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December 13, 2008

American Surburbia In The Eighties, Science Fiction And Growing Up In The Black Country

When I was growing up, Middle America Suburbia seemed like the most exotic place in the world, a place of wonder and adventure, a place of futurism and hope, a place where geeky boys could get gorgeous girls and everyone had a chance of succeeding. It was, of course, a view coloured dramatically by ET, Wargames, Back To The Future, The Last Starfighter, Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, Tron and other films of that ilk; films I had devoured and loved. Their appeal also clearly had something to do with the fact that I grew up in The Black Country, not that I didn't and don't love it there, but it is so far removed from the worlds those films portrayed it's hard to convey in mere words; don't let a common(ish) language fool you, America was as foreign as the moon.

Bizzarely, to me, most of the heroes of these films seemed to be desperate to escape the ultra wide roads, and effortless teenage cool lifestyles of American Surburbia. It was so dull to them, so boring, adventure was calling. Adventure wrapped up in brilliantly optimistic messages:

  • Wargames - if you're a computer geek you can teach the mighty US military that Nuclear War is futile, and you get the girl.
  • Back To The Future - The Power Of Love will save you if you made a mess of the space time continuum, plus you get to ride in a cool Time Machine, and you get the girl.
  • The Last Starfighter - If you're good at videgames you get to fly real spaceships, in real space. And you also can come back for the girl.
  • ET - You can make friends with an alien and save them from the evil government, plus you get to take part in an awesome BMX chase. Unfortunately you are too young to get a girl.
  • Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure - Even if you're stupid you can get to travel in a time machine, become the most important people in the world and (eventually) learn to play the guitar in an awesome fashion. And you get the girls / princesses.
  • Tron - If you're an awesome computer programmer you can go inside a computer and ride of super cool lightcycles, get a (virtual) girl, and become CEO.
None of these things seemed remotely possible in an English surburbia.

The closest I got to Science Fiction was travelling to Birmingham on a busy weekend, walking down to street level from out of the shopping centre that the train station is encased in, deep into a busy bottlenecked crowd that felt like something out of Bladerunner. The optimism of the region seemed to have died with the fading glamour of the Industrial Revolution; leaving a slightly startled concrete mess. Birmingham has since recovered, in a bout of 90's rejuvenation, although the result no longer seems futuristic, just glass and malls and the same, more or less, as every other UK city.

It was Star Wars that started me on the Science Fiction path, but that was unobtainable, too far away, in another galaxy. To see American kids, in America, saving the world and having Science Fiction adventures, that was something else. Something, that despite being the other side of the world, was clearly obtainable; you just had to live in California. (I've since been to California; I touched the Delorian and visited a Circle K but there were no Science Fictional adventures.) That's why I love those films.

The golden age of Science Fiction film is twelve, in surburbia, in America, in the eighties.


Your take on American suburbia is interesting. Having spent part of my childhood in an American suburb, I found it homogenized, commodified, and soulless.

Of the films you mentioned, I think the one that has the most to say about suburbia is "ET." Notice the way they live in a suburb, still under construction, that encroaches on the wilderness.

Yes, the magic of Hollywood can make the most banal places seem exotic.

EXCELLENT post! Amazing, I never thought that sci fi made US suburbs look good, but I think you're right, especially in the 80s. I posted a link to your blog from mine, http://scifilessons.wordpress.com
cuz I think my readers would love your blog. I do!

Yes, and I believe I introduced Shana to this blog via b.rox.com

It's almost like all these blogs are on some huge, interconnected . . . WEB! Maybe a Tholian device of some sort.