It’s remarkable how much he got right. That’s the conclusion a reader in 2022 irresistibly reaches after reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s landmark futuristic novel The Gold Coast, published in 1988 and set in 2027. The thought is almost frustrating, because it feeds into the crude idea that authors of speculative fiction should be trying to predict, to fill out the bingo card, when of course the glory of the genre from the start has been its revelations about the present. Upon its publication, The Gold Coast had those, too; its brilliance is that it goes on having them.
Robinson was a young man when he wrote The Gold Coast, not yet 40. Sitting in the Goldilocks-middle of his Three Californias trilogy, which presents three visions of Orange County, it follows 1984’s The Wild Shore, about a postapocalyptic future, and precedes 1990’s Pacific Edge, about a utopian one. The second novel was Robinson’s best estimate of how the world might actually turn out if it continued in its current form, and with an ambient, rebellious despair about the changes wrought by the Cold War, it therefore focuses on the defense industry: in the world of The Gold Coast, the United States is involved in dozens of small wars, which are primarily staging areas for the economic interests of weapons companies.
Among them is Laguna Space Research, where a tightly wound engineer named Dennis McPherson works. His son, Jim, is the book’s ambling, partying, literate, thoughtful hero, and he has, well, doubts, it’s fair to say, about his father’s work.
Their tension forms the core of the book’s plot, yet Jim’s emotional concerns about the world are, in fact, mostly local. He bears the classic bildungsroman protagonist’s curse of living in circumstances he has inherited and is only slowly realizing he cannot unmake. “Orange County is the end of history, its purest product,” Jim announces to his friends. “Civilization kept moving west for thousands of years, in a sunset tropism, until they came to the edge here on the Pacific and they couldn’t go any farther. And so they stopped here and did it. And by that time they were in the great late surge of corporate capitalism, so that everything here is purely organized, to buy and sell, buy and sell, every little piece of us.”
Here is a major prescience. Jim and his friends’ furious resistance to the corporate dominion over their environment and their inner lives would be fashionable now, but in the 1980s, such pronouncements about corporate capitalism veered dangerously close to a crank’s opinion. Much of the art of the time, from Martin Amis to Steven Spielberg to Jeff Koons, embraced the glossy innovations of capitalism as, if not ideal, at any rate inevitable.
Robinson never cut that deal. He plainly loves technology—The Gold Coast is extraordinarily fluent in its descriptions of missile systems, chemical resins, drug engineering, and dozens of other cutting-edge industrial methods—yet he stubbornly and continually returns to its heavy costs, as if reminding not only his readers but himself of them. “It’s almost a lost concept,” one of his characters says, “that individuals shouldn’t be able to profit from common property such as land or water. But some of us still believe in it.”
The best scenes in The Gold Coast explore this ambivalence, auguring the syncretism of tech and nature that would come to be Robinson’s hallmark. Jim’s friend Tash night-surfs on the untouched ocean, a choice framed as an “innovation.” The two of them go mountaineering and speak in long panegyrics for the orange groves that used to stand across land now crisscrossed by freeways. In this sense, Robinson is one of the most distinctly Californian novelists at work today: Asimov by way of Muir.
However much The Gold Coast got right, some of its allure inevitably lies in what it got wrong (always a furtive secondary joy of reading old Le Guin or Huxley or Butler, too). He totally failed to see the arrival of cell phones, which leads to some unintentionally funny scenes of a future in which people can be (alas!) unreachable, and the book’s enjoyably chaotic party scenes rely on sophisticated recreational drugs that still seem 50 years off rather than 5.
Yet there’s so much more that he nailed. Automation, for instance: Jim’s friend Abe is a paramedic working the freeways who regularly comes upon horrific accidents involving self-driving cars, while Dennis McPherson’s job involves the new preeminence of drones rather than actual pilots, which must have seemed genuinely science fictional to a 1988 audience. The Soviet Union exists in the novel as America’s antagonist, but then, a former KGB officer is our nemesis now. Call it a wash. And if anything, the grinding wars on behalf of Halliburton et al. came even sooner than Robinson guessed.
What he saw most clearly, though, was the tremendous anger that living in such a society might generate. We’re in a moment of staid mutiny now, with a rise in unions, a vogue for “quiet quitting,” and a healthy fury at the technocratic rich, but at the height of the Cold War, it was a dizzying leap to venture that people might not like all this, the big screens and slick security systems and treeless malls. “Take that first step,” Robinson writes, “perform an act of resistance of even the smallest kind, and suddenly your perception changes. Reality changes. You see it can be done. It might take time, but—”
Robinson would go on to write books whose notions of the future are more expansive and imaginative than those in The Gold Coast, but he would never again have the same youthful passion and wrath. Those feelings share a border with love, and the Three Californias trilogy is suffused with an elegiac sense of the American landscape that is less present, sometimes, in his later work. He suggests that even in the future he envisions for 2027, we could still retrieve it, somehow—the same sense Jim often has, looking out at his native land. The “single stretch” of undeveloped land on Southern California’s coast, Robinson tells us, is, inevitably, a military camp. “Something about it is so quiet, so empty, so pure.… My God, he thinks. The land. A pang of loss pierces him: this land that they live on, under its caking of concrete and steel and light—it was a beautiful place, once.”•
Join us on Zoom on Tuesday, November 22, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Robinson will join special guest Cory Doctorow and CBC host John Freeman to talk about 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.