Angels and Aliens

How science fiction slays the city

Originally published in LA Citybeat September 2008

It’s a short section of a long book, a lyrical description of a surfer riding a big wave in Santa Monica Bay. Wait, did I say a big wave? I meant a tidal wave hundreds of feet high, sweeping toward downtown Los Angeles and destroying all in its path. Gil, the hedonistic surfer in the novel Lucifer’s Hammer, sees the flash from a comet falling into the Pacific and knows what’s coming next, and he makes his decision in an instant with a very L.A. thought.

“If death was inevitable, what was left? Style, only style.”

The page-and-a-half recounting his ride on that giant wave has been studied in writing classes all over America. The reader meets Gil in the last minute of his life, perhaps in the sole moment of nobility he has ever had, and it’s an indelible image. It’s also a portrait of a very believable, very L.A. character, one of many in the field of science fiction.

It’s not surprising that Los Angeles has been the setting for many science fiction stories; it has been the city where the future happens first for most of the last hundred years. Giants of the field called it home for at least part of their careers – Ray Bradbury is a native, and Robert Heinlein lived here when he sold his first stories and used his home address as a location in one of them.

The city was exciting, a magnet for visionaries and authors. As soon as Aldous Huxley earned enough money from the royalties on Brave New World, he moved from rural Sussex to Hollywood. He figured the place out quickly, and his first novel set in California, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, includes a savage portrait of an immortality-obsessed Hollywood millionaire and his shallow coterie. Huxley remained in Los Angeles for the rest of his life and set another satirical futurist novel, 1948’s Ape and Essence, in the film community.

They were some of the first science fictional treatments of Hollywood, but far from the last. SF authors realized the potential power of media concentration far earlier than the rest of America; the cynical, manipulative talk show host in Norman Spinrad’s 1969 novel Bug Jack Barron understands his power to shape society in a way that real TV personalities didn’t for at least another decade. Other SF writers played silver screen mania for laughs, none more successfully than Ron Goulart in the unjustly obscure novel Skyrocket Steele (1980), set in Hollywood in 1939. The actors in a low-budget science fiction movie about an alien invasion notice that the props look great and work extraordinarily well. This is because they aren’t props – there’s a real alien invasion disguised as a bad movie about an alien invasion. It’s a delirious premise beautifully realized, bringing the naive themes of early science fiction films in conflict with menacing contemporary visions of domination and conquest.

Science fiction isn’t always about aliens or the future, except as they act as metaphors for trends in current society, and Los Angeles has been a canvas for many a cautionary tale. Temporary Angeleno Philip K. Dick was the master of the genre, and the film Blade Runner, based on his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, created an indelible impression of a polluted, claustrophobic future L.A. (There is some irony here; Dick wrote several books set in greater Los Angeles, but this wasn’t one of them – the novel was set in San Francisco, but director Ridley Scott moved the movie to L.A.) Dick’s best portrait of the city was Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which portrays a repressive society in which failing to show your ID upon demand makes you subject to arrest by a brutal, paranoid police force. (In 1970, this was science fiction.) The protagonist is a movie star who wakes up one day to discover that his ID has been stolen, and records of his existence have disappeared from every database. Nobody else was thinking about identity theft and counterfeiting electronic records in 1970, but Philip K. Dick had worked out the details, and his themes of multiple personalities and fragile reality are all the more powerful in this setting. It’s an L.A. nobody would want to live in, but everybody recognizes.

Of course, sometimes it’s not enough to make Los Angeles into a hellhole; there are days when you just need to blow it up, shake it to bits with an earthquake, set it on fire, or drop a meteor on it. A slew of science fiction disaster novels have been set here, but Lucifer’s Hammer, the book that featured that memorable moment with the doomed surfer, is the one that got it all right. The settings and characters feel authentic, the action speeds right along, and authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle portray the courage, cowardice, and humanity of people facing the destruction of everything they know. The same authors wrote Oath of Fealty, which combines sharp action and interesting characters with a philosophical look at the gated community a decade before City of Quartz did. Suppose that over time it came to resemble that other gated community, the medieval castle. It might then become the hated community, resented by the people outside. Oath of Fealty explores how an enclosed, cultured, and privileged society might appear to people on both sides of the fence, and if it comes down firmly on the side of those who live inside, it makes clear that there are responsibilities and relationships on both sides that need to be maintained.

In this litany of books about disaster, disorder, dysfunction, and dystopia, are there any that portray an unreservedly sunny portrait of a future L.A.? Alas, no. Utopias are boring, and whatever Los Angeles is, has been, or might become, it is not dull. If someone writes a book where it is, that would be fantasy.

Thanks to George Van Wagner for assistance with this story.