07 April 2004

Three Studies In Orange

I recently finished Kim Stanley Robinson's The Gold Coast, the second volume in his Orange County Trilogy (also known as Three Californias). The three novels describe alternative futures for Orange County, California, as seen from the vantage point of the mid-to-late 1980s. Broadly speaking, they fall into three different sub-genres of science fiction: post-apocalyptic, dystopia and utopia. I've not read very much Robinson -- The Wild Shore (which is the first of this trilogy) and the fantastic The Years of Rice and Salt being about it -- but I'm impressed by the emotional depth of his writing and his technical skill. I'd be the last to suggest that science fiction as a genre lacks literacy, but voices of Robinson's strength are rare in any genre. His prose occasionally skirts the edges of being portentous, but never passes over it, at least not in anything I've read so far.

Supposedly, The Gold Coast is the dystopia of the triptych, although to be honest I'd prefer to live there than in the frankly grim post-holocaust pastoral world of The Wild Shore. Then again, part of the dystopian message of TGC is that the US has it good at everybody else's expense (the reverse situation to that of TWS, where the UN has quarantined it for everyone else's sake). I've read that TGC is one of Robinson's weaker novels, but I found it excellent. Its present-tense and third-person narrative demonstrate immediacy and impersonality where TWS's first-person voice was reflective and subjective. It's interspersed with poetic fragments which (as they themselves keep reminding us) resemble shopping lists, with the refrain "You live here, too".

I had trouble experiencing TGC as a dystopia, although it has some of the classic hallmarks: its characters if anything seem to lead rather full lives, albeit ones subject to ennui. I am, of course, a big fan of urban settings in science fiction (perhaps why I react so badly to the post-apocalyptic subgenre), and the fact that this dystopia is over-urbanised, car-dependent (the first page refers to it as "autopia") and media-saturated fills me with considerably less horror than it would some. Interestingly this future has a lot in common with that of the cyberpunk novel, particularly of William Gibson's Neuromancer, published three years earlier: corporate businesses run the show, designer drugs are the norm, multi-media streaming has replaced traditional art forms and individuals have lost all sense of focus. Significantly, though, Robinson does not see humanity merging itself with technology, and at one point one of his characters insists forcibly: "Jim, no one gives a fuck about computers". What's more, continuity with the past, rather than disjointed history, is emphasised: Robinson wants us, after all, to believe that this is a possible future for a specific place in southern California.

I'm eagerly anticipating reading the third volume, Pacific Edge (a big thank you to the Bristol City Council Library Service, if they're reading, for tracking down all three novels for me). Given the links and resonances between the first two books -- night swims, excursions to Catalina and to the USSR, a medic dealing with the death of an intimate, betrayal by a supposedly honourable "resistance" -- the scope of Robinson's ambition in the trilogy is clearly wide, and I'm looking forward to appreciating its full range.

In the meantime, though, I'm left contemplating an America effectively run from the Pentagon, embroiled in unnecessary wars for propaganda's sake against opponents it has itself armed, enriching itself at the expense of the rest of the world while it precipitates ecological meltdown at home and abroad. Arguably only a political illiterate would claim that this is the world we're actually living in, sixteen years later -- but I'd like to think most of us would baulk at claiming there was nothing familiar about it.

Admittedly Robinson gets some details entirely wrong -- predictably, America's main adversary is the Soviet bloc, and the characters (who have carphones but no mobiles) still think CDs are a pretty neat idea. Still, given that The Wild Shore saw civilisation falling, not through open war, but from the effects of international terrorism, I'm becoming rather eager to discover how Pacific Edge envisages a utopia coming to pass.

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