The Alternative Historian


Thoughts, Ideas, and Other Musings by an Alternative Historian

Like Tears in Rain: Happy Birthday Roy Batty

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
- Roy Batty (born January 8, 2016)

Roy Batty was a replicant. Or he is a replicant. Hard to say since this is a character from the movie Blade Runner which was released in 1982 but set in 2019. Like all good science fiction the movie is set in the future but is probably about the present even though it was written in the past.

Batty is played by Rutger Hauer and gives one of, if not the, most memorable death soliloquy in cinema. Five sentences in total, all of them above. If you’ve never seen the film, then you are simply wrong. Fix it as soon as possible. In the meantime know that the movie is about four androids who’ve come to earth because they’ve learned they only have four years to live. A retired cop is brought back to find them and kill them.

Batty’s speech directly relates to history, particularly oral history. We may never have been near Orion or know what Tannhauser Gate is, but we’ve seen some things. Aren’t we worried about our memories being lost? Batty is facing his final moment, after a life of only four years, and realizes that all he has experienced, felt, and seen will die with him. His existence having as much impact on the world as a tear’s salt has on rainwater. And he’s saying this to the man tasked with killing him, who has killed all his friends, and who Batty has saved from certain death before delivering his speech. In the end Batty chooses to tell the smallest piece of his life to someone who will remember.

Perhaps the movie is not just about a group of androids struggling to prolong their existence. Perhaps it just says that existence is important. Perhaps the movie is just saying that bearing witness is a necessary human act.

I have watched Blade Runner scores of times in my life, but I never connected the movie to oral history until today. The study of history is primarily focused on big questions. The historian must do more than just relate that something happened. She must show that what happened is important to study. Oral history is, perhaps, the study of the past through examination of memory. The historian still has to prove that the subject is important to examine, but the individual may have a different desire. She may just want to make sure her life, the things she’s seen that one wouldn’t believe, is remembered. Maybe she’s looking for a witness.