Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review of The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson

I’ve been living in Europe for almost seven years, and the metaphor I’ve come to, comparing the US to the EU, is that Americans are like 18 year-old boys. Full of energy and creativity, they jump on ideologies and drive them passionately, often blindly, all with a case of Budweiser underarm. Europe, on the other hand, is like a staid forty year-old man holding a glass of wine. He’s seen the world, he has centuries and centuries of history behind his culture, and he watches his pace, wary of running too fast in any direction.

Kim Stanley Robinson captures this juxtaposition wonderfully in The Wild Shore (1984). His debut novel, it tells of Hank Fletcher, and his growing up on the coast of California after the US has been destroyed by atomic bombs. Humane pastoral rather than zombie grimdark, Robinson focuses his energy on the personal and political reaction to the bombing, and examining the best paths toward recovery.

A wonderful balance between story and ideology, Hank’s tale is as classic a young man’s adventure as can be (even as The Wild Shore has inexplicably faded in awareness since 1984). A fisherman for his small community of 60+ people in En Onfre, he gets the chance of a lifetime to take a trip to San Diego, fifty miles to the south, to see how far civilization has recovered in the wake of the bombs. Traveling via handcar on the old rail system, he learns first hand the steps the Japanese are taking to ensure America remains undeveloped, of the secret resistance effort, and meets the passionate (and well-armed) governor behind the resistance. Returning to his simple farming community, Hank must decide his stance on the rebellion, and what direction he will take his life.

The Wild Shore, with its conspiracy theories, strong nationalism, and advocacy of military violence, addresses a lot of American political sentiment. The San Diegans, for example, believe in the reunification of America—to return it to the glory it once was. They believe the theories about Japanese bombings and embargoes, subterfuge and guerilla war, and want the pettiest of things: revenge . They arrange the disparate pieces of their world view into a picture which means achieving that nebulous idea of freedom at all costs. All the while Tom, and some of the other older residents of En Onfre, are more cautious. Having seen America in its heyday, knowing what the San Diegans are indirectly pursuing, and having a different view to the puzzle pieces, the advice they offer is more informed, more balanced across a variety of political and economic perspectives. As mindful of the past as the future, Robinson’s view is certainly channeled through Tom’s, and by doing so attempts to balance what went wrong with what went right, that is, rather than repeating the mistakes of the past. All in all, the story setup mimics my clumsy metaphor for US and Europe, while choosing to subvert the American side.

Far more akin to George Stewart’s Earth Abides than Suzanne Collins Hunger Games, Robsinson presents a believable post-apocalyptic setting rooted in humanity’s return to an agagrian lifestyle which does not get bogged down in contrived soap opera drama. There are gunshots and chases, spies and ambushes, but as a whole Hank’s interaction among the differing personalities in his community, and the context to his social and political choices, are front and center. Adventure there is, but the book remains humanist sf—and is all the more successful than books like Hunger Games for it.

There is something of an “Aww shucks, Wally” vibe to the social interaction of The Wild Shore. The main character named Hank (a nickname name that has not been popular since the 60s), there are times it feels his community is a gathering of Okies a la The Grapes of Wrath than survivors of a nuclear armageddon. The effect obviously intentional, one still must wonder why? Again, the mood doesn’t need to be grimdark zombie to be successful, but presenting story in the opposite mode likewise takes something away of the effectiveness.

In the end, The Wild Shore is a traditional young man’s adventure but with very non-traditional economic and political values. Subverting the typical American worldview (the chase for material wealth while crushing enemies who get in the way), Robinson uses the post-apocalyptic setting like a reset button—a chance to question what brought America to nuclear war, and what might be a way to prevent the situation from repeating itself in the future. In the novel’s opening scene, Hank and his friends decide to ‘get rich quick’ and exhume a coffin to steal the silver hand rails. Finding only plastic rails, they go home dissatisfied. Obviously a metaphor, it speaks to what a practical and theoretical novel The Wild Shore is, the combination delivered in an engaging story. Overall, very solid debut novel.


  1. I can't for the life of me remember who said it, but there is a theory that holds nobody can like all three California novels. Have you read the other two? What do you think of that theory?

    1. Based on what I know now, there's a good chance I will like all three - like different facets of a post-apocalytic jewel, I guess. But I'll let you know when I'm done. ;)

    2. Hmm, I'm not sure I would call the other two post-apocalyptic. One is more business as usual projected into the future (seen from the 1980s) and the other is more of a utopia.

  2. Sorry, sorry! You're right. My brain was thinking utopia/dystopia, but my fingers had a mind of their own. (They were probably thinking about The Wild Shore. :)