Often it is in a novelist’s early books that you can see the traces of what they read, who blazed their trails, what their imaginations were brushing up against as they wrote. Back in 1982, when the author Kim Stanley Robinson was in graduate school, he earned his PhD after writing his dissertation about another science fiction giant, Philip K. Dick. Surprisingly, Robinson wrote not only about Dick’s speculative works but also about his lesser-known realist fictions.
In his dissertation, revised and later published as The Novels of Philip K. Dick, Robinson argued that while Dick used distortions and metaphors to critique a society accelerating in its use of technology, the novels’ flaws suggest that Dick may not have been “in full control of his fictions, and that the political analyses they embody were not explicitly organized” by him. Robinson continued, “We are in need of a literature able to meditate on the historical process, so that we can, in these thought experiments, contemplate where our history might lead us.” Robinson’s adviser for the dissertation was the Marxist intellectual Fredric Jameson.
In 1984, shortly before Robinson published The Gold Coast, the November California Book Club pick, Jameson wrote an influential book called Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, which understood postmodernism as a condition that permeates every aspect of our culture. He argued that late-capitalist thinking would conquer all other kinds of thinking, that the logic of the marketplace would dominate.
Looking around at our present landscape, one in which so much information has been pressed through the sieve of what people want, what bits of things, even what memes, make them happy, rather than what big things they need to know to develop intelligent responses to catastrophic events like climate change, you can’t say Jameson got it wrong in the broad strokes, his persuasive, if complex, imagery incorporating automobiles and space travel and image addiction. He mentions, too, the pathological need of postmodern commentary to prove that this present we’re in is somehow radically different from the past. But history is always present, whether or not it is visible, a layer in the pentimento of reality—a salient recognition in Robinson’s book, too.
Jameson’s intellectual influence on Robinson’s early books, including The Gold Coast, seems particularly profound. Interpolated in this book are Jim’s own writing about Orange County history, writing within writing, a highly postmodern literary move. But more interesting, perhaps, are the book’s deft shifts between the external plot and the interiority reflected in Jim’s own pages. From scene to scene, Robinson seems to choreograph the movement between material action and intellect, in a kind of dramatization of what it might take, psychologically, for us to wrest open the possibilities for our own future.
Yet the present for Robinson, a Zen Buddhist, carries its own cruciality: What can we do now, not what could we have done when scientists first noticed climate change, nor what could we have done when the collapse of 2008 demonstrated to many of us that there was an unsustainability about unchecked capitalism? While he recognized that there’s no altering the past, in the books that followed The Gold Coast, Robinson delved more deeply into what California’s history makes possible for the future, what he could imagine about life on Mars, say.
Of course it’s California, a breeding ground for optimistic theories and acts—painters love the light here, and it seems no coincidence that Jim falls for a painter—that would birth some of the greatest contemporary science fiction authors of our time. Think of Dick’s paranoid, drugged-out confabulations—Mars by way of the Bay Area by way of the Midwest. Think of Ray Bradbury, a dreamer of Mars whose hometown of Waukegan in Illinois is where Robinson was born, who typed Fahrenheit 451 in the library of UCLA. Or to move over on the political spectrum and see how certain dreamers recast space imagery to satisfy different emotions, think about Elon Musk, plainly not a utopian but who has, in the course of his California-fication, become determined to transform humans into a multiplanetary species, even pouring money into a colonizing company, SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne.
And you have to snicker when you read Robinson’s acerbic commentary on Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars: “Musk’s plan is sort of the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his backyard.” Both of them sci-fi lovers, but contrast Robinson’s visions, humane and evolving, aware that capitalism expands on feudalism, replacing kings with business leaders, with the loner fantasy of corporatization and domination that propels SpaceX.
There is no Planet B, as Robinson points out. There is just here, now. And it remains to be seen, that is assuming we keep a planet about which to speculate: Whither utopianism in California?•
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. What influences do you see in Robinson’s work? Which is your favorite Robinson novel? 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.
A federal judge blocked a bid by one of the country’s largest publishers, Penguin Random House, to purchase its competitor Simon & Schuster. —New York Times
At the heart of prior CBC author Natalia Molina’s work is telling the histories of underdocumented communities. —Los Angeles Times
Molly Young writes that Philip K. Dick had a “nuclear-strength imagination” and his influence is everywhere. —New York Times
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