It’s astonishing to revisit Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast in 2022. Published in 1988, the novel, which is the second volume in the author’s Three Californias trilogy, is set in a future that then seemed suitably distant, taking place in Orange County in 2027. Nearly three and a half decades later, the potential future Robinson imagined is coming up fast in front of us, less a harbinger or a warning than a slice of life. This is the challenge of all science fiction that unfolds in the near future—I think of Blade Runner (1982), which crossed its point of singularity three years ago, or Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, written during the 1960s and set in an overpopulated New York City in 1999.
The Gold Coast fares better, temporally speaking, than either of those precursors; the future it posits remains recognizable through the lens of the present we occupy. That’s because, even early in his career (The Gold Coast was his fourth book), Robinson was a visionary writer, if not prescient exactly—prescience, it turns out, only appears to emerge in hindsight—then highly attuned to the world both as it was and as it could become. The story of a disaffected young man named Jim McPherson, the novel unfolds in a landscape that has been overdeveloped, traversed by freeways and blanketed with condos and malls. Cars rely on computerized navigation systems, while defense contractors bid to supply the Pentagon with drones. Jim’s father, Dennis, works for one such company, which adds a layer of generational conflict to the narrative. It’s not hard to imagine, from where I live in Los Angeles, everything Robinson describes in the book occurring at this moment, just a few miles down the road.
Such a tension, of course, is necessary, the back-and-forth on which science fiction relies. The best of the genre is not about the future but, rather, is a response to, or an extrapolation of, the world in which we find ourselves. This can lead to hope or to despair; in Three Californias, Robinson engages in both. The trilogy’s first book, The Wild Shore, imagines an agrarian culture that has emerged after a nuclear holocaust. The third, Pacific Edge, presents a full-on ecotopia, in the vein of Ursula K. Le Guin or Ernest Callenbach.
The Gold Coast represents a counterpoint. It is a novel about what goes wrong when (in some odd way) nothing goes wrong. Without some sort of external disruption, it observes, we will continue to amuse ourselves, even if it leads us to the grave. “A map,” Robinson writes here, “is the representation of a landscape, after all, and many landscapes, like Orange County’s, are principally psychic.” A map, and a work of fiction, too. What Robinson is doing in this novel, then, as he does throughout Three Californias, is framing his own map of the future through the conundrums of the present—not to resolve them, necessarily, but to confront them and, in so doing, to raise necessary questions about who we are and how we want to live.•