The California section's Carla Rivera recently met up with UCLA English professor Ursula Heise in downtown L.A.'s Bradbury Building, a moody masterpiece of shadows and light that was famously the setting for several scenes in the sci-fi classic "Blade Runner." In a bustling Subway shop on the first floor, Heise chatted about her special academic interest in science fiction — as well as L.A.'s noteworthy place in the genre. We later emailed her a few questions and crunched the conversation into this:
What makes sunny, loopily optimistic L.A. such a great setting for post-apocalyptic noir?
Shadows are darkest where the sun shines brightest. L.A. — and California in general — has always been the endpoint of America's imaginative geography, the last place you reach on the trek west, away from all the things that rein you in or keep you under.
L.A. has been a place of darkness, corruption and crime as well as of success and glamour. "Blade Runner" blends that vision with a futuristic panorama of L.A. where it's always night. It also rains all the time — that's the one bit of dystopia from the movie we probably wish we had a little more of today!
A "Blade Runner" sequel is apparently in the works. Do they dare?
They do. They will. And it'll be a letdown!
Young adult sci-fi is hugely popular right now, with young people often in deadly competition. Hmm.
Children's and YA fantasy and sci-fi create worlds where the young have a lot of power — that's their main appeal. But "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent" series also pick up on young people's sense that they are expected to make difficult life decisions that they're not yet prepared to make. There's also a sense that these take you back to basics — hunting, gathering, making your own food, creating your own communities — and that resonates positively with the DIY [do-it-yourself] and maker cultures.
Most sympathetic alien? (Please don't say E.T.)
In literature: Slartibartfast, the ingenious terraformer in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," who's won an award for his design of the Norwegian fiords.
A giant spaceship has scooped up all the felines. Can the world survive?
The nonhuman world can — birds and lizards in L.A. would dance and sing and think utopia had arrived if cats disappeared! But humans? No. And the Internet would collapse tomorrow without LOLcats.
Why aren't there ever little green women?
Little green men are so 20th century! These days, the future belongs to tall blue women: "Avatar," "X-Men," "The Fifth Element."
What California landscapes are out of this world?
Sci-fi has always loved California as a place where the best and worst futures happen. Northern California secedes with Oregon and Washington to become "Ecotopia" in Ernest Callenbach's 1975 novel — but not SoCal! Same in Starhawk's "Fifth Sacred Thing" — San Francisco is democratic ecotopia, Los Angeles authoritarian dystopia. But in Kim Stanley Robinson's "Pacific Edge," the most promising eco-community is in Orange County.
California beaches are where the giant floating city of refugees lands in Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash." And the deserts of California, Nevada and New Mexico are favorite hangouts for aliens, as everybody knows.
Westwood: dystopia or utopia?
Utopia if you want an education. Dystopia if you want a really good meal or a great cocktail.