fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson science fiction book reviewsThe Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson

Jim McPherson is unsatisfied with the future. Unable to find steady, well-paid work, Jim mostly spends his time partying and casually hooking up with random women. Jim’s family is of small comfort to him since he spends most family dinners enduring his father’s many complaints about how Jim does nothing useful. Jim does not know it, but his father, a defense contractor, is also deeply frustrated in his career, even if it does provide what appears to be a successful lifestyle to outsiders. Jim only begins to feel as though he is doing something of value when he starts protesting against militarism.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast explores a dystopian future in which the American Dream has been reduced to consumerism and militarism. The Gold Coast, published in 1988, is sort of the second novel in Robinson’s THREE CALIFORNIAS series. The “first” novel, The Wild Shore, published in 1984, imagines an entirely different future California in which America is attacked and subdued by the world’s other nuclear powers. In spite of its post-apocalyptic premise, The Wild Shore describes an America that is in some ways reborn. The Gold Coast, on the other hand, explores a different future in which America has not suffered attack but rather continues on the path Robinson saw in the 1980s. Readers can pick up a copy of The Gold Coast without having read The Wild Shore and they will miss no plot points. Thematically, so long as they go on to read The Wild Shore soon after, they are fine to start here, too.

These novels do not lead into or follow from one another, but they do speak to each other, largely through illustrative contrasts. For the most part, The Gold Coast’s characters have more stuff than their counterparts in post-apocalyptic California, but, though satiated, they are frustrated. The characters in The Wild Shore are passionate and daring — hungry, yes, but also hungry for more from life. They are thrilled by the idea that an American could travel from one coast to another. They spend their evenings around campfires, which, though simple, contain the warmth and familiar squabbles of a community. The parties Jim attends, however, only provide the appearance of community: people meet and wait together for some drug cocktail to bring them a veneer of happiness. Robinson mostly allows readers to connect the dots, though at one point Jim dreams of a cataclysm that might drive dystopian America off the tracks of its history and into a more satisfying, more “raw,” life.

The Gold Coast, both on its own and as part of this trio of novels, is clearly interesting, but I struggled to move beyond an academic appreciation of it. I liked the idea of these characters searching for happiness and meaning more than I liked these characters. I was intrigued by the idea of a dystopian California more than I was intrigued exploring the dystopian California depicted here.

In fact, to some extent I wondered whether this depiction of America needed to be set in the future. We in the present already have hollow parties, our gadgets already fade into obsolescence as rapidly as we can create them, and we already have terrifying weapons. William Gibson is sometimes quoted as saying that the “future has arrived,” and I am aware that futuristic science fiction often serves as an allegorical commentary on the present. In fairness, Robinson wrote The Gold Coast in 1988, and I, reading this novel in 2016, am probably unfair to critique a near future science fiction novel for feeling too much like a regular work of fiction, especially since readers of science fiction usually congratulate authors who accurately (or even somewhat accurately) predict the future.

I do respect what Robinson has done with The Gold Coast, and I especially admire how he uses the novels in this series to speak to and against one another. Many readers will either enjoy this story and/or appreciate its themes, but I rarely rushed back to The Gold Coast to see what would happen next.

I listened to Black Stone Audio’s production of The Gold Coast, which was read by Stefan Rudnicki. I enjoyed his performance of The Gold Coast more than I did his performance of The Wild Shore, perhaps because it called for fewer accents.

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.

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  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.