Monday, August 28, 2006

Review: Pacific Edge

Pacific Edge, by Kim Stanley Robinson
7/10, a well-written future California story that's lacking a spark

In college, I took a class in science fiction during which we read "The Wild Shore." I found it difficult to start but it became one of my favorite books, a coming-of-age story in a post-apocalyptic Orange County with a strong central character. In "Pacific Edge," the third in the "Three Californias" triptych (not a trilogy as the books are not sequential) of which "The Wild Shore" is the first, the setting is just as engaging, but the strong central character is missing.

For sheer imagination and descriptive skill, it's hard to beat Robinson. I read "The Wild Shore" before setting foot in Orange County; I read "Pacific Edge" after having lived near there for three years. It didn't matter. The settings are brought to life, from expansive vistas down to the smell and feel of the ground on a particular hill. Where "The Wild Shore" depicted a post-apocalyptic California, "Pacific Edge" depicts a utopian society, where the balance of man and environment is strictly enforced. As in "The Wild Shore," the details of the society are introduced naturally: people live (mostly) in large family houses and child care is communal; everyone has an assigned set of families somewhere else in the world that they connect with once a month; individual wealth is capped, as is corporate wealth. In flashbacks, we see how this radical change came about. In the story itself, we see that there will always be people trying to circumvent them.

That conflict, though billed as the central point of the story, seems of little interest to the characters. Most of them are concerned with more personal issues of relationships, and maybe that's Robinson's point, that in a utopia our concerns become very small, focused on one or two people instead of on wars in the Middle East, terrorism, corporate wealth, and so on. But it saps energy from the plot when nobody can get very worked up about it, and the main characters are more interested in who's hooking up with whom than in stopping the mild expansion of corporate interest in their town. To further de-energize the plot, Robinson allows the main "villain" to explain his plan in a fairly reasonable way.

The characters are all very interesting, but none of them really has a strong character arc. Robinson switches points of view several times per chapter, and though it's enjoyable, ultimately I was left wanting more from them.

I haven't read the middle book in the triptych, "The Gold Coast," though it's supposed to be more on a par with "The Wild Shore." Linking the three books is the character of Tom Barnard, storyteller in "The Wild Shore," idealistic lawyer-turned-hermit in "Pacific Edge." Someone in one of the Amazon reviews posited that he embodies the change in the societies through the three books, which is an interesting thought. Certainly in "Pacific Edge" he is very focused on his own problems and needs to be drawn out to care about the rest of the world. As I said above, maybe this is ultimately Robinson's point, that utopia can be dangerous in that it makes it us more inwardly focused and less vigilant, more centered on our private worlds, more trusting that the outside world will be just fine. But the ending does nothing to drive home that point.

Robinson's books are always a good read, and this one is no exception. Unlike his other works I'm familiar with, though, this one left me unsatisfied. It's still a fun read, and worthwhile if only for his concepts of how a utopia might be brought about and the philosophical question of the nature of utopia and "pocket utopia," as well as his lovely descriptions of the people and landscapes of southern California. Just don't expect too much from it.

4 comments:

NedSanyour said...

KSR... he must have a short story somewhere I read that wasn't bad, but everything I can recall is so dull dull dull. Wild Shore? If it hadn't been for that class, I never would have finished that thing. In my memory it becomes like Heinlein's "Tunnel in the Sky" with out any of the fights or disasters multiplied by 8. I don't recall liking his writing, nor did I get any vivid images or characterizations. I tried Green Mars or Blue Mars or Off-White Mars or one of them and just couldn't even muster up any caring. Like that Greg Bear; I never figured out what anyone saw in him either.
Give me David Brin at his preachiest (which I hate), or Brust at his "pre-Modernist"-est (which makes it really hard to 'get into' the story) instead.

Tim said...

I loved "Wild Shore," but honestly I had to drag myself through "Red Mars" and it didn't make me want to pick up the sequels. I don't even know if he's that impressive from a science standpoint as much as he is from a world-imagining standpoint. His world of Mars, like his future Californias, is a well thought out, complete, functioning world, in which you can see how all the pieces work, and it all makes some sort of sense. But the characters are unremarkable; the main character of his books is the world.

As for Greg Bear, apart from his "Songs of Earth and Power" books, I never really got into anything else he wrote. And those were his fantasy books, written (he admits) at a young and foolish age. Perhaps he shouldn't have grown up.

NedSanyour said...

Good point on the "good science, bad story" thing. I do recall teh post nuclear thing being well thought out, well reasoned... and totally no fun. I want mutants and el caminos and people shooting crossbows!

I wonder if that is what makes him attractive to the Wise: He makes SF just as dull as normal "literary" fiction. Like Circle of Friends, but without Maeve Binchy's sauciness!

Tim said...

There's a reference out of left field! Yeah, I think KSR's appeal to the mainstream is that that's what the literary set feel science fiction should be: grandiosely imagined worlds lavishly described with Real People inhabiting them. Ah, maybe I'm just making up straw men in the literate world, but I can't otherwise imagine why the Mars series would be lauded outside of SF, where they can legitimately admire his world-building and not worry so much about the characters.