THE GOLD COAST – Kim Stanley Robinson (1988)

I’ve read people saying Kim Stanley Robinson can’t write characters. Well, they for sure haven’t sampled enough of his oeuvre to make such a bold claim.

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.

Highly recommended.

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 Californias omnibus. Here’s an interview on Slate with KSR from February 2020 talking about the genesis of the books.

My other Kim Stanley Robinson reviews are here: The Wild Shore (1984)Icehenge (1984) – The Memory Of Whiteness (1985) – A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) – Pacific Edge (1990) – The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) – 2312 (2012) – Shaman (2013) – Aurora (2015) – Green Earth (2015, the revised Science In The Capital trilogy (2004-2007)) – New York 2140 (2017) – The Ministry For The Future (2020) – The High Sierra: A Love Story (2022).

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

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

24 responses to “THE GOLD COAST – Kim Stanley Robinson (1988)

  1. This one struck me as the business as usual scenario of the triptych. It is depressing how accurate that vision has turned out to be (or how well it has aged as you put it). Quite a contrast with The Wild Shore in that respect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are absolutely right. Robinson was aware of that too, I inserted a quote on the matter from an 2012 interview, but after you made this comment.
      (I hope everything is well, glad to see you online again.)


  2. Great review!
    KSR edited The Science in the Capital trilogy when it was republished as Green Earth. Did he do that as well for the Californias omnibus?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! As far as I know, he didn’t.

      But he did say this on the matter in that 2012 LA Review of Books interview (which I edited in after you made this comment), and it’s interesting to quote in full:

      “The thing that occurs to me from time to time is that with very few changes I could make The Gold Coast completely contemporary. What I want most to do is to remove the references to the Soviet Union. That we would stay on a permanent war economy, and concoct a bunch of little wars, the book got right. But featuring the USSR heavily in a novel published in 1988 was not the best predictive move. Some kindly readers have joked to me that I have cannily predicted a recoalescence of the USSR, but no. It would be better if I could take those few references out.

      That’s about as far as it goes when it comes to any desire to rewrite those books. They are books of their time. For years I thought the basic premise of The Wild Shore was crazy, then after 9/11, it did not look so unlikely, unfortunately. I’m always on the look-out for Pacific Edge moments, and people often send me Gold Coast news clippings or now links: the double-decker freeways are still mentioned by planners, and so on.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. An interesting look at Robinson’s earlier work. I had no idea where he came from as a writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I never was before tempted to try KSR, until now with your intelligent and considered review. Though it won’t be until I’ve slimmed down my tbr pile a lot more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That might be ages! 🙂

      Maybe The Wild Shore might be an even better place to start for you, I’m not sure. Anyhow, I feel KSR has done something LeGuinish in the way he portrays communities in both books, for lack of a better term, and I’m not even sure what I mean with that, but it came to me after you made the comment, and thought about how a part of your reading would chime in with this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I went back and read/reread your reviews on Goodreads and here and The Wild Shore does indeed sound up my street, so it’s definitely on my wishlist when bookshops reopen here, thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Aonghus Fallon

    Weirdly enough, I read ‘Pacific Edge’, enjoyed it but – despite learning afterwards it constituted one part of trilogy, each postulating a different outcome – never read the other two books. Maybe because I knew it was the best of the three possible outcomes? I’d read the happy ending – inasmuch as ‘Pacific Edge’ was the last book in the trilogy – did I really want to know what the other two books were like? Plus KSR is very much an occasional pleasure for me.

    Re characterisation. I always found his characters fit for purpose, something that’s very true of ‘Pacific Edge’. This is a story that’s quite small and intimate in terms of scale (including what’s at stake) so it has to rely on character to make it work. And it does work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What surprises me about KSR time and time again is that he is so consistent thematically that he kind of writes the same book time and time again, but at the same times always writes a very different book too. It makes the discovery of his entire oeuvre a joy, at least up until now (so far I’ve read 14 of his 21 novels – the only real fluke being Red Moon, which I DNFed).

      He manages to do this imo because he really thinks about form and characters, more so than most other writers (I guess as PhD in literary sciences helps), like you say: what formal things are needed for this specific story’s purpose? Not many writers I know of are so rigorous in his thinking on the form-content matter, especially not with such a big oeuvre.


  6. Aonghus Fallon

    I think its definitely one reason why he stands out. SF is a genre defined by big ideas, with characterisation often taking second place. I keep intending to read more of his work – the last thing I read was ‘Forty Signs of Rain’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve advocated ‘Aurora’ here before, it was my first KSR, and one of the first books I reviewed. I should do a reread someday, and write a better, more in-depth review. I always list it as one of my favorite books, but I have no idea if it would hold up to a reread of my current self. The fact that I keep on liking about everything he read before and after is an indication it will hold up, but you never know.

      I liked the entire Science in the Capitol series, I did a pretty lengthy review of Green Earth, but if asked what to read next of his I’d steer you towards Aurora if you feel like generational starships, or just his latest The Ministry for what might be a summary & last definite statement on what his work is all about, even though most people don’t see the characters as central to that book, and the sense of community in the story itself indeed takes a backseat there.


  7. Aonghus Fallon

    I’ve been thinking about reading The Ministry for a while, based on your review amongst others, I guess because climate change is the big issue of our day and because of what KSR said re the use of violence (which sounded out of character, hence intriguing).

    Liked by 1 person

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