Where The Wild Shore shows us a post-apocalyptic California and The Gold Coast deals with future where urbanisation is out of control, in Pacific Edge Kim Stanley Robinson explores a utopian future: a California where people have learned to listen to the land and to pursue more sustainable population levels and economic activity. Together, these three books make up the THREE CALIFORNIAS TRIPTYCH.
In 2065 the world looks quite different from what we are used to. The unsustainable economic practices of the past have been severely curtailed by putting limits on company size and personal income among other, equally drastic measures. The main character is Kevin, an architect judging from the descriptions of designing lovely sustainable homes, who lives in a part of California where population growth and economic activity are carefully moderated to make sure they don’t exceed the carrying capacity of the local environment. Recently Kevin has been talked into taking a seat in the local council for the Green party, a decision he will come to regret. In his first council meeting the mayor tries to slip a shady deal past the council. He doesn’t succeed, but it is the beginning for a political struggle that Kevin he did not foresee when taking the job.
The second character the novel focuses on is Kevin’s grandfather, Tom, the only character appearing in all three books. Since the death of his wife Tom has become something of a recluse, living in the hills out of town. Even Kevin only sees him once in a while until he is drawn out of his isolation by an old acquaintance’s visit. Tom was something of a political creature in his younger years, part of which we find out from snippets of his writings dating back to the year 2012 (when the revolution is imminent). He is not eager to be drawn into Kevin’s battle but his contacts can be very useful indeed.
In Pacific Edge, Robinson creates a utopia which needs a lot of maintenance. It is clear that the myth of perpetual growth and the lure of expansion have not been permanently vanquished. The way Robinson uses the problematic situation of providing clean water for so many people is very interesting indeed. He cleverly weaves a situation that was already a very recognizable problem when this book was published (1990) into the story. His descriptions of the legal situation in 2065 are fascinating and it generally takes a good bit of skill to make this stuff interesting and even more to make it understandable for someone like me, a person from a country with quite a different legal tradition.
Kevin pretty soon realizes he is in way over his head, and that the issues he is dealing with are on a scale he does not have any experience with. And yet Robinson keeps the story on a small, very local scale. A softball match, Kevin’s love affair with his political opponent’s girlfriend, a wildfire, the minor issues brought before the council: seemingly small things hiding major and far-reaching issues. It makes one wonder if we are indeed trying to solve these problems on too high a level. On the other hand, any concentration of power seems to attract people who want it but do not necessarily have the competence or integrity to use it wisely. Looking around me, I don’t see much difference between local and national politics in that respect.
The way of governing a community described in Pacific Edge is something that shows up in Robinson’s later novels as well. A lot of the social experiments he describes in his MARS trilogy, for instance, are all very small scale with projects needing resources which are handled by cooperatives. In some ways it is the direct opposite of what is going on in the world at the moment, where the drive for companies to perpetually expand doesn’t seem to slow down in the least. The tipping point in the book is somewhere in the 2010s. So far there is little sign of this prediction coming true. A prediction that seems to be spot on, however, is the description of young Tom’s struggle with Swiss and US immigration services. There are a number of very vocal real-world political figures advocating practices not unlike the ones described in the book and frankly, I find that very disturbing.
There’s quite a bit of Mars in Pacific Edge if you pay attention, which makes sense since this book and Robinson’s MARS trilogy were published in a productive four-year period: Red Mars in 1993, Green Mars in 1994, Pacific Edge in 1995, and Blue Mars in 1996. The social structures he describes, the power and demise of multinational corporations, the increasing pressure on earth’s ecosystem, the local initiatives, and new modes of government are all themes that repeat in the THREE CALIFORNIAS TRIPTYCH. In the context of his entire oeuvre this book is more interesting than either The Wild Shore or The Gold Coast. I must admit I thought the ending of the book a little anticlimactic (though entirely in the style of the rest of the novel). The solution to one of Kevin’s problems turns out to be deceptively simple.
Jo Walton wrote a piece on Pacific Edge for Tor.com in which she wonders if there is anybody who likes all three books in the triptych. I didn’t. The Gold Coast was not my book, even if I can appreciate the author’s skill. I guess I have to say The Wild Shore is my favourite. Pacific Edge is probably a love it or hate it book. Politically it is a lot more provocative than either of the previous books. I guess a die-hard supporter of neo-liberal economic policy wouldn’t make it past page fifty. That’s a shame; this vision of California’s future may not be the most likely but it certainly offers some interesting thoughts on the current global environmental crisis. To me this utopia doesn’t sound so bad, even if it is a high maintenance one.
Three Californias — (1984-1990) 2047: For the small Pacific Coast community of San Onofre, life in the aftermath of a devastating nuclear attack is a matter of survival, a day-to-day struggle to stay alive. But young Hank Fletcher dreams of the world that might have been, and might yet be–and dreams of playing a crucial role in America’s rebirth.