Why Does So Much Sci-Fi Take Place in California?

What's to come?
March 25 2014 8:06 AM

California Is the Future

From Escape From L.A. to Star Trek, the Golden State has set the sci-fi agenda.

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In the frontier myth of American history, California represents the completion of a manifestly destined expansion across the continent. It’s easy to see Utopian San Francisco and “Hell A” as twin land’s ends for idealists and cynics. In the north, beyond the Golden Gate there lies only “space, the final frontier.” Conversely, in Richard Kelly’s apocalyptic Southland Tales, the Santa Monica pier is where the world ends “not with a whimper, but with a bang,” taking L.A.’s palimpsest of corrupt politicians, soulless celebs, activist porn stars, and deranged cops with it.

A third, smaller, but consistent vein of sci-fi unites both utopian and dystopian futures without mapping them onto a Nor Cal–So Cal binary and dispenses with the quasi-biblical tales of Sodom and Eden. More importantly, it allows the possibility of multiple futures for rethinking the present. A number of films depict the north as a dystopia-within-utopia: Gattaca (1997) is set in a near future where genetic modification is cheaply available while in earlier films such as THX 1138 (1971) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) developments that promised well-being and peace surveil and threaten human civilization. Both speak to an unease with the promise of information technology.

Similarly, the rebooted Planet of the Apes films have replaced fortress L.A. with the sleek research complexes of Silicon Valley. In William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, San Francisco suffers the noir-ish malaise of Blade Runner L.A.—this time due to free-agent capitalism run amok, with a community of squatters inhabiting the rusting hulk of the Bay Bridge and bike messengers, data pattern analysts, and a rogue pop idol with artificial intelligence in the lead roles. In the south, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy (1984–1990) posits three possible directions for Orange County: The Wild Shore follows nuclear apocalypse, The Gold Coast extrapolates a 2027 “autopia” from 1980s suburbia and hyperconsumption, and Pacific Edge allows that even the O.C. might have access to a sustainable future, as communities reclaim the coast from cars and concrete.

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The sci-fi imagination has a strong link (one might even call it a feedback loop) to the tech and entertainment industries that drive California’s economy, and therefore, its very real, near-term growth. Sci-fi narratives are, after all, allegories for the times in which they are created, but they also generate a nostalgia for past images of the future, which shape communities’ actions as they build and plan—and as those communities experience their lived environments. Some critics have made much of the fact that Ridley Scott originally planned to film Blade Runner in New York and the studio requested a location change. But this is largely irrelevant, as the movie’s imagery and subject matter have resonated with audiences and have played a huge role in how L.A. is viewed and how the city has imagined itself over the past few decades. On the day I visited to photograph the atrium of the Bradbury Building, the only other people present were fans of the movie looking for traces of that elegantly distressed future. Repetition of the tropes of urban decay vs. ecotopia might become self-reinforcing in a way that precludes thinking differently about the present, or even seeing that the future that we’ve come to expect might not be the one we’re likely to get.

Fredric Jameson argues that the value of utopian/dystopian sci-fi is not that it delivers images of possible futures but instead is its ability to “defamiliarize and restructure our own present.” The photographs in the map show how filmmakers have taken familiar California locations from downtown Los Angeles to Berkeley to do just that.

Map by Wayne Marci

Kristin Miller is a writer, photographer, and Ph.D. student studying sociology and film and digital media at the University of California–Santa Cruz.