|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay interviews Kim Stanley Robinson
Pacific Overture: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson
January 9th, 2012
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON IS BEST KNOWN for his monumental science fiction trilogies about the terraforming of Mars (1992-95) and reversing the global climate crisis (2004-07), and his most recent, Galileo's Dream (2009). Yet back before the mainstream culturati granted science fiction their seal of approval, Robinson produced one of the great achievements not only of the genre, but of modern California writing. In Three Californias, science fiction, adventure, ecofiction, utopian dreaming, and social realism mesh in a Zen-inflected political vision distinctively Californian. Each novel tells a different version of the future of Orange County. In The Wild Shore (1984), historical development has been reversed by a massive neutron-bomb attack on the U.S. The Gold Coast (1988) depicts a barely displaced extrapolation of 80s development. Most of the region has undergone hyperdevelopment, freeways are built in complex stacks, and only the rich have access to open undeveloped land; the local economy depends on defense industries and drug trafficking. In the final piece of the triptych, Pacific Edge (1990), citizen action has produced laws limiting the growth and influence of corporations; localities establish codes and customs to reclaim previously developed land and to manage natural systems with rational, democratic trade and governance. Utopian social arrangements are in place, a ceiling is placed on income and exploitation, work and politics are based in face-to-face relationships, and daily life revolves around mundane, un-heroic activities like community softball. Each book involves subtle echoes of the others — some characters and events appear in each — but each future has its own sharply distinctive style.
— Istvan Csicsery-Ronay
Out the window is the single stretch of California's coast left undeveloped: the center of U.S. Marine Camp Joseph H. Pendleton. Dark hills, a narrow coastal plain cut by dry ravines, covered with dark brush. Grass gray in the moonlight. Something about it is so quiet, so empty, so pure.... My God, he thinks... The land. A pang of loss pierces him: this land that they live on, under its caking of concrete and steel and light — it was a beautiful place once. And now there's no way back.
— from The Gold Coast
Kim Stanley Robinson: It began with a single notion: I was driving from UC San Diego to Orange County in 1971, having recently discovered science fiction. As I drove through Camp Pendleton I was struck by how empty the land there remained, and then when I hit the border of Orange County, San Clemente suddenly surrounded me, and I saw that different histories do different things to the land. It occurred to me that if I set three science fiction novels in Orange County, I could show how the land was different as a result. Three obvious future history forms were the utopian, the dystopian, and the after-the-fall (I had just read Earth Abides, A Canticle For Leibowitz, etc.). Then it occurred to me that one character could live in all three futures, and have three completely different lives, visible to the reader but not to the character.
The street made some awkward switchbacks at the head of the valley, and once we got up those, we were on the canyon-cut plateau that once made up the top of San Clemente. Up here were houses, big ones, all set in rows by the street like fish out to dry, as if there had been so many people that there wasn't room to give each family a decent garden. A lot of the houses were busted and overgrown, and some were gone entirely — just floors, with pipes sticking out of them like arms sticking up out of a grave. Scavengers had lived here, and had used the houses one by one for firewood, moving on when their nest was burned; it was a practice I had heard about, but I'd never seen the results first hand, the destruction and waste.
Before discovering New Wave SF, I had loved locked room detective stories, the plays of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and adventure fiction, such as Haggard, Sabatini, and the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts and others; the Civil War centennial spawned a great number of boys-in-the-Civil-War novels. So I suppose all this shows a certain youthful preference for the romance as opposed to the novel.
"Listen, Jim, the rule is, when you have the money and have the land, you build! ... Our only problem is to make sure everything moves along as fast as possible."
Much more than The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast felt like I was writing my life and times. I took events and people from my life and incorporated them into the novel, sometimes very directly, as in the case of my father's work. It's one of the few times I've done that, and I don't think it is the best method for writing novels; it can become a trap if you believe it is the only method, as Kerouac or Hemingway seemed to think it was. Only a few times in all my books have I used my own experiences to any great degree. But in The Gold Coast I did. That created huge problems for me in keeping distance, and making distinctions between what was important to the novel and what was simply a strong memory. To help in making those distinctions I waited a long time before starting it; I wrote it in Switzerland, in 1986, more than ten years after the real life events I was using. The physical distance from California was also helpful. But in the end, family, friends, my own life, my father's work: all were thrown into the mix. I also picked up and used the things I could echo from The Wild Shore. Because Henry had written his novel, it seemed okay to have Jim writing poems and historical sketches telling the story of Orange County. Tom could easily reappear, in sadly reduced circumstances. It made sense to return to Swing Canyon. And so on. Echoing aspects of The Wild Shore proved easy, and did not seem to distort the new book, which was a nice discovery.
...[E]ach time he walked to the plate, that night or any other, and stood there half-swinging his bat, and the pitcher lofted up the ball, big and white and round against the black and the skittering moths, like a full moon falling out of the sky — then all thought would fly from his mind, he became an utter blank; and would come to standing on first or second or third, grinning and feeling the hit in his hands and wrists. He couldn't stop it even if he wanted to.
I think of myself as a California writer, and the other California writers have meant a lot to me, some more than others, a few a great deal, especially Snyder, Rexroth, Le Guin, and Muir. The Zen realism you speak of comes from Snyder principally, who showed me how you could write modern literature with an emphasis on clarity, the foregrounding of the world as opposed to the personality of the writer, and so on. A description of John Muir as "athlete philosopher" struck me, and I think California as a Mediterranean climate naturally calls out the Greek ideal: the world of action, of ocean and mountain. Eventually the Sierra Nevada as the spine of Californian culture became very important to me: in The Wild Shore they couldn't get there, but in The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge they do, and those mountains are important in almost all my work, as they are in my life. My Mars books are Sierra books, for instance.
I'll tell you what I do know: the tide is out, and the waves roll up the rivermouth. At first it looks like each wave is pushing the whole flow of the river inland, because all the visible movement is in that direction. Little trailers of the wave roll up the bank, break over the hard sand and add their bit to the flat's stippled crosshatching. For a time it looks like the wave will push upriver all the way around the first bend. But underneath its white jumble the river has been flowing out to sea all the while, and finally the wave stops on top of this surge, breaks into a confused chop, and suddenly the entire disturbance is being borne out to sea - until it's swept under the next incoming wave, and the movement turns upriver again. Each wave is a different size, and as a result, there is an infinite variety of rippling, breaking, chopping, gliding... The pattern is never once the same. Do you see what I mean?
— from The Wild Shore
I just now went to Google Earth and had a look at the current situation. "Rattlesnake Hill" is still clear of development; it is called "El Modena Open Space" when you click on a green tree symbol. I think that hill must still belong to the Orange County Water District, and is part of their Santiago Creek watershed management, but I am not sure. Development all around it has been extensive, and a few years ago I went to the Orange Hill restaurant on the next hill over, and had a look around, and it was amazing to see all the mansions studding the surrounding hills and overlooking the coastal plain, still often very smoggy. It had a very Gold Coast look.
Utopia is when our lives matter.
— from Pacific Edge
I think it's been about twenty years since I finished Pacific Edge, but forty years since I first thought of the trilogy. The thing that occurs to me from time to time is that with very few changes I could make The Gold Coast completely contemporary. What I want most to do is to remove the references to the Soviet Union. That we would stay on a permanent war economy, and concoct a bunch of little wars, the book got right. But featuring the USSR heavily in a novel published in 1988 was not the best predictive move. Some kindly readers have joked to me that I have cannily predicted a recoalescence of the USSR, but no. It would be better if I could take those few references out.
Now I know this is the part of the story where the author winds it all up in a fine flourish that tells what it all meant, but luckily there are only a couple of pages left in this here book, so there isn't room. I'm glad of it.
— from The Wild Shore
I have read a bit of revisionist American West history, pointed out to me by Carl Abbott and others, which in the aggregate suggests to me that my Three Californias are part of a larger re-imagining of American West history. I don't read enough of that material to have a sharp sense of what they are up to. The work of Mike Davis, and the fine book Holy Land by D.J. Waldie, have given me glimpses of this new paradigm, but I haven't delved deeper.