Monday, March 21, 2011

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Wild Shore (concl)

Spoiler Warning: the following will bring out some important plot elements and hints about the ending.

Sometimes I think it's harder for me to write about a work that I have greatly enjoyed reading than to write about one I didn't like as much or even disliked. I have to step back, get some distance from a work, before I can comment on it and go beyond a simple plot summary or gushing about how much I liked it. If I really like a work, it's because the writer has grabbed me and put me in some way into the story itself and I can't get an overall view. Another reason is that I fear my comments will suggest the story is uninteresting and therefore drive readers away.

To be brief, I finished The Wild Shore last week and have been putting off writing about it, just as I'm doing right now.

To the story

Robinson broke the story into four parts: the first being an accounting of the life of this small group who are trying make a life for themselves in an US that has been destroyed by a sneak attack. The people of Onofre are now living as their ancestors did several centuries ago. Power is mostly human and water. They are aware of electricity but have no way of generating it. The closest they can come are batteries, not the small kind but car batteries. Occasionally, scavengers (those who occupy the ruins of cities) find batteries that were never filled and therefore might be functional once they are filled. They have books that tell them of what was possible before the war, so they do have some idea of what can be accomplished. However, they lack the knowledge and the materials at present to do anything more than wish for what has been lost.

But, at the end of the first part, it became obvious that something was happening that was going to affect them. The people of Onofre are visited by two travelers from San Diego. Tom Barnard, the only one in Onofre who was alive before the war, is suspicious of them. Since the people of Onofre have no official leaders (they work by consensus when making decisions), there is no one to decide what they should do in this situation. At a meeting, Tom Barnard is selected to return with them to San Diego and find out what the Mayor has in mind.

In Part Two, we follow Henry (the seventeen-year-old narrator) and Tom to San Diego where they meet the Mayor and learn just what he has in mind. The Mayor is ready to go to war against the rest of the world. He wants to establish communication with the people in the Los Angeles area, and since Onofre is between the two, he wants them to help. As Tom explains again, he isn't a leader and all he can do is relate the Mayor's ideas to the people who will decide what they will do.

The trip back to Onofre is far more hazardous than it was going to San Diego. They go by boat and encounter one of the Japanese blockade ships. In the firefight that breaks out, Henry is separated from the others and barely makes it ashore, fearing that Tom and the others are dead. Fortunately all have survived, including Tom.

In Part Three, Henry and his friends make the usual mistake of teens: their parents and the other adults just don't understand the true situation, for the vote just barely went against going along with the Mayor's plans. The teens, wiser than the adults, decide to work secretly with the Mayor's men.

In Part Four, Henry and his friends discover, sadly, that adults aren't always wrong. They are betrayed by both the Mayor of San Diego and even several people of Onofre. This betrayal costs Henry several of his friends. However, the resulting fight also results in the Mayor's death, along with several members of his group. Since San Diego is now without a Mayor, an election takes place, and the party that was opposed to the Mayor's empire building dreams takes control. The people of Onofre no longer have to worry about San Diego, at least for awhile anyway. At least some good came out of the disaster.

When it's over, Henry has to learn to live with the knowledge that he was at least partially responsible for the death of one of his friends. None of the people of Onofre blame him, even his friend's father, but Henry does and he struggles to learn how to live with it.

The novel ends or rather doesn't end, for the people of Onofre suffer their losses and move on. It has become clear that they need to at least find out what the rest of the world is doing, so they plan to get a shortwave radio working, but just for listening, at least for the present. Another of the Onofreans has decided that it's time to try whaling again, especially since the whales visit their bay annually. The oil would be useful for lamps and lubricants and trading at the swap meet. And, Henry himself has suddenly noticed a young woman, one he's known all his life, but now she seems different in some way, and she seems to have noticed Henry also.

Henry may also turn out to be a writer, for the novel is his account of the events of that summer, the one "that would . . . change us." He's also a bit confused by Tom Barnard, and he's no longer quite so quick to accept everything Tom tells him. Tom, who almost died of pneumonia during the summer, decides to tell Henry the truth about life before the war, or at least as much of it as he can. On the one hand he talks about the scientific and medical advances, the rapid transportation, the use of electricity as power, but on the other hand, Henry points out to Tom that he has said that "the old time was awful, that we live better lives now than they ever did."

The last paragraph:

"As for me, the moon lays a mirrorflake road to the horizon. The snow on the beach melted yesterday, but it might as well be a beach of snow the way it looks in this light, against the edge of the black sea. Above the cliffs stand the dark hillsides of the valley, cupped, tilted to pour into the ocean. Onofre. This damp last page is nearly full. And my hand is getting cold--it's getting so stiff I can't make the letters, these words are all big and scrawling, taking up the last of the space, thank God. Oh be done with it. There's an owl, flitting over the river. I'll stay right here and fill another book."

Some times I wish Robinson had written a sequel to this work. What happened to Henry and the people of Onofre. What changes came about? Did they continue to live lives that Tom Barnard said were better than before the war?

How long will the blockade continue? Nothing is forever. The quarantine has gone on for decades already. How much longer could it continue? There were already almost regularly scheduled clandestine visits by "tourists" who paid large sums to come ashore for a short time and perhaps come back with a "souvenir." During Henry's trip back from San Diego, the ship he was traveling on was sunk by one of the Japanese blockade ships, and Henry was on board briefly. He met the captain of the ship and noticed that he was wearing a ring that was the type that graduating high school seniors used to wear before the war. The captain of the blockade ship obviously had some contact with those who were running the blockage. Did he regularly become blind, for a fee of course, to what was going on?

But, Robinson hasn't written a sequel so far, and perhaps he's wisest to leave it to the reader to continue the story.

Overall Rating: It's one of my five favorite post-holocaust novels.

Five stars on a scale of 0-5.

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