Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pacific Edge - Kim Stanley Robinson

This book is the last novel by Kim Stanley Robinson I haven't read at least once. Having no other novels left to pursue is not necessarily a bad thing. There is some short fiction I have yet to dive into (I'm very much looking forward to the collection of Robinson's best short fiction that is scheduled for an august 2010 release) and two of his earlier works, Icehenge and The Memory of Whiteness are up for a reread in the not too distant future. In the mean time, let's have a look at Pacific Edge, the third book in the Three Californias trilogy. Where The Wild Shore showed us a post apocalyptic California and The Gold Coast deals with future where urbanisation is out of control, in Pacific Edge the author explores a utopian future. A California where people have learnt to listen to the land and pursue more sustainable population levels and economic activity.

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 measure. The main character Kevin, an architect judging from the descriptions designing lovely sustainable homes, 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 in to 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 for Kevin he did not foresee when taking the job.

The second character the novel focusses 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 visiting. Tom was something of a political creature in his younger years, part of this we find out from snippets his writings dating back to the year 2012 (the revolution is imminent I guess). He is not eager to be drawn into Kevin's battle but his contacts can be very useful indeed.

Robinson creates a utopia that 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 from a country with quite a different legal tradition.

Kevin pretty soon realizes he is in way over his head, 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 his 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 more resources 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, is the description of the young Tom's struggle with Swiss and US immigration services. There are a number of very vocal 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 this book if you pay attention to it. Those books must have been on his mind already when he wrote this. Apart from a description of the Mars landing, 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 will return in this trilogy. In the context of his entire oeuvre this book is more interesting that either The Wild Shore or The Gold Coast. I must admit I thought the ending of the book a little anticlimactic (if 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 this novel for recently in which she wonders if there is anybody who likes all three. 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 environmental crisis the world is in. To me this utopia doesn't sound so bad, even if it is a high maintenance one.

Book Details
Title: Pacific Edge
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb books
Pages: 326
Year: 1995
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-312-89038-4
First published: 1990

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