California

Tagged: Theme

It has often been said that California is pure sf, that California was not discovered but invented. Certainly, with the possible exception of the legend of El Dorado, there is little before 1800 that adumbrates the state to come; in any case the City of Gold was usually located deep in Latin America, as numerous Lost World novels continued to attest for a century or more. But when Edgar Allan Poe wrote "Eldorado" (21 April 1849 Flag of our Union), locating it "Over the Mountains / Of the Moon, / Down the Valley of the / Shadow", he was in part registering a fantasticated response to the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855. The first sf novel to be written about California – Cantell A Bigly's Aurifodina; Or, Adventures in the Gold Region (1849; vt Aurifodina; Or, Adventures in the Gold Region: A Fantastical '49er Novel 1974) – is clearly inspired by the Gold Rush, and locates its version of El Dorado deep in the mountains, where a hidden Utopia is discovered. In this first California novel, fittingly, two abiding topoi are introduced: California as the promised land, where the streets are paved with gold; and California as a place in which one may construct an advocated world.

After 1850, when it became an American State in fact, this dream of California bifurcates into two states of mind. The north was from the first dominated by San Francisco, an unstoried hamlet before the Gold Rush, a booming Shangri-La within half a decade, and the site within half a century of the first American apocalyptic Disaster, the hugely destructive Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906: "San Francisco is gone", as Jack London put it in "The Story of an Eye Witness" (5 May 1906 Colliers): "All the cunning adjustments of a twentieth century city had been smashed ..." The catastrophe clearly inspired an extremely early non-American take on California, Charles Foleÿ's Kowa la Mystérieuse (1908; trans William Frederick Harvey as Kowa the Mysterious 1909), where caverns deep Underground full of Chinese (see below) cause the quake. Joseph Delmont's Time Travel tale Earthquake (1931) climaxes during and after the disaster. The south on the other hand was dominated by Los Angeles, a small Mexican city before its annexation by forced purchase in 1848, but not a focus for the literary imagination until the Cinema industry began to move to Hollywood around 1910.

Each of these regions has variously been perceived as a promised land, a land of joy, a Land of Fable where Answered Prayers betray the pilgrims who followed the American Dream down to the salt sea; but always a place – a thesis – built out of dreams, hence perhaps the number of hoax stories and other forms of the Tall Tale generated by writers, initially in northern California, from the earliest days [for Answered Prayers, Land of Fable and Tall Tales see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The most famous of these is certainly Mark Twain, whose years in San Francisco generated The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (coll 1867); others include Bret Harte, whose The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (coll 1870) contains California tales and legends; Robert Duncan Milne, author of Into the Sun and Other Stories: Science Fiction in Old San Francisco, Vol 2 (coll 1980); and W H Rhodes, several of the tales assembled as Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and Sketches (coll 1876) being set in California. In Science Fiction in Old San Francisco: Vol. 1, History of the Movement from 1854 to 1890 (1980), Sam Moskowitz discusses several more authors who normally focused on the northern half of the state. The most interesting contemporary re-enactment of this world may be Ysabeau S Wilce's fantasy version of San Francisco and region circa 1850 in Flora Segunda (2007) and Prophecies, Libels and Dreams: Stories of Califa (coll of linked stories 2014).

None of these authors pay much attention to the fact that the Californian paradise had literally to be built; and that the huge amount of construction needed to lay down the boomtowns, and to connect the Promised Land to the rest of America by rail (see Transportation), entailed a widespread use of forced (ie slave) labour, mostly from China; certainly the Paul Bunyan-like exploits of the eponymous Superman in Luther Marshall's Thomas Boobig (1895) are accomplished without oppressing anyone. But Chinese workers were in fact essential, non-white, numerous and oppressed, it was necessary to demonize them. The first Yellow Peril sf novel, Pierton W Dooner's Last Days of the Republic (1880), duly appeared soon after the use of coolies as slaves in all but name became widespread (see Race in SF). Other tales focusing on Invasions and other threats to California include Lorelle's "The Battle of the Wabash: A Letter from the Invisible Police" (October 1880 The Californian), Robert Woltor's A Short and Truthful History of the Taking of California and Oregon by the Chinese in the Year AD 1899 (1882), Homer Lea's The Valor of Ignorance (1909), Charles Downing's The Reckoning (1927), W D Gann's The Tunnel Thru' the Air; Or, Looking Back from 1940 (1927), The Head and the Yellow Peril (1938) by Max Brand and Walter B Gibson writing together as by Grant Faust, and Whitman Chambers's Invasion! (1943) which is set in World War Two.

Still, even if it cannot be denied that Yellow Peril authors dramatized widespread prejudice and fears, the sf they wrote (most of it execrable) did not dominate Californian sf; though race Paranoia is easily decipherable throughout the twentieth century, certainly when Aliens stand in for nonwhite humans, as in John Carpenter's film They Live (1988) or the Television series Alien Nation (1989-1990). Scapegoated nonwhite alien slaves were all the same a side-issue, though a humanly vital one; and alien migrants, as distinguished from entitled settlers, were rarely protagonists in any novel set in the state, nor were their native-born descendants. Octavia E Butler's work as a whole, from the 1970s on, is the first significant demonstration of a counter-story; Cynthia Kadohata's In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) also features nonwhite humans. But for sf writers the true – or ostensible – California story was from the first the dramatic quarrel between Homo sapiens and the natural world, a quarrel in which all human civilizations participate, and of which all regions on Earth show the scars, but perhaps nowhere more consequentially than here (except perhaps for Australia or Japan). No other regions of this planet evoke in sf writers so vigorous a response to the human presumption that we rule the Earth. In sf literature (as in reality), the two states of California are threatened almost constantly by Disasters both natural and anthropogenic.

Tales set in or dealing with the north do however seem generally more affectionate, more grieving, more persuasively elegiac, than those set in the killing grounds to the south. Even after centuries of drama, San Francisco, one foot in Eden still, remains a sea-girt mountain-enclosed visually-coherent imaginable Keep-like domain, able to evoke the scherzo-swift melancholy of Jack London's The Scarlet Plague (June 1912 London Magazine; 1914) or the elegiac intensity of George R Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), each of which places its protagonist in a world that mirrors the world the Native Americans of California lost in the swift Disaster of white civilization; or to command a deep defensive loyalty on the part of a resident sf author like Pat Murphy, whose The City, Not Long After (1989), comfortingly posits the Near Future creation of something like Utopia after a devastating plague. Even an essentially desolate tale like Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music (1994) almost embraces the claustrophobia of its venue, as do William Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties (1999) or Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire (1996); elegies to the end of San Francisco like Crawford Kilian's Tsunami (1983) or Elizabeth Hand's "The Saffron Gatherers" (in Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, coll 2006) are hard to imagine being composed about Los Angeles; and the relative intimacy of the cityscape makes it clearly easier for Rudy Rucker to focus his large cast in Postsingular (2007) rather than in the inchoate megalopolis to the south, or for Chris Adrian to locate the clement Urban Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] at the heart of The Great Night (2011) beneath Buena Vista Park, or for Tim Powers to create a deliberately modest Time Travel tale of love and loss in Salvage and Demolition (2013). Similarly, it is hard to think of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (2008) as being set in the south: the fertile indignation of his Young Adult cast flourishes in a city it is possible to save.

This sense that this city is or had at one time been a humane enclave is almost certainly intensified by the fact that – unlike coastal California as a whole, which serves as an Icon of terminus for the American Dream – San Francisco can be perceived as a port, as a place to recuperate in during the course of a journey. Characters can arrive here from abroad, like Phineas Fogg in Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), and afterwards they can leave. The city is also sufficiently coherent to be contemplated from a distance (see Ruins and Futurity), as in Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957), where its visible depopulation can stand as a metonymy for the End of the World; any sight of the Golden Gate Bridge in ruins, as in It Came from beneath the Sea (1955), can supply the same message, for the loss of San Francisco will always affect the rest of the world (while the loss of Los Angeles may well be seen as a localized punishment). San Francisco is tellable, as are the mountains and valleys and coastal lands it frequently represents: a territory extremely easy to cherish and to evoke, as in novels like Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975) or Ursula K Le Guin's Always Coming Home (1985) or Jean Hegland's Into the Forest (1996); and the Near Future loss of whose urban civility can be mourned without special pleading, as in John Shirley's Everything Is Broken (2012), set in a coastal enclave north of the city. It is less common for San Francisco to be contrasted directly with the megalopolis to the south; an exception would be Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993), where by 2048 San Francisco is a Ecologically-sound Keep and Los Angeles a drought-shattered Dystopia governed by a fundamentalist tyranny.

The south is another matter, engaging the reader in a journey from something like civil life into a fragmenting maelstrom, like the hegira undergone by Oedipa Maas from north to south in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), a paradigm novel about the geography of the giant state. It is a bifurcation that can seem arbitrary when it is understood that California writers like James P Blaylock in The Digging Leviathan (1984) and Tim Powers in Dinner at Deviant's Palace (1985) have used the Los Angeles region as a venue for tales that – a decade and a half before the twenty-first century began – impart a warmth and intimacy, even (in the latter) after the city has long been destroyed. In tales of this sort – along with their colleague K W Jeter, much of whose Cyberpunk Dr Adder sequence is set in Los Angeles – they brought Steampunk to maturity, a genre conspicuously used by authors of every sort to make the world storyable; only perhaps in this context should London, which embodies a different kind of Entropic chaos, be compared with Los Angeles: two vast sprawls that the comforting tactility of Steampunk bring into some kind of order, in London's case with some success. But Steampunk – which asserts that the urban world can be made legible – never flourished in Los Angeles, where the engines of threatened change, and the science-fictional metastasis of the original city into ontologically vacant suburbs (like Thought Experiments running on fumes after the budget cut), make nonsense of this assertion. Blaylock no longer sets his Steampunk tales there, and Powers's ambitious Fault Lines sequence is set in a crippled Los Angeles only magic can, very tentatively, hope to heal; or, perhaps, Nanotechnologies complex enough to infuse the megalopolis with commensal life, as in Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990) and its predecessors and successors in his Quantum Logic sequence.

Only one category of Fantastika set in Los Angeles treats its venue with anything like the complex mix of affection and regret typical of so many San Francisco tales, whether or not fantastic: sf or fantasy tales set in or focused on Hollywood. The more interesting of them frequently involve either Time Travel or ghosts or both; and typically engage with (and sometimes redeem) the fug of lost promise that so saddens the city as a whole. Examples include Elmer Rice's A Voyage to Purilia (1930), set on another planet whose behaviour apes the morés found in Hollywood films; Manuel Komroff's I, the Tiger (1933), P G Wodehouse's Identity-Exchange comedy Laughing Gas (1936), Gore Vidal's Myron (1970), Robert Bloch's Sneak Preview (1971), set in a domed "Holywood" (see Keep), Jack Finney's Marion's Wall (1973), John Mella's Transformations (1975), Steve Shagan's The Formula (1979), based on his screenplay for The Formula (1980), Robert Coover's Charlie in the House of Rue (1980 chap) – assembled with other work as A Night at the Movies; Or, You Must Remember This (coll of linked stories 1987), MacDonald Harris's Screenplay (1982), Michael Moorcock's The Laughter of Carthage (1984), David Thomson's Suspects (1985), whose protagonists (wherever they may be) are in a sense Avatars of their Hollywood originals; Steve Erickson's Rubicon Beach (1986); Miracle Mile (1988), a film which depicts in real-time the last seventy minutes before missiles destroy the city; Robert Zemeckis's film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), a fantasy [for Toons see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] in which the counterfactual saving of Los Angeles from its suffocating noose of freeways in 1950 can be understood in terms of exceedingly sharp Satire; Terry Pratchett's comic fantasy Moving Pictures (1990), relocating the rise and fall of the movie industry to "Holy Wood" on Discworld; Theodore Roszak's Flicker (1991), Ben Elton's Popcorn (1993), Connie Willis's Remake (1995), Peter Delacorte's Time on my Hands (1997), Joshua Dann's Timeshare: Second Time Around (1998), Kage Baker's Mendoza in Hollywood: A Novel of the Company (2000), which although set in the nineteenth century adumbrates the future; Andrew Niccol's film S1m0ne (2002); Jack Dann's The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean (2004); John Scalzi's Agent to the Stars (2005); Michael Shea's Live Death sequence beginning with The Extra (May 1987 F&SF; exp 2010); Will Self's Walking to Hollywood: Memories of Before the Fall (2010); and Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident (2012), where film irradiates reality. Hollywood Unreel: Fantasies about Hollywood and the Movies (anth 1982) edited by Martin Harry Greenberg and Charles Waugh includes stories by some of the above authors, plus work by Thomas M Disch, Ben Hecht, Robert Sheckley, Robert Silverberg and others; Hollywood Ghosts: Haunting, Spine-Chilling Tales from America's Film Capital (anth 1991) edited by Greenberg and Waugh plus Frank D McSherry is of less sf interest. It may be noted that in almost all of these examples the death-throes of Hollywood – which gave birth to Icons unceasingly until 1950 or so, and which has been mourned ever since – are usually dramatized within the frame of a relatively stable platform.

For this reason alone, the Hollywood tale can be thought of as distinct from the Los Angeles tale, where the vast City is usually seen as itself under threat, most often through the operations of nature, or through nuclear Holocaust; (Mutants are common, and World War Three often starts, or concludes, here). The world itself seems to be the elephant in the Los Angeles kitchen. It was not until the 1980s that geologists fully recognized, by applying the theory of plate tectonics, that the extraordinary concentration of earthquake and volcano zones along the Pacific Rim was a consequence of Continental Drift, and that further tectonic convulsions were inevitable: more quakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, savage droughts, deadly heat waves, flash floods, flash wildfires, sudden changes of all sorts. The history of California as a whole, and southern California in particular, could now properly be understood as inherently catastrophic. The violent natural events of the past two centuries had not punctuated the "normal" course of nature: they were the natural course of nature. There is at the same time growing evidence that southern California is just now emerging from two centuries of relative quiet, geologically speaking; in particular, a two-century-long spell of wet weather may be ending: the droughts that are already threatening water wars between California and the interior of the continent – as dramatized in stories like Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Tamarisk Hunter" (May 2007 F&SF) – may become the norm.

It is not therefore surprising that stories about Los Angeles itself are typically infused with a sensation of nightmarish impermanence and anxiety, a condition exhaustively anatomized in a film like Magnolia (1999) directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (1970-    ), where it has begun to rain frogs (see Charles Fort). Nor is the seismically unstable desert eastwards of the city itself seen in fiction as a safe place to locate a residential tracts ravenous for energy, as Scott Bradfield's tales of deep estrangement assembled in The Secret Life of Houses (coll 1988) and elsewhere demonstrate [for Mars see below]; Robert Silverberg's "Hot Times in Magma City" (May 1995 Omni Online) shows the region transformed by geological Disasters. Los Angeles itself is, of course, often, perhaps usually, given short shrift.

Tales in which isolated California locales are threatened, like Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (1955) or T Coraghessan Boyle's A Friend of the Earth (2000), are comparatively uncommon. Far more commonly found are tales in which the megalopolis itself is at risk or doomed through Disaster or Holocaust or War or calamitous culture decay, a rare exception being Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990) and its predecessors and successors in his Quantum Logic sequence. Such narratives of threat and/or decline include J U Giesy's All for His Country (1915), Marie Corelli's The Secret Power: A Romance of the Time (1921), Myron Brinig's Flutter of an Eyelid (1933), Philip Wylie's "The Paradise Crater" (October 1945 Blue Book) and his much later Los Angeles: A D 2017 (1971), Ward Moore's Greener Than You Think (1947), Aldous Huxley's Ape and Essence (1948), set in a Ruined Earth version of the city two centuries hence; "The Year of the Jackpot" (March 1952 Galaxy) by Robert A Heinlein [see below], Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), in which an infestation of Vampires forms an analogue of physical destruction (see Horror in SF), and "A Touch of Grapefruit" in Star Science Fiction Stories No 5 (anth 1959) edited by Frederik Pohl, Robert Moore Williams's The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles (1961), Curt Gentry's Last Days of the Late, Great State of California (1968); Tremor Violet (1975) by David Lippincott; The Turner Diaries (1976) by William Luther Pierce writing as by Andrew MacDonald, what Mike Davis describes in Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998) as a "instruction manual" for the destruction of the city; Alistair MacLean's Goodbye California (1977); Lucifer's Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which white survivors of a vast tsunami establish an inland Keep, from which they make sorties to enslave coloured outsiders; The Tujunga Canyon Contacts (1980) by Ann Drufell and D Scott Rogo; J G Ballard's Hello America (1981), in which the city has been transmogrified into a rain forest; Steve Erickson's several novels set in dismembered or transfigured versions of the city, including Days Between Stations (1985), Rubicon Beach (1986), Leap Year (1989), Amnesiascope (1996), Our Ecstatic Days (2005) and Zeroville (2007); Nature's End (1986) by James Kunetka and Whitley Strieber, where (as in the Niven and Pournelle tract) non-whites are the villains; Carolyn See's Golden Days (1986) and There Will Never Be Another You (2006), both of which express some pleasure in the cleansing effects of almost total devastation; Richard Kadrey's two Los Angeles Drug stories, Metrophage (A Romance of the Future) (1988) and Accelerate (graph 2007), along with his Horror in SF supernatural Sandman Slim sequence; J Michael Straczynski's OtherSyde (1989); Octavia E Butler's Parable series comprising Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) and Edan Lepucki's California (2014), which traverses Los Angeles, deathly suburbs, and the desert beyond. A Television series like 24 (2001-2010) seems to drink a sickened Paranoia from the very bones of the city as various Holocausts are narrowly averted. Films set in Los Angeles, even more often than novels, focus on its destruction. See Checklist below for films set somewhere in the megalopolis; several of these are linked to individual entries.

California has clearly attracted a wide range of authors, some of them negligible, others significant. Four of the latter are central to sf; interestingly, at some point or other in the career of each, analogies between the colonization (and in a sense Terraforming) of California and the colonization of the Moon or more usually Mars are drawn, explicitly or by implication, as in Robert A Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). Though much of it is set in an indeterminate future location, his first novel For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs (written late 1930s; 2004) deeply and intimately responds to and anatomizes the utopian 1930s California he himself actively inhabited and attempted to influence; the novel clearly draws on this material to create a Thought Experiment in the making of Utopia. Heinlein's love-hate entanglement with California as venue and template can be traced throughout his long career, and his Future History can be read, like its predecessor, as a Californian Thought Experiment. The depth of his knowledge of California as a tympanum for sf cognition and effects is perhaps most conspicuous in his 1952 novella "The Year of the Jackpot" [cited above], a dead-serious spoof about the self-destruction of the state. The use of the idea of California as an engine to create a future world seems clearly to have shape Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (coll of linked stories 1950), where the human attempts to impose a recognizable template upon ineluctably alien Mars echoes both the imperial attempts of white settlers from the north of Europe to treat southern California as a Promised Land in the image of their dreams, and the twentieth century attempt to transform the fragile ecosystem of the Los Angeles basin into vast ecologically unsound suburbs. Much of Bradbury's short fiction – in which what reads as nostalgia for a lost California can in fact be understood as desiderium for a deeply desirable California that did not and could not exist – plays on his personal memories of the state during the years when it most resembled the dream that drove so many of us to go there. These years, the 1920s and 1930s, were also the years of Chinatown (1972) directed by Roman Polanski, which embeds within a literally nonfantastic narrative a vision of the State so proleptic that the film has occasionally been taken for sf. But whether the pre-War years were more dream than reality, or the other way round, they could only be seen by their greatest sf memorialist as irrecoverable, here or on Mars.

The entire life work of Philip K Dick's, the greatest and most prescient California writer of the twentieth century, relates in one way or another to the state where he lived from childhood. His early realist novels, only published after his death, are mostly set in the state, but the magical estrangement of the sf magazine stories, written about the same time, is missing. Novels placed literally in California include Eye in the Sky (1957), whose various illusory Alternate Worlds all represent versions of the Paranoia-inducing realities the state generates; The Man in the High Castle (1962), which is set in San Francisco; Dr Bloodmoney; Or, How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965), which is set after World War Three in both San Francisco and the Los Angeles; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), filmed as Blade Runner (1982), Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) and VALIS (1980), which are set in or near Los Angeles. Several other novels, whose locations are not tied to specific venues, are clearly located in all but name in his familiar territory. Dick's used his extraordinarily intense understanding of contemporary California to give hallucinated but inescapable concreteness to his tormented apprehension that reality was a construct (see Perception; Zoo); that any Conceptual Breakthrough served not as an escape from prison but as a deepening of our awareness of immurement; and that the entities or "gods" responsible for building these traps – these Virtual Reality Californias even more deadly than the Promised Land of earlier dreams – were not the friends of Homo sapiens. Other novels radically intensify the ironies of The Martian Chronicles; the Martian settlements depicted in Martian Time-Slip (1964) or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) are savage Parodies of the suburbs east of Los Angeles, and similarly doomed. The fourth major sf writer to make transformative use of California is Kim Stanley Robinson, whose early Three Californias sequence, comprising The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990), uses the complex reality of the Los Angeles region from which to extrapolate three models of society it might be possible to envision: an enclave whose inhabitants live in deliberate ignorance of the defeat of America; a car-choked, Ecologically-disastrous Dystopia centred on Orange Country; and a quasi-pastoral Utopia overlooking the Ocean. Each California is recognizable.

Unlike the case with the other two sf-friendly regions given individual entries in this encyclopedia – London and New York – there is a tendency for writers embedded in the matter of California to engage in a kind of geographical and conceptual game of shuttlecock with the vast territory in their view. Both London and New York evoke a love-hate response from writers, which can generate richly-felt fictions; but love-hate seem to bifurcate in California, with San Francisco being treated with a poignance that can seem unbalanced, and Los Angeles focused upon with unbalanced loathing. With the clear exception of the work of the four major authors mentioned immediately above, too much California fiction seems almost dementedly one-sided. Within the frame of any remit to provide a unifying conspectus, the two worlds of California seem to shake each other apart; but this failure to adhere to any centre may explain to some degree the allure of sf set here. There is a sense that California sf, so disruptively bipolar and so profoundly discontent, gives readers a recognizable portrait of the world we live in. If the centre does not hold in Californian sf, we recognize the feeling. [JC]

films

films set in or around San Francisco

films set in or around Los Angeles

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