The Simultaneity of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Past, Present, and Future Visions

Critic and poet Stephanie Burt considers perceptions of California and the art of looking in The Gold Coast, the November California Book Club pick.

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Before he was our leading author of novels about climate adaptation (see his recent New York 2140), before he was famous for looking long and carefully at a terraformed Mars (in the Mars trilogy, 1992–1996), Kim Stanley Robinson was imagining California. The Gold Coast (1988) was the second novel in the series now called (and republished as) Three Californias, which set each of its three installments in a possible future Orange County. It’s a novel not just about what might be coming to the Southland but about how to see past, present, and future at once, in a land sometimes disparaged or overlooked or treated as if it had no past.

It’s also a novel whose props and symbols ask us to focus on the built environment and on what we choose not to see. In its near-future, recreational designer drugs come in eyedroppers, and you really do put them (if you choose to partake) into your eyes. Wilderness and parkland have become paved freeways, half-empty offices, and apartment blocks (“aps”), making the whole OC a kind of “autopia,” a utopia for cars: “Beep beep! Honk honk,” the book opens. “Night in Orange County, here, and the four friends are cruising in autopia.” Most cars run on programs and guided tracks: they are what we now call “self-driving,” and as you’d expect, they sometimes crash. Two of the supporting characters, Abe and Xavier, work for an ambulance service, cutting crash victims out of their highway smashups: they see where others look away.

Other than the presence of eyedroppers and “unpiloted vehicles,” The Gold Coast looks a lot like the present and even more like the near-future seen from 1988: “eyezapping xenon, glaring on the malls, the stadium, Disneyland,” mall after mall, and a hypertrophied defense-aerospace economy, with forever wars and “ballistic missile defense programs” to prop them up. There’s still a Soviet Union, and the Cold War seemingly never ends.

It’s a 1980s book in other ways, too: its Orange County has no organized Asian presence, all but two of its 20-odd characters are white, and only in chapter 18 does the novel pass the Bechdel Test (a woman has a conversation with another woman, not about a man). It’s conventional in its double plot of father against son: Dennis McPherson works for the aerospace industry; his poet son Jim becomes a saboteur. And it’s conventional in its moralized endings. Sandy, a sympathetic drug dealer, might have to stop selling drugs. Jim has to choose among women who might love him back, and in the painter Hana, he appears to make the right choice.

Why, then, devote time and energy to this well-made, well-organized California novel, among all California novels? For one thing, it’s knowing, wry, even mordant in its awareness of what the OC means to the people in it, some forever loyal to these suburbs and small cities, some forever in search of escape. Sandy and his friend Tashi, who lives in a tent on a roof, are escapists at heart but also loyal friends: when the Drug Enforcement Administration “declares Orange County ‘drug capital of the world,’” Sandy creates “a local holiday.” With streamers.

Against the ignorant contention that California (especially the suburbs and the Southland) somehow lacks or erases history, The Gold Coast incorporates evidence of that history, from the Gabrielinos and the lost village of Genga, to McFadden’s Landing, to “the great landholding of James Irvine,” to the catastrophic uprooting in the 1950s and 1960s of the last orange groves. What now holds glass towers and has become a permanent war footing once nurtured “a slow, pastoral, feudal life,” where ranchers traded hides by simply throwing them over cliffs at visitors. Robinson’s OC may be “the ultimate expression of the American dream,” a place that shows how capitalism eats its own, but it is also a place people made. “It has a history. And tracing this history might help to explain it.”

Even better, or at least more transferable: Robinson’s prose, so streamlined when people do things, so appreciative when it comes to geology and the built environment, sets out to teach its readers how to look at a place, any place (not just Irvine or Anaheim), at how (to quote Hana) to “throw your mind into your eyes and see.” The eyedroppers and the defense industry and Disneyland are part of Robinson’s place, but they get in the way of seeing the place: “We use weapons as a drug,” concealing the unsustainability, the cruelty, in the way we live now.

Insisting that we excavate and scrutinize and see what’s really there, Robinson also writes against the clichés of West Coast academia in the 1980s, the shallow postmodern claims that images and spectacles had become—at least in California—all we can know. This novelist began his career as an academic, working with famous theory head Fredric Jameson, who literally wrote the book on postmodernism. And if Robinson rejects certain sorts of po-mo, cooler-than-thou, fast-forward frivolity, he also embraces his mentor’s left politics, along with Jameson’s injunction “Always historicize”: the OC is not only its economy in The Gold Coast but also its history. Robinson gives his near-future OC that name not out of any connection to West Africa or coastal Australia, but because Hana paints her California in shades of gold, “an elevated freeway” making “a fat gold band across a green sky,” an “empty hillside (with gold construction machinery),” and because “a gold rush that has never stopped,” a promise of prosperity through expansion, land claims, and wars, has made the alternatives—ranchero life, utopian communities in Anaheim and in Garden Grove, even a tent on the roof like Tashi’s—all too hard to see.•

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.

Stephanie Burt is a literary critic, professor, and poet whose most recent collection is We Are Mermaids.
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