California in Science Fiction: The Future is Here

An introduction to this special section by Jonathan Alexander and Catherine Liu, followed by a conversation with them and Patrick Sharp, Sherryl Vint, Vandana Singh, and Austin Grossman.

THE OPENING SCENES of Blade Runner, depicting a smog-suffused but still glittering Los Angeles, like an oil refinery in hell, offer us a visually indelible portrait of the city, alluding to its various real and social pollutions while also suggesting its technological and visionary brilliance. The skyline and mountains seem unmistakably Los Angeles, but we see past them into the future of the city’s soul — an uneasy contact zone of cultures, languages, corporations, publics, and politics. As the story, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, unfolds, the city’s tortured byways become the backdrop for a reconsideration of what it means to be human as the protagonists track down rogue androids, or replicants, masquerading as humans. But who here is human, after all, seems the ultimate question posed by both novel and film. And, more pressingly, what is the cost of experimenting with our humanity, making our being itself the source material we reshape to suit our fantasies, desires, and whims?

Such questions form the core concerns of much of Dick’s work, as well as that of many science fiction writers who set their work in California. California itself seems rich as a figure for precisely this fascination: the remaking of humanity and human relations, as well as both the possibilities and consequences of turning imagined futures into present realities.  

Indeed, the West Coast of the United States and California in particular have long been sources of inspiration for the SF imagination: the state’s history offers a rich repository of utopian schemes, dystopian realities, collectivist experiments, and commercial and ecological catastrophes. Philip K. Dick, Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Octavia E. Butler, and William Gibson have all depicted

California in their work, whether as a site of utopian inspiration or as a dystopic realm where history and authenticity are erased and natural beauty is threatened by economic and ecological mismanagement. California has offered SF writers a fruitful space where forward-thinking blueprints — sociopolitical and sexual utopias, technocultural avant-gardes, impulses towards collective and personal reinvention — are projected onto a beautiful but ultimately fragile landscape. During the Cold War and after, California has represented the vanguard of technoscientific progress, free-market ideology, lifestyle libertarianism, new communalism, and countercultural experimentation. Even the physical and ideological contrast between Northern and Southern California has inspired writers and thinkers, inside and outside the genre, for generations, from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 to William Gibson’s Virtual Light.  More globally, California shares the seismic instabilities of the Pacific Rim and is integrated into the cultural and economic exchanges facilitated and regulated by global capital throughout the region. California exists in the larger cultural imagination as both a much-dreamed-of sphere of spiritual discovery and multicultural hybridity as well as a nightmarish realm of ecological disaster and race war.

A recent symposium at the University of California, Irvine, called “The Future is Here: CA in SF,” brought together a group of writers and scholars to discuss the figure of the state in the SF imaginary. A key text considered was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty, about the political trials of establishing and maintaining an “arcology” — a fully functioning and self-sustaining micro-city, within Los Angeles. Published in 1981, the novel seems eerily prescient of contemporary SoCal gated communities, as well as uneasy relations between corporate interests and the maintenance of a public commons. Niven and Pournelle imagine a social structure in which inhabitants of Todos Santos submit to complete surveillance to ensure their security. The public good gives way to corporatization, and those who can afford to live safely, do so. And yet, Niven and Pournelle also imagine some reciprocity in this arrangement, with the corporation responsible for Todos Santos providing some public goods, such as fresh water, to the local non-corporate populace. And living in Todos Santos, privacy issues aside, seems attractive. Without offering any spoilers, however, we can safely say that the threat of terrorism that emerges in the novel foreshadows much contemporary concern with issues of surveillance and the Bush-era police state, not to mention tensions among corporate, public, and national interests globally. Niven and Pournelle knew, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, what local and global conflicts would emerge around the increasing divide between the haves and have nots.  And California, land of plenty that promises the fantasies of Disney’s Tomorrowland, seemed the perfect place to enact such dramas.

Building off this event at UC Irvine, we asked a group of writers and scholars to share with us some of their thoughts on how California has become a trope within SF, as well as some of their favorite images of the Golden State in SF and how those images are used to “figure” a future, utopic, dystopic, or somewhere in between. Their roundtable remarks follow below. We begin with Patrick Sharp, professor of English at CSU Los Angeles and author of Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture, who grounds the figure of California in SF in the power of the imagination of frontiers. Then science fiction critic Sherryl Vint, professor of SF film and media at UC Riverside, picks up the thread to consider how California becomes figured, through Hollywood for instance, as a “dream factory” pushing beyond physical frontiers into virtualities. SF author Vandana Singh reminds us of the significance of place and terrain in forming a cultural imaginary, while LARB contributor Catherine Liu shows us that consideration of terrain as intimately linked to cross-cultural awareness and conflict in the work of Philip K. Dick. Novelist Austin Grossman finishes up by tracing an anti-California strain in some SF, but also brings us back to the stunning images of a future LA in the opening scenes of Blade Runner

PATRICK SHARP: European colonial expansion provided the rhetoric and framework for modern science. Francis Bacon’s influential Renaissance writings about science emphasized gaining control over nature, and this approach to science was inspired by the colonial voyages (and narrative accounts of those voyages) of his day. This colonial imagination of science persisted through the formation of early science fiction narratives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In short, colonialism inspired science and its narratives, including science fiction. The West has had a particular attraction for writers of SF within the United States: the frontier narratives of colonial expansion became extended into future explorations of new frontiers in space, and the contact with interesting (and at times hostile) new races, cultures, and ideas. California writers of SF have long contributed to “estranging” colonial contact narratives, using the genre to question the wisdom of colonial expansion and exploring things from the perspectives of the colonized. Ray Bradbury, who grew up in southern California, provided a very extensive and entertaining critique of colonialism in his stories that were gathered into his 1950 collection The Martian Chronicles. “Rocket Summer,” which began the collection, notes the environmental damage on Earth caused by the rockets being launched to colonize Mars. Stories such as “Ylla” chronicle the destruction of Martian natives by the invading Earthmen, showing the beauty of Martian culture and the stupidity of humanity. In essence, Mars is the new West, a new California in space where humanity is repeating the mistakes of its past.

Kim Stanley Robinson has continued this tendency of California writers to use Mars as a way of thinking critically about the destruction attendant upon colonial expansion, but Robinson has also turned his eye more consistently to the landscape of California itself to question many of the assumptions and effects of colonialism. Since at least the writing of Henry David Thoreau, there has been a tradition in American storytelling of challenging the Baconian paradigm where nature is treated as an object to be conquered. Robinson has extended this critique in his Three Californias series of novels, where he imagines three possible futures for the Golden State. The first two novels, The Wild Shore and Pacific Edge, represent possible futures where the colonial impulses of American culture have culminated in Californias that are (respectively) devastated by nuclear war and overrun by unchecked industrial capitalism. The third novel in the series, Pacific Edge, builds on the ecological utopian tradition begun by Northern California author Ernest Callenbach’s famous and extremely problematic 1975 Ecotopia. Like Callenbach, Robinson draws upon the strength of the environmental movement in California to imagine how we can develop a society that lives in harmony with nature instead of constantly trying to dominate it. In this way, Robinson has used the critical potential of SF to question the genre’s own colonial origins and impulses, a trait he shares with many other Californian authors of SF. 

SHERRYL VINT: I absolutely agree with Patrick’s focus on the centrality of California — the West, the frontier — to the colonizing impulse that is so central to science fiction. One of the ways in which I think this tendency is specifically articulated in relation to California is its status as a hybrid mythological and dream space in the American imagination. Not only did entry into California mark the end of the frontier as expansion confronted the limit of the Pacific Ocean, but the establishment of Hollywood on its shore cemented the image of California as a semi-surreal dream factory, a desire as much as a destination.

One of my favorite ways of thinking about California as science fiction is found in Mike Davis’s important 1990 social history City of Quartz. The volume opens with the line “The best place to view Los Angeles of the next millennium is from the ruins of its alternative future,” before describing the history of a failed utopian experiment, the Socialist city of Llano del Rio. This is a perfect opening to a work that explores the complex history of Los Angeles’s development, the struggles among competing social visions of what its future could or should be, the successive ways of immigrants all seeking to make themselves in the image of this fantastical city and make this city into their own fantastical visions.

Davis’s history of Los Angeles follows a narrative that is common in SF, the quest to build a better future that falters and becomes a dystopia. Such fiction often encourages us to ask, better for whom? What alternative futures are left behind in pursuit of a particular vision? Thus the dream factory is at the same time Fortress Los Angeles. Davis captures this in his detailed discussion of the neighborhoods and communities displaced and destroyed by the building of the highway system, followed by the inevitable fall of that highway system from utopian dream of efficient transportation to daily dungeon of gridlocked frustration.

 Some SF returns to these ruins and offers us visions of the alternative futures left behind, using the techniques of SF to estrange us from our acceptance of the present (and future) as already written. I’d like to highlight one in particular, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, because its vision of an alter-Los Angeles parallels so nicely with the material history Davis analyzes. There are two scenes in particular I want to highlight in this context. The first is a traffic jam (caused by a magical realist orange) which is transformed into the birth of a new kind of community, and which reverses the material history of Los Angeles by erasing the hegemony of highways and returning the space to people. By offering us another kind of California, another kind of Los Angeles, Yamashita reminds us that the myths of sunshine and sociality that drew many of us here might yet be realized.

The other moment is a speech made by one of the novel’s characters, a Vietnam vet who strives to restore a sense of community to his fragmented (by highways, by poverty) neighborhood and resist a secondary displacement of its vulnerable residents by economic gentrification. He encapsulates his ideas in the reverence he holds for the imported palm trees that have become characteristic of the Los Angeles landscape, trees he feels are ignored and misunderstood by transient residents who see them as a nuisance and do not even realize there are multiple species of palm trees: “You understand the species of trees in the neighborhood,” he maintains, “you understand the nature of my work.” He goes on to talk about the need to care for palms, which seem to be hardy and self-sufficient, but do need pruning and watering and, if properly cared for, can last 50 years or more. Communities, like palm trees, must be nurtured and cared for in ways proper to their individual histories of border crossings. In place of the kinds of urban renewal projects that have shaped Los Angeles, producing a city of white privilege, immense poverty, and two notable mass riots, this character offers what he calls “do-it-yourself gentrification.

Latinos had this word, gente. Something translated like us. Like folks. That sort of gentrification. Restore the neighbourhood. Clean up the streets. Take care of the people. Trim and water the palm trees.

VANDANA SINGH: I can only look at California as an outsider (an alien perspective, if you will) — from India, as seen in my teen years and early twenties, it was the land of software companies, sunshine, hippies, and yoga-fanatics. It was the land of amazing universities, and surfers, and kids’ mystery stories such as The Three Investigators. When I came to the United States for graduate work, I explored the South and the East Coast, but California remained for me the undiscovered country until fairly recently. Fortunately there were books, such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy. Always Coming Home was stunningly different from anything else I’d read; it was a tapestry, a richly textured, multi-threaded weaving of narrative and poetry and song. It felt familiar in the way epics and folktales felt familiar, and yet it was an imagined future. One thing that struck me was how much the landscape was a character. The geography of the place was part of the story. People and culture were shaped by it, and shaped it in return, although gently. My memory of the story is visually vivid years later.    

I loved Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy. The theme of ecological disaster and avoiding it, or recovering from it, is very close to me. One of my favorite books in SF is one in that series, Pacific Edge. Again my memory of it is very visual, very warm. Perhaps it is also the quality of light out there. The drama of the terrain is another feature that stands out, even though the book focuses on one small settlement, and the bone of contention is one small hill. How Robinson manages to spin such a compelling tale from a fairly low-stakes scenario is astonishing. In this context what Sherryl said about gentrification is particularly apposite. Less successful in my opinion but also good reading is Robinson’s Science in the Capital series — the parts set in California are written with so much passion. Again, terrain as character comes into play.

I am curious about whether long, narrow coastal places with mountains and contrasting mini-geographies stimulate the SFnal imagination in a particular way. Other places like that include the state of Kerala in India and the country of Chile. Perhaps someone should do a cross-cultural study of the stories that emerge from such terrains.  

CATHERINE LIU: Like Sherryl, I think Mike Davis’s City of Quartz is a critical text in any interpretation and/or analysis of SF in California. Along with Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, I think we should also look at Leilani Nishime’s work on multiracialism in SF and David Palumbo-Liu’s Asian America, which talks about manifest destiny and the Anglo-American encounter with Asia as a geopolitical problem. 

Nerd stuff aside, I’ve always wanted to write about Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, for many reasons, not least of which is PKD’s Cold War Middle Brow Orientalism, his love of craft and mourning for handiwork that he attributes to his Japanese occupying protagonist. Tagomi haunts me as a character since I think he is really a yellow-face minstrel, but he is also the critical pivot of the narrative and an ethical bellwether. The Greater Pacific Prosperity Zone projects a kinder, gentler occupation. I don’t think Koreans and Chinese would recognize the Japanese military as the kinder fascist. But it is Dick’s Orientalist fantasies deployed in favor of small time crafts and businesspeople in the Bay Area that also need dealing with. I got bogged down with writing about Dick because I didn’t find great secondary source material on this novel — the question of Pacific Empire and the colonizing impulse might get me back on track to think about Dick, the I-Ching, and the middle-brow imagination of “alternatives” that was so strong in the counterculture. A great deal of the back to the land yoga, Ayuverda rejection of military industrial complex depended on a highly romanticized vision of Eastern religion and Eastern life, from Timothy Leary to Ken Kesey — they offered a pastoral appropriation of Zen Buddhism — much of it borrowed from John Cage. California was a place where people thought that East and West could meet — and they did, but with ambiguous results. Dick’s work keeps going back to small-town California and its transformation under the aegis of administered life and the military industrial complex. It’s striking that the figure who rebels against the racist colonial reality is a Japanese occupier.

AUSTIN GROSSMAN: So, it feels like California is tagged as the future-space — frontiers, imaginary utopian social orders, near-future technologies, globalism, and so on. We’ve given it the burden of being the land of tomorrow. And it seems like we stage disasters there to critique those futures. Southern California as the Land of Broken Dreams isn’t unique to science fiction particularly, but the tools that go with the SF genre — pushing an otherwise rules-driven, realist narrative into the future or alternate present, or adding a signature technology — give it some speculative force and experimental power.

As Sherryl’s quote from Mike Davis illustrates, that’s become one of the fascinations of the science-fictional California — we stage the future in the West and then we narrate what happens when it breaks — natural disasters, suburban-fortress dystopias, disastrous breakdowns of the social order.

There’s a way in which California starts to feel like a narrative trap. There’s only so many times and ways we can mark the failure of a bankrupt narrative. The frontier always ends, the utopia is always flawed, the bright future always has a crack in it. It seems like it’s only recently we’ve been able to do more with it.

I would postulate William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer as an attempt to write anti-California science fiction, to recognize that trap and start looking for the alternatives. Gibson’s cyberpunk intervention in the science fiction genre was to turn away from the exhausted trope of the frontier. The characters bounce from Japan to the Eastern Seaboard to Istanbul to Earth’s orbit with barely a glance at the West Coast, and all of Gibson’s world-building favors the Eastern Seaboard, Europe, and Asia. Outer space is re-framed as a tourist trap and a place to replay or copy existing cultures, not to start over. The novel happens in places people didn’t leave but rather built over, recycled, and repurposed — urban palimpsests. Virtual reality is the defining technology of the future, not space travel. Like the Villa Straylight, the future spirals inward.

You could point to Blade Runner in the same capacity. It’s a Los Angeles film and it flaunts its Raymond Chandler roots, but it turns its California-ness on its head, giving us claustrophobic urban spaces and constant rain, in a future where the frontier moved off-planet and left California behind (the escaped replicants are returning from the colonies). In the end, when Deckard and Rachael make their escape, they go — where? It depends on which cut of the film you see, but they won’t be going West. The gradual waking-up to other possibilities seems to occur afterwards with the writers you’ve identified above like Robinson and Yamashita, who have started filling in the spaces people didn’t previously have the imagination for.


JONATHAN ALEXANDER: California and the West: frontier of the imagination or dead end?  With these opening thoughts in mind, we invite you to enjoy the more in-depth look at California in science fiction in this “suite” of articles. Gregory Benford, professor of physics and SF author, looks at California’s complex relationship to visionary technologies in “Sunshine Technopolis.” Sam Collins takes a closer look at the work of Kim Stanley Robinson and its attention to networked cultures in “The Networked Frontier.” Kathi Inman Berens and Davin Heckman examine a particularly Californian penchant for imagining disaster in “LA Flood as Mobile Dystopic Fiction.” Rob Latham looks at the portrayal of Jack Parsons, one of Southern California’s true technocultural pioneers, in Jake Arnott’s House of Rumour. And finally, Matthew Wolf-Meyer writes in “No Superheroes in Hollywood” about the West Coast Avengers, a vexed attempt to combine East Coast comic sensibilities with a West Coast frontier imaginary. Throughout these pieces, and in the works they lovingly and critically describe, California is itself figured again and again as the vexed space — of peril and possibility — that entices, enthralls, and endangers. But perhaps it’s inevitably so in the Tomorrowland frontier where dreams and realities collide.