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Los Angeles' Physical Landscape And The City's Science Fiction Legacy

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Bradbury Building in "Blade Runner." (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
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Southern California's cultural climate and landscape has long been an incubator for science fiction, from the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society's early days at Clifton's Cafeteria in the 1930s, to the dystopian visions of Blade Runner.

"Something that has always interested me is the fact that if you read Los Angeles a certain way, it's very much a science fiction city," book critic and writer David Ulin told LAist. "Los Angeles as we imagine it is very much a construction of the twentieth century and very much a construction of technology and speed and light and aerospace," Ulin continued, explaining why this makes the genre an interesting lens through which to explore the city, both aesthetically and culturally.

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," that will explore the critical role the city has played in science fiction landcapes across literature and film. The conference, which was organized by Ulin and USC Professor of History William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California & The West, with support from USC Dornsife and the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study, will kick off Friday with a screening of Spike Jonze's Her, as well as a lecture by Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne on the settings and moods of L.A. science fiction films at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater. On Saturday, USC will play host to a full day of panels exploring the implications of L.A.'s science fiction heritage.

What exactly has made Los Angeles such fertile ground for the genre? According to Ulin, it has a lot to do with how human will was imposed on the landscape during the city's rapid growth in the early 20th century.

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"L.A. has always been a kind of invented or human-imposed place, both in terms of the speed with which it grew up, and also in terms of the inhospitality of the native landscape," Ulin said.

"I mean, all cities are invented and imposed on natural landscape," he continued. "But it always struck me that Los Angeles grew up—if not directly in opposition to its landscape—then in a way where it had to wait until we were technologically able to deal with the landscape." As Ulin explains it, Los Angeles in the 19th century was a very different city than Los Angeles in the 20th century, not just because of population and migration and urban evolution, but also because "we didn't have the technological terrain, in a way."

"We didn't have the aqueduct. The first one was opened in 1913. We didn't have the road surfaces. The identity and shape of the city have grown up in response to technology. The sprawl and shape of the city is the result of many things, but it's partly the result of the early 20th century land grab in the San Fernando Valley—which is a direct result of the aqueduct. And in some ways, that sprawl created the kind of physical landscape for a city that would require a far-flung freeway network in order to tie it together. Obviously, we didn't know that in 1904 when all this was happening, but you can sort of trace that lineage."

"If we go back to the booster-era, let's say from the 1880's forward, and perhaps continuing today, there's this notion that Los Angeles is somehow the place where the future happens first," Deverell told LAist.

Beyond the role technology played in the city's growth (and the taming of the landscape), Ulin also sees aesthetic connections to the genre in the shape the city has taken on.

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"If you look at a satellite map of Los Angeles taken from space, it's kind of amazing how much the city infiltrates every possible landscape with development," he said. "You've got the canyons and the hills and the mountains where we can't build, but even wedged into those passes there's development. It feels like the sprawl is very much an expression of that human-built, almost futuristic science fiction-y territory."

There are also architectural components to the city's science fiction legacy, like the iconic Bradbury Building, which was built in the 1890s and inspired by Edward Bellamy's utopian futurist novel Looking Backward. "The Bradbury Building obviously plays a role in Blade Runner, which is the iconic Los Angeles science fiction film," Ulin explained. "And you've got the sort of Brutalist '70s architecture of the the Century City Mall or the Bonaventure Hotel, which figures in a number of science fiction films from that era as sort of the faceless, monolithic, urban landscape of the future."

Saturday's conference will take on an array of topics on the implications of Los Angeles's science fiction heritage. Featured authors include Steve Erickson, Mark Frauenfelder, Margaret Wappler, and M.G. Lord, and panels will cover such themes as artificial intelligence and visions of the future, the sustained influence of the late Octavia Butler, and the ways in which Ray Bradbury’s life in Los Angeles influenced his writing. The Saturday panels and discussions at USC are free and open to the public.

Friday, October 28:
Screening of Her at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Linwood Dunn Theater. Tickets ($3 members and students and $5 regular) are available here.

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Saturday, October 29:
Panels & Discussions at the USC Doheny Library

9:00 am: Opening remarks from William Deverell and David L. Ulin

9:30 am: Los Angeles: The Capital of Science Fiction: David L. Ulin in conversation with with MG Lord, Margaret Wappler, and Kristin Miller

11:00 am: Octavia Butler: Madeleine Brand in conversation with Lynell George and Ayana A.H. Jamieson

12:00 pm: Lunch

1:00 pm: Artificial Intelligence, Science Fiction, and the Future: Peter Westwick in conversation with Tracy Fullerton, Mark Frauenfelder, and Shrikanth Narayanan

2:15 pm: Witness and Celebrate—Ray Bradbury's Los Angeles: a video presentation by Jonathan Eller

3:15 pm: Philip K. Dick in Southern California: Steve Erickson in conversation with Scott Timberg

5:00 pm: Closing remarks offered by William Deverell and David L. Ulin, followed by a reception for all