Joe Mathews: We need a new script for how California ends

07/17/2014 12:00 AM

07/16/2014 10:36 PM

What explains the success of California? Fear of the apocalypse.

Fear of a publishing apocalypse, to be precise. Most of us never would have heard of Edan Lepucki’s debut novel “California,” about a post-apocalyptic Golden State, except for a battle between Amazon and book publishers.

A major publisher, Hachette, refused to go along with the giant retailer’s pricing demands, so Amazon retaliated by making it more difficult to order Hachette books on its website. Comedian Stephen Colbert responded by asking book lovers to protest Amazon’s behavior by buying a previously obscure Hachette title – “California.”

For all the attention this brought the book, precious little has been said about what’s in it. That’s too bad because “California” has a lot to say about California – especially the state of our thinking about how the state might end.

The apocalypse, and what comes after it, is serious business here. Hollywood has minted billions by telling post-apocalyptic stories. Silicon Valley spins happier, “creative” tales of destruction, reveling in the ability of its coders to create technologies that wipe out pre-existing industries. We twice elected a governor best known for his performances as a time-traveling robot from the post-apocalyptic future. More recently, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would create a new position, chief resilience officer, to better prepare for natural disasters and other existential threats. It seems that Armageddon requires bureaucratic oversight.

It also requires imagination at least as much as disaster preparation. And Lepucki’s novel is just one of many cultural offerings that suggest that California is losing its edge in post-apocalyptic thinking.

Movies and TV, once reliable for bringing forth new end-of-the-world narratives, are recycling the same tired scenarios: aliens, zombies, robots, nuclear war, evil scientists, oil shortages, climate change, asteroids, viruses, aliens with viruses and so on. Earlier this year, even Godzilla was brought out of mothballs to destroy San Francisco, presumably before gentrifying Googlers could.

This summer, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a film sequel to a remake, offers a vision of a collapsing human race overtaken by smart apes building a superior civilization in Marin County. Since Marin residents already are a more advanced form of primate – just ask them – the premise feels derivative, at best.

In its vision of the future, Lepucki’s novel, while beautifully written, also feels dated. Her post-apocalyptic world seems driven by fears that come from the California of the 1970s and ’80s: overpopulation (today’s state has flat immigration and falling birthrates), food shortages (cheap, obesity-boosting food is all too available) and the rise of gated exurbs for the rich (today it seems like only the wealthy can afford to live in the centers of our coastal cities).

Lepucki also pins the apocalypse on today’s hot buttons: Climate change, terrorism and income inequality seem to have wiped out many cities and people. A suicide bomber hits Hollywood. Amidst chaos, the main characters leave L.A., cross through the Central Valley and then struggle to survive in what appears to be the forests of the North State.

This post-apocalyptic California has little reliable electricity, no Internet and no public universities. Governance remains messy (since Lepucki is silent on the question, I’m assuming that Proposition 13 has survived), though the public does seem more engaged than it is now. Someone cares enough about the post-apocalyptic governor’s race to kidnap a candidate, then release him after 16 days, naked except for a paper party hat.

While such details are fun, they also feel narrow and predictable, too closely tied to today’s political hobbyhorses, particularly those on the left.

My own doomsday scenarios are extrapolated from today’s worrisome trends: We could all soon reside in one giant Indian casino, or wake up to find ourselves trapped in a statewide TV reality show with producer Mark Burnett pulling the strings. And what madness would ensue if, God forbid, the Oakland Raiders won a Super Bowl again?

It’s challenging being imaginative in your apocalyptic musings when there is so much to be annoyed about today. But that’s one reason California feels so stuck – our visions of the future, dark or light, feel so unoriginal, so limited. It’s time to cast a wider net.

Why, for example, do so many apocalyptic stories of California take us into rugged terrain – northern forests or forbidding inland deserts? I, for one, would prefer to battle the apocalypse in someplace exceedingly pleasant. Like La Jolla.

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