Los Angeles and the Apocalyptic Imagination
by Steve Sailer
UPI, October 30, 2003
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 30, 2003 (UPI) -- Hanging like a pinkish-orange neon disk in the smoke-filled sky of a Southern California wracked by brushfires, the mid-afternoon sun shone so anemically that clearly visible to the naked eye were several dark flaws on the sun's surface, the sunspot eruptions that were unleashing a massive solar storm upon the Earth.
After recovering for a decade from Los Angeles' version of the Biblical plagues of Egypt -- the 1992 riots, 1993 fires, and 1994 earthquake -- residents could be forgiven for wondering if another cycle of devastation had begun. At a time when Mother Earth -- in the form of wind, heat, drought and fire -- seemed wrathful, it was disquieting that something didn't look quite right with the sun, normally that blankly perfect symbol of the benign California climate.
Indeed, one of the numerous end-of-the-world works set in Southern California, 1952's "The Year of the Jackpot" by science fiction master Robert Heinlein, ends with the hero, a statistician who has been charting the rising trend of political oddities and natural catastrophes, staring at the hazed-over sun and noticing, for the first time in his life, "freckles." These sunspots keep expanding until he realizes that the disaster of all disasters, the sun exploding into a nova, has arrived.
With last week's wildfires having burnt roughly 1,100 square miles and 3,600 homes, L.A.'s peculiarly intimate relationship with the apocalyptic imagination has been renewed.
According to journalist Mike Davis, who became L.A.'s favorite prophet of calamity with his foreboding local bestseller "Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster," Southern California is widely seen as "the doom capital of the universe."
He wrote in 1998, "The destruction of Los Angeles has been the central theme or dominating image in more than a hundred and fifty novels, short stories, and films." Davis counts 49 fictional local nuclear attacks, 28 earthquakes, six floods, and 10 hordes of invading creatures that have helped brand "the City of Angels as a theme park for Armageddon."
Davis himself can't resist trumpeting such alarming but trivial threats to residents as tornados, man-eating coyotes, and killer bees.
Perhaps the most celebrated early example of the L.A. Apocalypse theme was Nathanael West's 1939 novel "The Day of the Locust." An intellectual set designer encounters tawdry Angelenos such as a mindless vulgarian named Homer Simpson (perhaps a minor inspiration for Matt Groening's character). His loathing for them inspires him to paint a picture of mob anarchy entitled "The Burning of Los Angeles." In the climax of the novel, his prophetic vision comes true as a crowd riots at a movie premiere.
(Those who enjoy life imitating art will be disappointed to learn that at the premiere of the 1974 movie version of "The Day of the Locust" with Donald Sutherland playing Homer Simpson, the crowd didn't torch anything.)
Why are so many fascinated by the thought of Southern California's annihilation?
It's hard to quantify whether acts of God are more common in Southern California than elsewhere, although it often seems that way. One reason is the region is so vast in extent and population that something bad is usually going on in it somewhere.
Moreover, disasters such as brush fires, mudslides, and storm waves disproportionately struck glamorous celebrities because they tended to inhabit the hills, canyons, and beaches, while the plebeians resided on the safer plains. In recent years, however, the middle class has been moving into wilder areas too, so catastrophe has become more egalitarian.
On the other hand, Southern California has few killer blizzards or heatwaves (because the nights are almost always cool), no hurricanes, and relatively few floods in the decades since many of its rivers were encased in concrete.
A prosaic reason for the profusion of Los Angeles disaster stories is that it's the most convenient city for movie companies to blow up. Jerry Pournelle, co-author of the million-selling 1977 novel "Lucifer's Hammer" about a comet impact inundating L.A. with a tidal wave, told United Press International, "Hollywood is here and I suppose brought the L.A. apocalypse theme on itself."
Further, the talkies lured many frustrated literary novelists, such as West, to Hollywood to script films. Likewise, Southern California's aerospace industry attracted quite a few science fiction writers.
Still, sometimes it's personal.
The eclectic local architecture drove West to dreams of destruction. "But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses," he wrote. "Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon."
Many feel deep down that no civilization can survive in such a pleasant climate, and thus the lotus-eaters of Los Angeles deserve whatever they have coming to them.
A complementary, if contradictory, inspiration is that Southern California's Mediterranean climate so closely resembles that of the cradles of civilization in the Fertile Crescent that L.A. must be the new Sodom and Gomorrah, rightful heir to a disaster of biblical proportions.