California: the muse of modern American sci-fi

I’ve only been to California a few times. The state didn’t leave much of an impression on me. But a dense and intriguing article makes the case that the development of California in the 1900s was fodder for some of the best sci-fi writing we’ve seen.

Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick are titans of US sci-fi writers. Bradbury’s best known works include Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers, among others, and Philip K. Dick is the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was adapted for the big screen as Blade Runner.

All 3 men were prolific, and according to this article by Michael Ziser that appeared on the website Boom California, they were often writing about the dramatic transformations that took place as California was turned from a sparsely populated harsh landscape to a lush multiethnic state powered by land management, urban planning, and the defense industry.

Bradbury, the writer states, “dramatizes the personal difficulty of adjusting to the radical novelty of West Coast civilization ray bradburycarved out of the desert.”

His evidence? Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles series of stories, which capture themes including development that alters an arid landscape, plagues that devastate native populations, societal makeovers, and a longing for a lost world.

In Bradbury’s classic short story There Will Come Soft Rains, which describes a fully automated house going about its business long after the family has been killed by a nuclear war, he may be reflecting the anxieties of mid-20th-century progress. Technology has outlived its creators.

robert heinleinLike Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Heinlein wrote about a transformed landscape in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Heinlein merges technology and an alien world. Heinlein, the author writes, reflects the optimism of his era about the potential to remake civilization, while reflecting an unease with the technology that makes this possible.

Philip K. Dick, who wrote later than Bradbury and Heinlein, also told tales of colonization, but he also reflected a 1970s-era sensibility, as his stories often focused on infrastructure philip k dickand environmental threats. His story Survey Team includes a character who mourns for the lost world of his Californian boyhood.

“It was a lot different from the way he remembered it when he was a kid in California. He could remember the valley country, grape orchards and walnuts and lemons. Smudge pots under the orange trees. Green mountains and sky the color of a woman’s eyes. And the fresh smell of the soil…. That was all gone now. Nothing remained but gray ash pulverized with the white stones of buildings. Once a city had been in this spot. He could see the yawning cavities of cellars, filled now with slag, dried rivers of rust that had once been buildings. Rubble strewn everywhere, aimlessly….”

What a great piece of writing.

Science fiction is often derided as commercial and pulp. But this analysis shows that, like the best of literature, sci-fi can incorporate larger themes of our world and our humanity.

(Philip K. Dick image: Nicole Panter)

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