Machine Dreams

With Speculative Los Angeles, Denise Hamilton peels back the surface of the real.

speculative los angeles, denise hamilton
Blake Little

I’ve long considered Los Angeles the capital of science fiction, a place where the extraordinary and the ordinary coincide. From Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote many Tarzan books and most of the John Carter of Mars adventures from his San Fernando Valley ranch in the 1910s, to the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, which met on Thursday evenings at Clifton’s Cafeteria beginning in the late 1930s (its members included Robert A. Heinlein and a very young Ray Bradbury), the city’s narrative personality has deeply speculative roots. In his book Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Mike Davis catalogs 138 films and novels in which Southern California is destroyed—in many cases by uncanny means.

“Indeed,” Denise Hamilton writes in her introduction to Speculative Los Angeles, “one can argue that Los Angeles is already so weird, surreal, irrational, and mythic that any fiction emerging from this place should be considered speculative.”

Denise Hamilton joined Alta Live to discuss Speculative Los Angeles.

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Speculative Los Angeles is the first book in a new series from the independent press Akashic Books, known for its noir anthologies. Hamilton—author of seven Southern California–based crime novels, including the Eve Diamond mysteries—edited two of them: Los Angeles Noir and Los Angeles Noir Volume 2: The Classics. With Speculative Los Angeles, she’s back to edit through a different lens.

The book is organized, like Akashic’s noir collections, geographically, with stories set in locales such as Echo Park, Culver City, Miracle Mile, and Hollywood. Contributors include many of the region’s most exhilarating talents, among them Aimee Bender, Lynell George, Alex Espinoza, and Charles Yu. Some—Bender and Yu, for instance—have incorporated elements of the fantastic into their fiction all along. For other writers, the work here marks a leap of faith, a widening of sensibilities, a new direction for their signature concerns.

George’s “If Memory Serves” is a case in point, unfolding in a future Los Angeles where “fires, often ignited by the winds, are no longer seasonal but mercurial and thirsty.” Seasons don’t exist anymore, even by Southern California standards: “It’s January,” the narrator announces, “and the temperature rarely dips below eighty after nightfall.” The action is recounted by a memory facilitator, someone who works with people to resurrect their pasts. The main character, however, is Los Angeles, through which George’s protagonist wanders, mapping this new and broken city over the ruins of the old.

It’s a strategy reminiscent of Octavia E. Butler’s 1983 story “Speech Sounds,” which traces a similar sort of movement through a post-pandemic landscape, recognizable in its shape, its street names, if not exactly in its circumstance. That makes sense, not only because Speculative Los Angeles is dedicated to Butler, but also because George’s most recent book, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, is a deep immersion in the work of Butler, who died in 2006 at the age of 58.

If Butler is one touchstone of this collection, another is Jack Parsons, the “engineer, occultist, chemist, entrepreneur, a founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, heroin addict, paranoiac, hated by Howard Hughes [and] the LAPD.” The description comes from Stephen Blackmoore’s “Love, Rocket Science, and the Mother of Abominations,” in which a spell Parsons supposedly once cast is used “to summon the Thelemic goddess Babalon, the Scarlet Woman.”

Blackmoore offers a dizzying ride through one of the weirder corners of Los Angeles history, reminding us of the dangers and degradations of Parsons’s idolatrous worldview. “L.A. isn’t a city that grows,” the author tells us. “It’s a city that swallows, bloating ever fatter off the neighbors it subsumes.”

Parsons’s presence is particularly resonant because it echoes Lisa Morton’s “Antonia and the Stranger Who Came to Rancho Los Feliz,” which opens Speculative Los Angeles. There, a character named Jack Parsons—whether the JPL pioneer or merely a namesake—emerges through a portal from an apocalyptic Los Angeles into a more agrarian and idyllic timeline, with disastrous results.

Not every story in Speculative Los Angeles tends toward the catastrophic; Aimee Bender’s sweet and understated “Maintenance” imagines what might happen were the plaster mammoth family at the La Brea Tar Pits one day to disappear. The narrator is a man raising his young daughter after his wife has left, and the tar pits are a regular stop on their neighborhood walks. Bender evokes with precision the day-to-day experience of the site: “This was usually a crowded park,” she writes, “with strollers, and kids playing soccer, and a bitter man sometimes drawing bitter caricatures for a minimal fee. And the musical man, Charlie, who’d played tunes on his banjo for years by the museum entrance. He was skilled, and merry. One day, he had disappeared too.”

Here we see the flip side of the future, as a place in which the past has gotten lost.

It’s a theme that marks many of these narratives, from Espinoza’s sharp and creepy “Detainment”—in which a young boy is reunited with his mother after being separated from her at the southern border, only to turn out different, distant, irretrievable: a duende, perhaps, a disruptive spirit, rather than a human child—to the magnificent “Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too” by S. Qiouyi Lu. “You live in a palimpsest,” Lu reminds us, “people and places double-exposed in a spatiotemporal pocket where layers and planes merge. Time is distorted here, long stretches compressing into incomplete montages, micromoments blooming into eternities, whole years hauled to the surface of your mind in an instant.”

Lu is a writer I hadn’t read before Speculative Los Angeles, which suggests another value of a collection such as this. But equally important is the opportunity to imagine the city as it could be through the filter of what it is. City as map, city as palimpsest, city as the keeper of its own secrets, its own ghosts. City as (yes) narrative. The 14 narratives Hamilton has gathered present us with a vision of Los Angeles refracted, grounding the fantastic in the real.

Akashic
Speculative Los Angeles, edited by Denise Hamilton
Akashic Bookshop.org
$23.87

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