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Torn Maps: Making Sense of Los Angeles in Science Fiction Film and Literature

February 06, 2013

How might we explore the relationship between Los Angeles and science fiction? Science fiction (sf) is often set in impossible, as-yet-unknown places, complicating the already messy relationship between place and fictional setting.[i] As home to Hollywood, LA has been a location for countless films. While sometimes LA is just what’s in front of the camera, its mean streets, storm drains and social mix provided an important backdrop for The Terminator and Blade Runner. The latter film was described by Mike Davis as “L.A.’s own dystopic alter ego”, and prompted much discussion of postmodernism and the postmodern within and beyond geography.[ii]
Ridley Scott’s film(s) present us with a nightmarish but beguiling future LA: a city in ruins, a pastiche of architectural styles and historical periods. Blade Runner combines noir and dystopian elements, with the former a recurring theme in attempts to envision Los Angeles.[iii] The film also evokes earlier ways of imagining the city’s past, including noir itself; other LA sf is similarly obsessed with the imagined history of the city and the genre, and LA has a strong claim to be the birthplace of that mix of Victoriana and sf known as ‘steampunk’. [iv] Finally, it also seems significant that neither Scott nor the author of the book that inspired it – Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, actually set in San Francisco – were originally from LA. Davis notes the significance of outsiders to LA, from the Midwestern migrants who gave it a reputation for conservatism to the European and US intellectuals who struggled to grasp its identity; three of LA’s most significant sf writers – Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Kim Stanley Robinson – were born in or near Chicago.  
The noir/dystopian sf connection starts with Leigh Brackett, a native of LA who wrote sf as well as the screenplays for The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and The Empire Strikes Back. Davis suggests that her friendship with Ray Bradbury inspired the noir elements in his sf. Bradbury drifted away from the genre, but he set two later Hollywood mysteries (Death is a Lonely Business and A Graveyard for Lunatics) in the city. In the 1980s ‘cyberpunk’ sf – Blade Runner and the fictions of William Gibson and others – brought noir and dystopian sf together more closely. However cyberpunk’s chief debt to LA was arguably to noir rather than the sf of the city’s most important authors, such as Philip K. Dick.
Dick spent most of his life in the San Francisco Bay Area but lived in LA between 1972 and his death in 1982; the novels he wrote there compared both cities. Radio Free Albemuth imagines a US police-state run by Republican President Ferris F. Fremont, a McCarthy/Nixon figure born and raised in Orange County. Dick, a character in his own novel, admits that to radical Berkeleyites, Orange County had seemed “an area so reactionary that… it seemed a phantom land, made of the mists of dire nightmare”, “the fantasy at the other end of the world, Berkeley’s opposite”.[v] Dick gathered a circle of younger writers around him in LA, including K. W. Jeter, James P. Blaylock and Tim Powers. Jeter’s Dr Adder is a caustic satire of LA, focusing on the ‘Interface’ between ultra-conservative Orange County and utterly ruined LA, where all the business of the city – sex, religion, drugs, politics – is conducted. In Blaylock’s The Digging Leviathan the sf of Verne, Doyle, Burroughs and the pulps colonises LA, with gilled men off Catalina Island.
The ‘Three Californias’ trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson, who gained a doctorate on Dick from the University of California, are worth considering here. The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge imagine post-apocalyptic, near-future dystopian, and utopian sf futures respectively. The critique of Gold Coast needs the warnings of The Wild Shore and the hope of Pacific Edge, itself one of the first fruits of a renaissance of utopian sf. The Gold Coast (which inspired the title of this piece) is a thoughtful dissection of Californian capitalism; the central character’s struggle to grasp LA echoes the project of cognitive mapping called for by Fredric Jameson, Robinson’s former tutor.
In contrast to Robinson’s qualified utopianism, LA-set sf films of the 1980s were more clearly dystopian. Films about cyborgs, the spectacle, and ‘race’ – The Terminator, The Running Man, Alien Nation – seemed to fit LA, or perhaps it was just that Blade Runner had established it as the pre-eminent city of the future. LA’s venality and superficiality was critiqued by films such as Strange Days, The Hidden, They Live, and Society (a twisted version of Beverly Hills 90210); Demolition Man offers a feebler critique in which Los Angeles is caught between a bloodless New Age utopia and selfish libertarianism. The sf films that seem to be most obviously about LA are those that gently mock South Californian lifestyles and types, with sf elements allowing some satirical distance: punks in Repo Man, and Valley girls and boys in Earth Girls Are Easy, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (again, three of the four directors of these films are English).
Nostalgia for older forms of sf creeps into other LA-set films such as George Lucas in Love, a tongue-in-cheek account of the origin of Star Wars and The Rocketeer, a self-conscious pastiche of movie serials. LA’s future seems fixed somewhere in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postmodernist rupture posited by Jameson. Even the film-within-the-film in Frank Oz’sHollywood satire Bowfinger is a sf B-movie, surely inspired by L. Ron Hubbard. Blade Runner, the postmodern film, with its very 1940-looking future, is invaluable for depicting how LA was, rather than showing the shape of things to come. Nothing dates like the future, as sf fans know only too well.
James Kneale

[i] See James Kneale, 2009. ‘Space’ in Bould, M., Butler, A., Roberts, A., Vint, S. (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (London and New York, Routledge), 423-432.
[ii] Mike Davis, 1992. ‘Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control, the ecology of fear’ (New Jersey, Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, No. 23.), 1.
[iii] Mike Davis, 1990. City of Quartz: Excavating the future in Los Angeles (London, Verso).
[iv] See Andrew M. Butler, 2012. Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press).
[v] Philip K. Dick, 1985. Radio Free Albemuth (London, Grafton), 25-26.


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