Part of the Novel Ecologies project, this talk connects twentieth-century engineered transformations of the California landscape to past and ongoing proposals for extraterrestrial engineering, and examined the assumptions underlying real-world and speculative world-building projects.
Decades before a U.S. national imaginary fixated on the "new frontier" of space colonization, Los Angeles civil engineer William Mulholland suggested that world-building here on Earth was California’s particular manifest destiny. In retrospect, his bravado about a growing city’s land-and-water grab from the Paiute Shoshone and agricultural communities of the Owens Valley offers a prescient touchstone for subsequent dreams about moon landings and Martian colonies that have emanated, in no small measure, from California’s ever-expanding tech industries. Meanwhile, contemporary writers and artists probe the ecological and ethical hazards—as well as the quasi-magical promises—of these various world-building fantasies and the real-world simulations and speculations they fuel. In developing this idea, the talk puts the futurism of engineers and sci-fi writers in conversation with other cultural fields and imaginative forms, from astrobiology to lyric poetry to performance art.