Vision As Moral Act

The art of knowing oneself in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast.

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When science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson published one of his early novels in 1988, he situated his story 39 years ahead into the future: 2027. The gap between Robinson’s then-present and the book’s setting was a clever choice—he only had to envision Southern California a generation away. Instead of populating his tale with flying cars, invading martians, or teleporting machines, he paid attention to societal issues that were already cooking in late-1980s Orange County, though the mainstream may have ignored them—overpopulation, overdevelopment, and the presence of an ever-growing military industrial complex—and traced their trajectories to logical end points. The result is the Orange County of The Gold Coast, a triumph of speculative writing and our November California Book Club selection.

Robinson presents a future OC in which a lack of affordable housing has driven thousands onto the streets and humans, despite being stacked on one another, grow more disconnected from one another, transfixed by images on screens. Yet the novel’s most enduring quality is not in the verisimilitude of its details but in its central question: How did things become the way they are, and what can be done to fix what went wrong?

It’s an inquiry that plagues the novel’s protagonist, Jim McPherson, a 27-year-old part-time English teacher who harbors poetic aspirations. Distraught by the myriad high-rise condominiums piercing the OC skyline, the layers of freeways crisscrossing over former orchards, and the county’s financial dependence on weapons manufacturers, Jim tries to pinpoint, within his private writing, the exact date in time when the OC, and the nation at large, veered off course.

As our country braces for midterm elections on November 8, it’s a question that also hangs over Americans, or at least should: How did things get to be like this? Despite whatever results the midterms may yield, the United States has not been so divided since 1865. What does political victory even mean when half the country is vehemently opposed to the other?

For some in the fictional universe of the OC, like Jim, the answer is to live in the past, to sigh over the good ol’ days. Others, like Jim’s friend Arthur Bastanchury, thrust themselves into activism—often into situations they don’t fully comprehend. Both approaches have their merits, but Robinson suggests that neither can bring about the desired societal impact. Jim truly wants to “change America,” but neither he nor any of his friends can see the strategy to accomplish that end until they see themselves. If The Gold Coast is about any particular phenomenon, it’s about seeing and not seeing oneself.

To illustrate this point: Jim and his friends tease their buddy Humphrey for being stingy, but Humphrey remains clueless about the point of their chaffing. Jim “wonders if everyone is, perhaps, unaware of the principle aspect of their personality, which looms too large for them to see.” Jim mulls this over. “And if so, then what part of his own character doesn’t he see?”

Jim begins to question himself after meeting Hana Steentoft, an arts teacher, after one of his night classes. Hana’s easily the most honest character in the novel. When she and Jim become “allies,” or lovers, she refuses an offer to use the hallucinogenic eyedroppers that Jim and his friends enjoy constantly. She does not decline because of a conventional moral stance on drugs, but rather because she has no need for the stimulants: she already knows who she is and, therefore, sees the world and her role in it with perfect clarity.

In one scene, Jim and Hana enjoy coffee together shortly after meeting. Their conversation steers toward artists. Jim asks her to develop a point in her lecture that he overheard and misunderstood about the difference between focusing one’s eyesight and one’s vision. She counters, “Focusing your vision means a change in the way you pay attention to things. A clarification of your aesthetic sense, and of your moral sense as well.”

It’s not like focusing a camera, more like an adjustment of one’s soul. Hana understands the distinction because of her commitment to her art, a practice that has caused her to lose and find herself again and again. To become like her and to know what acts he should take to change America, Jim must first grapple with his own art, his poetry. The book intimates that by paying closer attention to the OC in his writing, Jim will know with greater certainty not only himself but also what must be done.

It’s a tall order for Jim, but if it can happen in The Gold Coast, which got so much right about the near future, it can happen in real life, too.•

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.

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