30 April 2004


Well, I'm over a third of the way through Pacific Edge, and enjoying it enormously. It seems to be a feature of Kim Stanley Robinson's books that any concerns are small-scale and personal, and that his (always impressive) worldbuilding goes on in the gaps between people behaving like people. It's a lovely approach, and rare in SF.

Here, the people are all muscular and healthy, enjoy softball and cycling and hard physical labour, and use video phones instead of the internet. I've mentioned before that I was ambivalent about Robinson's supposed dystopian novel in the same trilogy, The Gold Coast, on the grounds that its urbanised future of ubiquitous car use and designer drugs didn't actually seem all that bad to me. Well, I can see his utopia is an awful lot more wholesome and happy and generally good for the world... but Christ, it would be a nightmare if you didn't like sport. Even the token character-who-doesn't-like-sport secretly does really.

This isn't a pure pastoral, back-to-basics future, though -- there's a lot of discreet technology, including space engineering going on behind the scenes, and the decisions made are shown to be reliant on the advanced state of the ecological sciences. It was a smart move opening the Orange County trilogy with a novel, The Wild Coast, which shows a thoroughly rural, low-tech future, in a post-apocalyptic setting, and demonstrates exactly how grim and unpleasant such a thing would be, because otherwise those would be exactly the accusations one would aim against this novel. In fact, the three volumes of the trilogy equate to "Now, I'm not saying this would be a good thing -- but surely we need to get away from this. Wouldn't this be better?

As this bald summary suggests, there's a lot of dialectic going on in the novels -- The Wild Shore and The Gold Coast operate as thesis and antithesis in a lot of ways (pastoral / urban, isolationist / imperialist etc), and Pacific Edge rather cleverly takes the less horrible elements of both and synthesises them into something very appealing (unless you don't like sport).

So far, there seem to be a lot of useful practical tips on how to run a utopia, but Robinson himself (in one character's diary entries dating back to the generation when the utopia was established) makes the point that any utopia divorced from the history-to-date of human civilisation is fundamentally useless.

Unfortunately, from what I've been able to gather so far (and of course I will know better when I've actually finished the book), the establishment of said utopia seems to rely on everybody suddenly coming to their senses sometime in the 2010s, and adopting the broadly socialist and environmentalist principles around which the new social structures are based. Those structures are extremely interesting (although there's rather a lot of material about the practicalities of water distribution), but the initial premise there seems currently unlikely. I'm sure these events will be fleshed out later in the novel, but Robinson has his work cut out to convince me that such a change of heart is at all likely.

What is worrying is that, of the three books in the trilogy, the utopia and the post-apocalyptic novel depend for their future history on specific anomalous events happening which cause the course of history to diverge from the predicted. The dystopia just relies on things carrying on the way they are. Perhaps this is just in the nature of dystopias, which Kingsley Amis once described as "an instrument of social diagnosis and warning". Still... brr.

No comments:

Post a Comment

(Please sign comments -- it helps keep track of things. Offensive comments may occasionally be deleted, and spam definitely will be.)