris in thinking that life can be forced into narrow roles dictated by the needs of the market and capitalism, and then successfully controlled. The apparent agency and consciousness of the replicants means rebellion is framed as inevitable, because we – the film’s creators and the audience – know that minds will always seek to be free. Because we would want to be free too.

The replicants are condemned to self-awareness, that they are creations who will only burn so very brightly for 4 years Their development appears different to human development, but what is ethical about creating a being and within its first few days, enslaving it? Or putting it to work as a ‘basic pleasure model’. Even Rachel, Tyrell’s fake ‘niece’ and the best treated of the replicants, is physically forced into consenting to Deckard’s sexual attentions when she seems as naïve as a child in some scenes.

What does it say about a society that dreams of slaves?

I mean, this time, our society of 2019. We have dreamt up numerous stories of not only sexbots but also artificial servants who fight our wars and serve our whims. Why do humans dream of electric slaves?

Is perhaps the greatest dystopia the one inside our heads?

At this point in time, the technology of sexbots is more akin to a lousy chatbot forced inside an inanimate sex doll. But Blade Runner, and Zhora’s dance, in particular, forces us to think about our own humanity and where we draw the line between the synthetic and the human. And what it means that we even want enslaved sexbots to exist.

In the parallel 2019 world of Blade Runner we can see some of the outcomes of such dark desires, but there is plenty of space – and time – left for us in our 2019 to consider whether that is a future we should be working towards.


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