“History is going to change.”
I remember watching Back to the Future once during my sophomore year of college. My friends and I got into a serious discussion of why Marty McFly would have totally hung out with us if he hadn’t been merely a culturally iconic character played onscreen by Canadian actor (and cultural icon himself) Michael J. Fox. Marty was the perfect 80’s comedy/adventure protagonist; he was respectable, respectful, witty, good on a skateboard, and blessed with self-control during an era of Reaganist excess. Given Marty’s kid-next-door appeal, he was still iconoclastic and curious enough to both front a “too loud for school” rock band named after a Ramones song and to form a close personal friendship with an eccentric elderly scientist obsessed with time travel.
I didn’t completely realize it as a teenager, but the Back to the Future trilogy was a worldwide phenomenon. As Fox mentioned in an interview on a documentary included with the trilogy’s DVD set re-release in 2004, who wouldn’t want to go back in time and be able to meet their parents when they were their own age? This trigger set off a cultural earthquake that is still shaking 28 years later, replete with active fan clubs, the now-universal equation of a horrible, cocaine-affiliated car with the supernatural idea of time travel, and new referential material appearing in various corners of the internet about the trilogy on a literally daily basis.
The trilogy’s depiction of Hill Valley, CA and the fictional town’s development over the course of the four distinct time periods in which the films take place (five, if you count an alternate, Philip K. Dick-level dystopian future represented in the dark second film), is strikingly similar to the appeals of Marty McFly and time travel itself. It represents an ideal landscape to act as canvas for these fantasies: a mid-size, functional California community with an oxymoronic name that carries the positivities, shortcomings, and synthetic realisms that formulate the prototypical Everytown, USA as far as the 80’s were concerned.
Via toplessrobot.com. Map of Hill Valley, 1885 based on geographic (re)constructions of the third movie.
The geographic ramifications run deep. Tim Cresswell, the noted British spatial theorist, once wrote how “even a totally imaginary place has an imaginary form in order to make it place-like.” So has Hill Valley developed such a tangible reality over the past three decades. Everything established across the three films, animated series, video game spinoffs/mods, and assorted feature stories about these items flies off the tongue pretty easily: the clock tower, the Twin Pines Mall, Hill Valley High, Biff’s Pleasure Palace, and more. I started wondering about how geographers would treat this subject about six months ago, but I hesitated to publicly post anything on social media. This wasn’t because I was afraid anybody would steal my idea; I was afraid that it would look silly, or people would just miss the point.
In came my good friends and colleagues, Teresa “Tree” Anderson-Sharma and David “Inky” Schwartz. The subject of geographic publishing came up amid an afternoon in San Pedro, so I decided to spill this idea I’d had swimming around my brain for the last half of 2012. Surely enough, they loved the idea, and a coalition was immediately born. Today, we are proud to announce that we are officially working on a collection of peer-reviewed essays on the imagined geographies of Hill Valley, CA!
This collection will cover diverse topics including (but not limited to; the list keeps growing): emotional and gender-based geographies of “rhythmic ceremonial rituals” (dance), geopolitical conceptions of the story (Libyan nationals on US soil), the evolution of the subdivision (Lyon Estates), the international consumption of the trilogy (Fox once got called “Marty McFly” by a pack of monks in Bhutan), and the course of urban planning surrounding the town’s iconic clock tower.
And, here’s your CFP: If you are a geographer who loves Back to the Future and would like to get involved either in writing or editing/reviewing, please drop us a line. We would love to hear from you. The provisional release date is (you guessed it) 2015, and we are excited to launch this proposal into the AAG meeting in Los Angeles and the CGS meeting in San Luis Obispo next month.
In the meantime, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and our website, where we’ll be posting more information as it becomes available. We’ll also be discussing this book today on The Casual Geographer at 3pm PT on KBeach or 88.1FM-HD3 if you’re in the Long Beach area. I’ll do my best to keep this site updated as well. I suppose being the lead editor entails some of that responsibility. We know that the publishing process takes a long time and hard work, but those challenges didn’t stop Dr. Emmett Brown from making his trauma-induced vision of the Flux Capacitor a reality, and it shouldn’t stop us, either. As the man always said, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”