The High Costs of Convenience

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Gold Coast, the CBC selection for November, portrays the destructive estrangement generated by a society’s invisible systems.

kim stanley robinson

Last month, in San Francisco, I rode in a driverless car for the first time. I am old enough to have both watched the Jetsons and then see some of their technologies come to pass. Video conversations. Drones. Smart watches. They’ve all become part of day-to-day life. Flying cars always seemed a bit much, but the way no one had to drive in The Jetsons? As a Californian who once commuted, that I could get behind. In a way, though, we’ve been there for a while. Most planes fly on a computerized flight plan. They basically take off and land themselves, a commercial airline pilot told me. When I learned this, I wasn’t the least bit surprised—or worried.

The last sensation is where so many science fiction writers skip a beat. By the time new technology arrives, it has already, through the depth of the systems required to create it, so thoroughly altered our consciousness, our culture, and our way of being that to observe its arrival is impossible. That goes for more than gadgets. We are all enmeshed in a vast array of systems, especially ones we don’t see. Many of us in the United States do not ever witness an animal slaughtered; we don’t interact with the person who delivers our food; the scenes of factory life where so much technology is made barely graze us. And so convenience—in the modern sense—is invisibly created.

When “Griffin” pulled away from the corner of Mason and California, drove up Nob Hill, and slowed to a complete stop at a dark crosswalk, I was only briefly unnerved. It was a good driver. The steering wheel turned with handless precision. The stops were perfect. Within a minute or two, I’d begun, as in many car rides, to gaze out the window and daydream. I’d been prepared for this moment by years of technological advances. A phone that was a camera; a refrigerator that self-regulated; a coffee machine that woke me up with coffee already made. There was no rupture here. The last time a schism really occurred was in the creation and use of a nuclear weapon. The ability to destroy every living thing on earth is the most transformative technology humans have ever made.

Nearly 40 years ago, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a trilogy of novels about life in California in the future, each imagining a different outcome. One, The Wild Shore, is a nuclear holocaust frontier novel; The Gold Coast, which is the second, is a near-future social realist book; the third, Pacific Edge, is a story of a green utopia and its possibilities. For all their can’t-blame-them flubs—answering machines? Texas Instruments still a thing?—they got two major things right. The first was that nuclear technology threatens our very existence. The second, the recognition that technology often has already changed us before we adapt to its values.

The Gold Coast is the darkest of the three. It revolves around the dilemma of how to live ethically when the systems of our—particularly men’s—lives, and the ways one copes with those systems, have produced a fundamental disconnection. In the novel, set in the year 2027, a group of men, many of them loosely or directly attached to the vast network of defense contractors in Orange County, live dissolute, somewhat malaise-driven lives. They ride in driverless cars that move on tracks; they drop hallucinogenic drugs through eyelid droppers; they toil to produce ever more effective weapons of killing, on time, for maximum profit.

The Gold Coast is a chilling portrait of the world made by this disembodied life of convenience. Every bit of land has been developed or turned into freeways. The only growth seems to occur in a densely packed area of glass skyscrapers, “a crystal city of weapons procurement.” Dennis McPherson, who works there on a supersonic intercontinental ballistic missile defense system, feels himself “coming out of automatic pilot” whenever he leaves to go out into the world and advocate for the use of more weapons to get around the weapons that could annihilate us.

Throughout the novel, machines are a metaphor for life. Talking to an Air Force general in charge of procurement, Dennis jokes about his son, Jim. “He’s a strange one. A brain without a program.” Twenty-seven-year-old Jim is “a part-time word processor for a title and real estate company, a part-time night school teacher” at a community college. Essentially, however, he’s a poet who hangs out with his friends—Tashi, a surfer who lives off the grid; Sandy, a drug dealer; and Abe, an EMT who patrols the freeways in a 1,000-horsepower Chevy van, which runs on gasoline and pulls people off the wrecks that keep occurring because of the driverless cars.

At times, as Abe, Tashi, Sandy, and Jim orbit one another’s lives, The Gold Coast feels a bit like a necrotic, futuristic Dharma Bums. Jim is drawn ever closer to a mysterious figure named Arthur. While Arthur is no Japhy Ryder, the character modeled off the poet Gary Snyder in Kerouac’s novel, he has a similar dedication to clarity, a monkish singularity. At night, Arthur plasters the OC in posters encouraging people to wake up and eventually mentions to Jim that he is involved in planning direct action—read violence—against the defense industry.

It’s worth pausing here to say that most of the novel would almost certainly fail the Bechdel Test, the rubric set up by the brilliant comic Alison Bechdel about asking whether the female-identified characters in a book are defined entirely through their relationship to men. That is absolutely the case here, but the gender dynamic depicted might be on purpose, a subterranean commentary on the social relations produced by its technologies. Of Robinson’s trilogy, The Gold Coast is the most filmic, and all of its characters have been shaped by visual culture and especially pornography. “Video saturation has trained Jim, like everyone else, to a fine appreciation of the female image,” Robinson writes acidly in one scene before Jim and friends pile naked into a Jacuzzi.

Jim, his father, and their friends are not that old trope of boys in need of tenderness, but they are absolutely caught in a world of machinist masculinities. At work, Stewart Lemon—Dennis’s boss—has learned that the only way to truly motivate his underling is to threaten and bully him. To jack the most productivity from him by igniting his anger. Abe has learned to prowl the highways like a soul-smoked Highlander, packing away the part of him that feels or has empathy so that he can saw through metal, sometimes cutting off limbs in order to free victims of the machines men have made. More robotic than the robotics that assist him. At night, among the friends, he drinks more than most.

Jim, wavering between the world of his father, Tashi’s earth-loving ways (“The less you are plugged into the machine, the less it controls you”), and the promise of vengeance by Arthur, is the character who reflects on this state of existence the most. He sees it and wants to do something but doesn’t know how. He can’t escape the questions this way of life provokes, the commodifications it encourages, even in what he might call pleasure. In one memorable scene, he and his “ally” (lover) Virginia pair off from one of their hot tub get-togethers to have sex. Robinson’s future depicts all sex as mediated, to the point that most people plug into an elaborate system of cameras and projections so they can watch themselves as they f---. To go to bed without this viewing is almost unthinkable. In the middle of Jim and Virginia’s session, however, the system breaks, and instantly they stop. Catching a brain wave, Jim drags a huge mirror into the bedroom, and at last they’re able to finish: “It’s disconcerting to have the twins looking back at them, but interesting too, and Jim can’t help grinning lasciviously at himself. The image is different also, the video’s softness and depth of field replaced by a hard, silvered, glossy materiality, as if they’ve got a window here and are spying on a couple in some more glassy world.”

The Gold Coast feels like a novel written into that glassy version of the world of its time. It unfolds with the rolling dolly shots of Miami Vice, Michael Mann’s breakthrough 1984 TV show. It is a feast for the eye, constantly showing us things and how people live, cutting cinematically from character to character as Jim is drawn into an actual plot to attack a defense contractor, and not just any contractor, but the one his father works for. As a writer, Robinson is keenly attuned to the way a scene in the old sense is not just a moment of drama but a tableau—a spectacle.

But he can shift gears, and throughout The Gold Coast, in interstitial chapters written by Jim, others drawing from different characters’ memories, he moves into a high poetic register. One of the most beautiful chapters is the briefest, which unfurls in the mind of Jim’s uncle Tom, who lives in a sprawling retirement community called Seizure World. After Jim visits and then leaves, Tom enters a kind of reverie and remembers playing in the orange groves that once plunged off in every direction, the area around each tree perfectly symmetrical, a symbol of the manipulation of nature’s design.

“We ate the oranges too, choosing only the very best,” Tom recalls to a mind’s-eye Jim. “The green and slightly acrid sweat that comes out of their skin as you peel them, the white pulpy inside of the peels, the sharp and fragrant smell, the wedges of inner fruit, perfectly rounded crescent wedges...odd things. Their taste never seemed quite real.... No one could imagine that all the groves would be torn down.”

A lesser novel would have let this bygone world and its emotional utopias stand. But The Gold Coast is a novel, among other things, about the way utopias always proceed from destruction. So a few chapters later, in Jim’s voice, or that of another, it’s not entirely clear, the novel reminds us that all of this land was stolen by the Franciscan missions and decimated of peoples whose connection to it had lasted thousands of years before being renamed as a different utopia.

The Gold Coast asks, Is there such a thing as the last needed brutality? Bathed in California light, are Robinson’s men just another group bent on a new totalizing violence? And has technology made that the only way we can see change? It has certainly gone that way for Dennis, the weapons manufacturer, driven by his abusive boss. Dennis can hardly be surprised when his son turns to violence, as he does. Jim “dreams of a cataclysm that could bring this overlit American to ruin, and leave behind only the land, the land, the land.”

It took another novel for Robinson to offer an alternative to this cycle, one drawn out in the green utopia, Pacific Edge. Would that we were closer to that reality. Instead, to read The Gold Coast today is to experience a vast, uncanny familiarity. Like stepping into a car without a driver, or paying for an object with a telephone, or seeing one’s own face in a mirror without expecting it and finding—for a brief moment—a blankness, or lack of recognition, because so often when we look at ourselves, we aren’t really looking.•

Join us on Zoom on Tuesday, November 22, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Robinson will join 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.

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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