Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Gold Coast - Kim Stanley Robinson

The Gold Coast is the second book in Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Califonias series. I read the first part, the Wild Shore during a vacation in the Czech republic in 2007 and ordered the other two books right after I came back. They ended up on my to read stack though, I just didn't get around to reading them. Time to change that. In the Three Californias trilogy Robinson presents three radically different future Californias. Where The Wild Shore showed us a post apocalyptic society, The Gold Coast is more or less a continuation of where most people assume were heading at the moment. California is slowly turning into a gigantic mall, the part that isn't covered by freeways that is.

A synopsis of this book is pretty hard, we get a lot of different points of view in this book. The central character is Jim McPherson though. Jim is the son of a defence contractor. His family is well to do and he moves in fashionable circles but he's not a happy man. For one thing he can't get along with his father. Jim has socialist ideas and they clash with what his father is doing. Professionally Jim is not doing that well. He works two part-time job but doesn't make enough money to support himself. The only place where he is somewhat at ease is among his friends. His life of designer drugs, casual sex and rampant consumerism leaves him empty. Jim is acutely aware of the history of his native Orange County and how much of it has disappeared under the concrete of freeways and apartment blocks. He needs a purpose, a way to strike back at a system he despises and one of his friends is in a position to offer him that. Jim enters the world of industrial terrorism and heads straight for a major crisis in his life.

Where in the previous book California and its society were barely recognizable as such, the picture this books paints is all to familiar. According to the back cover it is set in 2027 and as far as I can tell we're pretty much on track to what Robinson describes. Socially and economically anyway. This book was first published in 1988 and in some respects it shows its age. Video tape is still around and the Soviets are as well The cold war is still driving a huge industrial-military complex, boosting the local economy. Despite the ever present threat of nuclear war, smaller conflicts are breaking out all over the globe, often involving the US. The violence is one of the things that repulses Jim.

The Gold Coast is very cleverly constructed. Though a number of characters we see the events that will have an impact of Jim's life unfold without any of the characters overseeing the whole drama. The novel clearly shows the sometimes disastrous outcome of uninformed decisions. After finishing it, it occurred to me that a lot of what is going on is influenced by the decisions of a man who has something like fifteen lines in the book in total. Robinson portrays him as rational but also very hard. Jim ends the book on a positive note but I am not sure that goes for the reader as well, most of us would like to think we have a little more control over our lives.

Orange County, where most of the novel is set, it the place where Robinson grows up. Throughout the book you sense a kind of melancholia for al the things that were and went away in the region. With little bits of Jim's writing on the history of the region mixed in with the rest of the story we more or less cover it from pre-history to Jim's time. Robinson obviously loves the region he grew up in but the sadness of so many beautiful things disappearing under the ever expanding concrete of suburbia penetrates the entire novel. I'm not entirely sure it is fitting for Jim, it seems to me that you to have at least seen some of those things disappear for it to evoke this kind of feeling. By the time Jim is born, around the turn of the century I think, most of what he describes is gone. Jim goes so far as to look for a bit of tangible evidence of the past to compensate for its absence in twenty first century Orange County. This incident is set in the opening chapters of the book and appears to be the a number of young fellows under the influence of drugs. For Jim it obviously goes deeper than that.

All three novels share one character: Uncle Tom. Like in The Wild Shore he is a very old man in this book, tucked away in a nursing home because of his failing lungs. Where Tom tries to hang on to some little bits of civilization in the previous book, that same civilization is almost torture for him. Sure, he is looked after and kept alive but that is about all. He definitely appears happier in The Wild Shore, it seems an overdose of technology is not going to make people happy either. Given the fact that the third and final book is utopian, that may well be the message Robinson wants the reader to carry along to the next book.

This is probably a very silly thing to say in a review but I haven't quite made up my mind about this book yet. I guess it is one of those novels where you can appreciate the skill it took to write it, identify with the main characters and recognize a lot of what the author is showing you but still not causes you to write a rave review right after you finish it. If anything is leaves the reader a bit melancholic as well. At one point in the novel Jim realized that whatever he decides to do, it will make no difference whatsoever in the long run. The Gold Coast does not portray a happy future but for those of you who are willing to brave it, there is an awful lot to think about in this novel. I suppose I am ready to look at another alternative. Surely we can do better than this future.

Book Details
Title: The Gold Coast
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb books
Pages: 389
Year: 1995
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-312-89037-7
First published: 1988


  1. This sounds like an interesting book. I recently got into dystopic fiction and I think I'd like to give this book a try. Thanks for the review!

  2. Keep in mind the three books are meant to be one statement, the middle book may not be a good place to start ;)