The destruction of Los Angeles has been a central theme or image in at least 138 novels and films since 1909. The City of Angels is unique, not simply in the frequency of its fictional destruction, but in the pleasure that such apocalypses provide to readers and movie audiences. The entire world seems to be rooting for Los Angeles to slide into the Pacific or be swallowed up by the San Andreas Fault.
The tidal waves, killer bees, H-bombs, and viruses that occasionally annihilate Seattle, Houston, Chicago, or San Francisco produce a different kind of frisson, an enjoyment edged with horror and awe. Indeed, as one goes back further in the history of the urban disaster genre, the ghost of the romantic sublime — beauty in the arms of terror — reappears.
The destruction of London — the metropolis most persecuted in fiction between 1885 and 1940 — was imagined as a horrifying spectacle, equivalent to the death of Western civilization itself. The obliteration of Los Angeles, by contrast, is often depicted as, or at least secretly experienced as, a victory for civilization.
Thus, in Independence Day, a film that Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole endorsed as a model of Hollywood patriotism, devastation wreaked by aliens is represented first as tragedy (New York) and then as farce (Los Angeles). The boiling tsunami of fire and brimstone that pours down Fifth Avenue is genuinely horrifying, consuming as it does genuine human beings.
When the aliens turn to Los Angeles, however, who could identify with the caricatured mob of hippies, New Agers, and gay men dancing in idiot ecstasy on a skyscraper roof to greet the extraterrestrials? There is a comic undertone of “good riddance” when kooks like these are vaporized by Earth’s latest ill-mannered guests. As one of Bob Dole’s senior advisers quipped: “Millions die, but they’re all liberals.”
The gleeful expendability of Los Angeles in the popular imagination is in no small part due to Hollywood, which, when not immolating itself, promotes its environs as the heart of darkness. No city, in fiction or film, has been more likely to figure as the icon of a really bad future (or present, for that matter). Post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, overrun by Terminators, androids, and gangs, has become as much of a cliché as Philip Marlowe’s mean streets or Gidget’s beach party. The decay of the city’s old glamor has been inverted by the entertainment industry into a new glamor of decay.
There is a deeper, Strangelovian logic to such happy holocausts. The abiding hysteria of Los Angeles disaster fiction, and perhaps of all disaster fiction — the urge to strike out and destroy, to wipe out an entire city and untold thousands of its inhabitants — is rooted in racial anxiety. From the earliest nineteenth-century examples of the literary destruction of London and New York to the latest survivalist fantasies about Los Angeles, white fear of the dark races lies at the heart of such visions. It is this obsession, far more than anxieties about earthquakes or nuclear weapons, that leads us back to the real Los Angeles as well as to the deepest animating fears of our culture.
In novels written before 1970, when Los Angeles was still the most WASPy of large American cities, racial hysteria was typically expressed as fear of invading hordes (variously yellow, brown, black, red, or their extraterrestrial metonyms). After 1970, with the rise of a non-Anglo majority in Los Angeles County, the city turns from an endangered home into the alien itself; and its destruction affords an illicit pleasure not always visible in previous annihilations.
Late-Victorian apocalyptic fiction depicted the nightmare side of the crude social Darwinism that was the pitiless ethos of the age of the robber baron. In such stories, growing fears of violent social revolution and of the “rising tide of color” accompanied increasing anxieties over the inevitability of future world wars between the imperialist powers. New means of mass destruction — microbes, radioactivity, poison gases, and flying machines — conquered the pulp press years, sometimes decades, before they were added to the arsenals of the major powers.
It is thus hardly surprising that Los Angeles disaster fiction was inaugurated not by earthquake, flood, or firestorm, but by a Japanese invasion of Southern California in Homer Lea’s lurid 1909 account The Valor of Ignorance. Lea later claimed that he had spent several months in a painstaking reconnaissance of possible invasion routes and battlefields throughout Southern California. In The Valor of Ignorance, the Japanese feint at the “worthless” fortifications at San Pedro then land unopposed at Santa Monica. The next day, at their leisure, they occupy Los Angeles, essentially completing “the conquest of Southern California.”
From this superb base of operations, invulnerable to American counterattack, the Imperial Japanese Army is able to move vast numbers of troops northward to surround and besiege San Francisco. Bombarded by Japanese artillery emplaced in Oakland and Marin, San Francisco’s hysterical business leaders force its small garrison to surrender, and the ensuing national political crisis, amplified by “class and sectional insurrections,” leads to the imposition of a military monarchy in the eastern states.
With the Hearst press, which immediately championed Lea’s book, acting as bellows, The Valor of Ignorance ignited an anti-Japanese frenzy that consumed white California. Lea was later credited by authorities as diverse as Clare Boothe Luce and Carey McWilliams with being the creator of the modern “Yellow Peril.”
Ecological self-destruction has been a minor but persistent theme in urban disaster fiction. The emergence of the modern environmental movement in the late 1960s opened a larger niche for the “ecocatastrophe” novel as a subgenre in its own right. Like the inevitability of nuclear war, the biological unsustainability of the giant city is now firmly lodged in contemporary doom consciousness.
Los Angeles, of course, is perfectly cast in the role of environmental suicide. Only Mexico City has more completely toxified its natural setting, and no other metropolis in the industrialized Northern Hemisphere continues to grow at such breakneck speed. It is not surprising, then, that the climax of the postwar boom in the mid-1960s saw the parallel emergence of fictional and nonfictional accounts of imminent ecological collapse, frequently in tandem with Malthusian fears about too many poor people of color.
Ecogigantism soon became the dominant allegorical device in environmental science fiction. The giant mutant ants in Gordon Douglas’s 1954 film Them! may be the products of nuclear testing in the desert, but when they move into the Los Angeles River — now entombed in concrete and steel — they become potent symbols of the city’s destruction of nature as well.
Other icky mutants — covered with slime and oozing toxic juices — attempt to turn Los Angeles into a friendly environment for fungi in Robert Hutton’s independent film The Slime People (1963). Eco-crud again rises to the surface in Stephen Traxler’s Spawn of the Slithis (1978), gobbling up aging hippies and Porsche-set yuppies alike in Venice Beach.
Race and ecology are combined in Philip Wylie’s 1971 soft-core potboiler, Los Angeles: a.d. 2017. Publishing magnate Glenn Howard awakens from a forty-seven-year sleep to discover that Los Angeles has been destroyed by an omnibus environmental catastrophe that features toxic algal blooms, arctic frosts, and a final exterminating smog. Anticipating the worst, big corporations and their executives have clandestinely built underground pleasure domes for survival.
New Los Angeles, Howard discovers, is a subterranean version of the Playboy mansion, where a few thousand select inhabitants grope and orgy while waiting for the surface to become habitable again. In order to enhance “executive-quality genes” in the surviving population, however, reproduction is organized on strict eugenic principles. As Howard’s girlfriend explains, the environmental collapse (nature’s “final solution”) was really a providential deliverance from rampant overpopulation, mongrelization, and “race decay.”
The Big One
If there is an iron law of disaster in Southern California, it is simply that bad news for the region is usually good news for “the industry.” Like one of the indestructible parasites of disaster fiction, Hollywood fattens on the spectacle of natural catastrophe and racial turmoil. The classic example was the San Fernando earthquake of February 1971, which killed sixty-four people and damaged twenty-three thousand structures. Its aftershocks were still rattling windows in Universal City when MCA commissioned Mario Puzo to craft a screenplay about the city’s destruction by the Big One.
The huge success of Earthquake spurred others to emulate its combination of terse characterizations and a Cecil B. DeMille approach to disaster scenes. Indeed, in the decade following the film’s premiere in 1974, more than a dozen novels diligently copied this underlying formula while diversifying the agencies of doom to include comet impacts, tsunamis, landslides, firestorms, blizzards, and even giant alligators.
Unlike the screenplay for Earthquake, however, which downplayed Los Angeles’s racial tensions, subsequent disaster fictions openly exploited white anxiety and xenophobia. The 1970s were a period of transition in Los Angeles, as the WASP stronghold became a cosmopolitan metropolis with an emergent non-Anglo majority.
The city was bitterly divided over issues of school busing, tax reform, crime, and police abuse. Whites were bolting from the public school system in growing numbers, and the first gated and walled subdivisions had started to appear. There was growing apprehension that natural disaster might destroy the increasingly precarious fire wall that separated the suburban “us” from the inner-city “them.”
The first novel inspired by the San Fernando quake that had big-screen ambitions was Alistair MacLean’s Goodbye California (1977). In it, the king of Cold War macho pulp attempts to conjugate the Big One with a far-fetched yellow hordes conspiracy. Islamic guerrillas from Mindanao kidnap leading nuclear physicists and force them to build a dozen hydrogen bombs, using plutonium stolen from California nuclear power plants. To demonstrate their malevolence, the terrorists detonate one of the devices under Santa Monica Bay.
Day of the Rope
The Turner Diaries (1978) has become justly infamous as the “bible” of Timothy McVeigh and other neo-Nazi terrorists. It is far less appreciated, however, that the central drama of the Diaries is a pornographically detailed description of the Los Angeles Holocaust.
After a federal crackdown on gun owners, the “Organization” and its internal “Order” of Aryan warriors launch a guerrilla war to rid the earth of Jews and nonwhites. About a thousand Order fighters, coordinated by a secret field command post in the San Fernando Valley, attack Los Angeles — the corrupt citadel of alien races and white race traitors — on the Fourth of July 1993. Concentrating on the city’s vulnerable infrastructure, they cripple LAX, blow up freeway overpasses, set the harbor ablaze, and cut the aqueduct.
A Pentagon counterattack is blunted by mutinous white troops, and the guerrillas use captured tanks to crush last-ditch LAPD resistance. A week later, all of Southern California (including the intercontinental ballistic missile silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base) has fallen under the control of the Organization, becoming the core of the emergent Aryan Nation.
The first act of the new regime is the brutal expulsion of 7 million black people and Latinos from the Los Angeles region. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Jews and people of mixed ethnicity (“mongrels”) are marched into the mountains north of Los Angeles, where they are slaughtered. Finally, on August 1 — the terrible “Day of the Rope” — the Organization turns to the white race traitors. Sixty thousand are hung “from tens of thousands of lampposts, power poles, and trees.”
After the purification of Southern California, the Organization nukes the “contaminated cities” of Miami, Toronto, and New York, killing at least 60 million people. Later, after all nonwhites have been exterminated in North America, Aryan revolutions in Britain and Germany complete the construction of a European Fourth Reich.
After reading The Turner Diaries, it is impossible to have a benign attitude toward the survivalist novels that proliferate like noxious weeds after 1978. The post-Vietnam right-wing backlash provided the impetus for most of the serial survivalist novels, published as paperback originals and comprising up to a hundred installments. In various episodes of Ryder Stacy’s Doomsday Warrior series, Jerry Ahern’s The Survivalist series, William Johnstone’s Ashes series, and David Robbins’s Blade series, the sons of Buck Rogers battle Russian invaders in the half-sunk, irradiated ruins of Los Angeles.
John Carpenter’s delirious Escape from LA (1996) manages to sample (in the hip-hop sense) every mean image and racist undertone of survivalist fiction in the service of an ostensibly liberal plot about Los Angeles as the reverse Ellis Island of a Christian fascist America. The result is a cinematic nervous breakdown.
The ultimate Armageddonist fiction, however, comes from the eschatological pen of Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson. In his 1995 novel, The End of the Age, God himself decides to flush Los Angeles down the toilet with a “giant meteor” and a mile-high tsunami. Divine genocide against Southern California neatly disposes of a disagreeable population and allows Robertson to clear the decks for the real action: righteous Texas Protestants battling Satan (now president of the United States) and his minions (a billion demonic Indians, Pakistanis, Persians, and Arabs).
Symbol and Scapegoat
Historians of British culture have had little difficulty arguing a connection between the popularity of the death-of-London novel in the 1885–1950 epoch and national anxieties about the decline of empire. It is tempting to assert an analogous relationship between the literary destruction of Los Angeles and the nervous breakdown of American exceptionalism.
The dazzling growth of suburban Southern California was, after all, the incontestable symbol of national prosperity in the decades between Lend-Lease and Watergate. A well-paid job in an aerospace plant and a ranch-style home in a sunny subdivision, only minutes away from the beaches and Disneyland, was the lifestyle against which other Americans measured the modernity of their towns and regions.
Now the tables have turned, and metropolitan Los Angeles is a dystopian symbol of Dickensian inequalities and intractable racial contradictions. The deepest anxieties of a post-liberal era — above all, the collapse of American belief in a utopian national destiny — are translated into a demonic image of a region where the future has already turned rancid.
But if some of the deep structures of our culture are ganging up on Los Angeles, making it the scapegoat for the collapse of the American century, race remains the crucial category. Armageddon has repeatedly been imagined as a war of extermination between the white and colored worlds.
What statistic is more depressing than the 28 million copies sold since 1970 of Hal Lindsey’s raving fundamentalist apocalypse, The Late, Great Planet Earth, with its casual incineration of Los Angeles and an entire chapter devoted to the extermination of the Yellow Peril? The ritual sacrifice of Los Angeles, as rehearsed endlessly in pulp fiction and film, is part of a malign syndrome, whose celebrants include the darkest forces in American history.