THE WILD SHORE – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)

The Wild Shore

“You can’t teach what the world has taught you.”

The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book is set for release in October this year. It’s again a climate change book, and I’m looking forward to it, even though I didn’t finish his latest, 2019’s Red Moon – I felt that was too formulaic. I’m hoping The Ministry will find somewhat of a new elan – even though KSR will always be KSR, and his debut novel The Wild Shore, is proof of that.

I guess most readers know this is part of a triptych, in which Robinson envisions three different futures for California’s Orange County, where Stan grew up. The Wild Shore is set after a nuclear war, The Gold Coast deals with rampant greed & growth, and Pacific Edge paints a utopia.

I have written lengthy analyses of Robinson before, most notably of Green Earth and New York 2140, so forgive me for keeping things a bit shorter this time – even though the small canvas of The Wild Shore is vastly superior to the shiny blitz of NY2140.

I think The Wild Shore might be the most human of his books I’ve read so far. There’s a bit of politics to be found, and some climate change, but it is a book about characters first.

Partly coming of age story, the narrator is the 17-year-old Hank Fletcher, who lives in a small community of about 60 people that try to make by in 2047, about 6 decades after a nuclear attack sent The United States back to a pre-industrial setting, with isolated communities of survivors scattered across the land. And even while The Wild Shore has a subtle hint of space lasers, at times it reminded me of the similarly low tech Shaman – there’s a great paper to be written on how the themes of both books relate.

Information is key in the novel. Just like the readers, the characters are in the dark about what happened. They are also in the dark about what is happening, for Robinson shows glimpses of a bigger narrative in world politics in the aftermath of the attack – but characters nor readers get to know its true extent. It is a clever narrative device, maximizing the reader’s empathy with the characters: we share uncertainty and frustration about it. It is especially clever because – like the readers – the characters do know about what once was: trains, electricity, hospitals, national pride, and general literacy.

Robinson isn’t showy, and he doses the post-apocalyptic horror extremely sparsely, at the right times, with supreme command – so much that most of the time you even forget you’re reading a post-apocalyptic story at all.

Just as Hank doesn’t have a grip on what happens, he doesn’t have a grip on what he himself is doing. He doesn’t know whether his actions are the right ones, and moral information doesn’t come cheap. The obligatory old man in the story – Tom – seems to have a better grip on things. He’s the only character that survived from the olden days, but ultimately confesses to be a fool too, like anyone. Robinson leaves it to the reader: how much in control are we really, and how is history formed?

It’s a testament to Robinson’s great wisdom that this novel doesn’t offer judgement: “People are what they are, eh?” And while there’s clearly some nostalgia towards a simple life, when his characters try to determine which life is better – the heydays of American imperialism in the 1980ies, or the remnants of that civilization forced to fish and farm – it quickly becomes clear that figuring such a matter out is impossible.

All that makes for a richer novel. Robinson is not preaching, only pointing at a few problems, and has no answers ready. That’s maybe surprising to those who think of Robinson as a proselytizing writer. I guess they should reconsider, as I’ve always thought of KSR as a humble servant, not the know-it-all info-dumper.

Granted, the book makes a case for pacifism, but even that isn’t spelled out 100%, as the failure of violence in the book is mainly a matter of tactics and context, not necessarily principle, and Robinson writes with tons of sympathy for the youthful impulse of resistance.

Some have written about KSR’s bad luck with timing, publishing this novel a few years before the implosion of USSR and the end of the Cold War, as if that makes this story somewhat dated. Let me assure you: such sentiments miss the bigger picture, even in 2020, The Wild Shore has lost none of its power. It hasn’t aged a day.

All my talk about politics & ethics doesn’t do the book justice. Robinson manages to balance things really well, and as I already wrote: this is a book about characters in a community first. And it’s about fathers and sons, with a strong emotional finale in which everything clicks into place, and the stories of three sons and their three fathers are beautifully woven together. It is maybe The Wild Shore‘s crucial theme: even fathers fail to shape and protect their sons – people being what they are.

As such, I can forgive the bit of meta Robinson inserts in the final part. He can’t help himself, and moreover, he’s totally right: “The world pours in and overflows the heart till speech is useless, and that’s a fact.” And at the same time, language in the form of stories does seem to have merit. In line with his later works, in which Emerson & Thoreau are returning heroes, also nature offers solace at times – as does a communal warm bath.

The Wild Shore is an evocative novel about people acting on the information they have, from the perspective they have. It is a novel about each of us.

Recommended.

 


The Wild Shore has been reissued by Tor earlier this year, as part of a single volume Three California omnibus. Here’s an interview on Slate with KSR from February 2020 talking about the genesis of the books.

Three Californias


Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

14 responses to “THE WILD SHORE – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)

  1. Great review, Bart! Very interesting. I might give it a try, especially when you say it’s better than NY2140 (which I started but didn’t finish ;), though not because I hated it so much – just not the right time and not enough space between KSR books). Thanks for the rec.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! NY2140 was the first KSR that felt subpar, too obvious for my taste. It was okay, but I had expected much more. The Wild Shore is somewhat of an outlier in his oeuvre I think – but less so than A Short, Sharp Shock – in that respect you won’t have the trouble of it being too much like his other books.

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  2. This is not eco-SF at all, sorry I gave that impression.

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  3. This is very intriguing… My only attempt so far with Robinson has been with Red Mars, and it turned out into a DNF because it was not the “planet colonization” story I had hoped for: it’s been some time now and details have turned quite hazy, but I remember long discussions and unsympathetic characters – unless memory is betraying me here…
    So your comments about The Wild Shore being a character-driven story make me want to give KSR a second chance with a book that seems more tailored to my tastes. Thank you so much for sharing this! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read Mars, but from what I can gather, this is very different in tone.

      My other go to KSR recommendation is Aurora, you’ll like that too I’m sure, I’ve only seen universal praise for that.

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  4. Your review reminded me of Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, of which I have fond memories; I guess someone must already have written a good paper comparing *these* two.

    I’ve also recently finished Shaman, my first KSR book, and remain a bit sceptical about characterization in that one – I realize the point was to show the minds of neolithic protagonists as basically modern and practical, but still found it a bit incongruous that more “exotic” mystical or superstitious practices and ideas are mostly relegated to the background and don’t affect the protagonists that much.

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    • I haven’t read anything by Brackett, but as I read the synopsis on Wikipedia, there are indeed strong correlations. I wouldn’t be surprised KSR read it before he wrote this.

      As for Shaman, I agree 100% the point you make about characterization, but it hadn’t occured to me while reading it. While I wrote that The Wild Shore is a character novel, and I stand by that statement, also his debut is a tad underdevelopped viz. characterization – women for instance are quite onedimensional, but I could live with that as the narrator is a 17 year old boy.

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  5. Read this a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. Not sure why I didn’t finish the trilogy; possibly the synopsis of the second book sounded a little too depressingly like real-life modern California.

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    • I guess that how it goes with trilogies/series: even though I liked book 1 or even 2, I sometimes lose interest, and part of that is evolving as a reader.
      Your reason though is more particular – maybe just skip to the utopia, but that might be depressing too because of the contrast. Hope isn’t improving nowadays. I used to be optmistic for the long term (centuries) but even that seems unlikely. That’s why I’m curious for his new book: maybe KSR can find hope, being the optimist as he tries to be.

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  6. I love reading your reviews, particularly those on KSR, who is my favorite political novelist. I hope you don’t mind me leaving my own thoughts on his books here.

    His California Trilogy is my favorite of his books. Taken as a single novel, they’re a wonderful experiment, one a capitalist dystopia, one a eco-sustainable near utopia, and one a post-apocalyptic critique of imperialism and conservative fever-dreams (Make California Great Again!). The books are all flawed – the first two ramble a bit, and the last one is a bit too brisk – but they’re so human, and interesting and lovable, and work well as a unit, each elevating the other. His use of patterns between the three books, repeated metaphors, and how similar situations, incidents, locales, and even the same characters, are reconfigured and recontextualized in each, is remarkable. I’ve never seen another sequence of books do what this trilogy does, and as a whole they’re beautiful in how they inspire us to think about why our world is how it is, and how it could be different.

    Aurora I would say is a masterpiece, and probably his most perfect novel. For me, it’s the best generation ship novel, and very subversive.

    I’m not sure if you’ve read his Mars novels. They’re huge, like 500 pages each, and I would recommend you save them for last, They require stamina and patience, and much of their patterns (they each share similar structures and beats) only become apparent upon a second reading. I would say the first two are great, with the third being the weakest, though it climaxes with some poetic sections.

    Galileo’s Dream is his unsung gem. It has his best, most virtuoso writing, his best character work, and beautifully conjures up the past. Great historical fiction there, and a great look at how politics and science intersect. People complain that the “future segments” of that book don’t work, and that was true for me on first reading, but upon second reading the whole thing comes together.

    The Years of Rice and Salt has lots of great stuff, but its ending didn’t work for me. I’ve only read it once, though, so its hard for me to properly judge it. I’ve found that his novels require a second reading to correctly gauge their rhythms and intentions. What seems boring and pointless then becomes meaningful upon second reading.

    KSR cites Shaman as one of his favorite of his novels, but it didn’t do enough for me.

    Green Earth is a personal favorite. For me comes close to a Great American Novel. If it were in a different genre I suspect it would have been hailed as a Serious Work of Western Literature. When published as a trilogy, it was too bloated, but as a stand alone novel it’s just so rich and interesting. Bit too utopian and rosey in the end, but it comes close to greatness.

    I agree with you on Red Moon. Very weak and repetitive novel.

    His 2312 novel is very good, in the way it underplays everything, keeps our heroes constantly on the margins of the action, and keeps a whole AI-evolution subplot on the extreme fringes of the novel. The end is hokey, overly rosey again, but the whole book is peppered with such wonderfully descriptive and evocative passages.

    New York 2140 I would say was great until it peters out in its last third. KSR has said he hates action scenes, and conventional action/violence/drama, and I thought his desire to underplay everything sabotaged what would have made a good crowd-pleasing Ocean’s Eleven styled climax.

    Antarctica is very good; a low-key, fairly realistic look at scientists at the bottom of the world. Memories of Whiteness is underrated, and very clever, and an interesting look at free will (have you read Peter Watts’ Blindsight yet? It’s awesome. And Stan’s Memory of Whiteness works good as a space-operay companionpiece; you don’t realize how it mind-fks you, and your conceptions of free will, until the end).

    Icehenge is an early novella of his expanded into novel form. Some good stuff there, though nothing earth shattering.

    I would say Stan’s best traits are his subversiveness; he’s very much a Leftist writer, who sees material and socio-historical forces as being the chief shapers of people and societies. And so his characters have very little agency, are buffeted around by forces beyond their control, are kept on the margins of their stories, and the stories themselves are anti-climactic, drawn out, deliberately low-key, or beyond the perception of the reader or the characters. Nobody has full information. Everyone is fumbling about. Landscape, environment and nature are foregrounded instead.

    More importantly, he takes the utopian structure/style of HG Wells and Ursula Leguin – people wondering about a New Land and Learning It as they walk – and expands and deepens it. There’s MORE WALKING! and MORE LEARNING THE WORLD! MORE HIKING! The process of feeling and fumbling about superseding, often, any actual conventional plot.

    This, of course, runs counter to much fiction (and the tastes of most people). We like consoling fictions which flatter our egos and suppositions. Stan does the opposite repeatedly. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes the pessimism of the philosophical/aesthetic/political style rubs awkwardly against his sentimentality as a utopian, but it’s always fascinating IMO.

    Okay, that’s enough from me. Laterz!!! Love your website!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that elaborate comment, and the praise! Much appreciated, especially from a fellow KSR enthusiast.

      I haven’t read them all – but they all are on my TBR. I agree on Aurora, and that will be the first I reread of his, after I finish all the other ones. That will take me some years, as I tend to leave a couple of months in between books of the same author. I was already looking forward to the rest of the debut trilogy, and your comments make it all the more so.

      I haven’t read Mars, and was indeed planning to read those last. I will first finish the trilogy, then Galileo & Years & Anatartica, and finally the Mars trilogy. And maybe the short stories after all that – I actually haven’t read any of his short work. It’s very comforting to know I have so many good books left from his, especially as his 2 latest ones were – everything considered – letdowns.

      The Memory of Whiteness wasn’t a good read for me, I’ve reviewed it as well if you want more details on what bugged me. You haven’t written anything about A Short, Sharp Shock, which I liked a lot. Do check it out if you haven’t already. I fully agree on Green Earth: a great American book.

      I did read Blindsight, excellent book indeed – the lack of free will is one of my main interests, I’ve written a lot about it in relation to fiction – most notably in my reviews of Dune, Dune Messiah & Children of Dune, and LOTR – and in the comments there as well.

      If you haven’t read Watts’ novella The Freeze Frame Revolution, do check it out too, really good stuff. Have you read any Carter Scholz? He is a personal friend of KSR, and both his space novella Gypsy as his full length Radiance are well worth your time. I’ve reviewed them both.

      I agree on the final musings in your response. I guess what I like most of KSR is his humility – both as a person, but ultimately also viz. his political end goals. Enough is as good as a feast. Saving the planet wouldn’t be that hard, if only we could overcome our savanna instincts, so to say.

      I’m looking forward a lot to his new novel in a few weeks. I’m really curious if it will be as utopian as NY2140. It seems the world is melting down in so many respects at the moment – the situation has worsened a lot since 2017, and it will be interesting to see how KSR reacts to that.

      Thanks again for the comment, and don’t hesitate to drop by later.

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  7. I’ve been thinking about this topic again last night, and it seems to me that KSR is deliberately writing a novel in each of science fiction’s major subgenres. I know he has a background in Literary Studies, so perhaps he sees his career as a kind of intellectual experiment, or a meta-generic comment on science fiction’s big sub-genres.

    In this regard you have “Wild Shore”, a post apocalyptic tale, but also a critique of the genre’s fondness for using Blank Slates for reactionary fantasies (if only we purge the world, build the wall, eradicate our enemies…then, finally, we can build a proper nation!) and Mad Max ego trips, the genre’s heroes attractively free from rules or laws.

    And so America in “Wild Shore” dreams of reasserting itself, fanning fantasies of nationalism and conquest whilst utterly blind to the fact that it’s simply now being treated (blockaded and bombed by drones etc) as it once bullied Third World nation’s. The book asks why we are attracted to post-apocalyptic tales. What is attractive about bucolic back-to-nature fantasies. Why these fantasies are dangerous and how they can easily be hijacked by strong-men and populists.

    And Stan’s intellectual fascination with science fiction’s subgenres continues. “Pacific Edge” is his take on the utopian novel, and his comment on the genre as a whole.

    “The Gold Coast”, meanwhile, is his take on the dystopian novel (and a critique of the cyberpunk trends of the 1980s)

    The “Mars Novels” are his take on the Colonization Novel.

    From colonizing a single planet on “Mars” he then moves out to colonizing the entire solar system in “2312”, his take on the Settled Solar System space opera.

    From settling the solar system he then moves to extra-solar planets, with
    “Aurora”, his critique of the Generation Ship’s novel and its conventions.

    “Antarctica” is his version of the Near Future science novel.

    “Green Earth” of the contemporary science novel (or what’s now called Banal Science Fiction).
    .
    “Shaman” is his pre-historical novel, with its cave-dwelling tribes.

    “Galileo’s Dream” is his both a historical novel, and a time-travel novel, the time-travel genre famous for its visiting of key historical figures.

    “Years of Rice and Salt” is the Alternative History novel, the format used by Stan as a kind of critique of post September-the-11th Western Crusades into the Middle East (in Stan’s novel, history is reversed; the white man is eradicated by the plague, and it is the Eastern Empires which colonize the West and seek to impose their values and remake nations in their image).

    “Red Moon’s” his Heinlein-esque Moon novel.

    I guess “A Short Sharp Shock” is his 1960s, psychadelic dream SF novel (he says it was written quickly to purge his system in preparation for serious writing, and as a kind of allegory for his new life as a father, writer and husband, traveling across America to live at a new home in California).

    I’d love to see him do a serious first-contact novel.

    Along with his background in Literary Studies, I think he has two other key influences. He’s friends with leftist intellectuals like Frederic Jameson, and beat poets like Gary Snyder. In this regard you can trace a line from Stan to the flower power movements of 1960s California, early American eco-socialists, leftists and hippies, and Beat writers like Jack Kerouac. So for example where Kerouac has bums and hippies wandering about America musing about nature, god and stuff, Stan has scientists hiking Mars or living off the grid in their New York tree houses. Then there are all kinds of interesting overlaps between nature writing, travelogue writing and utopian writing, insofar as all emphasize Place over Plot.

    Regarding your comment above, yes I’ve read The Freeze Frame Revolution. I’m a big Watts fan. Actually, I was meaning to ask you to RECOMMEND ME SOME FIRST CONTACT NOVELS PLEASE. I’ve read the major ones by Clarke, Lem and Octavia Butler, but “Blindsight” has me hungry for more.

    No I’ve never even heard of Carter Scholz. I’m going to read up on him now, and search your site for reviews of his work.

    I agree that Memory of Whiteness was weak, but I like the rabbit-hole structure of it; the idea of a hero (the first scene sees him running down an alley, his movements literally constrained by walls and fate) believing himself a free agent, but then revealed to be a puppet on a string to an orchestra, and then an all knowing cult, who he thinks have Absolute Truth and Absolute Knowledge but who are themselves nutty dupes deterministically bound. It reminded me of Umberto Eco’s conspiracy novels, everyone a note being unwittingly played.

    I’m actually apprehensive about his new novel. “Red Moon” struck me as the work of someone burnt out and out of ideas. It just kept repeating itself. But he’s been talking of retiring soon, so I hope this novel works and goes out on a high note.

    Okay, bye. Gonna read up on Carter Scholz now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know that about A Short Sharp Shock.

      As for the new novels: I’m equally excited as affraid, because I have a similar feeling about KSR being burned out. He wanted to stop before, but since he has been writing outdoors, he churned out a couple more. Let’s hope this is his big final statement indeed.

      As for first contacts, that’s not an easy question. I came up with these: State of the Art, a novella buy Banks – a good introduction to his culture novels, Anathem by Stephenson – it’s partly about first contact, but on a parallel Earth, just a great, great book and his masterpiece, The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu – pretty hyped, but good imo, and finally the Revelation Space trilogy by Alistair Reynolds, a kind of gothic space opera in which humans evolved but still didn’t meet aliens until… I’m not sure I would still like this as much as I used to, but I was awed by this back in the days.

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