The Wild Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson

Ace, 1984, 371 pages, C$2.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-88870-4

As an avid reader, I obsess about things that are completely meaningless to the rest of the world. I wonder, for instance, about how tastes change over time. About how genre familiarity destroys some books and enhances others. About how it’s possible to be unimpressed by an author, only to re-discover him years later with surprise and pleasure. Even if my tastes have remained largely unchanged over time (sometimes to my dismay), authors like Kim Stanley Robinson give me reason to hope that I’m become a better reader.

I wasn’t overly impressed, eleven years ago, with his first short story collection The Planet on the Table. But as the years went on, I found more and more to like in his fiction, until he became a standby in my list of authors to buy on sight. I don’t think I would have appreciated The Wild Shore as much ten years ago; I may even like it more in another ten. Who knows what else I’ll know by then?

For instance, The Wild Shore is best appreciated with a knowledge of post-apocalyptic fiction. Here, a nuclear attack has devastated the United States sixty years prior to the events of the novel, plunging the country in a primitive collection of city-states carefully monitored by foreign powers. We eventually discover that the lack of advanced technology is not an accident: bad things from space tend to happen to anyone who attempts to re-develop advanced technology on American soil. The Japanese keep patrols on the west coast to make sure that things stay under control.

This state of affairs soon proves unbearable to young Henry, who emerges from a generally content childhood in Orange County, California, with ideas on how to fight foreign influence. Dragged in an emerging war between neighbouring cities and the Japanese overseers, Henry sees a bit of the world, undergoes a number of adventures and grows up a bit. There’s not much more to the plot, but it’s competently portrayed.

The Wild Shore remains Kim Stanley Robinson’s first novel and structurally it’s not quite as tight as it could be. Among other annoyances, the novel includes several chapters of a travelogue by an American travelling around the world, which take away from Henry’s tale. The attack that destroyed America isn’t particularly believable (3000 suitcase nukes?!?), and some passages rely heavily on coincidence, such as Henry’s unbelievable luck in meeting his friends after a nautical odyssey.

But the book is more interesting when it’s measured against so much of the nuclear post-apocalyptic sub-genre that formed such a part of SF in the seventies and eighties. In The Wild Shore, the American nationalists who want to rebuild America to its former glory are misguided. Indeed, the first surprise of the book is in seeing how pleasant Henry’s life seems to be. This first volume is meant as the “post-apocalyptic” element of the trilogy, but things aren’t always as bleak at they appear.

(The quarantine of the United States by other countries is seen as a necessary evil, and that particular idea finds a justified resonance in Robinson’s follow-up volume The Gold Coast. Among other things, Robinson has intended The Wild Shore to be part of an unusual trilogy: Three views of the future, set in California’s Orange County, more or less independent from one another. )

In terms of prose, though, it’s easy to recognize in this first novel the same prose style (not entirely dispassionate, not entirely exempt from showy cleverness) that would follow during most of Robinson’s career. The Wild Shore is hardly a perfect novel, and the nuclear theme may not be entirely credible today, but it’s a fine book and a good portrait of the author as a budding utopian. I’m glad I read it today rather than years ago, and I’m looking forward to the day where I’ll be able to re-read it with even greater pleasure.

[March 2008: And now I know something I didn’t when I read The Wild Shore: its kinship with Jack London’s “The Scarlet Plague” (1912). Thanks to Donald Alexandre for pointing out the parallels at an ICFA presentation.]

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