Pacific Edge, by Kim Stanley Robinson
7/10, a well-written future California story that’s lacking a spark
In college, I took a class in science fiction during which we read “The Wild Shore.” I found it difficult to start but it became one of my favorite books, a coming-of-age story in a post-apocalyptic Orange County with a strong central character. In “Pacific Edge,” the third in the “Three Californias” triptych (not a trilogy as the books are not sequential) of which “The Wild Shore” is the first, the setting is just as engaging, but the strong central character is missing.
For sheer imagination and descriptive skill, it’s hard to beat Robinson. I read “The Wild Shore” before setting foot in Orange County; I read “Pacific Edge” after having lived near there for three years. It didn’t matter. The settings are brought to life, from expansive vistas down to the smell and feel of the ground on a particular hill. Where “The Wild Shore” depicted a post-apocalyptic California, “Pacific Edge” depicts a utopian society, where the balance of man and environment is strictly enforced. As in “The Wild Shore,” the details of the society are introduced naturally: people live (mostly) in large family houses and child care is communal; everyone has an assigned set of families somewhere else in the world that they connect with once a month; individual wealth is capped, as is corporate wealth. In flashbacks, we see how this radical change came about. In the story itself, we see that there will always be people trying to circumvent them.
That conflict, though billed as the central point of the story, seems of little interest to the characters. Most of them are concerned with more personal issues of relationships, and maybe that’s Robinson’s point, that in a utopia our concerns become very small, focused on one or two people instead of on wars in the Middle East, terrorism, corporate wealth, and so on. But it saps energy from the plot when nobody can get very worked up about it, and the main characters are more interested in who’s hooking up with whom than in stopping the mild expansion of corporate interest in their town. To further de-energize the plot, Robinson allows the main “villain” to explain his plan in a fairly reasonable way.
The characters are all very interesting, but none of them really has a strong character arc. Robinson switches points of view several times per chapter, and though it’s enjoyable, ultimately I was left wanting more from them.
I haven’t read the middle book in the triptych, “The Gold Coast,” though it’s supposed to be more on a par with “The Wild Shore.” Linking the three books is the character of Tom Barnard, storyteller in “The Wild Shore,” idealistic lawyer-turned-hermit in “Pacific Edge.” Someone in one of the Amazon reviews posited that he embodies the change in the societies through the three books, which is an interesting thought. Certainly in “Pacific Edge” he is very focused on his own problems and needs to be drawn out to care about the rest of the world. As I said above, maybe this is ultimately Robinson’s point, that utopia can be dangerous in that it makes it us more inwardly focused and less vigilant, more centered on our private worlds, more trusting that the outside world will be just fine. But the ending does nothing to drive home that point.
Robinson’s books are always a good read, and this one is no exception. Unlike his other works I’m familiar with, though, this one left me unsatisfied. It’s still a fun read, and worthwhile if only for his concepts of how a utopia might be brought about and the philosophical question of the nature of utopia and “pocket utopia,” as well as his lovely descriptions of the people and landscapes of southern California. Just don’t expect too much from it.