PACIFIC EDGE – Kim Stanley Robinson (1990)

I first started this review with an opening about Robinson who can’t write characters according to some – but then I noticed I already did that for The Gold Coast. Either way, it bears repeating. Depending on what one has sampled from his work – 21 novels by now, and hundreds of pages short stories – I can understand the sentiment to a degree. But my feelings don’t agree at all. The last 50 pages of Pacific Edge made me cry two times, and that doesn’t happen a lot: last time was about a year ago – it is such a heartfelt, human novel.

Pacific Edge is part of the Orange County triptych, and in a way that denomination does the novel a disservice: some people might consider this to be final book in a trilogy and refrain from reading it because of that.

All Three Californias books are stand-alone novels, each presenting a different future for an area south of Los Angeles – one about survivors of a nuclear war, another a cyberpunkish dystopia, and this one a utopia. While there are some minor formal connections, you don’t miss a thing if you only read those that appeal to you.

I liked them all, but this might be me favorite – because of the strong emotions it evoked, even if The Wild Shore was a similar human book, and Gold Coast made me cry too – about a year ago.

I will not offer comparisons between the three books, but limit myself to examine why it still works as a utopian novel 32 years down the line, and I’ll include some notes too about its remarkable relationship to KSR’s latest, his magnum opus The Ministry for the Future.


Pacific Edge was published in 1990 and is set mainly in 2065. Near-future books like that tend to get dated fairly quickly: most failed to predict the internet and smartphones. That this book is still relevant over 30 years later is because Robinson avoids an all too common trap in science fiction: focus on technology.

Instead he focuses on political & economic structures for the setting, and for the story itself on that most common of human universals: love, and a bit of David & Goliath competition.

Robinson is very conscious about the problems of writing a utopia, and Pacific Edge has a few meta-parts embedding the novel in the longstanding practice. If you are interested in the nuts and bolts, there is an excellent analysis on the matter by Kev McVeigh on Performative Utterance – highly recommended.

For the most part Pacific Edge does feel realistic – even if Robinson fails to show the exact path how we would get to a world where the scourge of global capital is restricted. The fact that he doesn’t even speak of the tipping point(s) that would set us on a more wholesome path might be the book’s biggest shortcoming. Either way, it is remarkable that the story retains its realism, even if the society KSR portrays seems farther away today, in 2022, than it might have seemed in 1990 – and as such is unrealistic.

It’s hard to wrap my head around those two conflicting notions of realism, but the fact that it still has a degree of realism is due to two things. Robinson draws his characters clearly, and as such his portrayals of love and friendship hit the mark. And maybe even more importantly, for a novel that is about ideas as well: he identifies real problems standing in the way of utopia, most notably the way our market society is structured – problems that are still relevant today.

“I hated capitalism because it was a lie!” Tom would say, fording Harding Canyon stream with abandon. “It said that everyone exercising their self-interest would make a decent community!”

&

“(…) And some design flaws. It was yet another case of false economies of scale – they built them too big. Bigger as better, pah! When you’re burning fuel to transport fuel, then it might look true. Until the ship strikes a reef or catches fire. But if the fuel is the wind, if you’re interested in full employment, in safety, in a larger definition of efficiency, then there is nothing like this beauty here. It is big but not too big.”  [my bold]


As such, it was very interesting to read Pacific Edge with The Ministry of the Future fresh in mind. It is as if Ministry is the book one of the characters in Pacific Edge had wanted to write. Not only do they have a sharp focus on finance & law in common, but also because Ministry does try and chronicle the way we get to a better world, in much more detail.

It is no surprise that Herbert Marcuse gets quoted in both books (one of the worst signs of our danger is we can’t imagine the route from here to utopia”). Robinson also has a character say “Our imagination is stronger than theirs!” and that’s a feeling some on the left will recognize: being puzzled by the failure by those on the economic right to imagine a better world. (Obviously those right-wingers generally do not feel addressed at all, and see the left as naive dreamers, without a realistic imagination.)

To tell about the road taken, one needs make clear certain concepts, and it’s of note that Robinson foreshadows his later use of essay chapters. While he is notorious for his infodumps, it is only in 2020, in Ministry, we get true formal essays in between the story. A character that resembles Robinson ruminates about that narrative form in Pacific Edge – a form apparently also used over a century ago by H.G. Wells, but his wife prompts the remark that only “university libraries” still carry that book.

Ministry adds the dimension of climate change, and while that looming problem might seem to make it harder to reach utopia, it is exactly a climate disaster that triggers reform in India and emboldens others to really act across the globe to curtail predatory capitalism, taking the first steps on the way towards a better future for all. I admit Ministry is not a utopia, but it could be the prequel to one – in which a pocket utopia like El Modena in Pacific Edge could come to exist.

That brings me to another trap Robinson avoids: his utopia is not one with large scale vistas or a full global utopia like Ada Palmer‘s. No, it is small scale, local, and it admits it is a work-in-progress. And because it is not about pie in the sky, it is all the more realistic – also because some of us can perfectly relate with small scale utopias. A lot of Western readers have lived in a small scale utopia in their youth – carefree, optimistic about the future, living happy middle class lives. This realization as well is one of the thematic foundations of Pacific Edge.


When I finished the novel I was drawn to give it 5 stars simply because of the powerful emotions it had generated. It is a smooth book, with clear prose, solid dialogue. There’s interesting tidbits spread throughout, great parts about love and relationships, nuanced political analysis, morally complex characters.

It’s also interesting that the central conflict of the book is about a mere hill – its further urban development – not some flashy other thing. As a result, the book has an overall subdued feel. Robinson even questions the central conflict in the book itself: is that hill even worth fighting for? The answer never becomes totally clear, even if the central character thinks so – he might be a bit blinded, he might unreasonable.

Some of Robinson’s usual fetishes feature as well: the outdoors, humans as healthy animal bodies. You could say this is again a very different book about familiar themes. I’ve read 13 of his novels so far, and he is one of the most versatile writers I know of, yet always stays on topic. 

Some parts are maybe less successful: there’s a bit too much about softball – then again, it gives the novel flavor, mirrors conflict, and it works to illustrate this particular utopian society and the emotional state of some of its characters. A bit of a surreal chapter when characters celebrate the first astronauts on Mars didn’t really draw me in either. But the negatives are minor – nothing it perfect, not even a utopia, and all things considered, I’m still drawn to give this novel 5 stars, especially given the fact that it is 32 years old.


Let me end with highlighting a small part that really struck me, and that I’ve never seen articulated in prose before. Speaking indeed is a way to discover what you think. I’ve often experienced this myself, also when I write these reviews: the things I type frequently seem to precede thought – even if it is very subtle at times. We tend to downplay this aspect of language, because it hints at our articulated thoughts being somehow separate from consciousness. The realization shows cracks in the illusion of free will and free thinking. It’s also tied to an important insight Chomsky pointed at: most of language is internal, not even accessible to our consciousness.


Anyhow: highly recommended for any Robinson fan. It will not work for everybody, it is quirky to a degree, it is not spectacular, some will think it boring, and it’s not new. But I loved it. Bravo!

“No. You never forget. But you change. You change even if you try not to.”

Pacific Edge KSR (Roberts)


Pacific Edge has been reissued by Tor in 2020, as part of a single volume Three Californias omnibus. There’s an interview on Slate with KSR from February of that year, 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) – The Gold Coast (1988) – A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) – 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 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.

29 responses to “PACIFIC EDGE – Kim Stanley Robinson (1990)

  1. Orange County is still on my tbr; maybe later that year? Or better a reread of the Mars trilogy which I consider his magnus opum (also the one he’s best known for!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m saving Mars for last. My next Robinsons will be Years of Rice & Salt, Galileo’s Dream and Antartica, not sure on the order yet though. Or maybe I’ll read his short story collection after Mars. We’ll see. I guess he’ll publish at least one other novel before I get to Mars as well, so.

      As for Orange County: I would all recommend them to people interested in Robinson, so if I were you I’d read them before I’d reread Mars.

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      • Antarctica would fit very well to the other near future novels, esp to green earth. The other two are very different, can’t say which one you‘d like better. Antarctica was clearly the best of those three.

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        • I’ll read Antartica last of those three then. Regardless of quality (I’ve seen people say they thought Years And Rice was his best, etc. ) reading the other 2 first will add more variation to my KSR trajectory.

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          • Oh yes, they will!

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          • IMO Galileo’s Dream is the best of the three novels Andreas listed. Upon first reading it seems strange and odd. This is because it is a historical novel in which a realistic, ancient past is “intruded upon” by a Jules Verne-styled far-future utopia. This juxtaposition catches you off guard.

            But I’d argue that once the book is re-read, it becomes obvious that it contains Robinson best prose – it’s told with real gusto and flamboyance, and on a sentence-to-sentence level the whole thing pops – and that its historical elements are some of the best character work he’s done, Galileo emerging as a lovable, rougish, tragic figure.

            The novel also works as a companion piece to “Green Earth”, as most of it involves scientists trying to beg governments and churches for grant money, or “permission to research”.

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            • This only makes me more curious reading it. I knew it was a historical novel, but I didn’t know there was a future utopia involved too. I generally don’t reread books quickly, so if I would reread it, I don’t think it would be before the end of this decade. On the other hand, I trust KSR’s ability to communicate something meaningful with the first reading too. We’ll see.

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  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It sounds zzzzzz to me. Robinson sounds an advocate of that branch of sustainability that looks back to pastoralism and a retraction back to regionalism, that just does not fill me with inspiration at all.

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    • That’s a really interesting remark, and I had to think about it for a few moments. I can understand the sentiment, but I guess it points more at shortcomings in my review than in the book itself.

      Robinson is no regionalist at all, there is a lot of international stuff going on in the book, significantly so. A few characters come from other countries (either as immigrants or passing true), the narrator from the 2012 strand is an expat living in Switzerland, and laments American re-immigration policies, and there is an important scene on a big international sailing boat, amongst other things.

      As for pastoralism, he writes about sustainable (but still high tech) housing, and short chain food production, about Californian water supply, etc, yes, but I would not call that pastoralism. What he does stress is trying to live in balance with the environment, in a smart way, but again, I would not call that pastoralism.

      I know you didn’t click with 2312 and Aurora, but I think Robinson is such a versatile writer you might click with some of his other books. But I agree, this one might not be for you. ‘Shaman’ might be.

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      • Oh, my comment wasn’t really based only on this review, but it is a picture that has been building up in my mind over the course of many other reviews, also by many other reviewers. And by the philosophies I saw when I was studying environmental sciences at uni. A review by Andreas of Green Earth gave me the same impression. But I might be totally off. I’ll look up Shaman.

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        • Okay, thanks for clearing that up. Again, I can understand the sentiment, it could very well be the image if you read reviews about that part of his oeuvre, and I understand that these things might be highlighted in reviews, they are easy to talk about for reviewers as they fit a certain dominant discourse about the environment, but I think Robinson is much, much too smart to actually be a pastoralist/regionalist. He is not naive, and he understands the complexity of the global world, and the need for global solutions.

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  3. Great review of an often overlooked novel! I am curious what the response would be were the book published today. The conversation around its core themes has only become more intense and widespread in the decades since.

    And I can’t help but say I admire your patience waiting to read the Mars novels. 🙂 When I encounter a new writer, or am looking to get into a writer, I will generally read what consensus says is ‘the best’ relatively quickly. The fact that you’re holding off is amazing. But I believe there is some proverb about long-term gratification… 😉 I have been told but cannot confirm that Antarctica is a mini-version of the Mars trilogy…

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    • I think it wouldn’t make that much of a splash today either, just because similar discourse has become intense and widespread – that is to say: such discourse as become old hat too. I think it’s not really radical enough to generate that much talk these days. Ministry succeeds much better on that front, it’s a more radical book – both for its ideas (violence, climate horror!) as formally. And it did pop up on mainstream radar, Obama has called it one of his favorite books of that year.

      I think I’ve had physical copies of the Mars trilogy on my shelves for over 6 or 7 years. I generally approach authors the same way as you describe, but my first Robinson was Aurora, and that made such in impression on me, I don’t know, I wanted to have a better grasp of him as an author before I tackled his magnum opus. I never really planned it, I just wanted to read a few of his other titles first, and now that I have come this far, I’ll keep ‘the best’ for last. With the rate I’m reading atm (about 3 books a month, and leaving at least 10-20 titles of other authors before I read an author again, meaning I generally don’t read more than 2 or maybe 3 books a year by the same author), it will probably be near the end of 2023 before I’ll start Red Mars. Fingers crossed it doesn’t disappoint.

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  4. Well, considering that I hated Red Mars and never tried another Robinson book after it bodes well for you liking it 😀

    Was it a cathartic cry? Or an exhausting, debilitating one? I’m guessing the former and I hope that’s the case.

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    • Why did you hate Red Mars? Too much leftist politcs?

      As for the tears: cathartic, more or less. But I enjoyed them a lot. It’s generally a great feeling when a work of fiction manages to do that.

      SPOILER
      .
      .
      .
      .
      .
      .

      One of the characters dies, the writing surrounding that was brilliant, and it hit me really hard, as the emotional journey of this character had been very rewarding so far. Robinson also tied it up with feelings about (grand)children, and since I have children myself I can get very emotional when I think of the love my parents have for my children, its one of the deepest experiences I know of.

      END SPOILER

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  5. Thirty-two years? Ouch. I think I read this book when it came out. I didn’t know the context at the time (ie, that it was part of a trilogy) but really liked it. A lot of its charm was the relatively low stakes: how KSR focuses on the local and the personal. And like you say, it’s certainly a book which disproves the theory that he couldn’t create realistic characters.

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  6. Maybe a mixture of the two? KSR seems to be arguing that eternal vigilance is the price of any utopia, which I think is realistic. And I guess Claiborne’s complicated love life could be seen as another qualification; even in a Utopia, you don’t always get what you want. Plus it made the character easy to identify with. But I did find it hard to imagine the broader society to which such a community might belong.

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  7. Hah! (I looked it up)

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  8. I revisit the Three California novels quite often. I think only his Gallileo novel has better character building.

    I’ve always considered “Pacific Edge” my favorite utopian novel, and part of the reason why is because it is meta-generic; it is in a constant dialogue with the entire utopian genre.

    For example, a common utopian trope, seen in novels like “Looking Backwards”, or “Ecotopia”, or the many utopian novels of HG Wells, is to have a character hitting his head and waking up in the future, or on another planet, or stumbling to some remote island where a utopia has been set up.

    The character will then walk aimlessly throughout this land for a couple days, while the people he meets explains to him how this utopian society works, and how its laws and mores differ from the lead character’s own time or place.

    So the typical early utopian novel is a kind of preachy soapbox (this is the way things should be!), usually espousing socialist, feminist or radical politics, and salivating over speculative technologies (applied for the benefit of all). It’s no surprise that the genre began, or flourished, as a reaction to Victorian and Edwardian England, where the Industrial Revolution was concomitant with new forms of exploitation, rampant poverty, and more starkly delineated class borders.

    Robinson does the same thing. Your typical Robinson hero is in a sense a hero from a 19th century utopian novel- they walk aimlessly from A to B while learning a world, or planet and its workings. But what Robinson does well in the Three Californias books, is remove all the soap boxing and preaching. Characters don’t know they’re in a fanciful world. Characters don’t overtly explain the workings of the world. Information is conveyed in a very elliptical, off-handed or mundane way. The lessons characters learn aren’t even expressed out loud.

    Something like “Ministry for the Future” is pure late-HG Wells. It is in the Wellsian “When the Sleeper Awakes” or “A Modern Utopia” or “The Shake of Things to Come” mode. It is polemical. And it’s interesting to note that Wells late in his career was accused, like Stan, of writing mere blueprints, not novels.

    The Three Californias aren’t blueprints though. They’re foremost good character sketches, with the utopian/dystopian tropes approached from really sophisticated and subtle angles.

    Beyond this, I think novel is fun in relation to its predecessors; it’s fun to spot the way certain scenes (the ship wreck etc) echo reconfigured similar scenes in the past novels, or the way certain characters reappear but with different personalities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very insightful take, thanks for taking the time to write it. I’ll keep it in mind when I read the remaining of his books on my TBR. It also makes me realize I maybe should read more Wells – I only read The Time Machine.

      I didn’t catch much echos (aside the opening scene) in the California books because after a year or so, my memory becomes too spotty. I’m sure a reread would remedy some of that, but as there are so many other books still on my list, chances are I’ll never revisit them – at the very least not before I read all other Robinson books. The first of his I’ll reread after that will be Aurora – it was my first KSR, and it’s one of the first reviews I wrote, not really pleased about it in retrospect. As the book was so influential for me, it deserves an update. I’m also very curious how it holds up, after a lot more SF titles under my belt.

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  9. I hate to admit that, I really like KSR, but I agree with these popular opinions about his characters… I like some, I root for some, I feel for some even, but they seem to be sketches, more personifications of certain ideas and attitudes than fully drawn people.
    I haven’t read Pacific Edge, but I’ve recently read Red Mars, and in some ways it was brilliant, but as a novel – not as good reading as his later works, in my judgement. I’ll have to take a longer break before going for Green and Blue.

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    • I think it really is different for each novel, and these three early ones managed it imo. We´ll see for Red Mars, but I could very well be that in his later work ideas take tge upper hand. On the other hand, even in Ministry I really was emotional at the end, and lots of people complained it wasn´t even a ‘novel´.
      Will you write a review of RM?

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