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Bookman David Kipen: California invented Mars

David Kipen, founder of Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights, perusing one of the books that shaped Mars in pop culture and lit.
David Kipen, founder of Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights, perusing one of the books that shaped Mars in pop culture and lit.
John Rabe

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KPCC reporters have been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.

California invented Mars. Don’t believe me? Then take my quick quiz.

Question one: Who wrote “A Princess of Mars,” the sci-fi novel that launched the famous Barsoom series of books, and inspired the recent movie “John Carter of Mars”? If you said Edgar Rice Burroughs, I don’t know, give yourself a Mars bar.

Question two: Who wrote “The Martian Chronicles,” the groundbreaking book of fantasy stories about man’s colonization of the red planet -- which works as an allegory for the suburbanization of Southern California. Ray Bradbury.

Three: Who wrote the sci-fi novels “Red Planet,” “Podkayne of Mars,” and “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the last of which found a huge readership in the 1960s with its portrait of a gentle, freedom-loving Martian who refuses to adjust to life on earth? The answer: Robert Heinlein -- you hippie you.

Four: Who wrote “Black Amazon of Mars,” a delightfully cheesy novelette about the sword-wielding interplanetary hero Eric John Stark -- and then co-wrote the screenplays for “The Big Sleep” from 1946, “The Long Goodbye” from 1973, and The Empire Strikes Back, from 1980? The same woman, Leigh Brackett.

Last question: What do all these Mars-obsessed writers have in common? In 1939, Edgar Rice Burroughs was still living near Encino on a ranch he named after perhaps his best novel, a little spread called Tarzana. Also in 1939, you could have walked into Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown on any given Thursday and found a meeting of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society: Bradbury, Heinlein and Brackett -- and frequently fellow Martian pulp writers Fredric Brown and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. They were all sipping Clifton’s free limeade and, just incidentally, altering the future of American popular culture and literature.
If H.G. Wells, the father of modern science fiction and author of the Martian invasion classic “The War of the Worlds,” couldn’t make it on Thursdays in 1939, it was only because he was in Europe, watching the world war he predicted.

Nowadays, a short drive from both Tarzana and Clifton’s, most of the scientists at JPL prefer Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic Mars trilogy, “Red Mars,” “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars.” Although Robinson was born in Ray Bradbury’s hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, he’s a Californian, too. He lives up in Davis and went to school at UCSD, where it so happens he published a dissertation on the novels of Philip K. Dick.

That’s Philip K. Dick, author of “Martian Time-Slip” and the Mars-set story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” which comes out in a new movie adaptation entitled "Total Recall" next week (but without the Mars setting of Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1990 movie of the same name). As any Dickhead could tell you, Dick couldn’t make any meetings of the Science Fantasy Society either. In 1939, his father was taking him to the World's Fair in San Francisco, where he saw such seemingly benevolent gifts from the future as the TV and the cyclotron.

For better and worse, TV and particle physics have come a long way since 1939. But the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society still meets, at its present-day headquarters near the Van Nuys Orange Line station. It’s hard not to hope that building’s lights will be on Sunday night, while they watch a new spaceship crash-land on the surface of a planet their founding members more or less invented.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Philip K. Dick's story as "Total Recall." The correct name of the short story is “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” which was the basis for the two films titled "Total Recall."