Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson: Pacific Edge (Three California series)

I have to resist calling Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge the third book in the Three California Series because that sounds as though it's the third book in the series.  It is, but only because it's the third book published in the series, which was originally called The Orange County Trilogy.  Wild Shore was published in 1984 (actually his first published novel), The Gold Coast in 1988, and Pacific Edge in 1990.  I published a short commentary on Wild Shore in March 2011, The Gold Coast in August 2011, and a very short summary of all three in a post titled The California Troika in January 2011.

Pacific Edge is a "what if" tale.  It answers the question of what it would be like if the world turned green and developed a concern for the environment and ecology.  It is also a fantasy whereas the first two novels are closer to SF in nature, and, frankly, I believe a nuclear war and a military-industrial takeover are far more likely than the premise in Pacific Edge.  However, regardless of the change in perspective, Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) has not created a utopia.  People are still people, and there are those who don't see why they can't use the new rules for their own purposes, including grabbing for power and wealth.

Sustainability is the rule in this society.  Excesses are eliminated, or at least, attempts are made to do so.  Corporations are limited by the number of employees, although this limit can be effectively circumvented by setting up dummy corporations, or at least circumvented until the linkage is discovered.  The growth of urban populations are controlled by the amount of water available--insufficient water results in no growth.   In Pacific Edge, we see how these issues are worked out in a small town setting.

This is not a rural fantasy, where technology has disappeared.  People are living in space habitats and there's a colony on the moon.  An expedition is now being fitted out for a trip to Mars.   KSR has not created a completely low-tech culture, but one that makes decisions about when and where to apply technology.  Cars still exist, but in Kevin's small town, people either walk or ride a bike when they move about town.   Cars are necessary only for long trips, not for short jaunts around town.  Moreover, when the novel  begins, we see the people engaged in town-work.  All able-bodied citizens have to put in ten hours a week of town work.  This reduces the need for town employees and the associated costs.  Small government comes with a cost.

Kevin, the main character,  is in his early 30s, although he seems a bit younger than that.  Perhaps this will be the summer that matures him.  It certainly will be a busy one for him, testing him in a variety of ways and providing new experiences. As to be expected in our real world, his experiences have two sides to them--good and bad.

Perhaps one of the most frivolous, frivolous perhaps to some, is his love of softball.  This summer, as in the past, he plays in a softball league.   But, this summer is different, for well into the season, he has compiled a perfect record at bat--he is batting 1.000!  All recognize that this can't last the season, but when will it end?  The attention he gets (the absolute silence, including a few hushes) from the players and spectators each time he comes up to bat is disconcerting.  At times he wishes that it will end and even considers ending it deliberately.  But, he is competitive and each hit helps his team.

He has been involved in a lukewarm relationship that's been going on for years and obviously going nowhere.  This summer, though, the word (gossip) flashes through the young folk: Ramona has broken up with Alfredo.  Ramona and Alfredo have been living together for years now, ever since high school, but they've never formalized their relationship.  Now it appears as though it's over.  Kevin has been nursing a secret (even from himself) love for her for years, but did nothing about it for there seemed to be no hope.  Now, she was free.

He unobtrusively (or so he thinks) begins to pay her some attention.  At first he has to listen to her complaints about Alfredo's faults.   Frankly, this is a bad sign, although Kevin isn't aware of it.  However, Kevin is ecstatic and their relationship flourishes during those summer months.

Kevin has also just been appointed to the town council.  Being relatively apolitical, he hasn't paid much attention to local politics, but now he will find himself immersed in political maneuvering that could affect him personally.   Kevin eventually wonders if perhaps his apolitical past is the reason why he is now on the council.  Someone as naive as he is might not notice certain actions being taken by Alfredo, who is also the mayor at this time.

However, regardless of Kevin's lack of experience, there is one thing he's learned, and that is that Alfredo can not be trusted.  Even if it's something as straightforward as giving the time of the day,  Alfredo will create some sort of plot which will benefit him. 

Therefore, at the first council meeting, Kevin discovers that one of the items on the agenda is a proposal to buy more water from the state water board.   Kevin is immediately suspicious and questions Alfred about  the reason for the proposal.  They have enough water for the present and even a bit more than they need.  Alfredo vaguely mentions that it is always good to have more water available than is necessary because something may arise requiring more water; however, he has nothing specific in mind, just thinking about the future.

Then Kevin discovers, buried at the end of the agenda, when most folks are gone and those who are left are tired and just want to go home, another innocuous proposal by Alfredo.   A small hill outside of town would be given a commercial zoning rating.  This hill, with no structures on it, is a favorite spot for picnickers and lovers  and those (Kevin, for example)  who just want to sit and be alone for awhile.  It also has the best view in the area of the valley below.

Kevin then questions this motion, and Alfredo, irritated,  insists he has nothing in mind; it's just that it's not zoned and he wanted to clear this up.  Others on the council then begin to ask questions, and Alfredo  withdraws the motion.  After the meeting, Kevin, in a discussion with some members of the council, wonders if there is a connection between the proposal to buy more water, which would allow considerable growth in the town and the zoning motion for commercial use of the hill. What is Alfredo up to?  It's time to take a closer look at Alfredo once again.    

An interesting summer for Kevin--radical changes in his life in sports, love, and politics.

However, there's one more element to the story that isn't found in the other two novels of  The Three Californias.  In the other novels, the stories are written by the two main characters. as a record of the events of the unusual events of the past six months or so.  This is made very clear in both works.  KSR has decided to do something different in this novel.  There are authorial intrusions throughout the work. The first one begins:

2 March 2012, 8 A.M. I decided that as a gesture to its spirit, I would write my book outdoors.

The author is in Zurich, Switzerland.  Is this Robinson, injecting himself into the novel as does Samuel R. Delany in The Einstein Intersection or John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman?  But, the year in the quotation is 2012 while this novel was published in 1990,  Could this be Keven himself, just as in the other two novels, writing down the events of a past summer?  The intrusions become even more bizarre as the author appears to be in conflict with a hostile US Government and even is imprisoned at one point.  The tone of these insertions is decidedly Kafkaesque, in direct contrast to the tale of  Kevin's summer.  Could Kevin's summer be some sort of idyllic escape for the author who is trapped in a world that seemingly is closer to Orwell's 1984 or Kafka's The Trial than to Kevin's world?

Or perhaps, the authorial intrusions represent a fourth California, one so much worse than even a post-holocaust world that Robinson can't quite bring himself to write about it, except in this oblique way.

Highly recommended, but then again, I'm biased.  I highly recommend anything and everything Kim Stanley Robinson writes. 

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