Name that SF story -- traffic jam edition.
September 16, 2009 7:44 PM   Subscribe

Identify a science fiction story about a giant, unfixable traffic jam. (spoilers inside.)

Here's what I remember: story set in the near future. There's a massive traffic jam, I'm pretty sure in Los Angeles. The story takes place over the course of days and weeks as the residents of the jam find ways to fend for themselves. At some point there's a gag that the whole jam was started by a "little old lady from Pasadena." The story ends with helicopters or planes flying over the traffic jam, dumping wet cement on cars and people alike in order to form a new highway over the old. I would have read this in the very late 1970s or early 1980s, probably in OMNI, but possibly in an anthology. Any ideas?
posted by escabeche to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds a little like "Bluesberry Jam" from the anthology Strange Travelers by Gene Wolfe, but I'm not sure that the ending matches.
posted by beandip at 7:54 PM on September 16, 2009

OMNI magazine fiction index. I tried to search the page for keywords from your description, but came up lacking summaries for most of the hits. Maybe a look through will jog your memory, if you haven't already tried this page.
posted by Avelwood at 7:57 PM on September 16, 2009

Response by poster: Found a copy of "Bluesberry Jam" online and that's not it.
posted by escabeche at 8:01 PM on September 16, 2009

I read it too and I'm pretty sure that it was called something like "Notes found on the side of the highway" or something to that effect but I'm not seeing anything like that in the index.
posted by octothorpe at 8:15 PM on September 16, 2009

Looking at that index, it's amazing how good Omni's fiction was in the early years when Bova was editing. I never liked his own fiction much but he was a great editor.
posted by octothorpe at 8:19 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

If I recall correctly, there's a Jonathan Lethem story about an endless traffic jam in Men and Cartoons - but the date wouldn't be right, and I don't recall anything about a cement dump. (It probably ended in some vague and weird way.)
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:04 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know this story. They also dropped pills for the stranded drivers to commit suicide, if I recall correctly, though it wasn't explicitly stated. Sorry I don't recall if it was OMNI or not, but it definitely was a short story.
posted by Xoebe at 9:32 PM on September 16, 2009

I also remember a story like this, and I can confirm that it's not Wolfe's "Bluesberry jam". I recall that at one point the driver hears other cars starting their engines and then everybody starts their engines, so he passes out from the smoke. Does this ring any bells?
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:09 PM on September 16, 2009

The Highway of the South by Julio Cortazar
posted by Sparx at 10:56 PM on September 16, 2009

On second thoughts, not - Cortazar's traffic jam, while similarly epic in scope, does finish. Hmmm.
posted by Sparx at 11:05 PM on September 16, 2009

Purely from search results:

At least it looks like you didn't imagine it (see last line - but I've read pretty near every short story Harlan Ellison wrote and I don't think she's got the attribution right).

This came out a few times, it is about a massive traffic jam in Southern California apparently, but I cannot find much further details online: A short story called Gas Mask by James D. Houston.

Mention 1
Mention 2
Mention 3 - second section, second bullet point. He references this earlier attempt to locate the story. It looks like this story has been widely anthologized, so it's possible even though it is earlier than you thought. That Moose Pit guy is still an active blogger, you could probably email him and ask about if that's the one.

Otherwise I give up.
posted by nanojath at 11:21 PM on September 16, 2009

If it's Gas Mask by James D Houston then this Google Book Search shows you some places it's anthologised.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:05 AM on September 17, 2009

The ISFDB is the place to look for where SF has been anthologized. Looks like it was collected four separate times. The Disch collection seems to be pretty widely available used.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:02 AM on September 17, 2009

It's not Gas Mask, and it was in Omni. I remember the story, and the illustration, which featured a ground level look down the highway, with a clawing hand jutting up out of the pavement. I recall the little old lady who started the thing by trying to make a sudden left turn from the right hand lane. They're there for days, and eventually the government is dropping supplies by helicopter, and then finally they give up and the helicopters just bury everyone in cement.

That stuck with me, but the title didn't sadly. I can definitely confirm that you're not imagining the whole thing and I'm pretty positive it was in Omni.
posted by Naberius at 6:52 AM on September 17, 2009

Response by poster: So at the very least I have confirmation that the story exists! But none of the titles on the Omni fiction index linked above sound like it -- is that an exhaustive list?
posted by escabeche at 7:10 AM on September 17, 2009

Was it Traffic Problem by William Earls?
posted by iconomy at 7:12 AM on September 17, 2009

Probably not Traffic Problem -- that was set in New York, not LA, and it was first published in 1969.
posted by maudlin at 8:06 AM on September 17, 2009

I remember the story as well, and could definitely have read it in Omni as my dad was a charter subscriber. The fiction index linked is definitely incomplete -- IIRC they had stories every issue but there are some huge gaps in that list (only six stories listed for 1984, for instance).
posted by Lazlo at 11:10 AM on September 17, 2009

Response by poster: Since we have an independent verification that the story was in Omni, and that the online fiction index is incomplete, I'm going to hit the bound volumes in the UW Library. Now it's a race against time; will I get my answer first from the hivemind, or from good old-fashioned physical search in the stacks?
posted by escabeche at 11:13 AM on September 17, 2009

Whether accurate or not ANOTHER person looking for this story (I've found several now, I think I've got a, ah, research problem) pegs it at '78 or '79.
posted by nanojath at 11:58 AM on September 17, 2009

I'm going to hit the bound volumes in the UW Library

A possible lead? The Great Moveway Jam by John Keefauver, Omni Magazine, March 1979.
posted by mhum at 3:14 PM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: No luck at the library, but they had only about half of the 79-80 issues.

But I think mhum very likely has it. In this comment thread someone asks about what's clearly the same story and it's identified as "The Great Moveway Jam." Our library's collection starts in October 1979, so I'm going to have to figure out another way to get the March '79 issue for confirmation.
posted by escabeche at 6:56 PM on September 17, 2009

Response by poster: Strangely enough, Keefauver seems to revisited the theme in a 1992 children's book, The Three-Day Traffic Jam.
posted by escabeche at 6:59 PM on September 17, 2009

Best answer: I finally went down to the public library and dug this up. I can verify that The Great Moveway Jam from the March 1979 issue of Omni is definitely the story you're looking for. Here's the subhed:
For months they waited to be rescued from the mammoth traffic jam. Then the copters came!
And the money graf:
They [the helicopters] were dropping wet cement. They were making a new Moveway over the old Moveway.
Additional tidbits based on a cursory skim of the story: 1) the traffic jam started (?) in May 1998, lasted 14 months, and stretched from San Diego to Santa Barbara, 2) the story is told as a historical retrospective and quotes from the journal of Henry Littlefinger, one of the people stuck in the jam, 3) apparently the authorities also built a wall around the jam to prevent people from abandoning their cars on foot.
posted by mhum at 7:53 PM on September 21, 2009

Response by poster: Hurray! Now I'm going to have to get my library to get this on interlibrary loan....
posted by escabeche at 8:06 PM on September 21, 2009

Best answer: A little late, but here are PDFs of The Great Moveway Jam.
posted by Argyle at 6:58 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, Argyle! Very timely as the giant traffic jam in China just reminded me of this story again.
posted by escabeche at 7:13 AM on August 24, 2010

Heh, you're not the only one! Something about that story obviously left its mark on readers of a certain age back in 1979...
posted by Naberius at 10:16 AM on August 24, 2010

Response by poster: OK, read it. Looks like I must have either made up the Beach Boys reference or remembered it from somewhere else. Also: why were my parents letting me read this when I was 7??
posted by escabeche at 6:53 PM on August 25, 2010

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