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NOTES: So Cal at the Turn of the Century

Stranger Than Science Fiction

July 25, 1999|Jason Dietrich

As sci-fi's reigning ground zero, Los Angeles has been an apocalyptic playground for terminators, Martians and mutant strains of Bermuda grass:

The settlers who braved the Martian sands in Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles" (1950) resemble Midwesterners who, like Illinois native Bradbury, found themselves in alien environs when they moved here. His Martian colonizers long for a small-town lifestyle in a strange and unfamiliar environment.

In 1953, Byron Haskin adapted H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" to the big screen, and the Martians landed in Puente Hills, carting disintegrator-heat-ray-guns, only to be thwarted by earthly bacteria.

Aldous Huxley's "Ape and Essence" (1948) rendered the dysfunctional terror of his "Brave New World" (1932) a utopia compared to 2108's post-World War III Los Angeles. The book laid the groundwork for visions of a city plagued by a wrecked ecosystem and human devolution, writes Huxley biographer David Dunaway.

The polluted and perpetually soaked metropolis of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982) and the wastes of the "Planet of the Apes" sequels are L.A.s where Homo sapiens muck things up so thoroughly that apes and androids appear far more human than we do.

As a parable of Los Angeles' race relations, the 1988 film "Alien Nation" makes this point more bluntly, as alien slave laborers continue being victimized by human oppressors in an L.A. ghetto. In a more realistic setting--that is, without the arrival of a giant spaceship--Pasadena's Octavia Butler writes in her cyberpunkish 1993 novel, "Parable of the Sower," of a city ravaged by riots, drought and the flight of the middle class to walled communities.

A city plagued by earthquakes, fires, floods, riots and killer bees. Can you blame sci-fi authors who've added predators and reanimated corpses to the mix? After all, "the obliteration of Los Angeles . . . is often depicted as, or at least secretly experienced as, a victory for civilization," writes author Mike Davis in 1998's "The Ecology of Fear." Don't expect to see that quote in a Chamber of Commerce brochure.

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