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 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).