Sir Thomas More’s Utopia coined the term utopia. He played with the Greek outopos, which means “nowhere” but sounds like another word that signifies a good place, eutopos. Right from the start of The Gold Coast, our November California Book Club selection, the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, a giant of the genre, puns about a future Orange County, calling it an “autopia.” Interpreted according to its etymology, the wordplay means something like “place of self,” but starting from how we use auto today, it intimates a place of cars.
And, indeed, the first line of the novel is the noise of traffic: “Beep beep!” Jim, a young man critical of capitalism and fascinated by local history, and his three friends—a smart-drug designer, a surfer, a member of a rescue team—have been cut off by another car in 2027 Orange County. They’re driving to break concrete and excavate land where, Jim has learned, an elementary school existed in the first half of the 20th century. The space has been transformed into a doughnut shop where people eat incandescent doughnuts before embarking into a holographic savanna.
While the four are digging for the elementary school—digging for childhood, in a way—Jim’s buddy rescues them from getting caught by the police, but in this future, the men have a fear that looks different: the police can track them using only the heat of their footsteps. The Gold Coast, set in the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s early triptych of novels, Three Californias, offers one of three visions of the OC’s future.
Nothing quite so disastrous as the apocalypse has happened in the history leading up to The Gold Coast. Jim, the son of an engineer in the defense industry, idolizes his friends and longs to be taken seriously, and he is convinced to join a resistance. The plan? Sabotage weapons manufacturers.
The novel romances emotional realities as much as it does political theory. Close relationships among young men. Rebellions against fathers that are symbolic rebellions against the conservative engineers of epistemological and, hence, political authority. Robinson taps into the resistance of the young, for whom bucking a human-made system—after all, a malleable and constructed thing—feels electric rather than daunting. Even in the future, the book suggests, Californians will keep their nostalgia for the phenomena that characterize growing up—friends, parties, ardent philosophical banter, games, acute curiosity about the edges of the sensual and psychological.
Strikingly—Robinson knows. He knows the resisters, the con artists, the insiders. He knows the doubts and hopes. The state’s penetrability by radical intellectualism. The allure techne holds. And he knows our technology countercultures, how the avid miniature societies they produce work.
Later, The Gold Coast hits on a funny, unnervingly canny observation about the subculture of drug dealers. Visit underworld brokers and often you’ll find that their dens of pot smoke are home, as well, to sophisticated, expensive gadgetry and sometimes dog-eared revolutionary texts. Experimentation, sure, but there are unspoken rules at work, as Robinson intuits.
This is the strange heart of drug dealing.… No contract will be signed at the end of their dealing, and no enforcement agency will come to one’s aid if the other breaks their verbal agreement. In this sense drug dealers must be much more honest than businessmen or lawyers, for instance, who have contracts and the law to fall back on. Dealers have only each other, and so it’s crucial to establish that they’re dealing with someone they can trust to stick to their word.
Impressively real, no less insightful scenes are set in the terrain around the county. Amid the state’s busy, decentralized urban sprawl, it can be hard to picture what it might have been like before the land held roughly 39.4 million people. But go up the mountains of Southern California and the sheer splendor of the panorama is dizzying. We’re no bigger than industrious ants on an oceanic frontier.
To what kind of future are we driving? Looking out at a vista, I thought about one of Robinson’s remarks to a journalist interviewing him in 2014. The sentence is only nine words, yet it contains one of the notable contradictions of California as imagined by the novel. It recognizes that the state is a hallucinatory space beyond time, or a place perhaps nowhere in reality so much as in our own imaginations. It recognizes that the ground of the place, “white with wild geese,” and the “sun glancing off the sea in a million spearpoints” are almost unspeakably sublime. “I still think California is a science fictional place.”•
Join us on Zoom on Tuesday, November 22, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Robinson will join CBC host John Freeman and special guest Cory Doctorow to discuss The Gold Coast. Please stop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.
Read an excerpt of Robinson’s The Gold Coast. —Alta
WHY READ THIS
Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin recommends The Gold Coast, commenting that Robinson frames “his own map of the future through the conundrums of the present.” —Alta
MOLINA EVENT RECAP
If you missed the event featuring A Place at the Nayarit with author Natalia Molina, special guest Alex Espinoza, and host John Freeman, you can still read the recap or watch the video. —Alta
HEART OF A COMMUNITY
Freeman writes about Doña Natalia Barraza, the center of A Place at the Nayarit. —Alta
Critic Amy Reardon writes about Lydia Millet’s novel Dinosaurs. She writes that it reads like “an escape to an imaginary oasis from an America that feels increasingly cruel.” —Alta
GIVE IT BACK
Read Alta contributor Daniel A. Olivas’s short story “My Chicano Heart,” from his forthcoming collection. —Alta
NEW TV SERIES
Hulu has ordered the inventive, National Book Award–winning novel Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu, to series. Jimmy O. Yang will star as Willis Wu, a background character in a crime procedural who finds himself at the center of things. —Variety
WEAVING A COMMUNITY
Bay Area writer Grace Loh Prasad pens an essay on motherhood and loss that takes as its starting point the true story of an orca that carried her dead calf for days and the pod of female orcas that took over carrying the calf for her when she became weaker. —The Offing
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