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.


  1. Good write-up. I liked it a lot too, the most powerful of the three indeed. I'm curious about your thoughts on Ministry for the Future - not sure if you've read that. Reading this book with Ministry under my belt opened it up even more.

    1. These three books are underrated. They may not stand the test of time well, but they are still upright. This one in particular, Pacific Edge, I think would have appeal were it published today given its stance against liberal capitalism.

      Ministry for the Future is on my radar thanks to your chasing me out for not reading it last year. :) If it bears something, even if small, in relation to Pacific Edge, then that is likely a good thing. I will get to it. :)

    2. Yes indeed, underrated for sure. They show their age, but they still manage to do what they need to do. (I replied to your remark about publishing PE today on my own blog, so will not repeat that here.)

      As for Ministry, whether people like it or not partly depends on one's ability to connect with the main characters, and still see their personal arcs. Some readers think there's too little of that among all the essays, but for me it worked very well. The trick is to give the novel enough room to breathe, and give the arcs time to develop before you decide: "this is not a novel, but a collection of essays." There's other factors too, and taste obviously, but I hope you'll like it. Either way, it will also be an interesting contrast with both Termination Shock & Bewilderment.

    3. I'm inching toward my keyboard to purchase Ministry... :)

      On top of the California trilogy, I have read the Capital trilogy, 2312, Mars trilogy, and New York 2140, all of which have degrees of agenda on the environment, medium to strong. I think what I appreciate about Robinson's approach to the environment is that he doesn't usually beat the reader over the head with it (in the fashion Powers did in Bewilderment), nor does he take the techno-nerd approach as Stephenson did in Termination Shock. (Blue Mars is something of an exception to this, interestingly.) His approach I would descriibe as integrated, i.e. the environment is part of a larger social and political imagining. I would also describe it as matter-of-fact, in the sense that he doesn't overly dramatize. He just gives the facts, both of the real world and of his imagined world. I suppose he's like an engineer or scientist in this regard, which I personally relate to. Powers rightfully gets a better emotional reaction, but with Robinson I think it's something more subtle yet deeper... Anyway, I'm done rambling. Good luck getting to the Mars trilogy. I believe they are Robinson's magnum opus, and unless he has a major trick up his 69-year old sleeve, I don't think he'll top them.

  2. I adore this trilogy, particularly the last two. There's something wonderfully low key about how they unfurl. Rereading them every few years have led to none of them losing their gentle impact. And their e.ndings... Stan is so good at poetic endings.