After praising the eco-poetics and beauty of The Gold Coast, the November California Book Club selection, CBC host John Freeman asked author Kim Stanley Robinson to take the audience back to the moment in which he conceived his early trilogy Three Californias.
Robinson explained that he’d grown up in Orange County and went to UC San Diego around the start of the 1970s. He joked, “I drove 15 years in 90 minutes by going from Orange County.” While driving his Cortina from UCSD back to his parents’ house across Camp Pendleton, he envisioned the three science fiction novels.
He thought that “there could be an old man in all three novels that had lived three different lives unbeknownst to him, but the readers would know. Therefore, you would see how much history conditions the lives that we lead, that it isn’t just you and your decisions but what happens to you in your time.” He clung to the thought but only years later wrote the first book in Three Californias.
Freeman commented that certain sections cut through the narrative with “strobe-lit descriptions of sensory feeling.” He asked why Robinson had written it that way. Robinson said, “It’s saying that Reagan’s America was going to turn into a dystopia and that pleasure-seeking can be desperate and pointless. But also, it turned into one of the most autobiographical novels that I ever wrote. And that’s usually dangerous ground for me. I wouldn’t recommend it, but that this particular novel being the entirety of my 20s, as written for my 30s, I was pleased with it when I was done.”
In the novel, he noted, there are portraits of his good friends—body surfers and athletes and jock-hippies or hippie-jocks—as well as a skeptical portrait of himself. “I felt like I could be mean to myself,” he said. “With my friends and with my parents in particular, I had to be making a positive portrait. So there you have dystopia with ordinary people. People, in fact, whom I loved, stuck in it.” At the time, he saw himself as making an affectionate portrait of them but is now amazed that he “had the gall and the nerve to cast their lives into sentences like that.”
Special guest Cory Doctorow joined the event and noted Robinson’s prescience. He commented on an “inevitablism” around the autonomous vehicles in the book. He asked, “When you look at the inevitablism of so many of our lethal conditions—the climate emergency, our pandemic, our automotive society, and so on—do you feel like that’s a thing that you’ve captured in your work?”
Robinson responded that it was a matter of chance. He reasoned, “We’re not going to get autonomous cars for a very long time, despite the inevitability, because of liability insurance.” He added, “This is one of the games that we play. With old science fiction, we play the game of archaeology: What did they think was going to be important back to that? And then, What is happening now?”
Doctorow remarked that at its best, science fiction provides “emotional architectural renderings that you can fly through of what a future might feel like.” He asked whether what happens when there is no social consensus was on Robinson’s mind while writing The Gold Coast.
Robinson talked about the bad governance of the OC he’d uncovered in his research; real estate developers got on a board and “OKed every single development project that was put before them.” While he’d seen it happen in front of his eyes, he only came to understand it when he discovered science fiction and got a political education in college. He’s now like his character Kevin from the third novel in Three Californias, Pacific Edge; he’s on the board of directors of Village Homes, a subdivision of Davis. He’s been dragged into a bitter fight over a preschool between older hippies and young neoliberals. He concluded, “Politics is crucial. Governance is crucial. And it does feel good to have my hands in the mud, you know, trying to strangle somebody.”
Freeman returned and asked an audience member’s question about what Robinson sees as the future of California, including his thoughts on the crisis of homelessness. Robinson noted that the crisis is larger than California. His wife organizes Tuesday-night dinners at the local homeless shelter. He usually helps her by cleaning up but can’t stand to do the frontline work, which angers him: “That we have a society that lets this happen. Many of these people have mental illness, and of course it’s a sort of a chicken-and-egg problem—whether the mental illness preceded or came after the homelessness—but they are aging two or three or five times faster than ordinary humans from the rough living.”
Robinson pointed out that California, as a progressive state that is the fifth-biggest economy on earth, can find compassionate solutions. He said the state “is no bigger than New Zealand or Great Britain or whatever, but it is the world’s imaginary dreamland utopia. It’s California. It’s strange how famous and overburdened it is by its beauty.”•
We hope you enjoyed this conversation among luminaries. Join us again on Zoom on Thursday, December 15, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Jaime Cortez will join Freeman to discuss Gordo. 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.