Ray Bradbury’s Birthday, William Gibson, and Being Science-Fictional in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is arguably the science fiction capital of America. Blade Runner’s iconic sino-Futuristic downtown notwithstanding, there’s a strong historical lineage for science fiction in the Southland: the fan culture which took root here mid-century, the early conventions, the legacy of Forrest J. Ackerman and his one-man museum of memorabilia, Ray Bradbury’s lifetime on the West Side, Harlan Ellison’s local screeds, and, of course, the Hollywood culture machine, which has been spitting out genre epics from backlots in Burbank since time immemorial. Science fiction in L.A. has had many stomping grounds, from the fourth-floor dining room of Clifton’s Cafeteria, where the early heads congregated over free lime sherbet, to the hallowed halls of the L.A. Science Fiction and Fantasy Society clubhouse in North Hollywood, but it’s also always everywhere, just a feeling, something disconnected about a city both so fake and real.

I have been enjoying, very much, being a science fiction reader in Los Angeles.

Not only does the city’s atmosphere of accreting globalization, total simultaneity, and neon lend itself perfectly to my inner wanderings, but the culture is alive and well. Several weeks ago, I attended a birthday party for Ray Bradbury at Mystery and Imagination Books in Glendale. When he was alive, Ray would spend his birthdays at the bookstore, signing for fans and eating cake; after he passed away this year, the owners decided to keep the tradition going. Friends in the community took turns telling stories about Ray, showing off old letters, and reading miscellaneous Bradburiana. Old men in thick glasses sat nestled on plastic chairs like thrones. Christine Bell, the owner of Mystery and Imagination, gave a halting eulogy to her friend that brought the whole room to tears.

On the other end of the spectrum, I also recently saw William Gibson speak at the Last Bookstore. In a sense it was the perfect genre dichotomy: while Mystery & Imagination is a hole-in-the wall bookshop, all lurid pulp paperbacks stacked vertiginously (and tends to host moldies and tenderhearted horror geeks), The Last Bookstore is a cavernous warehouse, an old bank building in the always-already cyberpunk milieu of downtown L.A.

Gibson was chewing gum and perpetually craning his neck to gawk at the monstrous ceilings, like some kind of enfant terrible bobble-head. He kept referring to the bookstore itself as the perfect example of science fiction’s divergent predictions; if a person from 100 years ago were to peer through a time-portal at us sitting on folding chairs in this once-grand building perverted, he postulated, they would have thought we were dressed like longshoremen and wouldn’t recognized our activity as something cultural. He called the store “glorious, Borgesian, mad in the best possible way.”

He had some great things to say about the early days of cyberpunk, too, namely that the moment the epithet materialized, he immediately sought to avoid the inevitable typecasting to follow. “If we get any on us,” he remembers thinking, “we’re finished.” The attempt wasn’t quite a success; he recalled looking around and realizing that all his contemporaries were lining up to get “Cyberpunk” stamped on the backs of their jean jackets. “I didn’t want to spoil the party.”

He called contemporary SF a “forest of unfamiliar names” and confessed to reading scarcely any of it. Essentially, he said, it’s not a problem with the genre–rather, it’s a problem of genre itself. When science fiction aficionados write off all other fiction as “mundane,” something is wrong, he said, adding, “Isaac Asimov is far out and Cormac McCarthy is mundane? And you want me to talk to you?”

Other great Gibsonisms from my notes:

  • “The banal Holiday Inn-like ruins of post-Tolkien epic fantasy”
  • “In The Wire, we have our Dickens”
  • “Bruce Sterling is the Leon Trotsky of cyberpunk”

Of his recent trilogy’s (Pattern RecognitionSpook Country, and Zero History) diversion away from science fiction, he summed it up as a recalibration of his weirdness stick:

In order to induce the kind of cognitive dissonance we come to good science fiction for, one must have a yardstick for how weird it is right now. My yardstick of weirdness was too short to describe the weirdness outside my window.

Which is as fair a description of Los Angeles as I could summon right now: weirdness outside the window, ever-changing, and rife with exactly the kind of cognitive dissonance we come to good science fiction (and interesting cities) to experience.

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