Los Angeles, 'Blade Runner,' and the Theory of Relativity

Easterners and people who’ve never been east of La Cienega Boulevard sometimes say the 238-year-old city of Los Angeles doesn’t have history. That’s dopey for a lot of reasons, but it’s a tempting accusation in part because of the way fires, floods, earthquakes, and uprisings have forced the city to remake itself again and again. The Los Angeles basin was a seasonal wetland beset by tectonic forces, annually cleansed by hot wind and fire and overtopped by a smoggy inversion layer long before the Spaniards moved in on the Tongva. It’s burning again today, as is local tradition. No wonder novelists and moviemakers always blow up the town in Act Three.
Maybe one reason people gloss all that history is that LA talks so much about its own future. Here we are in November 2019, and real time has finally caught up with the timeline of one of the city’s ur-texts, the movie Blade Runner, released in 1982 but set this month and this year. Angelenos have been waiting for this. It’s like how freeway signs tell you your exit is coming way, way in advance.I’m as suspicious as you are, I’m sure, of trying to twist science into a metaphor, but I’m going to do it anyway. Relativity says that space and time are related to the speed of light, and gravity is a side effect of mass. So massive objects like stars create gravity by denting space-time, so much so they’ll bend light right around themselves. Set that star spinning, and its local time frame will stick a little bit, like a wake. That’s called rotational frame-dragging—a massive object carries its past and future with it while it spins forward. My point is Los Angeles drags its own frame. The reason people say it doesn’t have any history is that its timeline gets pulled along, not entirely consensually, as the city bumbles into the future. The future is always present.
And here we are—in a present that happens in a future promised by the past. Have a look around, time travelers. Blade Runner got a lot right; it got a lot wrong. Maybe don’t ask a 1980s sci-fi movie that bumbled into its own brilliance for specific predictions and retrodictions. It wasn’t even really trying to be about the future, was it? The look was Shinjuku and the feel was Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, a megalopolis dominated by Haves tricking Have-Nots into shooting each other. Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard was one in a long line of LA shamuses tripped up by wealth and beauty, from Marlowe and Gittes to Rawlins and Bosch. Forget it, Deck—it’s Chinatown.You want an accounting, not a whodunnit but a what-got-dun? Blade Runner got the computerized parking meters right, and the talking streetlights. (“Cross now … cross now … don’t walk … don’t walk.”) Robot Metrokabs? So close. Streetside newsstands carrying an array of glossy magazines? Yeah, about that. Face-recognizing polygraphs? Check your phone’s forward-facing camera. We enhance digital photographs, and we have voice-controlled gadgets in our kitchens. Billionaires promise a life off-world of excitement and adventure, but we don’t even have billboard dirigibles, much less reliable rockets. Artificial intelligences indeed do our bidding (and sometimes rebel), but none of them look like Rutger Hauer (unless—oh, sorry, that’s just a deepfake). It doesn’t take torrential rain to wash away their memories like tears, or even several shots from a Steyr Pflager Katsumata Series-D blaster . You just forget to pay the AWS bill and poof. This isn’t called execution. It’s called retirement.