This is another review from the archives. I dug it up polished it a bit and moved it over here because I intend to read the remaining two books in this series some time later this year, or maybe early next year. I wrote the original version of this in August 2007 and after rereading it I must admit it needed a bit of work. Hopefully this version will read a bit better than the 2007 edition does. Enjoy!
The Wild Shore is the first book of the Three Californias trilogy. Each book covers a possible future of Orange County, the place where Robinson grew up. The Wild Shore was first published in 1984 and was his first full length novel. I wasn't sure if the concept would appeal to me, does it get repetitive? I decided to try it at least and give the first one a go anyway. I always liked post apocalyptic settings so this first book probably suits me best. No regrets after reading it. The Wild Shore is a very good read.
The story is set in a California after crippling nuclear strikes against the US have laid the nation to waste. The details of these attacks remain unclear, but we do know that it took place in the mid 1980s and that the US did not retaliate. The technological basis of the US was completely destroyed in the attack. In 2047, the year the novel is set in, scattered, isolated groups of people try to rebuild and scavenge whatever they can from the ruins. The economy has collapsed into a barter system with no currency worth mentioning. For reasons that remain unclear to the Americans, the world has decided to actively keep the US from rebuilding itself to its former glory.
In one such community our main character and the narrator of the story, Henry, grows up. He is about 16 in 2047 and lives in a small settlement on the coast. Some 60 people in all, who get by on fishing, some agriculture and trade with the other communities in the area. They seem to lack the resources to move much beyond that in the short term. Because of the struggle for survival and the relative isolation of his community, Henry is quite ignorant of the wider world. Despite the best effort of a man named Tom, one of the survivors of the nuclear strike, he doesn't believe half of the stories he has heard about the former glory of America. Henry may not believe in his nation's former power but there are people who will not settle for mere survival. South of Henry's community, in San Diego a group is trying to rebuild in earnest. They show up in Henry's village with a request from the mayor of San Diego. A request that spits the community, used to taking decisions democratically, right down the middle. Henry chooses his side and has to face the consequences.
Robinson chooses to focus on the characters and this one small community. That means we don't get to see a lot of the world or even California. A lot of the background remains uncertain. Henry doesn't seem to know a lot about it anyway. But somehow that does make him a very convincing character. He's naive, uneducated. Clever in a way but not really intelligent. Quite an unusual character for Robinson really. Most of characters are scientific minded, often very intelligent, Henry doesn't seem to be wired that way. Henry likes action, he is not one to sit around waiting for something to happen or deeply reflect on the possible consequences of his actions. It makes this novel pretty fast paced. More so than Robinson's later work, that tends to contain a lot of reflection of sociological, environmental and scientific issues.
Although the concept is a bit outdated The Wild Shore is absolutely worth reading. It's definitely not the most likely future for California, even if at one time it was certainly possible. Being published right before the first cracks start to appear (to the outside world at least) in the Soviet Union, the timing of this novel probably was a bit unlucky for Robinson. The prospect of nuclear war would be receding fast in the years after publication. The story itself is interesting and skilfully told, Robinson put a lot of thought into how such a community would work (no surprise there, sociology shows up in a lot of his other novels as well).
All in all I was pleasantly surprised by this novel so I guess I am going to try the others as well. There should some subtle connection between the three. It will be interesting to see if there is any difference in his approach between The Wild Coast and the other two books. The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge represent a rampant capitalist society and a utopian society respectively and were published in 1988. Robinson published two excellent other novels in the years between the first and the second Three Californias novels. In these books, Icehenge (1984) and The Memory of Whiteness (1985), Robinson starts exploring the solar system, a journey that would eventually take him to the much praised Mars trilogy. It makes me wonder if his early works were written in the order they were published in. More on the Three Californias soon.
Title: The Wild Shore
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb Books
First published: 1984