Sunday, August 28, 2016

Review of The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's debut novel, The Wild Shore, was an interesting re-visioning of Southern California. Post-apocalyptic yet pastoral, he destroyed the US with nuclear bombs then imagined what the first few phases of re-building might be like. Agrarian lifestyles all around, the characters attempt to recover the technology and other aspects of civilization destroyed by the H-bombs but start with the basics of farming and harvesting. Grassroots on one hand and revenge-oriented nationalism on the other, KSR used the resulting tension to emphasize the fundamental socio-political differences at work, leaving his main character, and as a result the reader, at a key divergence of perspective. With the release of the second novel in the Orange County series, The Gold Coast (1988), Robinson proves the future of SoCal can be re-imagined from an entirely different perspective—not definitively post-ap, but certainly relatively so—without chipping any of its critical teeth.

Orange County covered with cars, condos, strip malls, advertizements, franchises, street lights, housing developments—commercialism galore, The Gold Coast looks at some of the social and economic problems inherent to the capitalist market model. Robinson utilizing the lenses of the weapons industry and restlessness of youth culture as his main plot drivers, the novel centers on the McPherson family. The father Kevin is a high-level engineer working for one of the nation's largest weapons researchers and manufacturers, Laguna Space Research. Getting privileged treatment from the government for a super-black project, his life is turned upside down when, in the middle of preparing the proposal, it's announced his effort is mostly in vain: the project will go white. Things begin to spiral from there. Kevin's son, Jim, is a twenty-something working several part-time jobs to keep things together, though he still partially depends on his parents. It's his time with his friends, however, where he finds the most enjoyment in life. Designer drugs and parties every night, his only trouble seems to be finding a meaningful outlet for his energy—terrorism not above him.

Where the claustrophobia of life inundated with commercialism could have been better done at the aesthetic level, in The Gold Coast Robinson settles for indirectly laying on the weight of capitalism. The character's lives where it hits hardest, the pressures Kevin and his company feel at work, the wasted efforts of competitive bidding, the impact of high-level corruption, the standardization of life Jim and his friends experience, the ennui of same-same—these and other facets take strong effect on the story. Thus, while one would expect the details of setting to intrude more, they don't, which in turn gives space to the actions and reactions, choices and decisions the characters must make—exactly where a human-centric novel should put its effort.

It should be noted that The Gold Coast is not a damning statement on the weapons industry. A practical peacenik, Robinson instead focuses on the economic model which the weapons industry is a part of. He accepts national defense as a necessary reality, and instead looks at the how the people inside the model are affected by its operation, weapons manufacturing just one more major corporation. Where many might assume Robinson to be anti-war on all fronts, the inclusion of this grounded perspective is a refreshing one.

Another area The Gold Coast takes the practical view is post-modernism. A lot of material in the wider world addressing the subject in academic style, Robinson instead applies the theory to the characters lives, most particularly Jim and his friends'. 'It's all been done before' a weight dragging them intangibly down, the actions they take, often reckless or rash in response, represent the relative hopelessness of existing fully within the hyper-commercial (read: post-modern) setting depicted. Jim's choices, particularly the point to which they escalate upon the climax, are a blind lashing out, a losing of one's self, complete with unintended consequences. Thus, despite the fact Jim is a decade older than the typical protagonist, The Gold Coast still feels like a coming-of-age novel for the manner in which he is forced to navigate and come to terms with inner and outer space.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Gold Coast is, now, nearly thirty years after its publishing, there is only one major item that distinguishes the novel's setting from reality: the car tracking. Besides this (and I guess eye-droppers for drugs), the world Robinson depicts is all too scarily like our own. Endless housing developments, strip malls, ads everywhere, employment pressure ratcheting up as companies move jobs overseas, social violence ramping up—these and numerous other aspects tie the two together, in turn making the novel superb commentary on our world, right down to domestic terrorism.

The Wild Shore began with a group of young people digging up an old casket, hoping to steal the silver from the casket. The Gold Coast opens with another group of young people digging in the ground, this time in a parking lot looking for artifacts from a school they believe to have been buried by development. It will be interesting to see how The Pacific Edge, third (and so far final) book in the Orange County series, begins, and whether the search continues...

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