I grew up in the East Bay area, just over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. I moved a lot, so I lived in Oakland, Fremont (three houses in the same neighborhood! Once we moved 12 doors down the street), Union City, Hayward, and Castro Valley. Now I live half a world away in Edinburgh, Scotland. Writing the Pacifica books (False Hearts & Shattered Minds) has been a way to go back home, even if it’s through the lens of a twisted, near-future vision of that state.
The last two trips home, I’ve been exploring Los Angeles looking for things to feed into my fiction, and it’s been interesting to see California in a new way. I once told my mom I wanted to go to the Xanadu Gallery in San Francisco so I could imagine it riddled with bullets for a scene in False Hearts. I walked down downtown Los Angeles, imagining floating skyscrapers and mansions overhead. I picked apart California’s obsessions: with celebrity, with perfection, with presenting itself as a hippie ecotopia. In this future, it’s still the centre of loads of technological innovation, just as Silicon Valley is now. I created a walled off cult set in the redwoods of Muir Woods. I took so many places of my childhood and placed them in creepy thrillers, just to see what would happen. At first glance, California looks like a utopia, but if you scratch the surface, it’s just as grim as some of the cyberpunk I grew up reading.
Here’s a mix of books set in the Golden State that possibly fed into my Pacifica books, plus some I really want to read.
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
Many people are discussing the plausible dystopias that feel all the more likely after recent political upheavals, but I think Butler’s vision of a fractured United States as the characters go on a pilgrimage from Southern to Northern California is one of the most plausible. Water costs more than food, and police and the fire department will charge you if you need their services. Walled communities are common as there are people scavenging and stealing from anyone who has more than them. Drugs create side effects like hyperempathy, which our heroine Lauren Olamina has. Any time she sees someone people hurt, she feels their pain. If someone is shot in front of her, it’s as if she dies before returning to her senses. The world is grim, dark, and in many ways horrible. Yet there’s also a thread of hope in there. Not everyone in this future is out to get everyone else. In the sequel, a fundamentalist religious man becomes President and promises to “make America great again.” Sound familiar? And this was written in the 1990s. The sequel is just as dark, and both are epistolary. The first is the diary entries of Olamina, and in Talents, her daughter writes her own entries while piecing together her mother, father, and uncle’s writings into the narrative. They’re heartbreaking books, but so good.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
The story is set in San Francisco but the film Bladerunner is set in Los Angeles. I haven’t read this in years and I’m due a re-read, but it’s an enduring story about what it means to be human. In the story, the world is suffering from the aftereffects of a nuclear war. With the US dropping white phosphorous bombs and the UK debating Trident, this is sounding rather familiar as well. Like Butler, Dick also incorporates drugs, this time with “mood organs.” Deckard is told that the androids don’t experience empathy like humans, further othering them. I now want to re-watch the film for the millionth time.
Virtual Light by William Gibson
This is my favourite Gibson. The Bay Bridge is where lots of people live in this cyberpunk future, and I crossed that bridge every time I went into the city (unless I took BART). I also love how it’s hinged on a fairly basic plot: everyone wants those cool futuristic sunglasses that could rebuild ruined San Francisco. Chevette is allergic to brands and labels and rips them off her clothes. It’s set in 2006, or the year I graduated high school, so 11 years on, it’s an interesting alternate history of a futuristic world. The middle class is gone and corporations are running amok, as they tend to do in cyberpunk.
Three Californias trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
I haven’t read these yet books yet, but The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge all look fascinating. The Wild Shore looks at nuclear war shaping California’s future. In many ways, California has become rural, and there are interwoven tensions between the USSR and Japan. The Gold Coast looks at our obsession with car culture. It’s highly developed, like the sprawl of Los Angeles but everywhere. Designer drugs crop up here, too, and evidently there’s also anti-weapons terrorism and casual sex. Sounds fun. Pacific Edge postulates an ecotopia. Can we go fully green? If the world is this ecotopia, does that mean it’s a utopia as well? This is the one I’m more interested to read of the three.
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Another one I really need to read. Have nothing but excellent things and I really enjoyed Charlie’s articles on io9. This is an interesting blend of sci fi and fantasy set in San Francisco, where Charlie lives. It’s magic versus technology. It’s two friends who go on wildly different paths. They’re both living in an unstable world where magic and science clash, much like the two main characters. It looks like a brilliant blend of genres and I swear I’ll get to it soon.
Does anyone else have any others to recommend?
Laura Lam was raised near San Francisco, California, by two former Haight-Ashbury hippies. Both of them encouraged her to finger-paint to her heart’s desire, colour outside the lines, and consider the library a second home. This led to an overabundance of daydreams. She relocated to Scotland to be with her husband, whom she met on the internet when he insulted her taste in books. She is the author of gaslight fantasy and near-future thrillers. Her latest novel, Shattered Minds, is available now from Pan Macmillan in the UK, and will be available in the US from Tor Books on June 20th.