Just as The Wild Shore – the first part of a loosely connected triptych, each of which can be easily read as a standalone – The Gold Coast is a book about characters & communities. It made me tear up once, and the central story hinges on the dynamics between a father and a son, and between that father and his cooperate boss.
The California trilogy might be KSR’s most autobiographical work – at least the setting is, as he moved to Orange County when he was 2. Stan was 34 when he wrote it, and it is very much a book about saying goodbye to late adolescence – the extended period of drugs, booze and parties, being twentysomething before settling down.
I’m not sure how much of an epicure KSR is or was, but Jim McPherson, the main character, is an idealist – something he shares with his inventor. McPherson teaches languages for a living, and KSR taught freshman composition. McPherson is also a struggling writer, writing poetry and history, trying to come to grips with postmodernism, something I’m sure Robinson had to do as well under the auspices of his PhD mentor Frederic Jameson – a giant of pomo literary criticism.
In an excellent 2012 interview in the LA Review of Books, Robinson confirmed the partly autobiographical nature of The Gold Coast, implies his father was a military engineer too, and even goes as far to call it “the story of that time and place, Orange County in the 1970s, in a way I don’t think any other novel has.”
The Gold Coast was nominated for the Campbell, Locus, and BSFA. Set in 2027 in Southern California, “where greed and the population had run rampant” it could be considered Robinson’s version of a dystopian cyberpunkish novel – with caveats obviously. More on all that after the jump.
What surprised me most was how The Gold Coast actually didn’t feel like a techno dystopia at all, but something much more akin to reality. Endless buildings and motorways and development devastating the environment aren’t science fiction at all. The other science fictional elements are subdued too: there’s self-driving cars on magnetic tracks, synthetic drugs that are taken via drops in the eyes, video screens in bedrooms and military industry people working on drones & lasers. That’s about it. None of it takes center stage, and most of the dystopia is off stage: 40 wars in other countries, mass starvation across much of the globe. Rampant industrialism has transformed Orange County, but the main characters live ordinary lives – the youth parties, the old go to work and pay the bills. 2027 feels very much like 2021, except that Robinson didn’t envision the internet or smartphones, and he misjudged the secularization pace.
As such, this book has aged very well for a near future work of fiction. That’s the result of two things: Robinson understands humans and human feelings, and Robinson understands society & the military industrial complex. Because of that The Gold Coast is firmly rooted in reality, not in some outré fantasy of a future. In the same LA Review interview Robinson says that he “could see at the time that it was the most likely of the three futures in my plan to occur — that really it was my version of a realist domestic novel — and that was depressing.”
I also need to talk a bit about Carter Scholz’s 2002 novel Radiance. That’s one of my favorite books, a singular work of art written by a friend of Robinson. It now appears to me that Scholz has read The Gold Coast, and decided to take one of its important themes – the bureaucratic and at times corrupt machinations dealing with the development of military weapons – and deepen that, writing perhaps the most important book in military scifi, if you allow me stretching the term. My review of Radiance is here, and if you enjoyed this particular part of The Gold Coast, I urge you to do yourself a favor and check it out.
So just as Radiance was a book about cooperate & military bureaucracy, The Gold Coast is too. It is a lens particularly suited to look into the pernicious side-effects of consumerist capitalism, and Robinson clearly offers critique. Not to preach – this book is never preachy – but to start a conversation. Robinson considers science fiction as one of the possible ways to “talk about these things”, as he explains in a 2000 interview with Stephen Potts, because, as he says, we can’t keep trying “to pretend that physical reality doesn’t matter”, and ignoring our unsustainable behavioral patterns that clash with “environmental reality”. Seen in that light The Gold Coast‘s setting is maybe the most symbolic one possible for a book that chimes in on the effects of greed – the ultimate West.
Jim McPherson’s own idealistic struggles with what to do, how to make the world a better place, clash with his father’s answer. His father – a military engineer – sees more technology as a way out of the danger of nuclear war and invasion warfare. Jim’s answer is resistance – and the violence kind of foreshadows that of his most recent book The Ministry of the Future.
It is to Robinson’s credit he explicitly suggests both are right. Obviously Jim’s method of violence is naive, and of another category than that portrayed in The Ministry, but his basic impulse – resist the war machine – comes from a good place. Similarly – as Robinson talks about in the 2000 interview on another matter – science isn’t the solution to everything, and Dennis McPherson’s answer is problematic as well, but again, his basic impulse – trying to take short term reality into account – comes from a good place too.
Robinson writes about moral complexities, and The Gold Coast doesn’t offer easy answers or snappy leftist dogmas. As such, he offers “politics and entertainment in the same package”, and what makes this novel entertaining (and emotional) are both the human stories and the ethical unraveling you need to do as a reader yourself. Besides Jim & Dennis, Robinson offers yet other modes of resistance via the characters of Sandy & Tashi, deepening the novel’s thematic undercurrent.
The Gold Coast is a subdued triumph: carefully constructed, thematically rich, diverse in textures and scenes, smooth prose, human at heart. Robinson’s mastery of the multiple point of views is something to behold: the pacing is brilliant, and even though the viewpoint jumps a lot, the reader is never lost as the 83 short chapters are always firmly anchored to the narrative.
There might be too much focus on drugs and sex for some readers, but such scenes always serves a purpose, and help to portray the culture that shapes the characters – the mental landscape a dystopia indeed. Moreover, Robinson’s portrayal simply is a form of realism – again, this book is more true to life than escapist adventure. The drugs are also crucial to explain Jim’s breakdown at the end, as that would be unbelievable otherwise.
As far as I can tell, the novel is also the birthplace of Robinson’s famous infodump – restricted to Orange County history here – and the passages offer a clever commentary on the main narrative. The infodumps turn out to be written by Jim, and work well as a contrast. It’s amazing how consistent they are with much of what Robinson has written later. There are also fragments of Jim’s poetry, and those are less successful, but then again, they do fit, as Jim isn’t a literary genius, but a non-talent. He is a flawed hero on multiple accounts, a realistic human being – not the token ‘grey’ character of so much of contemporary speculative fiction.
Robinson is known for his optimism. In that same 2000 interview, he comments on that. He sees “optimism as a kind of club, I like to hit people with it, it is a form of anger.” I’m curious about that optimism in the utopia that is the next book, Pacific Edge. In the meantime, The Gold Coast might be considered the least optimistic book in Robinson’s oeuvre, and because of that it holds a unique place among his works.
ps – Maybe this is obvious to some, but I’ve never seen it mentioned in all the reviews and articles I read about this book: James ‘Jim’ McPherson shares a name with the real life writer James McPherson, who wrote a short story entitled Gold Coast, published in 1968, and was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer for fiction in 1978. The story’s main character Robert is also an aspiring writer. Can’t be a coincidence.
The Gold Coast has been reissued by Tor last 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.