Buckeye Sci-Fi: “Does Anything Exciting Ever Happen Around Here?”

by Christopher A. Sims
Featured Art: Up In The Air – Emma Stefanoff

Ohio and Science Fiction. Perhaps unexpectedly, given the overwhelming norm- ness of Ohio, the two have become inextricably linked. So, for the bene t of colonizing aliens and future AIs, busy consuming every spec of human information in an effort to understand us—where we went wrong, what were our occasional successes, what is meant by “Cincinnati Five-Way”—I’m happy to set out on a kind of fantastic discovery of my own, seeking to answer: Why do an inordinate amount of authors and directors set sf works in Ohio? What could the place represent that makes it such rich soil for these stories? And how might sf itself be enriched by Ohio-ness? Dust off your ray gun and wearable OSU memorabilia, I’m going to need some help.

     First, to situate us. This essay will focus on two sf novels by Kurt Vonnegut— Breakfast of Champions (1973) and its “sequel” Deadeye Dick (1982)—both set in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio. These novels propose, among other things, that a neutron bomb has destroyed Midland City, that an inconsequential sf writer named Kilgore Trout had been set to keynote the Midland City Arts Festival before its annihilation, and that one of Trout’s novels, which supposes that every Earthling but the reader is a robot, is about to be taken as gospel-truth by the dangerously unstable Dwayne Hoover. We’ll also look at Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011), among other Spielbergian nuggets of pop culture, which casts Columbus, Ohio, as the technological mecca of America and features a fully immersive virtual reality called the OASIS which people prefer to reality.
     So that builds us enough of a foundation to grasp the “sf” part of this exploration, but we are still left with the tricky business of the Ohio part. I’ve lived my whole life in Ohio, so I could be blinded by familiarity, but let’s try some simple clichés: for a long time, Ohio has been thought of as a political microcosm of the nation and polled to give an indication of how the country would vote. It’s also likely associated in the minds of most Americans with a sampling of the following words: rural, at, plain; corn, football, the heartland. But it’s also the home of flight, industrial innovation, many presidents, and spaceman John Glenn. Banal or sophisticated, though, Ohio brings to mind a sense of “Everyland.” It is a place of core American identity that can seem timeless, even quaint. It is anywhere and nowhere—a kind of Ohtopia—and perhaps it is perfect for sf because situating an invention or wonder against the vanilla backdrop of Ohio can make that alternate reality even more striking.
     We see this in Breakfast of Champions, where Vonnegut sets out to ob- serve and satirize notions of race, identity, free-will, capitalism, democracy, “America,” aging, and art. The novel follows the unknown but prolific sf writer Kilgore Trout and the wealthy Midland City, Ohio, car dealer, Dwayne Hoover. Trout comes to Midland as a literary guest of honor, and the story’s climax has Hoover—who unravels mentally as the novel progresses—somehow accepting one of Trout’s novels as true and believing that all other humans are robots. I read Trout as a stand-in for Vonnegut the author (even though Vonnegut himself is a character in the novel). Both are sf writers who have been suddenly thrust into prominence—Trout by an eccentric Midland City tycoon who finds his work to be artistically valuable and Vonnegut by the commercial and critical success of his previous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
     To fully comprehend what it would mean if people took his own work as “Art” and him as an important “Artist,” Vonnegut returns to Ohio. Ohio isn’t quite Indiana (Vonnegut’s home state), but it is, for him, a vantage point from which to analyze and critique America and himself. Midland City, instead of being close to the middle or heart of America, though, seems to be closer to the edge, or perhaps the exit. Early in the story, a visiting minimalist painter Rabo Karabekian observes that Midland City “has to be the asshole of the Universe.”
     In his 1982 return to fictional Ohio, Deadeye Dick, Vonnegut develops the un flattering picture of Ohio when he has his narrator describe Midland City as a place devoid of culture: “Midland City wasn’t a Vienna or a Paris. It wasn’t even a St. Louis or a Detroit. It was a Bucyrus. It was a Kokomo.” In other words, Midland City is a nothing, nowhere, Podunk, backwater, American wasteland. No one in Midland knows anything about art, culture, or anything worthwhile, really. Importantly, in Deadeye Dick, “nobody lives in Midland City, Ohio, anymore” because it has been struck by a neutron bomb. The science-fiction premise is that the bomb only kills people with massive radiation and doesn’t cause major blast damage, thus making it a “cleaner” or “safer” way to kill lots of people. The narrator reports that, because of the bomb’s detonation: “about one hundred thousand people died,” but the narrator can- not help wondering, “Since all the property is undamaged, has the world lost anything it loved?” Vonnegut seems to be satirizing Reagan–era, materialist straight-talk out of one side of his mouth and slamming Ohioans out of the other. His narrator, at least, suggests that nobody really cares about the lives of the people that live there.
     Meanwhile, in the middle of the novel, one of the main characters, Rudy Waltz, isn’t sure what to do with his life. He considers becoming a writer be- cause of praise from his high school English teacher, Naomi Shoup, but his father, of local notoriety as an artistically bankrupt artist, urges him to abandon his dreams of art and become a pharmacist. Rudy recalls the exchange between himself and the encouraging Shoup: “You really must become a writer,” says Shoup, “And you must get out of this deadly town, too—as soon as you can. You must find what I should have had the courage to look for [. . .] what we should all have the courage to look for.”
     “What is that?” Waltz asks.
     Her answer: “Your own Katmandu.”
     In Deadeye, Katmandu stands for “the exotic” and is a foil for Midland City. It is everything good and amazing that Midland City is not. But for all its “exotic” grandeur, Katmandu would make a lousy setting for a sf novel. A novel of ideas and technological marvels, the theory goes, would be muted in a fantastic place like that.
     Against the pastoral—and despised—backdrop of Midland City, though, the extraordinary is even more pronounced. Midland City is a “deadly town,” a place to leave as quickly as possible. Katmandu is a place many people, like the character John Fortune, would die to visit. And fortune does, in fact, die there. This hero’s quest is what makes him remarkable enough to be the subject of Rudy’s critically panned Broadway play, “Katmandu.” When he arrives on a stretcher, succumbing to double-pneumonia, Fortune is asked to identify his costume by an English doctor and the Nepalese. Vonnegut writes, “The answer was this: ‘Plain old, honest Ohio bib overalls.’” So, in a way, Fortune is the ex- otic one in this moment—his Ohio bibs the curiosity. Before he dies, the noble John Fortune writes a note. It reads: “To all my friends and enemies in the buck- eye state. Come on over. There’s room for everybody in Shangri-La” (Deadeye). Curiously, though, this is all in ashback. No scenes are set in Katmandu. Unlike Odysseus, Fortune never gets to go home. For Vonnegut, it’s Ohio, the anti-Shangri-La, that provides the perfect setting for the uncanny, for a novel about escape. Ohio is a place to quit.
     As an Ohioan, my pride forces me to question this unequivocally negative assessment. First, we must remember that Kurt Vonnegut is, among many other things, a humorist. Also, the novels themselves teach us about the perils of taking Vonnegut too seriously. In Breakfast, Dwayne Hoover is obviously in the wrong for valorizing Trout (aka Vonnegut), and, in Deadeye, Midland City is entirely depopulated by a bomb because it had the temerity to honor Trout’s (aka Vonnegut’s) writing. Essentially, we’re dealing with a jaded satirist who is playing self-deprecating games, so why should we listen to what he has to say about the beloved 17th state?
     Could it be that satire, especially sf satire, always implies a kind of care for a place, a tough love? That when existential threat is added, we can see more clearly that even the things we want to criticize might have inherent value? Could it be that exaggerated criticism is a way to wake up the defenders of a place so that they can respond, or even change. Whatever the case, Vonnegut characterizes Ohio as a land of anachronism and humdrummery, but also as a place that is capable of bringing about the extraordinary. Moreover, its banal nature heightens, even allows, the presentation of the phenomenal.
     In Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2006), we encounter another sf novel set in Ohio that forwards this idea of Ohio’s soil being fertile ground for great- ness, genius, and, à la Vonnegut, really bad stuff, too. RPO is set on a future Earth where a compelling virtual reality called the OASIS dominates the lives of pretty much everyone. This is in part due to the power of the simulation, but also because the physical world has been irreparably harmed by our less-than- environmentally-friendly lifestyles. James Halliday, the inventor of the OASIS, sums up the situation in his journal: “Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.” We quickly dis- cover that Halliday is an unrivaled genius, the wealthiest man on the planet, and also quite dead. And he happens to have been from Ohio. Halliday spent the last few years of his life creating a deeply personal and pop-culture-laden digital scavenger hunt within in the OASIS. Whoever wins the hunt wins his fortune, and control of the OASIS.
     It becomes obvious to hunters of the fortune that in order to understand the puzzles in the hunt, it is necessary to understand James Halliday. That means having an encyclopedic knowledge of ’80s and ’90s geek culture and, incidentally, Ohio itself, because Halliday was from Middletown, and later moved his company to Columbus. We find protagonist Wade Wilson researching Halliday early in the novel by watching “an episode of Family Ties, an ’80s sitcom about a middle-class family living in central Ohio.”
     Like in Family Ties, which features the former hippies Elise and Stephen Keaton raising the rightwing Alex P., Ready Player One involves a battle be- tween idealistic liberals—the treasure hunters—and corporate interests. In the case of the novel, those interests want to monetize the OASIS. Ohio works as the setting for this battle because it can represent a kind of everyman political tradition while at the same time standing for powerful corporate forces— think Proctor & Gamble, Goodyear, and many other old-fashioned American moneymakers—that must have felt omnipresent in Cline’s, Vonnegut’s, and the Keatons’ version of the 1980s.
     In Cline’s novel, we see that class-battle most clearly. First, some background. Halliday was born in Middletown and though Middletown is a real place, the clever nod to Midland City is unmistakable. Cline claims Vonnegut as one of his favorite authors and Wade’s primary spaceship in the OASIS is named the “Vonnegut.” But the connection between Cline and Vonnegut doesn’t end there. While Vonnegut critiques American inertia with his creation of Midland City, Cline approaches Middletown from much closer origins. As Dan Farrah, Cline’s publicist, told me, “Ernie was born and raised in a trailer park community in Ohio.” The class issues that Ohio represents, then, are certainly informing this novel about an Ohio-born billionaire, a bunch of young gamer-scrappers, and the corporations that want to hamper their progress.
     The question Cline poses with RPO is, Can I forge a narrative out of my childhood obsessions that people will find entertaining? As evinced by the runaway success of the book and its adaptation into a Spielberg lm, the answer is yes. But he has also created an Ohio tale, and Halliday’s virtual recreation of Middletown can read as Cline’s homage to his home.
     Wade recalls from his research, “In the early days of the OASIS, Halliday had created a small planet named Middletown, named after his hometown in Ohio. The planet was the site of a meticulous re-creation of his hometown as it was in the late 1980s. That saying about how you can never go home again? Halliday had found a way.” This is crucial because it points to another essential piece of the Ohio-sf puzzle. Ohio, in these texts, is the representation of home—something we can only understand in all its complexities if we have lost it. So in Vonnegut and Kline we see Odysseus-like journeys, remade for sf, and we witness the transformation of both the self and the home. The idea that we can transcend our circumstances is central to sf, the question of what happens to our homes once we’ve left less central. But in these Ohio sci- narratives, it becomes key. In order to understand the future, these characters need to look at Ohio. But in order to understand Ohio, they have to leave it and return. To grasp the ordinary, they have to comprehend how it interacts with the extraordinary. Vonnegut and Cline, who both left the Midwest only to return in their fiction, understand this dynamic well. Ohio is the control in the scientific experiment, the heart of America, the bucolic, shambolic center from which we can see and make sense of fantastic sf encounters. This is no small point, because we see the same sentiment in Breakfast of Champions, when a Gothic novelist and Midland City native confesses, “I was petrified about coming home after all these years [. . .] but not anymore. The past has been rendered harmless. I would tell any wandering American now, ‘Of course you can go home again, and as often as you please. It’s just a motel.’”
     Cline and Vonnegut see this return home much differently, though. For the optimistic Cline, one can come back to Middletown and extract value and goodness; even though Halliday had a troubled childhood, there was so much worth redeeming. For the worn-down and cynical Vonnegut, you can return to Midland City, Ohio, but only because it’s been co-opted, homogenized, stripped of all meaning, and effectively rendered harmless. It’s a motel, the past. A place to pop into and then forget again.
     One thing is certain from these novels: Ohio is a nostalgic magnet. Vonnegut’s characters return to Midland City even though it has been hit by a neutron bomb, and James Halliday also returns to Ohio as he dies, even though he could go anywhere imaginable in the OASIS. There is something primal and vital about the gravity of Ohio that—motel or not, asshole or not—compels the return of its offspring.
     In a way, J.J. Abrams’s 2011 lm Super 8 is also about overcoming Ohio’s gravity and returning home. In this case, it’s an alien lifeform that needs to escape not just Ohio’s pull, but Earth’s as well. When I asked location scout for Super 8 James A. Mahathey, “Why Ohio?” he replied, “I was told that this was J.J.’s big tip of the hat [. . .] to Spielberg and of course Spielberg was born in Ohio.” So Abrams returns to Spielberg’s home for Super 8 and uses Ohio as an homage just as Cline uses it as a nod to Kurt Vonnegut. Ohio may be the normal core of America, but these intertextual moves show that it’s the origin of a particular strain of sf for that same reason, a strain that arises when artists look at American conformity and find something stranger.
     It’s not just the Spielberg connection that makes Ohio the appropriate setting for Super 8. In Abrams’s script for the lm, we see that the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, fits the bill because it is “in the middle of, essentially, nowhere” and features abandoned train stations or “middle of nowhere wooded area[s].” Again, the crucial sf theme is that, even in Nothingsburg, we can imagine and dream ourselves out of where we are. There’s no place like home, they say. Let’s get outta here.
     In a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, newlyweds Don and Pat Carter’s car breaks down as they travel near the town of Ridgeview, Ohio. While they wait for repairs, they have lunch at a café and encounter a strange, fortune- telling machine. Don is superstitious and becomes convinced the machine can accurately predict the future. He doesn’t want to leave the town before he hears from it about his future. His wife, Pat, argues vehemently that he shouldn’t let their lives be decided by a machine. He eventually realizes she’s right and they leave the town, off to their own adventures. As they exit, an older couple comes into the café. They are worn down and anxious. They rush to the fortune- teller and ask it, “Will we ever leave Ridgeview?” They appear defeated by the response and the episode segues to the classic voice of narrator Rod Serling, who attended college in Ohio and began his career in Cincinnati. He sums up the moral: “Counterbalance in the little town of Ridgeview, Ohio. Two people permanently enslaved by the tyranny of fear and superstition, facing the future with a kind of helpless dread. Two others facing the future with confidence— having escaped one of the darker places of . . . The Twilight Zone.”
     Earlier in the episode, Don had asked, “Does anything exciting ever happen around here?”
     As we have seen, sf answers that question with a spectacular yes. In the imaginations of Vonnegut, Cline, Abrams, Spielberg, and Serling, Ohio is the dark- idyllic picture of simple American life, a gray canvas upon which to paint the most fantastic of sf events. It is a home to be cherished, rejected, transcended, and made strange.

Christopher A. Sims received a Ph.D. from Ohio University. He lives in Columbus and teaches at Columbus State Community College. His scholarship explores the representation of technology in literature, focusing on the business of being a human in an increasingly inhuman world. Perhaps surprisingly, he is grateful to be alive and loves his life, his family, and the experience of being.

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