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What Makes L.A. the "Capital of Science Fiction"?

This weekend, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West presents a two-day conference on “Science Fiction L.A.: Worlds and World Building in the City of Angels, sponsored by the USC Dornsife College and the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study at the USC Libraries. The conference begins Friday evening with a screening of the 2013 film “Her,” introduced by Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood. On Saturday, the conference moves to USC’s Doheny Memorial Library with panel discussions and presentations on subjects including artificial intelligence, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury. I spoke separately with conference organizers William Deverell and David Ulin, as well as Hawthorne, assembled our conversations in the below transcript, and then condensed and edited it for clarity. – Nathan Masters

Nathan Masters: Your opening panel discussion explores the notion that L.A. is the “capital of science fiction.” Maybe that’s a deliberately provocative title, but how would you defend claim?

David Ulin: It is a conversation starter.

William Deverell: We do think that, if you focus on the role of the physical and imaginative backdrop of Los Angeles, you can center a lot of science fiction production against that.

Ulin: From where I sit, L.A. is in many ways a progenitor of science fiction. There’s the relationship between Hollywood and the broader culture, of course, and a long line of science fiction or futuristic films from the film industry’s early days on up.

And then there are the literary factors. Forrest Ackerman’s Los Angeles science fiction writers’ group, which Ray Bradbury was part of as a young kid in the ‘30s, met at Clifton’s. Robert Heinlein was part of that world as well. L. Frank Baum, who wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” wasn’t from here, but he was certainly writing here. And Edgar Rice Burroughs was writing here – the Mars books, the Tarzan books.

It seems we can make that case.

Deverell: Where I get really interested as a historian is that Los Angeles has this caricatured sensibility as the place where the future happens. Well, if you spin that for science fiction, it gets really interesting, because so much science fiction is futurist (although it doesn’t have to be.) And so with this conference, we wanted to toy with the notion, more implicitly than explicitly, that the futurist sensibility of looking at Los Angeles has a profound science fiction valence.

Masters: As part of our recent "Monomania L.A." video series, we profiled Jim Kepner, the obsessive collector who founded the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. Decades later, Joseph Hawkins, who now directs the ONE Archives as part of the USC Libraries, discovered in Kepner’s papers some surprising connections between the sci-fi and LGBT communities in the 1950s. Some of the early LGBT leaders were also active in early sci-fi reading circles, and they used the genre to explore possible futures where they would find acceptance for their sexuality.

Deverell: Imagine the poignancy of that – they’re getting together to read about the future because they’re imagining a different egalitarian future for themselves. I love that. And that’s where science fiction gets so interesting, because it of course is a comment on today, the contemporary, every bit as much as it imagines a different time scale.

A membership card for the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. The member used a code name, Tigrina.
A membership card for the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. The member used a code name, Tigrina. Courtesy of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

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Jim Kepner's science fiction fan group, circa 1940-55.
Jim Kepner's science fiction fan group, circa 1940-55. Courtesy of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

Masters: What’s also interesting is how those early LGBT activists used these reading circles as cover for political organizing, because the groups bridged the LGBT and sci-fi communities. Forrest Ackerman, for instance, also attended these meetings, as did Ray Bradbury. And everyone used code names.

Deverell: Wow. So that plays into this fabulous notion about the Cold War-era pseudonymity – a cast of people operating in Cold War-era L.A. under pseudonyms or code names because of issues of surveillance or secrecy. I love that – it doesn’t surprise me in the least, although I never knew it.

Masters: Cold War secrecy – that brings to mind Southern California’s aerospace industry. How does science fiction connect to that saga?

Ulin: Los Angeles has always been a futuristic city in a sense, a city that is fundamentally built on technology – look at Douglas, at Hughes, at JPL. Those are not science fiction, but they’re certainly science fact ­– and the rise of the aerospace industry throughout the 20th century is a real-world science fiction analog.

Deverell: Just thinking about the JPL piece of this, we’re going to have a session about artificial intelligence and the future. The moderator of that session is Peter Westwick, who’s written the history of JPL. What I’m fascinated by, and what I might actually raise my hand to ask, is this. Picture where JPL is – both physically and in 20th-century and 21st-century American scientific culture. Octavia Butler lived in Altadena. She’s what – a mile? – from JPL, and those are two profoundly different legacies and visions. And then Jack Parsons and that crowd, they’re right there, too. I want to see those people talking to each other about that.

Masters: If you bring up Jack Parsons, we can’t about neglect to mention his relationship with science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Ulin: Right. I’m almost certain we won’t get into this at the conference, but there’s that story about Hubbard being in the science fiction group with Isaac Asimov, et cetera, in the ‘40s, telling them, “if you want to make some real money, you start a religion.” I have no idea whether that’s apocryphal or not but I love it as an anecdote, because it should be true.

Masters: Given his relationship with Parsons, Hubbard does seem to bridge two grand Southern California traditions: alternative religion and science-based industry. Can you think of any precursors?

Ulin: I always think of William Monéy. I’m not sure he completely fits into this category, but Monéy was a 19th-century Southern California apocalyptic who predicted earthquakes that would destroy San Francisco and invoked hail of ashes and fire and brimstone. I wrote about him in “The Myth of Solid Ground,” where I was trying to trace a line of apocalyptic fantasy thinking about earthquakes.

Masters: Right now at the USC Libraries, we’re organizing an exhibition and a series of conversations to mark the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. One of the ideas we’re playing with is that every utopia casts a shadow: a dystopia. Looking at science fiction, it seems much of it gestures either toward utopic or dystopic visions of the future. How has the science fiction produced in Los Angeles swung back and forth between those two visions, and how do those swings reflect what’s happening in the city?

Deverell: That’s a good question – and I’m not sure I know the answer. I certainly am fascinated by the pendulum swings between utopic and dystopic L.A., but I’m not sure we’re very good at tracking why it swings against the backdrop of contemporary society.

Ulin: I’m always interested in how science fiction or speculative fictions refers back to the moment in which it’s created. We tend to think of it as pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but there’s a strong strain of social commentary. A lot of dystopian or apocalyptic writing about Southern California – much of which blurs the line between pop culture and literary culture – seems to grow out of science fictional tropes.

I think about the work of Steve Erickson, who’ll be at the conference to talk about Philip K. Dick – another dystopian or apocalyptic thinker who lived the last few years of his life in Southern California. I think about a book like Cynthia Kadohata’s novel “In the Valley of the Heart of Love,” which was published in the early ‘90s and takes place in 2050, imagining a dystopian Los Angeles landscape that’s extrapolated off the Los Angeles landscape of the time: a great division between rich and poor, gated communities, private security, and so on.

“Blade Runner,” the film more so than Dick’s novel, fits into this category, too, with its dystopian downtown Los Angeles, using the Bradbury Building as one of its landmarks. The more I think about that film, the more I think it’s an extrapolation of how people were thinking about Los Angeles in 1982 when it was made.

At the moment, some of the science fiction I’m interested in is environmental, like the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, which also use an imagined future as a way to reflect on possible extrapolations of the present.

Still from the 1982 film "Blade Runner"
Still from the 1982 film "Blade Runner"

Deverell. In some ways what you want to find out at a conference like this is what is the ultimate dystopic science fiction L.A. setting. Is it the destruction of the world? We have a lot of that. Is it the loss of individuality or the loss of freedom? What constitutes dystopia? The dominance of evil, some sort of crude assumption that way? And then what in the world constitutes utopia? More taught us one thing, but what’s a utopic vision of L.A. for the middle of the 21st century? I don’t know that I know that. I’d like to live there – I guess.

Masters: Well – despite the film’s obvious dystopic edge – would it be “Her”?

Deverell: That may be. And that’s a wonderful example of how we all live in our own versions of utopia and dystopia.

Ulin: One of the interesting things to me about “Her” is that Los Angeles becomes a generic landscape. It is Los Angeles, but it’s a depersonalized, 21st-century urban setting.

Masters: It’s Los Angeles, but it’s also Shanghai.

Ulin: Exactly. And so that raises an interesting question. As we move toward more global models in terms of architecture and digital space, are we somehow smoothing out the edges of place?

Masters: Christopher Hawthorne opens this conference on Friday night with his presentation of this film, so let’s bring him into the conversation now.

We were discussing earlier how a lot of science fiction presents a vision of the future that reflects the hopes and anxieties of the time in which it was made – and “Her” is no exception. If you look at a film like Blade Runner, its reputation has only grown, but its depiction of L.A.’s future increasingly looks like a paranoid dream of the early ‘80s. How do you think “Her” will age?

Christopher Hawthorne: I think it’s most likely to become dated in terms of its treatment of technology and in particular the consumer products people use. And that’s always a risky leap for any director to take, to imagine how people will get around, how they’ll communicate.

What struck me about the film, though, is that it was also willing to take a leap about the urbanism of the city, and that’s of course where it’s most optimistic. Some people have read the movie as a utopian picture of L.A.’s future, but I found it much more mixed. It’s very positive about density and vertical architecture and transportation in Los Angeles, but it’s much less so about the effects of technology on relationships, communication, and even on the way that people relate to architecture and the city.

Still from the 2013 film "Her"
Still from the 2013 film "Her"

Masters: Of course, “Her” may seem optimistic about density in L.A. when you or I look at it. But people who are less upbeat about density, say the backers of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, might see it differently.

Hawthorne: Yeah, I guess our idea of a successful future in terms of density is somebody else’s nightmare. Certainly the city feels very polarized around this issues at the moment, and the LUVE Initiative in Santa Monica and the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative are products of that polarization and products of a frustration among certain residents that the city is changing too fast. Spike Jonze in the film seems to take as a given that if those changes are accelerated it would be a good thing for the physical architectural shape of the city.

Masters: I’m curious how a filmmaker with a different sensibility might respond to Jonze’s optimistic vision. “Blade Runner’s” dystopia feels dated now, so what would a dark vision of the city’s future look like today?

Hawthorne: That’s a very good question. Two possibilities come to mind. One is an environmental apocalypse – and that’s a theme a lot of filmmakers have been working with in recent years. Earlier dystopias were imagining an apocalypse of war or a natural disaster – I was recently watching “Escape from LA,” which takes place after an earthquake ­– and I think the obvious route for a dystopian filmmaker now would be imagining the city after some kind of environmental apocalypse.

The other possibility is – if the polarization we see in the city around development continues to harden – one can imagine a much more intense series of battles between the haves and the have-nots, particularly the owners of single-family houses versus everybody else. So that would be a compelling scenario, taking the trajectory of recent debates and divisions about development and home ownership and extrapolating that to an extreme.

Masters: There seems to be this fascinating sci-fi confluence at the Bradbury Building in downtown L.A. As the story goes – and I know it’s a matter of some controversy – its design was inspired by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel set in the year 2000, “Looking Backward.” It was designed by George Wyman, grandfather to Forrest Ackerman. There may have been an early kind of ouija board involved. And it coincidentally shares a name with L.A.’s science-fiction master, Ray Bradbury. What’s going on there?

Ulin: I don’t know! Synchronicity occurs when we look for it, of course, and yet these are the kind of coincidences I love. Maybe it’s as simple as the idea – which I still sometimes embrace even now – that Los Angeles is at heart an overgrown small town, and so those connections are there.

Deverell: A couple weeks ago there was a rumored discovery of a cache of documents in the basement of the Bradbury about its origins. I’m trying to track down if that’s true or not.

Hawthorne: I’ve actually been doing a lot of research on this – and that will be in the Times at some point. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that there are many, many holes in the conventional wisdom about its origins, and that conventional wisdom comes to us almost entirely from a piece Esther McCoy wrote for Arts & Architecture Magazine in 1953 when the building was about to turn 60, and she was the one who really popularized the story of George Wyman, the planchette, which is the precursor to the ouija board, and George Wyman’s having been inspired by the Edward Bellamy novel. McCoy knew Ray Bradbury and asked him if he knew anything about the Bradbury Building assuming that he might be related. It was Ray Bradbury who then pointed McCoy in the direction of his good friend and agent Forrest Ackerman, and it was Ackerman who then supplied all the family information.

So that’s a fascinating rabbit hole that I’ve been going down. The conventional wisdom has continued to be so attractive to us because since “Blade Runner” the Bradbury Building and its architecture has become connected to the science fiction film canon in L.A.

The Bonaventure Hotel, photographed by Wayne Thom in 1978.
L.A.'s Bonaventure Hotel, photographed by Wayne Thom in 1978. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – Wayne Thom Photography Collection.

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