Review: The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson

Cover courtesy of Orbit Books

The Gold Coast is the second book in the Three Californias Triptych, written by Kim Stanley Robinson. The triptych portrays three visions of a future Orange County: the first, The Wild Shore, post-apocalyptic; the second, The Gold Coast, dystopian; and the third, Pacific Edge, utopian. I’m simplifying, but that’s the basic idea. For the most part, characters don’t carry over from one book to the next—you could pick this book up by itself no problem. I’ll talk more about the effect of reading it together with the others later, but suffice it to say it makes an excellent stand-alone novel.

The two major plotlines of the book follow Jim McPherson and his father Dennis McPherson. Dennis is an engineer working for Laguna Space Research, a defense contractor. It’s 2027 but the Cold War never ended. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set their clock “one second to midnight man, set there for twenty years.” Jim is a part-time English teacher at a junior college, making ends meet by doing some clerical work at a real estate office too. He’s enchanted by the history of Orange County, the orange groves long ago torn out to make room for condos and freeways, which have so devoured the landscape recently that he and his friends refer to the county as “autopia,” and it’s residential areas as “condomundo.” He’s dissatisfied with the state of the world and the state of his own life, but doesn’t know what to do about either. So the two major plot-lines are 1. Dennis McPherson’s efforts to land a contract for a new missile defense system, and the hell of bureaucracy and inter-departmental rivalries which get in his way; and 2. Jim McPherson’s growing involvement in efforts to sabotage defense contractors in Orange County. These two plotlines will of course have to converge at some point.

That said, this isn’t a book driven by plotlines, and the two I just described aren’t exactly the focus. Where other novels direct their energy forward in chains of causal events, Gold Coast directs its energy outwards. More than anything characters drive the novel, representing a broad section of the young people of Orange County. Steadily, steadily, the world reveals itself through their different viewpoints, through the maneuvers of their daily lives. Jim is a prototypical lost young man, but the pitfalls of this trope (e.g. telling a story ostensibly about social issues by centering a middle class straight cis white man, most protected from the consequences of those issues) are avoided by the fact that the book takes on so many different viewpoints. Each chapter follows a specific character, and Jim’s chapters are just one tributary of the novel’s expansive river basin. The book almost feels like a sitcom at times, especially since so many of the viewpoint characters are part of the same friend group. So Jim’s aimlessness isn’t valorized or held up as some universal experience, it’s just one life cast among the lives of drug dealers, ambulance drivers, surfers, revolutionaries, art teachers. The one glaring failure is the lack of women. Sure, they’re around, but only one of them is given her own chapters. Oddly enough, it’s Jim’s mother. So while Robinson is admirable for including chapters following her life, which is indeed an expansive and realized life entirely separate from her son or her husband, he’s worth criticizing for otherwise showing Orange County entirely through male inhabitants.

And this is also one of the few things that doesn’t ring true about the cast—with some exceptions, there aren’t a lot of male-female friendships, and almost no mention of gay relationships. Setting that aside, the young characters in this book, mostly in their late twenties, are believable. Youth culture has a timeless quality to it, with certain pressures, behaviors, and anxieties occurring generation after generation, and Robinson has captured that here.

What plot there is is restrained, meandering, or episodic. Even Jim’s involvement in antiwar activities progresses in small steps, with big gaps in between filled by teaching, going to parties, dating a coworker. This is a great strength of the book—it approximates the narrative pace of life, and many of these one-off episodic stories are quite memorable. This kind of storytelling will be familiar to readers of Kim Stanley Robinson. Grounded, accumulative, simmering, maybe to boil over some day, but maybe not. Outward not forward. The reader collects conversations in cars, highway accidents, trips abroad, family dinners, drug deals, poems, break-ups, and page by page these deepen the characters and the world, while a few long-term narratives develop in the background, tension increasing, the world pushing forward at one second to midnight.

A challenge with this kind of plot is sticking the landing. There can’t be a big climax, there can’t be some huge change to the status quo, either a happy ending or a tragic one. That’s not the type of book this is, that’s not the type of world these characters move through. So Robinson again turns to interior life, and absolutely nails it, with a climactic sequence that manages to be spectacular and realistic, meaningful to the characters as individuals but not impactful to the world as a whole.

Because for the most part, the book isn’t about fighting against dystopia. Jim and Dennis McPherson aren’t like Guy and Beatty, avatars of warring sides that cannot live while the other survives. That is, the world is not totalizing. It is not fashioned after dictatorships, it’s fashioned after the shitty over-militarized democracy that Kim Stanley Robinson grew up in. It’s not a parable, a perfect model trapped in a snow globe meant to give the reader a crystal clear message, it’s a world where people teach English, lid drugs, listen to music. The government is not hell bent on silencing or destroying its opposition, not led by a dictator given page space for precious monologues, it’s a world of heavy, interconnected institutions that will carry on destroying the world no matter who is leading them. Sure, Jim destroys some experimental military equipment, but the plot isn’t building towards a revolution. And sure, Dennis is complicit in developing so many more arms for the arms race, but more than anything he’s just pissed at his boss and trying to match the DOD’s impossible standards.

The relationship between the characters and their world is not defined by a struggle. Mainly, the world is wearying, frustrating, unyielding to change and headed in the wrong direction. And I wouldn’t harp on so much about the dystopias that this isn’t like, if it weren’t for the fact that those dystopias (Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, etc.) create a world of melodrama. This serves it’s own purposes, but it’s the literary equivalent of comparing every hate group to the Nazis—as if they were the first, only, or greatest perpetrators of injustice. (I’m always struck by the fact that when describing politicians or groups in the US, people cross the Atlantic for their comparisons, when more pertinent exemplars abound right in our backyard.)

So in The Gold Coast Kim Stanley Robinson, in order to portray a dystopia, starts with his own time. Rather than cribbing from authoritarian Eastern Bloc governments, rather than simply visiting the injustices already faced by non-whites on white people (oh, horror), he looks at the military machine already burning up billions of dollars and thousands of lives in 1988, he looks at the freeways and high rises already spreading across the wild landscape since the 50s, the orange groves rooted out when he was a kid in OC, he takes our rotten world and pushes it forward to 2027. There is some exaggeration, and of course in 2020 it has not ended up quite so bad—we are 100 seconds to midnight, thank you very much—but all in all the world and the way people relate to it is recognizable.

A refrain in the book, usually following some scene-setting, is “You live here.” It’s alienating, the second-person almost always is, because the reader’s gut response is no, I do not, you don’t know me book. Yet, it’s undeniable that, in a sense, we do. The readers in 1988 certainly did, and 32 years on, although the Cold War’s over and suburban sprawl isn’t quite as bad as in the book, we do still live here. This is the alienation that the characters themselves experience, a disconnection from their home, the unreality of miles of concrete, locales separated by car rides, everything on an inhuman scale, and the threat of nuclear holocaust undeniable yet unthinkable and abstract. You live here. Sure.

It’s when the book discusses landscape and setting that it becomes most experimental. There are these descriptive moments where it uses second-person, as well as interludes between chapters describing the history of Orange County, as written by Jim—then there’s a scene where, in Greece, Jim and his friends talk out all the generations of inhabitants of the island they’re on, with deadening repetition.

In all, the book is incredibly immersive, and because it’s all such an organic outgrowth of our own world, it’s not a steep learning curve. Pretty soon, you’re moving through the OC like a fish in water.

As far as Robinson’s genuine innovations—things that aren’t just continuations of existing phenomena, but which require some kind of imaginative leap—well, they’re few, but none of them feel off. There’s the anachronisms you would expect—increased use of personal video recorders, which checks out, but it’s all VHS (at one point Jim’s friends make fun of him for talking about computers, saying they’re “boring.”) The term “ally” replacing boyfriend/girlfriend (essentially used the way people actually use “partner” today) though no apparent expansion of LGBT rights or even existence of queer folks in the mainstream. It’s a neat game, relating these ideas to things that did or didn’t really happen, but it’s not the book’s main focus. It’s enough to give the impression that yes, technology and the world have not stood still for 40 years, but little more.

Alright that’s a lot of words I’ve written and while I could say more, I’ll cut short my discussion of the book itself here. I’ll also say I realize Robinson is not unique in this approach to dystopia—Stand on Zanzibar jumps to mind—but the 1984 approach to dystopia is by far the more prominent one, the one everyone fawns over, so I feel compelled to point out the distinction, and why Robinson’s approach is frankly much fucking better. What’s more, he does a damn good job with it, the execution is as solid as the concept.

Now, as to the book in the context of the triptych, I can’t say much since I haven’t actually finished the triptych yet, but I will say if you’re a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson, you may want to read all of them together. There’s no shared cast between books but there are certainly echoes, overlaps, ghosts. What struck me most, reading this after Wild Shore, was the distinct lingering impression of that post-apocalyptic world—specifically, a post-nuclear-apocalypse. Reading Gold Coast, with the Cold War looming, I would from time to time (for instance, when a prominent location from the first book was mentioned in the second) think of that world as a vision of what could occur at any moment. All this partying, fast food, corporate squabbling could be obliterated and completely forgotten, could become the nothingness that surrounds Kevin in San Onofre. Then again, this alternate vision of apocalypse could be a source of optimism. One second to midnight, but it’s not midnight yet.

I have some more observations about recurring motifs between the books, but don’t totally know what to make of them. Maybe I’ll review the triptych as a whole, once I’ve finished Pacific Edge. For now, I’ll wrap this up.

Kim Stanley Robinson has, in a few interviews (here’s one), said that the way to write an interesting utopia (since in a utopia there’s no major conflict coming from the state of the world) is to “novelize” it—to focus on interpersonal relations, to rely on the dramatic inventory that literary fiction has employed for centuries. It seems he has done the same thing here, but with dystopia, foregrounding the relationships of characters, their public and private lives, and revealing more about the world, about what it is to live and survive in dystopia, through this approach. I absolutely loved this book, engrossed by the world and its inhabitants. I’m sure a large part of my enjoyment came from the fact that the book focuses so much on friendships, parties, and I’ve been in isolation for half a year now, but even beyond that, it’s a fantastic read. Or listen—I listened to Stefan Rudnicki’s reading of it, which was excellent.

Its vision is expansive and deep-rooted. If you’re a fan of KSR, read it. If you’ve never read him, here’s a good introduction. Remember, you live here.

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