Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Vex Reports: Science Fiction L.A.

In the late 1930s, teenaged Ray Bradbury, then less than four years removed from his beloved hometown of Waukegan, Ill., tagged along with his new best friend Forrest J. Ackerman to Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown. Their destination? One of the monthly meetings of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society.

As he joined their ranks, Bradbury met such established writers as Jack Williamson, Leigh Brackett, Frederic Brown and that towering figure of the Golden Age, Robert Heinlein. This fan club would produce some of the greats in the speculative field, from its start in Bradbury’s time to the modern day.

Despite these luminaries and other creators of fantastic tales who call the city home, Los Angeles isn’t usually thought of as a center for such writings. Why is the city such a perfect setting and how does its influence permeate the culture, even if the consumer doesn’t quite know it? The symposium “Science Fiction L.A.: Words and World Building in the City of Angels”* set out to explore just that.

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Shining City

David Ulin, former book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times and writing professor at both USC and University of California, Riverside, in his opening remarks describes Los Angeles as a “very constructed city, future directed” which “sits in opposition to the landscape.”

In this sense, Los Angeles is one of a very few speculative cities (another being Las Vegas), created from a tiny center spark that then evolved into an ever-growing expanse until it reached its maximum capacity.

Because of this, the city is “always in transition” and has a “blurring of lines…blend[ing] tropes to get literature and art,” said Ulin.

This thought was echoed in the first panel, moderated by Ulin, “Los Angeles: The Capital of Science Fiction.” Novelist and journalist Margaret Wappler said, “There was more freedom in [Los Angeles]. New York’s fiction world was branded and codified,” whereas here “was more open to experiments.”

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(L-R) David Ulin, Margaret Wappler, MG Lord, Kristin Miller

Wappler also said that the local writers were “doing genre in a way…without the trappings.” This was expounded upon by fellow panelist Kristin Miller, sociology Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who said that Hollywood had “a huge role rescuing science fiction from genre” where “it can become reductive.” Examples included the recent film Her which was screened as part of the event.

Indeed, living in Los Angeles and living in Hollywood, two concurrent but separate existences, become a blending experience. Driving along Vermont Avenue, one sees each corner filled with strip malls with business signs in four or five different languages all stacked upon each other. This can feel like the future seen on the screen.

Here, one can go to the club to hear hip hop or heavy metal and walk outside to the awaiting taco truck, or, even more L.A., the bacon-wrapped hot dog covered in onions, peppers and salsa prepared by Latin men and women. And who could forget the sublime fusions of local celeb chef Roy Choi who took Korean barbeque, stuffed it in a tortilla, then topped it with kim chee.

But where does it all start? Writer and USC professor M.G. Lord reminded the attendees that this year marks the 80th anniversary (1936) of the first rocketry experiments which would lead to the formation of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Pasadena-based science business which would create many of the parts for NASA’s Moon program as well as the recent Mars rover Curiosity.

But she also lamented that three years later construction would begin on the Arroyo Seco Freeway (now known as the 110), which promised “six minutes to downtown with no lights” and would usher in the car culture era which has made the city so hard to traverse.

Professor Lord, who grew up here and whose father worked at JPL as recounted in her memoir Astro Turf, joined in a new track to describe how L.A. became the backdrop for so many apocalyptic films of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“It was as hideous as it was depicted,” she said. “A dystopic backwater.”

“It was the wasteland, messed-up city you saw on film in bits and pieces,” said Wappler. Examples like A Boy and His Dog, Escape From L.A., and the now-classic Blade Runner showed how both the urban sprawl and the desert frightened audiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “L.A. was a blank slate that horror…is projected on. It’s our present fears of what a city can be.”

While Miller said, “The desert leads to a Judeo-Christian Biblical apocalypse,” Lord also reminded the audience the barren lands were used for aviation and technology experiments. The opening credits of the ‘70s hit show The Six Million Dollar Man used footage of just such a failed experiment that had happened years before Steve Austin required reconstruction.

While Ulin said the desert makes the city “a colony on another planet, contingent on life support systems,” Miller told of the latest speculative genre with roots in such conditions: climate fiction or cli-fi.

But here stands a population which should not exist: 16 million souls on a patch of land unable to support it and fed by stolen water. These conditions have led to Los Angeles being feared (by those who see its sprawl as spirit crushing) and reviled (by those who could see themselves lost in such a sea of humanity). We can be the butt of jokes, the undefendable criminal city.

But Wappler does defend it, holding out hope and extending this more utopian vision: “We are not smog ridden and we do have a center. Don’t be afraid of us.”

Artificially Intelligent

While that panel set the parameters for how the city is perceived, another peeked into the future. “Artificial Intelligence, Science Fiction, and the Future” brought together three different creators from three completely different fields to find a common subject.

Moderated by USC professor Peter Westwick, game designer Tracy Fullerton, blogger and futurist Mark Frauenfelder (one of the founders of Boing Boing) and scientist Shrikanth Narayanan all examined where we are headed with artificial intelligence, both technologically and psychologically.

While Fullerton addressed the idea of science fiction being a “nostalgic genre,” giving us plots and tropes rooted in a gee-whiz past, Frauenfelder appreciated its early consumers.

Flip phone and its inspiration (Julien's Live)
Flip phone and its inspiration (Julien’s Live)

“Sci-fi didn’t predict the future, but inspired the engineers to get it done,” he said. Such products as the flip phone, obviously inspired by the Star Trek communicator, prove his point, but Fullerton gave a cynical prognostication.

“Engineers of the future will not be making flip phones. They’ll be making robots for raping,” she said, following a reference to HBO’s Westworld.

Narayanan, who works every day developing the technology for artificial intelligence, had a wider view of the process.

“Tools are technology, but learning comes from us,” he said. This statement followed his point that “machines don’t improvise, but [humans] are aware of what’s out there. The human mind [uses] behavioral clues to connect the dots.”

In fact, he gave many examples to allay the fears set forth by so many books, movies and television shows: that AI will eventually surpass us. The message behind his points is that we still control this technology because we are its guiding hand. Regardless of how calming he tried to be, dread remains, especially as the Internet of things places more “smart devices” within our homes and cars. But should we see this as a meeting of the minds or is there a simpler explanation?

As AI becomes more pervasive in our lives, Frauenfelder sees the technology becoming “like cheap energy, on tap like a metered utility.”

But the personality of such AI’s (Siri, Cortana, etc.) creates other issues, or, as Fullerton said, “What gender will my refrigerator be?”

Narayanan, following the discussion of roles of the scientist, said they are “driven not by curiosity, but by the needs we have.” Still he sees “imagination and engineering working together,” especially on a project like the Mars rover.

But Frauenfelder asserted a real world scenario that could be seen as pessimistic, especially to a crowd containing many college students.

“Any job we do which can be measured by productivity and inefficiency will go away,” he said. “People will be paid by how well we work with robots.”

While that kind of world is certainly coming, if not already sitting in our laps, Fullerton doesn’t see it diminishing our humanity.

“We begin to value and celebrate human inefficiencies,” she said of such a world. “We value the precious friction of our relationships.”

Angelic Triumvirate

But while the idea of Los Angeles was the centerpiece of the day, three special writers were celebrated for their contributions to the field of scifi and the culture of L.A.

First was Octavia E. Butler whose archives at the Huntington Library in Pasadena are being explored by the arts organization The Clockshop for their project Radio Imagination. Two of the writers/researchers working on that project, Lynell George and Ayana A.H. Jamieson, talked about Butler’s life.

(L-R) Madelaine Brand (moderator), Ayana A.H. Jamieson, Lynell George
(L-R) Madelaine Brand (moderator), Ayana A.H. Jamieson, Lynell George

While this collected work will be the subject of another essay on Vex Mosaic, the pictures of Butler’s extremely thorough archives were revelatory. Her daily notes, accented by highlighter and other colors, were a pop art explosion of the textual meeting the visual. While her work is much appreciated these days, this collaboration promises to push her vision of the future even further toward popular acceptance.

Ray Bradbury had his time of exploration via a short film by Jonathan Eller, director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University. His biggest project, shown in the film to be mostly complete, is the archiving of Bradbury’s workspace. His typewriter, posters, books, everything that surrounded the legend as he worked has been carefully transplanted to its new resting place in Bloomington.

Because the professor was on film and not live, no one had the opportunity to ask him why the workspace was being moved when it already had a home here in Los Angeles.

Recreation of Ray Bradbury's study (Indiana Monthly)
Recreation of Ray Bradbury’s study (Indiana Monthly)

The symposium ended with writers Scott Timberg and Steve Erickson discussing the Los Angeles experience of their favorite writer Philip K. Dick.

His time here was marked by a shifting of themes. Moving from the hippie Berkeley to “squaresville” (as Timberg said) Orange County, the center of Ronald Reagan Republicanism, Dick’s paranoia multiplied concurrently with experiencing an out of body vision of how reality is an AI experiment, which he called a religious transformation. Both Timburg and Erickson agreed that he might have simply been having a nervous breakdown.

It’s easy to draw a dividing line between the earlier Bay Area works of Dick, which delved more into tropes while still being excellent works of humanity, and the Santa Ana novels because the later created worlds were closer to literary novels with extra science as opposed to far-flung tales of planets or future times or slipstreams. But the intensity of his worldview and his feeling of being watched, certainly reflective of the Richard Nixon administration which was still in power at the time, gave the new stories a creepiness that conjoined with his own cloistered living.

Yet, such classics as “Through A Scanner Darkly” and “Valis” resulted from this new perspective. In the end, the audience benefited from his mental instability.

In what could summarize the whole day as well as the writings of Dick, Erickson said of Blade Runner: “The fragile nature of memory leads to the fragile nature of time and how fragile is the nature of humanity. It could only come from California.”

*This event was presented by the University of Southern California’s Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, Dornsife College and the Sidney Harmon Academy for Polymathic Study and organized by David L. Ulin and William Deverell.

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