Tor, 1988, 389 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-55239-3
The United States stuck in a series of small wars, everyone terrified of terrorists, commercial sprawl taking over parks and natural preserves, California mired in gridlock sixteen hours a day, defence industries becoming all-powerful, teenagers swapping meaningless sex and designer drugs. Sounds like today’s world?
Too bad, because Kim Stanley Robinson wrote it as a dystopia twenty years ago.
The second volume in his “three Californias” trilogy of alternate futures, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast isn’t meant to be a fun or glorious place: The portrait of the world it portrays is one of a hothouse running out of control. Stress is destroying people from within, society has gone trigger-happy in several non-metaphorical fashions, there is no end in sight and hope is dim. As the novel unfolds, it’s unclear whether something big is about to happen, or if -worse- nothing ever will.
A young man named Jim McPherson is the nexus of the story, but The Gold Coast goes beyond him to present a kaleidoscopic view of the world in which he lives. The viewpoint regularly shifts to his family, his friends, and the people that they encounter along the way. Along the way, Robinson’s prose acquires a choppy, manic quality that reflects the way the world is over-revving. McPherson think of himself as a poet, but what he does is chop up word fragments and think it’s art. Nothing in his life is working: He’s not too bright, not too skillful, not too close to his father. His friends are his only source of happiness, and even that is being generous since no one can understand what he’s up to. When he gets the chance to help a small home-grown terrorist group, it’s a welcome distraction more than a political statement.
Meanwhile, Jim’s overworked father is being pressured by his manager to lead a crucial weapon development effort for his corporation. An honest engineer, he finds himself trapped between complex rules of Pentagon weapon procurement and a boss that consciously flirts with psychopathology. Despite a superior product and honest estimates, he is soon hanging on to a losing bid.
None of this sounds particularly promising on paper. It’s not even particularly heavy in SF concepts. But in Robinson’s hands, it quickly becomes compelling material. Pentagon bureaucracy has never been more mesmerizing. Slice-of-life plotting has seldom been more engaging. Even as The Gold Coast threatens to leave without delivering a story, the portrait of the world created by Robinson and the way he describes what happens to his characters is enough to make us care. There’s actually a certain perverse elegance in the way he sets up a portrait so intensely nihilistic that the ending, when it does shift the status quo for a few characters, comes as a welcome surprise. It’s not made of earth-shattering insights (in a crooked game, the only way to win is to walk away), but it’s a ray of hope in a novel that didn’t seem predisposed to them.
There’s a good deal of echoing material to be found between this novel and The Wild Shore, Robinson’s previous “Three California” book. “Uncle Tom” is clearly meant to stem from the same person as the Tom in the previous novel, though in a different alternate world. Both novels show a willingness to avoid the easy clichés of dystopia, even allowing characters to find a measure of happiness in terrible environments.
Meanwhile, Robinson scholars will note that the young McPherson shares a number of similarities with the author himself. As we discover who writes the long historical interludes about Orange County’s urbanization, the links become apparent.
It may be too easy to find parallels between the novel and the way this world has turned since 1988. Sharp-eyes readers will note that the Cold War is alive and well in the book, and that some pieces of slang (such as “allies”) don’t fit well. But that’s missing the point: as we’re sliding into 2008, the world of The Gold Coast remains immediately understandable to us, and what it has to say about it remain just as relevant to us today. The Gold Coast has weathered the past two decades admirably well. Too well, actually.