Cul-de-Sac Nightmares: Representations
of Californian Suburbia in Science Fiction During the 1950s and ’60s
James B. Mitchell
We can better understand twentieth-century American
suburbs by situating and examining the fantasies they engender within
specific practices of
cultural production and consumption. Studying post-World War II suburbia
as it appears in science fiction, a hugely popular multimedia genre that
includes films, literature, and numerous other cultural expressions,
can offer us productive insights into American culture as it is both
imagined and lived. Science fiction (SF) texts not only provide us with
glimpses into the ways in which these communities imaginatively construct
identities and mythologies for themselves, but these narratives also,
by virtue of their meticulous attention to detail, serve as rhetorical
and cultural artifacts of lived experience. Indeed, in the latter half
of the twentieth century American suburbia and science fiction have become
inseparable—for the former is the lived experience of an imagined
place brought to fruition in the dawn of the atomic age, while the latter
is an aesthetic response to the uncanny conditions of living in a post-urban
space. Postwar science fiction, with its satirical observations of society
and inherently destabilizing, defamiliarizing narrative strategies, captures
the alienating, disconnected sense of suburban synthetic communities
in a way that no other cultural expression of this period approximates.1
Nowhere is this dynamic between SF and suburbia more compelling than
in the Southern California municipalities that developed during and after
World War II. This
inquiry will briefly consider why the Southern California cultural climate of
this era proved so hospitable to SF before examining some small towns and suburbs
as they appear in a few extremely influential SF texts of the 1950s and early
1960s: Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the television series The Twilight
Zone, Don Siegel’s film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Philip K. Dick’s
Time Out of Joint. Such a survey, admittedly far from exhaustive, suggests that
much of the SF of this period offers elaborate critiques of American culture,
especially the peculiar form of suburbia that became typified by Southern California
communities in the boom years following the war. Two threads of these postwar
SF critiques of suburbia merit closer consideration: a self-consciously futile
impulse to create an idealized simulacrum of the nineteenth-century American
small town in the environs of the suburbs, and an interrogation (often expressed
through a fear of alien contamination) of the supposed integrity of the mid-twentieth-century
nuclear family. These critiques articulate a resistance to both contemporary
and retrospective constructions of 1950s America as “simple, innocent,
happy, unanimously supportive of a broad spectrum of beliefs, or radically separated
from the 1960s by a culture of complacence, . . . [or as a] montage of sock hops,
barbecues, suburban ranch houses, and a smiling Ike presiding over a contented
electorate” (Foreman 1-2).2
During and following World War II, California loomed in the American cultural
imagination as a sunlight-saturated factory of utopian dreams and superpower
might. After all, California was not only the home of Hollywood and Disneyland,
it was also the base for a burgeoning military defense industry that more or
less reinforced the state’s traditional bisection into two distinct regions:
Southern California, with its aerospace plants and naval shipyards, manufactured
war material, while Northern California, with its large research universities
like Stanford and UC Berkeley, engaged in more abstract pursuits by developing
technologies that permitted the acceleration of the nuclear arms race.
It is hardly surprising, then, that such a milieu produced a concentration of
writers of speculative or science fiction, many of whom migrated to the golden
state in the years between World War I and II. One of these writers, Edgar Rice
Burroughs, founded a ranch that became Tarzana—the first suburb in the
world to be named after a phenomenally successful SF character, Tarzan, Lord
of the Apes.3 Other notable SF writers who moved to California at this time include
Dianetics and Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard (1918), Philip K. Dick (c. 1930),
Ray Bradbury (1934), Robert Heinlein (1934), and Aldous Huxley (1938).
SF proved an amenable genre for California writers for a host of reasons. Post-WWII
California, with its seemingly irreconcilable contradictions—it was simultaneously
one of the nation’s most developed and most agricultural regions—proffered
to Americans a real and fantastic space upon which they could map their desires.
John Findlay notes that the state became overwhelmingly (sub)urbanized in this
period: “In 1962 California passed New York to become the most populous
state, and shortly thereafter it surpassed New Jersey as the most urbanized state.
Almost 60 percent of the inhabitants of the eleven western states lived in California,
and 25 percent of them resided in or around Los Angeles” (20). Yet California
was also enormously agricultural, yielding more crops than any other state during
the same years. It was the manufacturing of Cold War weaponry that provided California,
especially the southern counties of Los Angeles and Orange, with unprecedented
federal capital for urban expansion and development, resulting in geometric growth
that by the 1970s had threatened to destroy what was left of the natural environment.
As one historian of this era remarks, “the prototypical community created
by this Cold War activity was Orange County, the dream environment of the 1950s,
a land of affluent white people, barbecues, Bermuda shorts, oranges, and surfing” (Markusen
51). As Southern California communities seemingly sprawled infinitely outward,
SF offered nightmarish visions of suburban existence that belied the sunny mythology
of easy golden state living—the “California lifestyle”—that
had by the mid-1950s already become a commodity of sorts.
It is hardly coincidence that a disproportionate number of the postwar SF writers
who ended up living in Southern California suburbs, including Bradbury, Dick,
and Heinlein, originally hailed from small Midwestern towns (the first two from
Illinois, the last from Missouri). Waves of intra-continental migration throughout
the twentieth century ensured that “Los Angeles developed much as a Midwestern
town transplanted onto the Southern California landscape” (Brodsly 74).
Frequently appearing as a nostalgic, utopian recreation of a late nineteenth-century
Midwestern burg, the small town—virtually trademarked by Bradbury in his
SF tales and reified by Walt Disney in his Main Street, U.S.A.—is an idyllic,
fantastic place to which one can never return (and which, of course, never actually
existed in the first place). Imagined during the same period in which many California
SF writers were plumbing the contradictions of suburbia, and built in a region
of industrialization dubbed the “gunbelt” by some Cold War scholars,4
Disney’s reconstruction of an uncannily ebullient small town in the shadow
of Los Angeles illustrates the postwar urge to reclaim an American civic life
that had long been idealized but rarely realized.
Disneyland, a baroque, nostalgically rendered park situated in a suburb of L.A.,
offers, as it were, a small town once removed in its simulacrum of Main Street,
U.S.A. Disney and his Imagineers5 modeled Disneyland’s Main Street on the
impresario’s boyhood small town of Marceline, Missouri. Because Main Street
serves as a gateway to all the other regions of the park, one must pass through
and experience small-town America as envisioned by Disney and Company. What is
perhaps most astonishing about Disneyland’s romanticized portrayal of America
(the robotic Abe Lincoln, the “Rivers of America” cruise) is the
glaring absence of California itself—the park makes no attempt whatsoever
to represent or historicize “California.”6 The absence of California
history amidst a surfeit of Americana reinforces the state’s long practice
of willful amnesia, a custom only exacerbated by processes of suburbanization
that attempt to elide all traces of the past. Joan Didion observed in the late
1960s that “the future always looks good in the golden land, because no
one remembers the past” (4). Disneyland imagines California as a scrubbed
palimpsest, a blinding white movie screen upon which anything—save stories
of California’s actual past—can be projected.
Main Street, U.S.A. is undoubtedly a palliative for the disconnectedness of living
in a sprawling horizontal suburb.7 It provides a fabricated sense of community
in the form of a sanitized town center: its boulevards are steam cleaned daily,
its paths mitigate freeway-induced feelings of anonymous claustrophobia by offering
the illusion of freedom while controlling all movements of its populace—all
guests are free to travel wherever they please, provided they walk on meticulously
engineered sidewalks or ride in vehicles whose routes are predetermined. Disneyland,
the self-proclaimed “happiest place on Earth,” allows its guests
to visit (and not, significantly, to live in) a small town; such a sojourn, however,
comes at a high ideological and economic price.8
One tremendously popular California SF writer concerned with the problem of restoring
the nostalgia of small-town Midwestern America to the new, technologically obsessed
suburban enclaves is Ray Bradbury, a man who, like Walt Disney, was born in the
Midwest. Living his adult life in Los Angeles, the metropolis with the most extensive
freeway system in America, Bradbury ironically never learned to drive an automobile.
He did, however, write numerous essays lamenting the lack of a town center in
the notoriously fragmented metropolis:
Olvera Street . . . fulfills many of my requirements,
as does, on a large scale, Disneyland. You can indeed sit, eat, lounge,
stare, at Uncle
Walt’s, but you don’t really go there to shop, and it isn’t
a community center, but a Southern California asset. Century City qualifies
in many ways. But it has no true center . . . . The Santa Monica mall
suffers for similar reasons. It has no true center. (“The Girls
Walk this Way” 12)
Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, a collection of stories depicting
various human attempts to colonize Mars, shares a number of striking
parallels with the historical settlement of the American West (e.g.,
the native Martians are eradicated by a communicable disease and their
culture is effectively misunderstood and destroyed by the invading
humans who, in this case, are primarily white American males). Both
Disney and Bradbury invoke nostalgia to portray their versions of American
history: the former in a facile, reassuring manner that encourages
complacency while eliding difference, the latter in a more provocative,
open-ended fashion that questions progress without completely undermining
American pioneerism. Not surprisingly, Bradbury has been an avid fan
of Disneyland his entire life, writing several encomia for the place
and its builder.9
Unlike Disneyland, whose Tomorrowland explicitly champions the myth
of progress while downplaying the possible negative ramifications of
book presents a problematic vision of the future: its stories celebrate small-town
America and the romance of westward expansion while simultaneously revealing
the futility of reconstructing the small town in an age of atomic energy. One
story from The Martian Chronicles, “The Third Expedition,” aptly
depicts the futility of such an endeavor.
The title of the story refers to the Earth men’s third journey to the
planet Mars.10 Upon the rocket’s landing, each crewmember believes that
he sees a recreation of his own hometown in the Martian countryside: one sees
Green Bluff, Illinois, another Grinnell, Iowa. Expecting an alien environment,
the men instead view “a tall brown Victorian house, quiet in the sunlight,
all covered with scrolls and rococo, its windows made of blue and pink and
yellow and green colored glass . . . Through the front window you could see
a piece of music titled ‘Beautiful Ohio’ sitting on the music rest” (33).
The Martians have deceived and caught the men off guard by presenting them
with what they most desire—a chance to return to the simple pleasures
of small-town America. The Martian town is actually an exact replica of the
captain’s boyhood town (which was built in 1886), a kind of place that
by the story’s “April 2000” date had become extinct. Even
the expedition’s archaeologist is fooled by the replica, thinking aloud, “It’s
a small town the like [sic] of Earth towns . . . . Incredible. It can’t
be, but it is” (33). Not only are the details of the town convincingly
counterfeited, but long-dead relatives also appear to greet the men and lull
them into complacency.
The Martians’ successful invocation of the pastoral mythology of the
small town has a deadly narcotic effect on the captain and his men: “It
had been thirty years since he had been in a small town, and the buzzing of
spring bees on the air lulled and quieted him, and the fresh look of things
was a balm to the soul” (37). The men separate from their military fellowship,
each retiring to sleep with his respective family (the extended family of the
frontier town is made whole again, if only temporarily). The fantasy of the
small town proves short-lived, however. As he falls asleep, the captain reflects
on the possibility that his mind has been read; before he can act, however,
the Martians murder the entire crew. Thus the colonizers can dream of the small
town, but they cannot, despite their most fervent wishes, ever reinvent it.
Intriguingly, the Martians continue the charade even after all the humans are
killed, holding a somber small-town funeral: “The brass band, playing ‘Columbia,
the Gem of the Ocean,’ marched and slammed back into town, and everyone
took the day off” (48). This final scene is certainly comically macabre,
yet it can also be read as a satirical criticism of American imperialism. For
instead of planting a flag and claiming territory, the explorers, leaving behind
fragments of their popular nationalistic culture, have themselves become incorporated
into the Martian landscape with a wicked pun—“Earth pounded down
on the coffin lids” (48). Bradbury’s tale suggests that the fantasy
of small-town America, wistfully imagined by technologically-dependent suburbanites,
remains perpetually elusive in the postwar age.
The memorable series The Twilight Zone delighted in exploring how SF small
towns, although picturesque, were always chimerical, unreal vestiges of an
idealized way of life. The series was created by Rod Serling, an upstate New
Yorker transplanted to the chic L.A. suburb of Pacific Palisades in the years
following the war.11 In a notable episode entitled “Stopover in a Quiet
Town,” a New York City couple who spend the night at a cocktail party
in the country awaken to find themselves in a strangely deserted small town
called “Centralville.” The town’s name is multivalent, for
it refers both to the mythological prominence of the middle-American “heartland” in
the nation’s cultural imagination and to the inescapability, the gravitational
pull as it were, of this myth: at one point the couple attempt to leave Centralville
via train, only to arrive back where they started.
Periodically hearing a child’s inexplicable giggle, the couple soon discover
that the “town” is a complete mock-up, a life-sized replica similar
to a Hollywood backlot. Everything in the town is a convincing prop, down to
the ersatz squirrels climbing on synthetic trees. We can recognize here not
only the classic SF trope of the false city,12 but also a self-reflexive ironic
commentary on the illusory nature of the film and television industry. The
male disparagingly refers to the town as “Hicksville,” griping
about the eeriness of the otherwise quaint deserted town: “I don’t
see how they stand it in this small—burg . . . . Give me the big city
any day. At least there you know when you’re being stared at.” Curiously
enough, the episode unfolds in a hyperrealistic narrative fashion until the
SF denouement attempts to explain the mystery of Centralville: in the episode’s
last shot we hear the girl’s giggle again, see a giant hand scoop up
the now Lilliputian couple, and hear an admonishing adult voice say: “Be
careful with your pets, dear, daddy brought them all the way from Earth.” The
couple are doomed to spend their days as an alien child’s playthings
in a “human zoo” on another planet. Their awful fate reminds us
that the California culture industry can emulate or import the Midwestern small
town, but it cannot breathe life into it. Ultimately, the postwar SF small
town, whether it is imagined in a themepark, on Mars, or in a Hollywood studio,
can be visited but never inhabited. It appears, incessantly, as a tantalizing
simulacrum to the denizens of suburbia.
Of all SF municipalities, the suburb is the most uncanny. Promoted as a hygienic
antidote to the metropolis, the SF suburb promises to inoculate its residents
against the contaminating influence of the big city while recreating the communal
fantasy of the small town. Kenneth Jackson’s claim that “at the
heart of all suburban growth is land development—the conversion of rural
or vacant land to some sort of residential use” (133) seems especially
relevant to discussions of Southern California suburbia. Southern California
suburbanization is, above all, a process of mandatory forgetting, as if the
creation of a modern utopia were made possible solely through the denial of
a historical past. In the dominant postwar logic of Southern California suburbia,
a development truly succeeds only when the area it comprises has undergone
a “geographical cleansing,” such that what remains is completely
unrecognizable from what was there before.13
In the latter half of the twentieth century, Southern California epitomizes
ersatz suburban living: its suburbs are culturally separated not only from
the pastoral or rural (which Twain, Cather, Hemingway and others throughout
American literature locate predominantly in the Midwest and sometimes the South)
but are also, because they lack recognizable hubs, quite distinct from the
great city centers of the East and Europe (San Francisco is perhaps the closest
analogue to an Eastern city in the entire state).14 This condition of “suburbanity” permeates
all discussions of culture in southern California, a place where living is
predicated upon technologies, the automobile in particular. Richard G. Lillard
commented upon this peculiarity in 1968, noting that “the pedestrian,
around whom all civilization centered until the automotive era, disappeared
in California after cities began to roll outward on rubber tires. Footwalkers
are so rare now as to be suspicious characters in exclusive residential areas” (97).
What separates the suburb from the small town is its reliance on technologies—the
indispensable expressway, the requisite automobile, the labor-saving domestic
appliance—with which it purports to liberate its residents from the overcrowding
of the metropolis as well as from the necessity of cohabiting with extended
family members. In doing so the suburb often becomes a zone of exclusion, a
select community into which anyone can be inducted, provided he or she has
the right cultural and economic capital (not to mention religion and ethnicity).15
We can supplement Robert Fishman’s assertion that suburbia is “the
collective creation of the Anglo-American middle class: the bourgeois utopia” (x)
by pointing out that the fantasy of the nuclear family attends this creation,
bringing with it the anxiety of conformity and the fear of being scrutinized
under the watchful eyes of neighbors, people who, though they appear very similar
to one another (otherwise how could they live in the same neighborhood?) are
somehow nevertheless just a little different. Unlike other postwar expressions
of popular culture (television sitcoms, for example),16 much of the SF of this
era depicts suburban nuclear families as fragile; those few that are intact
survive only by virtue of tenuous relationships. Invasion poses a grave threat
to the suburban fantasy of familial integrity, a menace to which the suburban
enclave responds by enshrouding its xenophobia in the rhetoric of community
bylaws. When the usual markers of difference (race, class, ethnicity, sexual
orientation) are illegible to the gatekeepers of suburbia, anxiety and, eventually,
violence grip the community.17
Perhaps the SF suburb film that best captures the xenophobia of the postwar
age is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which takes place in the fictitious
locale of “Santa Mira, California” (it was actually filmed in Sierra
Madre, an L.A. suburb in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains). The campy
movie has infiltrated American popular culture so thoroughly and is so frequently
associated with the “red scare” of the 1950s that its plot is familiar
even to many who have never seen it: alien doppelgängers growing from
vegetative “pods” gradually infiltrate the sleepy suburb of Santa
Mira and replace its citizens. Besides lacking emotional affect, the aliens
exhibit “no difference you can actually see.” This foreign contamination
creates consternation within the suburb for obvious reasons—the heroes
(the white, middle-class Californians Dr. Miles Bennell and Becky) cannot proactively
discriminate against the aliens as they might against undesirable ethnic or
religious minorities because the body snatchers are a virtually imperceptible
enemy who look just like everyone else.
The film is frequently read as a crude political allegory warning against the
insidious omnipresence of communist fifth columnists: in a caricature of life
within the system of Soviet communism, one of the snatchers, urging Miles to
capitulate, assures him that “without love, ambition, desire, faith,
life is so simple.” The film’s implied horror, then, lies in surrendering
the right to experience these four emotions, all of which are presumably guaranteed
Yet the film can also be conversely read as a diatribe against the constricting
conformity of suburban existence and the inadequacy of the nuclear family to
avert catastrophe. We get our first glimpse of the epidemic in a scene in which
a young boy runs away from his mother claiming that she is not “herself.” Although
nuclear family members are the first to witness the effects of the body snatchers,
they are incapable of responding to the threat. The two main characters who
do manage to resist the invasion deviate from the 1950s suburban norm—they
are both divorced, single, childless professionals. A key difference between
Becky and Miles is that she lives with her elderly father (depicting a single,
divorced, childless woman who also lived outside the auspices of a patriarch
would be too subversive even for SF of the time), whereas Miles is entirely
without family. Becky’s resistance is only partly successful, however:
she succumbs to sleep near the film’s end (rendering her vulnerable to
assimilation) and becomes an alien herself. Miles alone survives the invasion
by fleeing on the highway, the nexus connecting Santa Mira to all the other
California suburbs (and also the means by which the pods are imported from
outlying rural areas).18 Thus SF exposes the suburban nuclear family as fragile
and unstable: a liability masquerading as shelter, it ostensibly promises security
but instead delivers nightmares.
Philip K. Dick, a Northern Californian who settled in Orange County in the
early 1970s, explores similar nightmarish suburban themes in his novel Time
Out of Joint. Dick’s work is highly regarded by postmodern theorists,
such as Fredric Jameson, who see it as an exposition of the paranoia inevitably
generated by consumer culture:
Indeed, of the great writers of this period [1950s], only Dick himself
comes to mind as the virtual poet laureate of this material: of squabbling
couples and marital dramas, of petit bourgeois shopkeepers, neighborhoods,
and afternoons in front of television, and all the rest. But, of course,
he does something to it, and it was already California anyway. (519)
Dick’s novels expose the seamy underside of the California suburban
utopian dream without making any attempt to reconcile its contradictions.
Dick frequently commented on the synthetic qualities of California suburbia
in personal correspondence and essays, describing Fullerton (near Disneyland
in Orange County) as “a plastic, clean, dope-free, expensive, modern,
dull city with no scenery . . . . I rented an apartment and drilled down
into the concrete to establish prefabricated roots . . . . I sort of
identify with this wretched place, where a scenic wonder is a dried-up
swamp and the national bird is a buzzard” (Letter 31). It is no
wonder that Dick’s characters ultimately remain hopelessly psychically
splintered as they strive to overcome the debilitating schizophrenia
that unerringly accompanies living in these pseudo-cities.
In Time Out of Joint a conspiratorial government dupes the protagonist
Ragle Gumm into believing he lives in a 1950s utopian suburb (the city,
Town” by those in the know, is actually a simulacrum constructed in 1997
in a post-apocalyptic world).19 The elaborate gambit is designed to extract
a certain intellectual labor from Gumm: by means of a complex method of discerning
patterns—he thinks he’s solving a daily newspaper puzzle—Gumm
accurately predicts where nuclear bombs being hurled by lunar revolutionaries
challenging the fascist hegemony of the terrestrial government will land.
The first one-third of Time Out of Joint portrays a carefree utopian California
lifestyle that had even by the late ‘50s become stereotypical. Neighborhoods
abound with “kids romping, cows mooing, dogs wagging. Men clipping lawns
on Sunday afternoon, while listening to the ball game on TV” (108). Save
for a few key government agents and members of the resistance movement, all
of the suburbanites, because they have patriotically volunteered to have their
memories erased, are utterly unaware that the town is a sham. Gumm himself
requires no brainwashing because he has aided the government’s construction
of the town by regressing into an “infantile psychosis”—the
town is an idealized reconstruction of his own boyhood suburb. Thus Dick in
this novel has combined the nostalgia for the SF small town with the fantasy
of the postwar suburban paradise. Neither the small town nor the suburb will
survive his treatment, though, for the book reflexively acknowledges that the
1950s it painstakingly depicts (which resembles in many respects the fantasies
of family sitcoms) never really did exist, a rather astonishing feat given
that Dick composed it without the benefit of hindsight squarely in the middle
of that decade.
A crucial insight of Dick’s work is that “suburbanity” is
at its heart a performance, the script of which can be gleaned from media culture.
Indeed, the citizens of Old Town possess no identity outside their role within
the suburb, a part dictated to them by the government and media. In a scene
that dramatizes this convincingly, Ragle takes time off from his newspaper
contest to visit the city’s park with Junie Black, a neighbor. The park
epitomizes the postwar California suburban utopia—the sun shines brightly
on the children frolicking in the swimming pool, an ice cream vendor rings
his bell. Ragle, however, soon finds himself complaining to Junie about the
suburban aspirations of his ex-wife, who “wanted nothing but to get up
in the class where she’d be giving garden parties. Barbecues in the patio.” Junie
musters a half-hearted response by citing a popular lifestyle magazine: “‘It’s
natural to want to live graciously.’ She had got that term out of Better
Homes and Gardens, one of the magazines she and Bill subscribed to” (46).
Shortly thereafter, Ragle has a moment of “clarity” that leads
him to question the reality of his world when he briefly sees through the fabric
of the concocted illusion of suburbia. The narrative is not merely poking fun
at Junie’s bourgeois tastes; it is indicting the entire fiction of suburbia,
a place where ontology solidifies with the recitation of brand names.
One of the novel’s most scathing indictments of suburbia concerns the
dissolution of Old Town’s nuclear families. Once Ragle (another single,
divorced protagonist) has successfully escaped, Bill Black, the military officer
in charge of running the suburb, drops the façade and informs Margo,
Ragle’s supposed “sister,” that the familial relationships
are all contrived: Ragle is no relation to her, and her husband Vic is actually
a stranger: “It so happens that you and I are married. But your personality-type
fitted in better as a member of Ragle’s household. It had to be arranged
on a practical basis” (241). The nuclear family, fragile at best in postwar
SF, disintegrates before the onslaught of efficient government conspiracy.
Rather than a source of solace, the nuclear family is a divisive originator
Margo’s final vision of suburbia neatly encapsulates cul-de-sac nightmares:
Sixteen hundred people, standing in the center of a stage. Surrounded
by props, by furniture to sit in, kitchens to cook in, cars to drive,
food to fix. And then, behind the props, the flat, painted scenery. Painted
houses set farther back. Painted people. Painted streets. Sounds from
speakers set in the wall. Sammy [her false son] sitting alone in the
classroom, the only pupil. And even the teacher not real. Only a series
of tapes being played for him. (238)
Ultimately, SF, which has proven itself to be the
dominant popular generic expression of the last fifty years, offers
us alternative ways of reading
postwar American civic culture because it questions the ideology of suburbia
and all of its trappings—the compulsion to consume domestic technologies,
the lust for paving over natural areas, the fetishization of the nuclear
family. SF’s popular success, though, often works against serious
acceptance of the genre’s cultural critiques. If we hope to understand
the myriad complexities of the postwar American suburb, we must consider
the legacy of SF alongside other contemporary expressions of popular
1 To be sure, SF was hardly the only cultural expression that challenged
the middle-American hegemony of the 1950s. Rarely, however, do scholars
studying dissent and nonconformity in 1950s American literature look
to this popular genre. Most focus instead on the works of such writers
as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, Richard
Wright, and those commonly associated with the Beats (William S. Burroughs,
Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, et al.).
2 A full-length study of 1950s SF in comparison with the Beat movement
seems overdue, particularly when one considers William S. Burroughs’s
widespread use of SF tropes in his fiction as well as his subsequent
influence on writers
of cyberpunk (not to mention that his heroin manifesto Junky was first published
by Ace Books, an SF imprint, in 1953).
3 The city was named Tarzana in 1927.
4 Ann Markusen notes that within the “gunbelt,” defense-industry
oriented geographical regions
accounting for a major increment in population and jobs in the postwar
period . . . are localities that captured the American imagination as
either sunny, suburban paradises (Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego)
or yuppie high-tech enclaves of the future (Silicon Valley, Route 128
outside Boston, Seattle). Greater Los Angeles, home also to Hollywood
and Disneyland, became the military-industrial capital and center of
gravity of the gunbelt. (45)
5 “Imagineer” is the corporation’s term for the creative
consultants who design the themepark’s attractions.
6 This oversight is only highlighted by “California Adventure,” the
new themepark constructed adjacent to Disneyland in 1998-2000, which attempts
to portray a microcosm of the state by showcasing stereotypical “Californiana,” such
as vineyards, boardwalks, etc.
7 The twenty-first-century iteration of this is the new “Downtown Disney,” a
pedestrian shopping mall built over the themepark’s former sprawling
parking lot. As Michael Sorkin notes:
Disneyland was not simply designed for arrival by
car, but was—like
Los Angeles—begot by the car. One approaches Disneyland only after
tooling across the vast Southern California sward of atomization, the
bygone suburban utopia of universal accessibility that the automobile
was supposed to guarantee. Whatever else it represents, Disneyland is
also a model of Los Angeles. Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland—these
are the historic themes of the city’s own self-description, its
main cultural tropes. (217)
8 For an account of living in Celebration, U.S.A.,
the Disney Corporation’s
effort to reinvent small-town living at the end of the millennium, see
9 Richard Schickel relates a telling anecdote:
Bradbury . . . once conceived the notion of having
Disney run for mayor of Los Angeles on the not completely unreasonable
ground that he was
the only man with enough technological imagination to rationalize the
sprawling mess the megapolis had become. He journeyed out to the studio
to put the idea to Disney, who was flattered but declined the opportunity. “Ray,” he
asked, “why should I run for mayor when I’m already king?” (364)
10 Unbeknownst to the third expedition, the first
two forays ended in disaster: the indigenous Martians, who are skilled
to thwart the previous expeditions by reading and influencing the humans’ minds.
11 Serling, who spent his youth reading pulp SF magazines like Amazing
Stories and Astounding Science Fiction, even managed to enlist Ray Bradbury
an episode for his series (Bradbury adapted his short story “I Sing the
Body Electric!” for a 1962 episode of the same title).
12 A few recent popular cinematic examples include The Thirteenth Floor, Dark
City, The Matrix, and The Truman Show.
13 Works like the Stephen Spielberg produced SF/horror film Poltergeist melodramatically
but nevertheless poignantly depict the repercussions of paving over history.
The Freelings, a nuclear family living in the California suburban development
of “Cuesta Verde Estates,” discover through a series of events
that paranormal spirits are plaguing their family because their tract home
has been built over a sacred Native American burial ground.
14 David Brodsly writes:
Suburbs in the East, defined in relation to an older sector of a city,
offered an escape from a dense urban core. Residential patterns in Los
Angeles, on the other hand, were commonly all suburban. It was a city
of single- and two-family detached homes, a category that, as late as
1930, comprised 93 percent of all dwellings. In comparison, Chicago had
52 percent and Boston 49.5 percent detached housing. Whereas 32 percent
and 27 percent, respectively, of families in those cities owned their
own homes, in 1930 the Los Angeles figure was 40 percent. (76-77)
15 In 1958 Robert Wood listed some of the common
exclusionary tactics employed by suburbs, such as “the judicious use of regulatory powers,
special requirements and restrictions demanded of builders, discrimination
in taxation and in the quality of services extended to particular neighborhoods,
selective annexations, [and] imaginative employment of eminent domain” (218).
16 Sociologist Stephanie Coontz is being only slightly facetious when
she identifies the ideological instructions of the 1950s sitcoms as follows: “You too
can escape from the conflicts of race, class, and political witch-hunts into
harmonious families where father knows best, mothers are never bored or irritated,
and teenagers rush to the dinner table each night, eager to get their latest
dose of parental wisdom” (39). The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters
are Due on Maple Street” exemplifies this difference well. The episode
opens with a voiceover that melds the utopianism of the small town with the
amenities of the suburb: “Maple Street, U.S.A. Late summer. A tree-lined
little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and
the bell of an ice cream vendor.” A flash in the sky (UFO), followed
by a power outage, dissolves the serenity of this suburb. Friends turn against
friends, family against family, as the residents accuse one another of abetting
the (unseen) aliens. Conflict escalates into a full-blown riot that demolishes
the entire street while bemused aliens remotely watch the humans self-destruct.
17 Richard Weinstein writes:
The village was the settlement pattern that most appealed to those who
considered moving to Southern California: it was promoted as the return
to village ideals and the simple life, an antidote to the blight of demoralizing
metropolitanism. These provincial ideals also placed a value on social
harmony and the absence of conflict, and hence this exclusion of nonconforming
racial groups, to allay the anxieties associated with the move west.
The promoters of Southern California real estate promised at the same
time the recovery of an idealized life of the village in a rural setting
and the opportunity for personal fulfillment. (28)
18 The migrant laborers who actually work in the rural fields of California
are invisible in this film.
19 The similarities between Time Out of Joint and The Truman Show have not
gone unnoticed: “Although the screenplay of Peter Weir’s movie
The Truman Show, which premiered in June 1998, gives no credit to Philip K.
Dick, the similarities with Time Out of Joint strike me as far from coincidental” (Krabbenhoft
Bradbury, Ray. “The Girls Walk this Way; The Boys Walk that Way;
A Dream for Los Angeles in the ‘70s.” Los Angeles Times West
Magazine 5 Apr. 1970: 7-10+.
— . The Martian Chronicles. New York: Bantam, 1979.
Brodsly, David. L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay. Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1981.
Coontz, Stephanie. “What We Really Miss About the 1950s.” The
Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families.
New York: Basic Books, 1997. 33-51.
Dark City. Dir. Alex Proyas. New Line, 1998.
Dick, Philip K. Letter. SF Commentary 31 (1970): 31.
— . Time Out of Joint. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
Findlay, John M. Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture
After 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Fishman, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New
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Foreman, Joel. Introduction. The Other Fifties: Interrogating Midcentury
American Icons. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997. 1-23.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Siegel. Allied Artists, 1956.
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press,
Jameson, Fredric. “Nostalgia for the Present.” The South
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Krabbenhoft, Kenneth. “Uses of Madness in Cervantes and Philip
K. Dick.” Science Fiction Studies 81.2 (2000): 216-233.
Lillard, Richard G. “Revolution by Internal Combustion.” The
California Revolution. Ed. Carey McWilliams. New York: Grossman, 1968.
Markusen, Ann. “Cold War Workers, Cold War Communities.” Rethinking
Cold War Culture. Ed. Peter J. Kuznick and James Gilbert. Washington,
D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. 35-60.
The Matrix. Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski. Village Roadshow, 1999.
The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” The Twilight Zone. By Rod
Serling. CBS, 4 Mar. 1960.
Poltergeist. Dir. Tobe Hooper. MGM, 1982.
Ross, Andrew. The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit
of Property Value in Disney’s New Town. New York: Ballantine, 1999.
Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce
of Walt Disney. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968.
Sorkin, Michael. “See You in Disneyland.” Variations on a
Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. Ed. Sorkin.
New York: Hill & Wang, 1992. 205-232.
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CBS, 24 Apr. 1964.
The Thirteenth Floor. Dir. Josef Rusnak. Centropolis, 1999.
The Truman Show. Dir. Peter Weir. Paramount, 1998.
Weinstein, Richard S. “The First American City.” The City:
Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century. Ed.
Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja. Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1996. 22-46.
Wood, Robert. Suburbia: Its People and Their Politics. Boston: Houghton
James B. Mitchell is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at
the University of Michigan. He is currently writing a dissertation on
postwar science fiction and California.
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 3 (Fall 2003)
Copyright © 2003 by the University of Iowa