Tor, 1990, 326 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-85097-2
Compulsive readers like myself often end up focusing on volume more than retention. Too many books! Not enough time! Trying to remember specific details of a story weeks after reading it can be a struggle. Fortunately, the best novels rise above this limitation: The mark of a good book can be how well it sticks in mind, fighting its memory pointers against so many forgettable titles.
And so it is that as I revise this, weeks after reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, I still have vivid memories of it. Which is curious, since this is not a conventionally action-packed novel. Taking place in a pleasant near-future where humanity has largely managed to find balance with nature, this is the third novel in Robinson’s “Three California” triptych. After post-nuclear (The Wild Shore) and overheating-dystopian (The Gold Coast) scenarios, Robinson tackles the old “there is no drama in utopia” nonsense by showing us how love and pride can still matter at a time of peace and abundance.
Like its predecessors, Pacific Edge follows the adventures of a none-too-bright young man living in Orange County, along with his friends and family. It also features an older “Tom Barnard” to coach our protagonist and a shadow narrative that stands halfway outside the novel as counterpoint and explanation.
Plot-wise, Pacific Edge is chiefly concerned about environmental issues and sentimental matters. Our characters live in a sustainable community, so ecological issues constantly hover above their heads as vital elements of their lives. Half of the novel’s plot strands revolve around the protagonist discovering and fighting against a corporate takeover of water rights, a battle that earns him the enmity of several powerful opponents. To complicate matter further, romantic complications arise when an old flame takes an interest in him after leaving an influential member of the city council who is also part of the takeover. This may be utopia, but there are still important issues to get passionate about.
Fans of Robinson’s writing will be delighted to read his usually skillful prose, which navigates a tough path between plot, characterization, political speculation and sweeping description. Robinson takes risks that would destroy a story in the hand of lesser writers, and the result is just as compulsively readable as his other books. The particularity of Pacific Edge is how it’s set in a future where the fate of the planet is never in doubt. This is a local story, taking place between a few participants, where baseball games, bicycle rides, community projects and ersatz families carry much importance. The way Robinson holds our interest with those comparatively small stakes is astonishing.
In fact, some of the best moments of the book are nothing but characters experiencing their own world. The book opens with a radiant sequence in which the protagonist of the book cycles down a mountain, feeling as if nothing bad can happen: “Man! What a day!”. At the other end of the story, the same protagonist laughing after realizing that “he was without a doubt the unhappiest person in the world.” [P.326] Small moments, but exactly the kind of writing to stick in mind for a while.
I may prefer The Gold Coast for its manic narration and its sense of redemption, but Pacific Edge seems to be the strongest volume in Robinson’s triptych. Eighteen years after publication, it’s still relatively unique in that it touches upon environmental issues without too much preaching, tackles emotional issues not often found elsewhere in Science Fiction and presents such a sense of utter serenity that even being the unhappiest person in that world seems preferable to many happy lives in this one.
It doesn’t take much more to wonder where all the utopias have gone, and whether we’ll ever build one of our own. Humans born when this novel was published are now able to vote, but it hasn’t aged a wink since then. Great books do more than stick in mind: they keep their own relevance even as the years go by.