Kim Stanley Robinson’s debut novel, The Wild Shore, was first published in 1984 but its story begins decades after nuclear bombs were set off in America’s cities. Now, in 2047, Californian survivors in San Onofre dedicate their days to gathering food and maintaining their shelters rather than filming movies and computer programming.
Hank Fletcher, our narrator, is angry at the world. Unlike some angst-ridden teenagers, Hank has good reason to resent the world as all the other countries of the United Nations have agreed to prevent the American survivors from rebuilding. While the Californians struggle to figure out radios, they are spied upon by satellite. If the survivors show signs of repairing old railroads, patrolling Japanese ships launch missiles.
The days are busy but at night the survivors still gather to drink whiskey and rum. They make plans for swap meets and they tell stories. Their greatest storyteller, Tom, is a survivor from before the bombs went off. Through his stories about the past, Hank and his friends struggle to understand what happened to them, what America was, and what America is now that it has no power and is one again a wild frontier.
Hank and his friends are young, and they want to do something to strike back. During a trip with Tom to San Diego, Hank meets Mayor Danforth, who is keen to lead raids against the Japanese. Tom, however, is more interested in Danforth’s books. The San Diegans have begun producing new books and they even have one account of an American survivor who claims to have traveled around the world.
There are two sides to The Wild Shore and both recall the colonial America. Some readers will be attracted to Hank’s dream of striking back against their overseas enemies, in this case the Japanese rather than the English. Like the Revolutionary generation, Hank and his allies are outgunned, but readers looking for action would do better reading David McCullough’s 1776 rather than The Wild Shore. Hank fights by spying on a collaborator, and the skirmish he participates in does not go as well as he dreams. Robinson seems more interested in America as a concept, and he focuses on Hank’s relationship with Tom to explore what America would be if it was not tied to global power. Tom’s stories are like instructive myths that are meant to help Hank, his readers, and his descendents understand America’s greatness and its flaws. Although he misses the past world, Tom says he feels more alive in the raw and reborn America.
In spite of its post-apocalyptic setting, which is often associated with adventurous young adult literature, The Wild Shore is a thoughtful novel. The Wild Shore is built around a fascinating concept and it takes its themes seriously.
I listened to Black Stone Audio’s production of The Wild Shore, which was read by Stefan Rudnicki. Rudnicki reads with a very deep voice and he does not shy away from a variety of accents. Though I found his accents grating, I otherwise enjoyed the reading.
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.