“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.
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.