U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Science Fiction and the Urban Crisis

Two riots have rattled the nation in the last year: one in a previously unheard-of small city in Missouri, and another in a city that has served as a symbol of urban decline on the Eastern Seaboard in both reality and fiction. There have been numerous posts written about the recent crisis, the history of riots in the United States, and the responsibility of scholars during such a situation. Today I am going to take a step back and consider how fiction, and especially science fiction, considers these issues of race, racism, and the urban crisis. Considering how science fiction tackles real-life social issues is an interesting way of examining how Americans view and discuss political, cultural, and intellectual debates.

Since the 1970s, science fiction has reflected a growing awareness of the problem of the “urban crisis” in the United States.[1] Often times these issues of urban collapse are tied to a larger idea of American collapse. Escape from New York (1981) certainly makes that point, with New York City nothing more than an open-air prison due to the nation giving up on solving the city’s social, political, and economic problems.  Of course, there’s something to be said about America’s national power and prestige when the President himself ends up in New York due to terrorists hijacking Air Force One.[2] The decay of America’s great Rust Belt cities was reflected in films such as Robocop (1987) and its sequels, where multiple national fears coalesced on the big screen. Consider the themes of the film. Detroit as a city is on, for all intents and purposes, its last legs. Industry has left the city with the exception of Omni Consumer Products, or OCP—and OCP has so much power it can literally purchase the city. Meanwhile, Detroit’s police force is threatening to go on strike, reflecting the effects of austerity and a dwindling tax base on Detroit’s robocopbeleaguered government. The War on Drugs is a key plot point in the 1987 classic and is lampooned in Robocop 2 (1990).  Finally there is the fear of Japanese competition—something that hovers over a great deal of 1980s and early 1990s fiction, but is especially apparent in Robocop 3.[3]

The Robocop franchise also prefigured some present day debates that were not so easily recognizable in the 1980s. Modern concerns about the militarization of the police in the United States can be seen in how OCP takes weapons meant for foreign battlefields and converts them into weapons against crime domestically—see the disaster known as the ED-209 robot. Also, the fact that OCP runs the Detroit police force reflects a realization that the conservatism of the 1980s meant a change in how Americans thought about government. Thinking about the declension narrative and the collapse of New Deal liberalism, OCP represents an idea of business stepping in and cleaning up the government’s mess—or at the very least, churning out an excellent product-cum-police officer in Robocop.

The science fiction franchise best known for touching on current events, Star Trek, mostly shied away from ideas of the urban crisis. I would not think this surprising; it is easier, in my estimation, to create allegories about the Vietnam War or racism in a space-based science fiction show than it is to tackle the subject of urban riots, redlining, and government incompetence (but it certainly could have been done). However, Deep SpBenjamin_Sisko_as_Gabriel_Bellace Nine tackled the issue head on in a two-part episode that may be the most openly political two hours of Trek ever produced. “Past Tense” (1995) has two of the main characters, Captain Benjamin Sisko and Doctor Julian Bashir, stranded in their past (but our future) of 2024 San Francisco. The city, as with other American cities in this storyline, include “sanctuary districts,” places reserved for the poor and downtrodden to live. Ostensibly meant to aid the least among them, for most Americans by 2024 it becomes a way to put these people out of sight and out of mind.

The episode is in many ways a referendum on Trek’s 1960s idealism—a reminder that the vibrant liberal ideas of reform and rebuilding society as intellectuals and policymakers saw fit were, by the 1990s, distant (and for many discredited) memories. What happens when characters from the show come face to face with a ghoulish reverse Great Society? Doctor Bashir is stunned, but Captain (at the time merely Commander) Sisko points out that the Bell Riots—named for Gabriel Bell, the man who led the rioters in San Francisco’s sanctuary district—led the United States to make much-needed reforms and, in some sense, led to the egalitarian nature of the United Federation of Planets.

It is interesting to consider that viewpoint: a massive riot in a large American city leading to national reforms. The last two weeks have borne witness to debates about the effectiveness in rioting to achieve political ends. I have no desire to intervene in that debate, which often descends into simplistic interpretations of the “long, hot summers” of the 1960s. But “Past Tense” does remind us that history is filled with moments of violence, terror, and fear that lead to a needed sense of reform. That, of course, does not mean the present crisis will yield any reform whatsoever—after all, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots did not lead to a return of the Great Society.[4] Science fiction since the 1970s has reflected an unease with the future of cities in the United States. That is not a surprise, as science fiction reflects these larger societal debates.

[1] The character of Judge Dredd in the A.D. 2099 comics of the United Kingdom, first seen in 1977, reflect views of the American urban crisis from across the pond. Dredd is one the law enforcement officers in Mega-City One, the Eastern United States transformed into one massive city-state. Violence and lawlessness is everywhere, and the ideals of American society are subordinate to a desire for law and order.

[2] Consider that the group is referred to as the “National Liberation Front of America,” and you immediately think back to Vietnam—a common trope for a wide swath of films by the early 1980s.

[3] Don’t worry, this is the only time I’ll mention that movie in this post.

[4] In fact one could argue the riots of 1992 loomed large over the 1994 Crime Bill, an example of how politicians across the national spectrum had decidedly different views of society and crime from their predecessors in the mid-1960s.

12 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Have you seen the 1992 horror film “Candyman” set in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects? Superb and I think would really resonate today. Not about urban riots, but definitely about urban neglect.

    • Yes I have! It’s a fascinating film. I might have to watch it again–I haven’t seen it since I was a kid and easily scared. But one thing I’ll add is that today the genre of “urban fantasy” is gaining more and more traction in fantasy literature. Putting such stories in non-traditional settings is always intriguing to see.

  2. Awesome post, Robert! It’s got me thinking about whether there’s a difference between science fictional depictions of urban destruction–generally apocalyptic, the result of alien invasions or nuclear warfare or climactic catastrophes–and science fictional depictions of urban corrosion or corruption. That is, in the second category, in the films and television you mention here, the cities are still technically livable, whereas in the first the cities are simply gone. Obviously, one would need to historicize the first category more (as you’ve done here so well with the second) but I’m trying to figure out the politics of the first category: is the city standing in simply for the nation, or is there a specifically urban dimension–that is, is there a point being made or a feeling being communicated not about “America” but more concretely about “American cities” when we see New York or DC or San Francisco reduced to rubble in science fiction?

    • This is a really good question. I always think back to “Independence Day”–they pick NYC, D.C., and L.A. as the cities destroyed on screen. But if you listen to lines from other moments in the film, other American cities were destroyed. So I think you raise an interesting point about which cities we choose to stand in for the nation–it’s almost never a southern city, unless you also include Atlanta and “The Walking Dead.”

      Allow me to go off a further limb: perhaps we lack the ability to tell good stories about the aftermath of these invasions. The Marvel movies and television shows ARE dealing with the aftermath of the first “Avengers” film, but with most alien invasion storylines, we hardly ever see the rebuilding process. That story might be too boring. Or, simply, most writers don’t know how to do a compelling version of that story. I remember the Japanese anime series “Robotech” featured an alien invasion–and the next season featured humanity trying to pick up the pieces.

      • I’m really glad you mentioned The Walking Dead and regionalism in the urban sci-if imagination, Robert. George Romero’s early films cast Pittsburgh/Western PA as places most representative of America’s urban crisis. Take for instance Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, which is of course most famous as a satire of suburban consumer culture, but it also opens with a white SWAT team storming a Pittsburgh housing project where an armed Panthers/Young Lords-style group is defending the residents who don’t want to give up their reanimated loved ones.

        With the decay of the Rust Belt and the rise of the Sunbelt, now metropolitan and exurban Atlanta are cast as the site for a prototypically American zombie epic rather than a uniquely southern one. Though not as explicit as Romero, I do think Walking Dead has something to tell us about the neoliberal urban crisis.

  3. Great post, Robert, and great comments.

    Another sci-fi-ish film (or at least a “dystopian future” film) that seems to me to belong in the urban-corruption-and-policing-problems genre would be Soylent Green. That film actually covers a lot of thematic territory: anxieties about urban life, ecological disaster, capitalist corruption, government corruption, feminism, etc. So very very 1970s.

    • Heh, so very 1970s is correct. I almost added that to this list, and the film is a symbol of what many folks worried about in the 1970s. I’d also add the “Planet of the Apes” movies–which addressed issues of oppression, racism, and nuclear war.

  4. The recent (2005-2012) comic series “DMZ” by Brian Wood imagined how modern-day Manhattanites might respond and adapt to their island being isolated from the rest of the nation by a civil war and turned into a demilitarized zone. It framed the various crises of the city as subject to larger national and international forces: extreme political and ideological polarization within the United States; a post-9/11 assumption of terror, torture, and extra-judicial justice as facts of life; and the realities of living in a war zone that is not of the residents’ choosing. The various factions that develop in this microcosm are to a degree reflective of the country as a whole–the urban center as focused representative of a broader populace, and forced to deal with the same issues but on a more concentrated scale. At the same time, there’s a tension between the city and the rest of America. The interplay between the factions is also reminiscent of a nineteenth century image of New York in which gangs (political or not) dictate the social structures of the city more effectively than “legitimate” government–a system that the US actively tries (and largely fails) to counter in places it invades today.

    • Thanks for this addition! I’ve read a few issues of “DMZ”–hate to admit I completely forgot about it for this blog post. But you also point to a flaw in my post, one that I just didn’t have time to do more research on–and that’s the role of the urban crisis in science fiction literature, comics included.

  5. Great post! I might go even further and argue that there’s a whole genre of scifi which usually deals with the “urban anxieties” you describe: Cyberpunk! Take Blade Runner, for instance, with its depictions of an over-polluted, crime-ridden, and decidedly dystopic Los Angeles. Another example is Akira, a Japanese anime movie whose roving bands of young motorcycle delinquents seem to portray the same anxieties about urban disorder as one sees in American scifi. I would thus argue that there’s at least one brand of science fiction which expresses, at least subtly, a sense of unease with cities and their future, and which has a worldwide appeal as well.

    • Yes! Thanks so much for mentioning cyberpunk. Down the road I might do a separate post about that sub-genre of science fiction, but you’re right–it deals with all of these themes.

  6. And Kit: great point there. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror often tell us a great deal about different regions of the USA. Take the fact that James T. Kirk is from Iowa, whereas Ben Sisko is from New Orleans. Certainly, those give us some clues about the personal identities of both those characters–and what elements of Americana they represent. With “The Walking Dead” you may be on to something with the neoliberal urban crisis in cities like Atlanta–although I would hasten to add a comparison between the show and the comic series would be interesting.

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