CALIFORNIA ROADS SCHOLAR: Space opera, cowboys with ray guns, swordfish regalia, monsters, dystopias, utopias and urban planning in California
Chumash rock art, which looks like it was done by an astronomer. Santa Barbara Museum
BY PHYL VAN AMMERS
“I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… (laughs)] 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 (cough)] tears… in… rain. Time… to die…”
(Tears-in-rain death soliloquy of the main antagonist replicant-engineer Ray Batty in the movie Blade Runner (1982), based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).)
California’s Parnassus of science fiction myth, literature, films, graphic novels, Imagineering and urban planning theory rises from the plain of experiences of the people who lived here. Those who wrote about it inherited great natural beauty, whispers of the native culture that had been here, promise and a legacy of utopian dreams.
Early images of utopians societies evolved in Europe since the 16th century and – in the 20th century in the United States. These visions can be traced from Sir Thomas Moore to Robert Owen, Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. They are implicit in the 1930s regionalism in planning, art, music and literature in the United States, more explicit under the New Deal. The horrific consequences of National Socialism and Communism as it played out in the USSR, China and Albania, have left utopianism behind as a vision except in unacknowledged ways – in urban planning’s movement towards sustainability and in science fiction.
Utopia is an imagined place where everything is perfect. The word comes from the Greek words δεν – not – and τόπος – place. (That is, utopia is no place, and it is perfect.) The indigenous peoples’ cosmological and anthropological myths, rock and tree art, the role of dream and hope in America’s westward movement to new beginnings, California’s co-operative and utopian communities (static utopianism) and urban planning theory — that is growing into sustainable planning (kinetic utopianism) – are reflected in utopian thinking.
A dystopia — from Greek: δυσ-, (“bad, hard”) and τόπος — is anti-utopia. Dystopian Sci Fi films, novels, and graphic novels collect the political and economic ideas grown from the disappointments our people experienced gave birth to our dystopian science fiction and films.
California was the place of the new start, perpetual summer and the idea of El Dorado. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his diary as his train descended down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, “All the passengers…thronged with shining eyes upon the platform. At every turn we could look further into the land of our happy future. At every turn the cocks were tossing their clear notes into the golden air and crowing for the new day and the new country. For this indeed was our destination – this was the ‘good country’ we have been going to so long.”
This state’s official nickname is “the golden state.” The Spanish empire could be sustained only with vast infusions of gold, but it wasn’t until 1842 that Francisco Lopez found gold in a canyon 35 miles northeast of the pueblo of Los Angeles. The Gold Rush that began in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill on the south fork of the American River sparked the transformation of San Francisco and Sacramento from sleepy outposts to vibrant commercial centers. Chinese immigrants called it “Gold Mountain.” California gold financed the northern armies in the Civil War. The state flower is the golden poppy – the copa de oro or cup of gold — that mixes with blue-purple lupines and cloaks the hillsides and valleys in spring. The hills are tawny dull gold for most of the year. In much of the state, the Spanish/Mexican and American occupiers destroyed the native grasses, plants and trees.
Wallace Stegner wrote, “To appreciate the West, you have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.” We have gardens and also agricultural fields and orchards but many of the plants and trees in them are imports from wetter climate; they demand insecticides and irrigation that contaminate the air, water and earth, adversely affect human health, kill off the native micro-fauna, including native bees, and reduce our water tables at public expense. We have lawns that are outdoor versions of wall-to-wall carpeting. Emerald, weed-less lawns require large water expenditures, Ortho-weed applications, and gas-driven weed blowers and lawnmowers.
Utopian American visions contributed to contemporary California. Mormons established their own version of utopia in San Bernardino and intentional communities flourished for periods of time in Anaheim (really brief), Llano del Rio, Altruria, Druid Heights, Fountain Grove, Halcyon, Holy City,Icaria Speranza, Little Landers and the Kaweah Colony. The Great Depression refreshed this state’s tradition of cooperative ownership. The “End Poverty in California” (EPIC) campaign established and promoted ”self-help” cooperatives and worked unsuccessfully to elect the reformer Upton Sinclair governor. Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA for historians (good idea) inventoried California’s cooperative movement and supported the creation of consumer cooperatives in Berkeley and Palo Alto that lasted fifty years. The Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1968 sparked a new inventory of buyer and worker cooperatives, intentional communities and eco-villages. Northern California’s UC Berkeley and Stanford University opened education to women and drew scholars from all over the world and allowed students of all ethnic backgrounds to matriculate. Disneyland – the “happiest place on earth; Hollywood is a metonym for dreaming on film. White women achieved greater personal freedom here than they did in eastern states. The general plan statutory system that affects every city and county in California draws on John Dewey’s philosophy of pragmatism, which is about the same thing as the kinetic utopian thinking envisioned by British author H.G. Wells in his The Time Machine (1895). California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, a statutory scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is a legislative scheme that draws from utopian ideas.
Benjamin, a donkey in English author George Orwell’s Animal Farm with a twisted sense of humor, had things figured. He understood animal nature (really human nature) is innately flawed. An animal utopian society couldn’t exist because stronger animals will always covet power at the expense of weaker animals, and that model of behavior played in California. California’s utopias for some were dystopias for others.
The indigenous people lived here for at least 13,000 years in relative harmony with each other and nature. All human occupation leaves footprints in nature. Most of the natives in this state were hunter/gatherer/fisher people, and their environmental footprint was light.
Spanish imperialism during the Mission era unintentionally decimated the Indian population with agricultural diseases and sexual illnesses. The native people had no immunities to those diseases. The padres intentionally destroyed native culture to turn the Indians into Spanish citizens, Catholics and farmers. Their motive was benign: they believed their myths would save Indian souls and that Indian myths would damn them. Also mission lands were to be turned over to the Indians under secularization – but that almost entirely did not happen. The result of the mission era was for the first people catastrophe.
The land had been the Indian peoples’ grocery store and pharmacy but that original landscape disappeared between the teeth of Spanish/Mexican and then American cattle and sheep. The Indians became the peon labor that built the pueblo of Los Angeles and did the work on the ranchos. Under the American occupation, in Mission-dominated areas, the Indians largely merged with the Spanish/Mexican population, which the Americans were to group together as a not entirely human species. In Northern California, the American and European occupiers – not entirely, there were significant exceptions – saw Indians as vermin. Their utopian vision was not pluralistic. The Indian’s utopia was not the utopia of the padres or of the Americans.
Miners destroyed Indian villages as if they were hornet’s nests. Although California entered the union as a “free” state, Sacramento’s legislature passed a statute allowing the enslavement of Indians. The state removed natives from their villages and put them in reservations. In Round Valley, Indians died of starvation. The United States Army slaughtered 400 Indians living in Clearlake in what 19th century American historians called a battle, and which the Indians called “bloody island.”
Vigilantes in Los Angeles lynched 87 Chinese people in “Nigger Alley.” Vigilantes also burned down Chinatowns throughout California. In The People v. Hall (1854), the California Supreme Court ruled that the testimony of a Chinese man who witnessed a murder by a white man was inadmissible, largely based upon the prevailing opinion that the Chinese were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference” and as such had no right ” to swear away the life of a citizen” or participate” with us in administering the affairs of our Government. Senator James D. Phelan (1861-1930), a Democrat whose father was an Irish immigrant gold miner, ran for re-election under the campaign slogan, “Keep California white.”
Merchants and manufacturers in Los Angeles, spearheaded by the Los Angeles Times, effectively destroyed the union movement in Los Angeles and sabotaged the cooperating community of Llano del Rio in the Antelope Valley. The state deported Mexican-Americans for “stealing American jobs” during the Great Depression. During the Great Depression, Filipino Americans were also affected, losing jobs, and being the target of race based violence. In 1930, race riots broke out in Watsonville and other California rural communities, in part because of Filipino males relationships with white women. After the Supreme Court of California found in Roldan v. Los Angeles County that existing laws against marriage between white persons and “Mongoloids” did not bar a Filipino man from marrying a white woman, California’s anti-miscegenation law, Civil Code, section 60, was amended to prohibit marriages between white persons and members of the “Malay race” (Filipinos). The Philippine Independence Act in 1934 restricted Filipino immigration to 50 persons a year. The United States government drafted Japanese-American men to fight in World War II; and it incarcerated their wives and children in internment camps. Racial restrictive covenants – private agreements that prohibited Jews, Asians, African-Americans and Latinos from living in white neighborhoods until the US Supreme Court decision in Shelley v. Kramer (1948) – segregated the less-advantaged communities from the opportunities in then predominately white cities. The freeway system in both northern and southern California further divided communities and enforced de facto segregation, creating hotbeds of social unrest that led to riots and destruction of property and deaths.
The closure of mental hospitals in California in 1980 led to a sharp rise in homelessness and the incarceration in jails and prisons of mentally ill people. Ronald Reagan’s 1982 declaration of the “War Against Drugs,” ostensibly an effort to prevent drug abuse — created incentives to conscript young people and children to use drugs. About 20% of our prison and jail population is comprised of persons convicted of nonviolent drug and drug-related crimes.
Powerful land speculators ensured increasing private ownership of public places and destruction of thriving lower-income neighborhoods only sometimes mediated by the California Environmental Quality Act and the Coastal Commission.
Because of government water projects, the public subsidy of freeways real estate and tax subsidies to private ownership, Proposition 13’s limits on tax revenues from commercial enterprises, oil businesses, corporate agri-business, corporate logging companies, and real estate developers transformed former agricultural lands, coasts and forests into subdivisions, which no doubt please a lot of people because the houses in the subdivisions are privately owned and within driving distance of shopping malls, but there are few community spaces, the experience of living in one of them is alienating and lonely, they consume huge amounts of open space, and their inhabitants use a lot of fossil fuel and a lot of pesticides.
The dictionary definition of science fiction is “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.”
I find it difficult to figure out what is California Science Fiction and what is not. Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and his Vineland (1990), both set in California, fall within this definition but Pynchon is known as a mainstream writer. Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969) — which may not be set in the future but may actually be set in 1939 — could mean that all the characters are dead and dreaming of the future. Perhaps Ubik is not science fiction. It could be creepy historical fiction. California’s general plan statute requires local governments to adopt general plans with goals and with objectives and policies to implement those goals. The goals part of a local government’s general plan, and the public visioning process used to establish those goals, is utopian. I don’t presently see a lot of mass-market graphic novels as worth talking about. On the other hand, I see the native people as the state’s first sci fi creators.
Pre-contact California Indian cosmology and astronomy — as much as we know if it now– was based on real technological advances but also depended on myths about the stars, moon and sun to ensure community memory of their location and changes. Kevin Starr intriguingly but briefly discusses Southern California’s indigenous people in Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era.
Starr’s research tells us that the Luiseño–Cahuilla people to the east of Los Angeles practiced astronomy through ground drawings. One of their mystic symbols was the Milky Way, or ghost trail, along which spirits traveled from this world to the world beyond, a myth that appears in Mayan stories. In “Land of the Dead,” one of the native myths collected by Block and Gifford, a man searching for his dead wife goes along the Milky Way, which reads rather like the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Greek/Bulgarian/Turkish stories.
Starr relies on scholarship that traces Indian tales to the shamanist practice of consuming Jimsonweed, a semi-narcotic. Other research, however, indicates native people understood astronomy, and that research suggests the native shamans were actually astronomers.
In a shady grove on the top of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, a very old oak tree contains the Chumash motif of a six-legged lizard-like beast with a rectangular crown and two large spheres. This design appeared on rock formations from San Luis Obispo south through Santa Barbara and into Malibu. Paleontologist Rex Saint Onge discovered the arbor-glyph in about 2007. Saint Onge realized that the carved crown and its relation to one of the spheres was strikingly similar to the way the constellation Ursa Major — which includes the Big Dipper — related to the position of Polaris, the North Star.
Several scholars contend that Pacific Islanders reached the Los Angeles and Central Coast shores in about 700 A.D. about the same time as indigenous people colonized Hawaii. Archeological evidence indicates the Chumash and Tongva people built ocean-going plank-boat or tomol about 500 A.D., although several scholars contend Santa Barbara Bay Indians built tomols as far back as 8,000 years ago. Tongva myths place human life as beginning on Santa Catalina Island, and Chumash stories begin on the Channel Islands. If Pacific Island people – or their predecessors who reached the Pacific Island from Taiwan according to mitochondrial DNA testing through the human genome project – visited California – they reached it by sea about 1700 years ago.
The only ocean-going boat used in the Americas that is similar to the tomol was found in Chile.
The sweet potato originated in Central and South America. By analyzing the DNA of 1,245 sweet potato varieties from Asia and the Americas, researchers have found a genetic smoking gun that proves the root vegetable made it all the way to Polynesia from the Andes — nearly 400 years before Ferdinand and Isabella began their quest for Inca gold.
California may have been an incidental stop for Polynesians making the westerly voyage across the Pacific to South America. If recent research is correct, that voyage or series of voyages imaginatively dwarfs Odysseus’s epic voyage from Troy – on the western coast of the modern Republic of Turkey near Smyrna, Homer’s birthplace — to his home in Ithaca, in Greece. The Mediterranean is a bathtub compared to the Pacific Ocean.
Travis Hudson and astronomer Ernest Underhay’s Crystals in the sky: an intellectual odyssey involving Chumash astronomy, cosmology and rock art(1978) draws on early twentieth research to describe the Chumash myth of the power struggle in the cosmos. All of the worlds (our world, the underground, and the world above us) are connected by serpents, which hold the world together. When they move, the middle earth experiences earth quakes. The sky beings are people who escaped the great flood at the beginning of time. They resembled people in many ways but were fickle. Man’s role in the universe was as an agent who could affect the sky beings’ forces for good or for evil. Many beings were benevolent, notably the North Star or Sky Coyote, or the Big Dipper – seven boys transformed into geese. Astronomical events required ceremonies: the moon had to be encouraged to return through community celebrations. The earth needed to be protected during winter solstice through human intervention. Porpoises — once people but who are happier in the ocean — circled the earth to protect it from cosmological forces. The native people believed porpoises were as intelligent as they were.
Native “rock art” and tree carvings evidence knowledge of astronomy and may not be “art” at all; rather, rock and tree carvings can be seen as maps of the stars and the “shield” motif could be as easily drawings of space craft or homes or both. The first people believed in a supreme being, which was the sun, but believed all beings capable of thinking. The sun’s name translates to “the light shining on the child born at winter solstice.”
Several contemporary science fiction creators look back at pre-contact aboriginal life in California for their images; however, I find the history we know of the native people provides more vivid pictures of the past as future.
The idea of communities of people who work together with scant social hierarchies, who used reeds to make water proof baskets and boats, who saw the sun as God, who studied the stars, and who paddled across the stomach-churning waves of the Pacific Ocean on their knees wearing elaborate sword fish headdresses, is not adequately incorporated into science fiction.
Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) stories are analogies of earth’s colonization of Mars by humans fleeing a troubled and eventually atomically devastated world. The Martians are not at all hunter-gatherers. The indigenous people are a lot like 1940s and 50s people living in L.A. but with golden eyes and living in a fantasy all the time only without drugs. In his story “Ylla,”
“They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp. And from the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle.”
Robinson Jeffer’s apocalyptic Monterey poetry prefigures Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985, paperback 2001), which is part novel, part textbook, and part anthropologist’s record. When it first came out, a CD came in an envelope in the back of the book, and it played chants of her fictional Kesh people who “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.” The Kesh use writing, steel, guns, electricity, trains, and a computer network; they reject government, a non-laboring caste, the desire to expand population or territory, disbelief in what we consider supernatural, and human domination of the natural environment. They blend aspects of hunter-gatherer, agriculture, and industry, and they reject cities. Le Guin retrieved some elements of this book from her mother’s The Inland Whale (1959) (Traditional Native California narratives).
This passage is from Theodora Kroeber-Quinn’s Whale:
“The pattern of Kotep, which is in the canyon, is that its named houses are built in rows high above the river, with sun and view. Below them, the rows began to straggle and only an occasional house will have a name. And at the sunless bottom of the canyon cluster the mean and ramshackle and nameless houses of the poor.
“Pekwoi’s sunny terrace of matched stone looks up as far as the bend and downriver as far as eye can see. Its round doorframe is carefully carved; the redwood plank of its walls and roof bear marks of the finest adzing. Inside, it is dry against the rain, tight against the winds.”
These passages are from the beginning of her daughter’s Always Coming Home:
“Stone Telling is my last name. It has come to me of my own choosing, because I have a story to tell of where I went when I was young; but now I go nowhere, sitting like a stone in this place, in this ground, in this Valley. I have come where I was going.
“My House is the Blue Clay, my household the High Porch of Sinshan….
High Porch is an old house, well-built, with large rooms; the beams and frame are redwood; the walls of adobe brick and plaster, the flooring oak, the windows of clear glass in small square panes. The balconies of High Porch are deep and beautiful ….”
Le Guin’s pluralism, feminism and utopianism grew not only from one of her two hometowns (Berkeley, which is dominated by the university, and Napa), but also by her parents. Her writing structure is idiosyncratic, but not abstract, geometric in its logic and utopian in its impulse, in contrast to Dick’s and Pynchon’s dystopian worlds. Philip K. Dick graduated from Berkeley High School the same year as Le Guin.
To both of Le Guin’s childhood homes came anthropologists as famous as her father, graduate students, Native Americans – speaking German, English, or native languages. In a 1977 interview about her parents quoted in the Elizabeth Cummings Cogell biography, Le Guin said,
“I think most of the influence they have had is temperamental, inherited—like a willingness to get outside your own culture and also a sensitivity to how culture affects personality, which is what my father was concerned with. My father felt very strongly you can never get outside your own culture. All you can do is try. I think that feeling sometimes comes out in my writing. My father studied real cultures and I make them up –in a way, it’s the same thing.”
Le Guin’s mother Theodora Kroeber — born Theodora Kracaw — enjoyed freedom rare for young women of the time. When she was a UC Berkeley student she “was obviously fascinated with Chinatown…” On campus I think you got about as many Chinese, proportionately, as you have now. (This was in 1915.) There were Hindus, who had come on scholarships; there were Japanese; there were Filipinos…I found that one of the really great things about a university is that it exposes you to more different kinds of people and different ways of life…” Her Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (1961) – written long after Ursula had married and moved to Oregon — described the life of Ishi, possibly the last of the Yahi people, who became famous as “the last wild man” after Alfred Kroeber’s study of him. The Yahi inhabited the Tuscan Formation, a highly resistant series of lahar deposits in the northern Sierra foothills forming dramatic cliff faces and steep canyons along Big Chico Creek.
Le Guin’s most explicitly feminist works are Tehanu, the fourth novel of the Earthsea series (1990), which is narrated solely from the point of view of female characters. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is set on a world in which all the inhabitants are humanoid hermaphrodites, each able to take on either female or male sexual functions and characteristics at the time of estrus.
Hollywood writer and director James Cameron’s partly animated science fiction film Avatar (2009) was filmed in China, Hawaii, New Zealand and in Los Angeles. Cameron’s message in Avatar is profoundly ecological and anti-imperialist. The aboriginal people who live on Pandora are highly evolved and live within the magic of the natural world, which is how hunter-gatherer shaman/astrologer swordfish regalia-wearing life in California was — as far as we know from the bits and pieces that the more newly occupying people did not destroy. Cameron’s earlier Dances with Wolves had a similar theme, of a battered military man who finds an endangered tribal culture purer than his own.
Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson sets his historic fiction Shaman (2013) in the Paleolithic era. Shaman’s underground caverns are based on the Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave in the Ardèche region of France, which was discovered two decades ago. Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) lets us see the 30,000 years old wall paintings inside. Robinson thoroughly researched archeologists’ conclusions about that time to write the future as the past for this novel.
The world’s first completely preserved adult hominid skull from the early Pleistocene era was discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia: it is 1.8 million years old. We were all hunter-gatherers until 10,000 years ago. Writers have a lot to draw on when writing the future as past. The padres who erased native culture, and American genocide means that, if ethnologists like Kroeber and John Hudson in Ukiah had not documented Indian life, we would now have a lot less information about the earlier and much longer human world view. Our racist history blinded us as well to the rich cultures of all those who were not Caucasian, and it is our state’s loss.
Science fiction also refers to more recent history for utopian models. Juliy Kagarlitsky, in Chto Takoe Fantastika (1974), refers to the work of authors including Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) as “the historical novel about the future.” I include Walt Disney’s “Main Street, U.S.A.” in this category.
Bradbury’s first hometown – before his family moved to Los Angeles – is “Green Town,” a symbol of safety and home. It serves as the setting of hisDandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer. In Green Town, Bradbury’s favorite uncle grows wings and traveling carnivals conceal supernatural powers, and his grandparents provide room and board to Charles Dickens. In Summer Night, a collection of short stories and vignettes Bradbury looks back with longing at the rapidly disappearing small-town world of the American heartland.
In “The Earth Men,” nostalgia for the earth invaders’ homes back on earth, for all of the poignant aspects of small town American life, leads to their entrapment and death at the hands of wily Martians.
The idea for the first Disneyland theme park “Main Street, U.S.A.” came from Walt Disney’s (1901-1966) early childhood in his hometown of Marceline, Missouri (1906-1911). Walt Disney first came to Marceline, Missouri by train when he was five years old. When Walt returned to Marceline in 1946 the Santa Fe train depot evoked cherished memories of when he first pulled into the Marceline. All of the Disneyland parks have train depots at the entrance to Main Street. He saw his first movie shown on a bed sheet in Marceline’s first movie theater. Some of the enterprises that were in the street when Disneyland opened when I was a child are gone, replaced with businesses that cater to contemporary consumers. It was originally more of a museum of turn of the 20th century America. I remember a pharmacy with fascinating jars filled with dark water and leeches on the counter. The names painted in the windows on Main Street serve as credits for some of the many people in Disney’s life. The name “Elias Disney” – Walt’s father –is written in gold letters on one of the Main Street windows. Walt Disney stayed in an apartment on the second story of the firehouse during Main Street’s construction. When it was complete, he wept.
Other California science fiction is more political, some of it basing utopian ideas on technological not yet invented, some on ecological models, some of it racist, much of it pluralistic.
Jack London earned his first money as a professional writer for a science fiction short story, “A Thousand Deaths” published in Black Cat in 1899. Jack London’s Little Lady of the Big House (Kevin Starr referred to Dick and Paula Forrest’s conversations “a sort of monstrous Sears Roebuck catalogue.”) is a wish-fulfillment fantasy of utopian gardening and ranching, with a utopian community supported by the Forrests. (London’s real-life experiences farming and ranching on his Beauty Ranch in the Valley of the Moon, in contrast, were not successful. His plan to get rich planting a lot of eucalyptus trees closely together was delusional.) Jack London’s Before Adam (1907) is a utopian story of human society built on Social Darwinism.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version) depicted a small town in California; it was shot in Glendale and the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles. Extraterrestrial invaders replaced human beings and subsequently appear to look just like those human beings but are devoid of emotion and compassion. An aware adult seeing it could see parallels to both the fear of Soviet Invasion during the Cold War and to McCarthyism during the Red Scare.
Robert Heinlein’s (1907-1988) work began as a utopian working for Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor of California, which was also comprised of former members of Llano del Rio. Heinlein’s first novel, For Us, The Living (written 1939), consists largely of speeches advocating the Social Creditsystem, and the early story “Misfit” (1939) deals with an organization that seems to be Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s Civilian Conservation Corps translated into outer space. Heinlein’s work is pluralistic and explicitly anti-racist.
Mass audience-Sci Fi writer L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) created a new religion called Scientology, centered in the blue Scientology headquarters on Fountain Avenue in East Los Angeles in the former Cedars hospital. Scientology teaches that people are immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature. Hubbard’s more explicitly Sci Fi work falls in the “space opera” category (The name refers to “soap operas” on television/) of mass-market writing that borrowed heavily, as Kagarlitsky pointed out, from westerns. Space operas are a vehicle: they can demonstrate dystopian or utopian ideas or just exploit boyhood interests in shooting at things.
Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962), is a utopian science fiction novel. Island advocates inclusive, eclectic mysticism and faith in the liberating possibilities of psychedelic drugs, earlier expressed in his The Doors of Perception (1964) and Heaven and Hell (1956). Island contrasts with the dark dystopia Huxley envisioned in Brave New World (1931) written before he moved to California.
The Star Trek television series, influenced by Forbidden Planet (1956), heavily promoted by actor, comedienne, former registered American Communist Party voter and producer Lucille Ball, marked profound growth in science fiction away from the idea of the “other” as terrifyingly malevolent and absorbed the ethos of the political and cultural changes that led to America’s Civil Rights Act in 1968. Humans of several races and a Vulcan played by a Jewish actor with fake pointy ears and shaved satanic eyebrows comprised the U.S.S. Enterprise’s central crew in the original series. Roddenberry had written screenplays for Have Gun Will Travel, an earlier television series set in a period after the Civil War. The Western-motif appears occasionally in the Star Trek series. (The Star Fleet shoots phasers instead of pistols.)
The antagonist Klingons — slightly Asian in appearance and shiny-skinned from shoe polish applications in the original series, named after Lieutenant Wilbur Clingan, who served with Gene Roddenbery in the Los Angeles Police Department — were antagonists. Klingons adhered to a strict code of honor, framed by war. The canonical explanations of this people are that they are drawn from Genghis Kahn or from the janissaries under the Ottoman Empire or from then-recent memories of Japanese soldiers in World War II. Legendary Klingon warrior Kang (played by the late Syrian-born actor Michael Ansara) joined Captain Kirk, played by Canadian James Shatner (raised as an Orthodox Jew) to defeat their true enemy, an energy life form living off their shared hatred. (In later Star Trek films, the outside of Oviatt Library at California State University Northridge is the Star Academy. I watched an astronaut fall to another planet – from a crane constructed in Elysian Park in Los Angeles.)
Star Trek was more philosophical than it was utopian, but its biases were clearly pluralistic, occasionally feminist, and anti-Imperialist.
David Brin was born in Glendale in 1950 and graduated from Cal Tech and the University of San Diego. He is known as a “hard SF” writer. As summarized by Allen Steele, in “Hard Again,” in New York Review of Science Fiction June 3. 1992, “Hard sf is the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone, The basic premise of Brin’s uplift sequence is that all thinking life in the Universe has been created and regulated by and may remain under the control of a Progenitor species, now billions of years old. In the process of uplift a thinking species uplifts a non-sapient species. Humanity uplifts two species, the dolphins and the chimpanzees. In his Startide Rising – a space opera — a starship is crewed by uplifted dolphins and a genetically engineered human being. In the sense that Brin’s writing depends on the continuing existence of thinking beings long into the future, and that he treats themes of tolerance, change, the effects of change, deep democracy through transparency and the dissemination of information, he is a utopian writer. That is, he thinks thinking beings will continue and will evolve, and we will have problems, and we will resolve them. He does not, however, posit a perfect world.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s (born 1952) the Mars trilogy Red Mars (1993) (colonization) Green Mars (terraforming)(1994) and Blue Mars (1996) is more utopian than dystopian and focuses on egalitarian, sociological and scientific Martian advances. Robinson’s first two books of his Three Californias(1988) (The Wild Shore and The Gold Coast are dystopian, but the point of them may be to better illuminate the resolution of our problems in his utopian work Pacific Edge, which presents California that is ecologically sane and its people slowly heal the scars of the past. (Robinson received his PhD partly on his dissertation on Philip K. Dick at the University of San Diego in 1982.)
In an interview with Terry Bisson on io9—we come from the future (io9.com) Robinson said:
“Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization….
“There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection — that they must be boring — are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying ‘No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. ‘Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.’” ….
“And if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama, as I tried to show in Pacific Edge. There would still be love lost; there would still be death. That would be enough. The horribleness of unnecessary tragedy may be lessened and the people who like that kind of thing would have to deal with a reduction in their supply of drama.”
Robinson’s Mars trilogy is about the conquest of nature through technology in outer space. The Orange County trilogy discusses intentional communities, economic cooperation, governance within a frontier settlement, and the clash between nature and the human effects on landscape.
Urban planning students should read Robinson’s Pacific Edge (1988) as a way into thinking about sustainable planning. It is a healthy antidote to the stodgy, wordy and way too long static and academic utopian theories, for instance — maybe the only instance — Professor John Friedmann, Professor Emeritus in the School of Public Policy and Social Research at UCLA. I include references to his theories about utopia and the city in the list of books at the end of this essay but he comes across in writing and in person as stodgy, pompous, way too wordy, and should make students reconsider their intention to go to planning school. George Stiny, who grew up in my neighborhood in Los Angeles (and a hall monitor in Thomas Starr King Junior High), who was once a GSAUP/UCLA professor now at MIT sees the solution to modern urban problems in algorithmic aesthetics. I believe, from a conversation with George in 1982, that he sees the design of cities as best performed by mathematical constructs — an idea I find dystopian.
In Pacific Edge, Robinson immerses the reader in an ectopic future in Southern California:
“He dropped down the hillside into El Modena. His friends trickled out of the hills in ones and twos, on foot or bicycle, to converge at a torn up intersection. They too up pick or shovel, jumped into the rough holes and went to work. Dirt flew into hoppers, picks hit stones with a clink clink clink,voices chattered with the week’s gossip.
“They were tearing out the street. It had been a large intersection: four-lane asphalt streets, white concrete curbs, big asphalt parking lots and gas stations on the corners, shopping centers behind. Now the buildings were gone and most of the asphalt too, hauled away to refineries in Long Beach; and they dug deeper….
“’No! No! Telephone lines power cables, gas mains, PVC tubing, the traffic light network – and now another gas station tank!’”
Dystopian science fiction films and writing comprise the dark side of our responses to urban and technological realities — as does urban planning determined by political lobbyists and most politicians. I exempt from the dark side category the City of Santa Monica’s Department of Sustainability, the Sierra Club, the Greenbelt Alliance, the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, and other pro-environment and pro-pluralism lobbyists.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) ostensibly takes place in the Amazon. It was filmed in the Los Angeles Arboretum and Universal Studios. One of its featured actors Antonio Moreno (born in Madrid, immigrated to the United States when he was 14) subdivided one of the Silver Lake Hills in Los Angeles. Its Gill-man joins the creatures of science fiction that began with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818). Creaturemay be pure horror without any intended meaning at all, or it may be dystopian political science fiction that depicts the “other” – someone not really like us – as scary. The “other” in movies tends to like young blond women. Gill-man likes a blond woman in a bathing suit and abducts her to his cavern. Shelly’s creature can be interpreted as a warning against technology. The Creature message can be interpreted as a warning against genetic manipulation, although it would be early in our history for that warning. Other possibilities include racist and anti-racist interpretations. All of the scientists in Creature are white men. Gill-man can be interpreted as Mexican, African-American, or any other non-white men bent on ravaging blond women. On the other hand, Creature can be interpreted as a Hollywood – Hollywood was and is generally inclusive because it depended on talent, which comes from all ethnicities – parody of – or substitute for –the idea of the “other.”
Philip K. Dick’s (1928-1982) is dystopian. A Scanner Darkly (1977) reveals the craziness torn from the side of Orange County suburbia in Dick’s mind if nowhere else. Anyone seeing the animated film (2006) of it with Robert Downey, Jr. as the Iago-like James Barris and Woody Harrelson as the dude/doper Ernie Luckman will have a hard time seeing suburbia as a good place to live.
The film Blade Runner, (1982) based on Philip K. Dick’s When Androids Sleep, is an urban planning film classic that is partly a treatise on Dick’s psychology, that is, he was not always sure he was real, and he was not always sure he was not someone else, and he was not all that sure about androids.
As Philip K. Dick famously said in the speech he gave in France in 1977:
“I am sure, as you hear me say this, you do not really believe me, or even believe that I believe it myself. But nevertheless it is true…You are free to believe me or free to disbelieve, but please take my word on it that I am not joking, this is very serious, a matter of importance. I am sure that at the very least you will agree that for me even to claim this is in itself amazing. Often people claim to remember past lives; I claim to remember a different, very different, present life. I know of no one who has ever made that claim before, but I rather suspect that my experience is not unique; what perhaps is unique is the fact that I am willing to talk about it.”
In the film Blade Runner, (1982) Harrison Ford is the blade runner assigned to hunt down gone-to-the-dark-side genetically engineered organic robots called replicants. Earth banned them, and replicants are only used for dangerous, menial or leisure work on off-world colonies. Los Angeles is polluted, over-crowded, controlled by multi-national corporations and has a curious foray into offices in the Bradbury building in downtown Los Angeles, where Gaff played by Edward James Olmos leaves a clue as to the blade runner’s real identity. The name Bradbury may be a cinematic nod to Ray Bradbury, or there could be another meaning because George Wyman the architect of the real Bradbury building designed the interior after a description in chapter 10 of Edward Bellamy’s science fiction novel Looking Backward. The characters mysteriously enter the building through Union Station. Spoiler: the clue left behind means the blade runner is also a replicant.
The Total Recall films (1990 and 2012) based on Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” is about an ordinary factory worker who discovers his memories are fabrications and who seeks clues to his real identity, which has to be an satisfying premise for adolescents who hope they were adopted. At an adult level, the message is about the power of propaganda, and it is disturbing. The End Games (2013) is another post-apocalypse movie. The film features mindless zombies that replace conscious antagonists like real world environmental degradation, terrorists, multi-national-corporation and government propaganda.
Elysium (2013) is up until the end dystopian. The story is set in 2154 Los Angeles, which looks the worst slum in Mexico City, and everyone who lives in it is perfectly bilingual. Robots control its enslaved human inhabitants. The very wealthy live in the rim of a space station. Technology allows Elysium’s citizens to spend long healthy lives in mansions with spacious lawns. Steely government official Jodi Foster wants to protect Elysium from the invasion by the poor. Criminal rebels hack attempt to obtain bank account information through a transfer of memory into anti-hero Max’s brain (Matt Damon) but instead they obtain the key to the computer system that maintains Elysium aloft and looking like Bel-Air. They re-boot the space station. Max dies obtaining a large measure of equality for all of earth’s people.
Instead of ending with a few expository sentences, I’ll end this essay on future writing with Kim Robinson’s picture of the future on the opening page ofPacific Edge.
“Despair could never touch a morning like this.
“The air was cool and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea – air like telescopic glass, so that the snow topped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away. The flanks of the blue foothills revealed the etching of every ravine, and beneath the foothills, stretching to the sea, the broad coastal plain seemed nothing but treetops: groves of orange, avocado, lemon, olive; windbreaks of eucalyptus and palm; ornamentals of a thousand different varieties, both natural and genetically engineered. It was as if the whole plain were a garden run riot, with the dawn sun flushing the landscape every shade of green.”
Reading, not all of it recommended:
List of intentional communities in California. http://directory.ic.org/records/?action=search_results&locations[state_prov]=California&pageID=2&display_all=true.
http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=24433. California Parks and Recreation site proposing a Pacific Island and Chumash and Tongva connection.
New Deal Utopian communities today, photographs. http://places.designobserver.com/slideshow.html?view=1418&entry=21199&slide=1.
Abbot, Carl, “Cyberpunk Cities: Science Fiction Meets Urban Theory,” Journal of Planning Education and Research, 27 (Winter 2007)
_____, Falling into History: The Imagined Wests of Kim Stanley Robinson,
in the “Three Californias” and Mars Trilogies. The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring, 2003), pp. 27-47.
Astle, Richard , “Martian Time Slip,” in Frank N. Magil, ed. Survey of Science Fiction Literature, volume 3 (1979)
Baxter, John, Science Fiction in Cinema (1970)
Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000‐1887 (1889)
Boyle, T. Coraghessan. The Tortilla Curtain (1995).
Gaskin, Stephen. Amazing Dope Tales (1999). Stephen Gaskin looks back on the San Francisco scene during the 1960s — the Summer of Love, the Grateful Dead, and the Merry Pranksters. One of the implicit premises of this history is that drugs open the mind to ESP. My take on it is that drugs make you think you have ESP. Stephen Gaskin founded an intentional community in Lewis County, Tennessee along with 320 San Francisco hippies. See, http://www.thefarm.org/.
Gorman Beauchamp. “Island: Aldous Huxley’s Psychedlic Utopia,” Utopian Studies, Vol. 1, page 1 (1990) , pages 59-72.
Block, Gwendolyn and Edward W. Gifford, editors, California Indian Nights: Stories of the Creation of the World, of Man, of fire, of the sun, of thunder. (1930). The “Land of the Dead” myth is one of the Milky Way myths. Also, the story of the great flood as the beginning of human life is in this collection.
Boisvert, Raymond D. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time (1998)
Carrere, Emanuel, I Am Alive And You Are Dead: a journey into the life of Philip K. Dick, (translation copyright 2004).
Cummins, Elizabeth, Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin (1990)
Curl, John. Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America (2009)
Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990). Mike’s theory of Los Angeles is based in Hegelian theory as Karl Marx developed it so his writing falls in the dystopian box of urban planning. Marx thought of “utopian socialism” as a pejorative and, although Mike writes well of the utopian community of Llano del Rio, he sees Capitalist political forces as triumphant up through the present.
Deverell, William and Greg Hise, Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Los Angeles (2005), especially, Professor Emeritus at California State University at Northridge, Mark L. Raab’s “Political Ecology of Prehistoric Los Angeles.”
Diamond, Jarod, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (2012) Diamond’s work and professor Mark Raab’s essay on Los Angeles native people in Land of Sunshine (2005) contrast the reality of Indian life with the more utopian implications of Alfred Kroeber’s marvelous research and Malcolm Margolin’s (e.g., The Way We Lived: California Indian Stories, Songs and Reminiscences (1981), The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area (1978) and other Kroeber intellectual descendants’ view of Indian life in California as utopian.
Dick, Philip K. Ubik (1969). In the first part of the book, set in the “North American Confederation, parapsychology is common and civilians can go to the moon. In the second part of the book, the book’s characters are in 1939, and it is chillingly difficult to figure out if they are dead and dreaming – which is also a Philip K. Dick theme – are if they are frozen and dreaming.
Fogarty, Robert S., All Things New: American Communes and Utopian Movements (1860-1914) (2003)
Friedmann, John. “The World City Hypothesis,” Development and Change, 17 (1986): 69‐83.
Friedmann, John, and Goetz Wolff, “World City Formation: An Agenda for Research and Action,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 6 (1982): 25‐37.
_____, “The Good City: in Defense of Utopian Thinking” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (March 7, 2003)
Gabler, Neal, Walt Disney, The Triumph of the American Imagination (2006)
Gibson Karen Bush, The Chumash: Seafarers of the Pacific Coast (2004)
Gibson, William , Virtual Light (1993)
Hatuka, Tali and Alexander D’Hooghe, “After Postmodernism: Readdressing the Role of Utopia in Urban Design and Urban Planning” (2007)http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/7b3789rv.
Hayden, Dolores, Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975 (1979), the chapter on Llano del Rio.
Mark R. Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians (1967).
Robert V. Hines, California’s Utopian Communities (1953)
Howard, Ebenezer, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path the Real Reform (1889)
Hudson, Travis and Ernest Underhay, Crystals in the sky: an intellectual odyssey involving Chumash astronomy, cosmology and rock art (1978)
Kroeber, Alfred, Handbook of the Indians of California (1925). This is available online for free as part of the Claremont University digital archives.
Kroeber, Theodora, Ishi in Two Worlds (2011 paperback reprint)
Kroeber-Quinn, Theodora, 1976 oral interview. http://www.archive.org/stream/timelesswomen00kroerich/timelesswomen00kroerich_djvu.txt.
Leigh, Nancy Green, and Judith Kenney. “The City of Cinema: Interpreting Urban Images on Film”. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 16: 51‐55.(1998)
Letham, John, Gun with Occasional Music (1994). This novelsfollows all the conventions and plot elements of the classic noir detective story but takes place in a near‐future Oakland of designer drugs and sentient genetically engineered animals.
Le Guin, Ursula Kroeber, The Dispossessed (1974) The Dispossessed looks into the mechanisms that may be developed by an anarchist society, but also the dangers of centralization and bureaucracy that might easily take over such society without the continuation of revolutionary ideology.
_____, Always Coming Home (1985)
Malcolm Margolin, (ed.) (1981). The Way We Lived: California Indian Stories, Songs & Reminiscences.
McWilliams, Carey, Southern California: an Island on the Land (1973).
Partington, John S. “The Time Machine and A Modern Utopia: The Static and Kinetic Utopias of the Early H. G. Wells.” Utopian Studies 13 (1):57-68 (2002)
Pynchon, Thomas, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). The labyrinthine plot features an ancient, underground mail service known as “The Tristero” or “Trystero” a parody of a Jacobean revenge drama called The Courier’s Tragedy, and a corporate conspiracy involving the bones of World War II American GIs being used as charcoal cigarette filters. It proposes a series of seemingly incredible interconnections between these events and other similarly bizarre revelations. The novel refers to science and technology and obscure historical events.
‐‐‐‐‐‐‐‐‐‐. 1990. Vineland. (1990) The novel is set in California in the 1980s and 1960s, and describes the relationship between an FBI COINTELPROagent and a female radical filmmaker. Its strong socio-political undercurrents detail the constant battle between authoritarianism and communalism, and the nexus between resistance and complicity,
Robinson, Kim Stanley Pacific Edge (1990)
Rice, Edward, William A. Bullough and Richard J. Orsi, The Elusive Eden: A New History of California (2001)
Rolfe, Lionel, Paul Greenstein, Nigey Lennon, Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles (1992). Lionel is a Marxist, so he should see, as does Mike Davis, utopian – or exemplars of it– socialist enterprises as doomed to fail because they exist in the belly of the beast. The authors write, however, as if the political elite’s shenanigans in Los Angeles in bringing down
Rex W. Saint-Onge, Sr., John R. Johnson and Joseph Talaugon, “Archaeoastronomical Implications of a Northern Chumash Arborglyph,” Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, Volume 29 (2009) No. 1, page 29.
Sinclair, Upton, I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty. (1933) This is a 64-page pamphlet in support of Sinclair’s End Poverty in California platform.
California’s history is a history of dreams, a theme Kevin Starr explored in Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (1973 and 1986),Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (1985), Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1990), Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (1996), The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (1997), Embattled Dreams: California in Warm and Peace, 1940-1950), Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge (1990-2002 (2004), Golden Dreams: California in an age of abundance, 1950-1963 (2009) .
Stasz, Clarice,“ The Science Fiction of Jack London.” http://london.sonoma.edu/Students/scifi.html.
Stiny, George, Algorithmic Aesthetics (1978)
R.C.S. Trahair, Utopias and Utopians: An Historical Dictionary (1999)
Warren, Robert, Stacy Warren, Samuel Nunn, and Colin Warren. “The Future of the Future in Planning: Appropriating Cyberpunk Visions of the City.” Journal of Planning Education and Research. 18: 49‐60. (1988)
Weller, Sam, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury (2005)
Disneyland’s “Main Street” and “Tommorowland.”
The Bradbury building in downtown Los Angeles
The remains of Llano del Rio in the Antelope Valley
The Solar Living Institute, Hopland, California.
Chumash Indian Museum
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Creature from the Black Lagoon
Total Recall (both)