Take another look, however, and something else stands out. Blade Runner may be Los Angeles’s “official nightmare,” as Mike Davis has claimed, but this city of 2019 is heterogeneous, disordered, and active. Taffey’s Snake Pit, the bar visited by bounty hunter Rick Deckard, is dark and dangerous, but also intriguing. Women sport retro fashions, pipes are puffed and joints smoked, and masked dancers sway to techno-beat music. The bustling streets teem with vitality, the Asian faces suggesting its attractions for entrepreneurial immigrants. Norman Klein reports that many Los Angeles residents found the scene where Deckard grabs lunch at an outdoor market to be appealing rather than off-putting, and the entire pulsating mishmash of food carts, sushi bars, and discount retailers that line Blade Runner’s streets match one of the standard 21st-century prescriptions for vitalizing bland American cities.
The idea of the city as an information-processing machine has in recent years manifested as a cultural obsession with urban sites of data storage and transmission. Scholars, artists, and designers write books, conduct walking tours, and make maps of internet infrastructures. We take pleasure in pointing at nondescript buildings that hold thousands of whirring servers, at surveillance cameras, camouflaged antennae, and hovering drones. We declare: “the city’s computation happens here.”
Yet such work runs the risk of reifying and essentializing information, even depoliticizing it. When we treat data as a “given” (which is, in fact, the etymology of the word), we see it in the abstract, as an urban fixture like traffic or crowds. We need to shift our gaze and look at data in context, at the lifecycle of urban information, distributed within a varied ecology of urban sites and subjects who interact with it in multiple ways. We need to see data’s human, institutional, and technological creators, its curators, its preservers, its owners and brokers, its “users,” its hackers and critics. As Mumford understood, there is more than information processing going on here. Urban information is made, commodified, accessed, secreted, politicized, and operationalized.
Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast? For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.
But what really makes this novel stand out is not the Black Mirror-style black comedy but the tenderly devastating portrait of mental illness. Smart, funny, brilliant Genevieve has bipolar disorder, and the burden of living with the illness, for her and for the besotted, anxious Karl, is slowly revealed throughout the book. The atmospheric prickles in the air as a heightened mood blows in; Karl’s rising fear as her voice gets faster and her fidgeting increases; the deadness in her eyes when depression hits.
When my son was almost 4 months old, I was walking down the street with him strapped to my chest. He was big—nineteen pounds—and alert. I was walking slowly, in loping, elephantine strides, trying to take as long as possible, and to walk as securely as possible. It had taken me a long time to get this confident—if that’s what you could call it—walking with him, but the thread of fear still lived in me. I was still anxious. Then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t tell if I was real or not. That was how rapidly it happened, and this is what it was like. One moment, walking. The next—am I real?