In which I muse on memory in Blade Runner 2049

maybe one day you’ll be a real boy…

(Warning, includes spoilery discussion of Blade Runner 2049)

I was sitting in the London Review of Books’ cafe at the weekend (recommended), reading the latest edition of the Paris Review. It includes a conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis about the way they identify and write their stories. It was very engaging, and my attention was caught by this comment from Gladwell at the very end:

Much of what all of us believe is not true. I don’t mean that in the gross macro way. I mean it in a very, very micro way – that when someone tells you a story about something that happened to them or that they observed, many of the details are likely to be erroneous… Its not that people are lying to you, it’s just that much of what’s in our heads is not accurate.

Factually, what he’s saying is correct: people remember and recount things in ways that are objectively not 100% true. Historians learn this in their historian nappy-wearing days, being taught to critique sources for bias. However, Gladwell seems to be saying that journalists need to learn this and correct for it, to avoid errors. What he doesn’t seem to be questioning is the idea that you can correct for it and that you can get to objective truth.

insert loud wah-aah noise here

Yeah. No.
Funnily enough, I incline towards a belief in the existence of objective truth (I am a Christian after all), I just also incline away from the belief that humans can fully access it. Limited perspective and a lack of omniscience would appear to rule it out. I mean, you can try to correct for your own and other people’s bias, and as a historian and journalist, and in an attempt to be a decent human you probably should. But you can’t get out of subjectivity entirely. And while at times, deliberate manipulation is often at play in the muddying of the waters, so – as Gladwell points out – is subjective, limited memory.

And memory becomes reality, because it is what we are told, come to believe and know happened. And what we tell others, who weave it into their versions of the world.

This struck me, I think, because the previous night I’d trotted off to the cinema to see Blade Runner 2049, in which a memory plays a starring thematic role. K has a recurring memory of being a small boy, treasuring and hiding a wooden horse. In the course of events he comes to learn that this memory is a memory that was ‘born, not made’ – born, as in stemming from a real, live moment, rather than created in an imaginarium and implanted into his programming. When he discovers, late in the film, that while it is a felt memory, not a made one, it comes as a punch in the gut – to him and (if you’re like me) to the viewer.

One of the concerns of the Blade Runner films is what makes a human human, as opposed to a replicant. One of the plot points of 2049 is the existence of two matching DNA records, ostensibly of a boy who lives and a girl who dies – but ultimately, it turns out, of a girl who lives and a boy who never did.

However, here’s my thesis: by K possessing and owning the memory, recognising and feeling its ‘realness’ in his being and identity, the boy who never lived does. K becomes a ‘real boy’, humanity incarnated out of his memory.

The character of Anna is clearly a messianic figure (best discussion of this I’ve read so far: Alissa Wilkinson at Vox), and the memory comes from her. Both in the sense that it is her memory, but also into the sense that she is the person who gives him the understanding of its truth in the moment that changes him so dramatically that his his baseline is miles off. Whatever else Anna does or becomes in the world of Blade Runner (and I do not want more sequels), she has given K the gift of being able to know his true humanity. Call it grace, if you like.

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