Sunday, August 21, 2011

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Gold Coast

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Gold Coast (TGC) is one of the three novels in what was first called "The Orange County" trilogy, but is now being marketed as "The Three Californias." However, I still prefer my title, "The California Troika." The three novels are set in Orange County, California, at approximately the middle of the 21st century. However, they do not overlap because Robinson has postulated three widely differing futures for Orange County. It is, therefore, an alternate universe series, of a very unique kind.

I have already posted on another of the three novels--The Wild Shore (TWS), .which was a "What if" novel--one that answers the question what if there was a nuclear attack on the US? What would life be like for the survivors in Orange County some half century later?

The Gold Coast belongs to the “If this goes on” category, for it postulates the continuation of the Cold War along with massive urban population growth for Orange County, which is now a center for the military-industrial complex. Much of the industry in Orange County now consists of defense contractors, corporations whose existence depends upon gaining contracts for military weapons. The novel is an extrapolation of Orange County in the 80s when it was written.

The third novel, Pacific Edge, is a “What if” novel and is, in comparison to these two, pure fantasy. I will go into that in more detail in a later post.

While the two novels occupy widely varying universes, Robinson appears to have created a very broad pattern, at least for these two novels. The main character is a young male, Jim McPherson. In TGC he is about a decade older than the main character (Hank Fletcher) is in TWS. Physically McPherson is older; however, he still is a teenager for he hasn’t grown up yet. McPherson is still “finding himself.” He has two part-time jobs, one as a data entry clerk and the other a part-time instructor at a night school.

A second commonality is the importance of the relationship between the young man and his father, though the relationships are quite different. Jim McPherson’s father, Dennis, is an engineer who works for a defense contractor. A significant part of the story concerns the father’s problems at work, both with the work itself and his immediate supervisor, whose goal is getting the task done, regardless of whatever harm this might do to his subordinates.

The father has a dream: the weapons system (reminds me a bit of Pres. Reagan’s Star Wars System) he is now working on could eliminate the need for nuclear weapons. It might not completely eliminate war, but at least it will remove a possible nuclear holocaust that both threatens and sustains the volatile political world situation. As it is, the US is now involved in “Open wars in Indonesia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Thailand” and “Covert wars in Pakistan, Turkey, South Korea, and Belgium.”

Dennis McPherson’s job and employer are two of the reasons for the estrangement between Jim and his father. Jim is vaguely opposed to the war and therefore opposed to his father’s work. Dennis is unhappy with his son whom he feels hasn’t grown up yet, even though he was graduated from high school a decade ago. He also feels he’s being used by Jim as Jim only comes around when he wants a free meal and he needs his father to work on his car.

Both novels begin with digging into the past. In TWS, Hank and his friends, one night, go to a graveyard, hoping to dig up some coffins and find something valuable that they could use for bargaining at the local swap meet. In TGC, Jim and his friends dig up a parking lot, which covered the foundation of a school, hoping to find some relics of the past. In both cases, they are discovered and are forced to leave without finding anything valuable.

In both novels, there is an old man named Tom. Tom is an important character in TWS as he is one of the few sources of information about the world before the nuclear holocaust. In TGC, Tom is Jim’s uncle who plays a very minor role in the novel. However, he too is a source of information (occasionally) of what Orange County was like half a century ago.

One of the strongest parts of the novel is Robinson’s creation of a culture that is recognizable today, with some major differences, of course. If one were to describe Jim’s life, one couldn’t go too far wrong by bringing back the old cliché: “Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.” One of Jim’s friends is Sandy, who is an independent drug designer. What I find interesting is that his drugs are taken with an eyedropper and deposited directly on the eye. I guess this makes for a quicker absorption as it goes directly into the brain and also more efficient as less of the drug is lost along the way. Another friend is Tashi, who lives in a tent on a roof and tends his own rooftop garden. He fixes computers and other electronic devices.

The controlling technology in this world is TV. Nobody in the late 80s could have foreseen the development of the mobile phone and its impact on society. TV in TGC has supplanted reality. Jim, at a party, having accidentally hit himself on his head and under the influence of Sandy’s latest creation, has gotten himself involved in a ping-pong game with the local champion and is playing way over his head, making spectacular volleys and saves. The game gains the interest of the other partygoers who eventually leave the room the game is being played in for the adjoining room where they can watch it on CCTV. All of Jim’s friends, including Jim, have their places wired for CCTV so they can see what’s going on in any room from any room in the place. They would much rather watch the game on a TV screen than watch it directly.

Another incident demonstrating the superiority of life on a monitor over a flesh-and-blood presence occurs shortly after the ping-pong game. Jim hooks up with Virginia, and they leave the party for her place for sex. They arrive at her place:

Virginia flips on the lights, turns on the video system. Eight little cameras mounted high on the walls track them with IR sensors, and two big sets of screens on the side walls show Virginia undressing, from both front and back. Jim finds the images arousing indeed . . . They maneuver into positions where they can both see a wall of screens.

. . . . .

her face is in exquisite profile . . . and her breasts . . . well it’s almost enough to distract him from the screens. . .

The screens flicker and go blank. Glassy gray-green nothingness.

Virginia jumps off Jim . . . Angrily she punches the buttons of the control panel over by the light switches.

She can’t get the system to work. Sex is no longer interesting in itself, but only as performance.

Fortunately Jim comes to the rescue. He moves a large mirror into the room so that now they can see their reflections. They resume, finding the mirrors a bit kinky as the two couples stare back at each other.

The Plot: Jim becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his life and decides to become actively involved with a group that opposes the military-industrial complex. He begins with slapping posters around the mall and eventually gets involved with sabotaging the defense contractors. Eventually the group decides to attack Laguna Space Research (LSR), the company that Jim’s father works for.

Then it gets complicated and several plot lines converge. The next target is LSR. Since the group attacks installations only at night and only where there are no guards, many companies are putting guards in places they never were before. Surprisingly, LSR suddenly removes the guards from the site where Dennis McPherson is developing his super-weapon. The attack on LSR is set up. Sandy, who also occasionally deals as well as develops drugs, had to dump overboard a shipment of drugs along the coast where LSR is situated. He is told by those who ordered and paid for the drugs that he’s got to go back this night because the police and DEA will be distracted by an attack on LSR.

OVERALL COMMENTS: a complex tale with multiple themes—fathers and sons, the generation gap, the military-industrial complex, the effects of technology on those embedded in it, knowingly or otherwise. Recommended for those looking for a complex tale set in the near future that has some disturbing similarities to our own. Again, it makes no difference which of the three--The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, or Pacific Edge--you read first.

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