Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review of Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson

Most series, regardless of the number of volumes, run linearly. A single story stretched over numerous pages, the end of an individual volume is just a convenient waypoint to starting the next. This is certainly one of the reasons why Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias/Orange County trilogy is so unique. Like an apple tossed in the sky and shot with arrows from different sides, he presents three futuristic perspectives to one region. The Wild Shore a post-apocalypse society re-building itself and The Gold Coast an autopia of hyper-commericalism, no one could predict what scene the third arrow through Robinson's SoCal apple, Pacific Edge (1990), would present, except that somehow SoCal would be involved.

Pacific Edge indeed portrays a near-future, Southern California scenario. Surprisingly utopian (not a utopia), however, it is one only slightly shifted from our own reality. That small shift the key, Robinson posits the dissolution of major corporations into small entities and the return of major resource management to government (water, electricity, fuel, etc.). That’s it. By dissolving the big, multi-national corporations, money and profits stay local, and by returning major resource control to government, less commercial and more humane decisions regarding usage and planning are made. It should be stressed that Robinson is not in the game of utopia building, rather in utopia striving. Openly stating utopia is an impossible ideal, he puts his money where his mouth is by imagining simple, possible changes, then exploring them fictionally to see what benefits might be derived in comparison to the present system.

The main tension of Pacific Edge centers around Rattlesnake Hill. A local nature reserve not particularly notable save to local residents, there are members of the town council who seek to have the zoning laws changed to allow the area to be developed, while others would have it remain as is. A builder and one of the Green party members on the council, Kevin Claiborn spends his days renovating and refitting old houses with more modern, less energy consumptive practices, and his nights playing softball and arguing on the town council over proposed projects and buildings. Emotional, he has trouble keeping his reactions under control when learning of plans to develop his beloved Rattlesnake Hill. Heaping fuel on the fire is the fact that the man proposing the zoning law change also happens to be the ex-boyfriend of the woman he is attempting to start a relationship with. The personal and political coming to a head, Claiborn’s life is forever changed by the final result of the project.

Easy to roll the eyes and imagine a cheesy love triangle between Kevin, the girl, and the man who would develop his beloved hillside, Robinson, thankfully, pulls off the relationship with maturity. There are moments of drama, but none of them overstep the scene to become opera. The three people portrayed as adults, Robinson likewise applies a sense of realism to the city’s government and the debate over Rattlesnake Hill. All sides to the proposed development appearing in grounded, believable fashion, the end result will surprise a lot of readers. Robinson may be go-go Green! at heart, but he doesn’t allow his prejudices to play out on the page in some unrealistic dream of an impossible utopia—Rattlesnake Hill becoming a paradise of neo-hippies wallowing in love and peace without a view to the realities of human nature. No. By balancing the issues at stake in the story, compromising as it were, the note upon which the novel ends is accepting, constructively critical, yet positive. Not a Marxist pipe dream, what is presented, in fact, is achievable.

In the end, Pacific Edge may be the most powerful of the three SoCal novels to date for idea alone. Kevin’s personal storyline is presented with integrity, nevertheless it is something that has been done before. It is the backdrop to his life, the economic and legal model, that is certainly the new material. Robinson theory-crafting and testing the results in fictional form, it’s apparent he challenged his own beliefs regarding commercial development and capitalism and socialism, in an attempt to provide a balanced view that incorporates the views of more than just the Greens. Rather than featuring a story reactive to circumstances like the previous two SoCal novels, it’s proactive, actively seeking ways to avoid said circumstances, and as such provides a great, forward-thinking completion to a highly non-conventional—nonlinear—trilogy.

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