Pacific Overture: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

By Istvan Csicsery-RonayJanuary 9, 2012

Pacific Overture: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

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 AbidesA 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.

That design was the beginning. It took many years for me to learn enough to write the novels. The one I felt capable of first was after-the-fall. Its narrator was younger, thus more within my ken. Indeed, I could write the mistake I had made in my childhood, between the ages of about seven and ten, when I read 
Huckleberry Finn and started to dress up as Huck and convince my friends to be Tom Sawyer and the other boys. I thought then that I was in a similar space to Huck and Tom on the Mississippi in the nineteenth century. This was a childish mistake, but the orange groves of Orange County were then so extensive that it was possible to make this mistake or enact this wish. So, in The Wild Shore I could write that childhood feeling. Thus I had my Henry Fletcher and his own Tom Sawyer in his friend Steve. The rest of the novel grappled with the problems that the initial situation gave me. Old Tom, I knew, would be the one who would live different lives in the other novels, though I had no idea what the content of those other lives would be, as the other books themselves were still completely vague to me. I started with the digging scene to point to the early scene in Huckleberry Finn when Huck joins Tom on an expedition to dig up a grave. In the struggle to make The Wild Shore work, I had no thoughts at all about the two books to follow.

Later, in the writing of 
The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge, I discovered echoes of The Wild Shore appearing almost automatically, in ways that seemed to work without distorting the later books. The digging scene could be repeated with alterations; so could the romantic tryst at Swing Canyon. These were welcome discoveries. As I wrote the books I found that many kinds of echoes became possible, but I could only see them when writing. By the time I wrote Pacific Edge I felt a little overdetermined by my overall plan, but the various echoes were always a pleasure to find and amplify. The main problem at that point was writing any kind of utopian novel. 

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.

— from The Wild Shore

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. 

Then my discovery of the New Wave in about 1971 (Delany, Zelazny, Ellison's 
Dangerous Visions, Le Guin, Disch, Lem, Russ, the Strugatskis, Brunner, Lafferty — the New Wave not as a style but as a period) transformed me. It turned me into a science fiction person. I think this was because during my childhood I had seen Orange County's agricultural landscape torn out and replaced by freeways and buildings. Science fiction was the first literature I had read that spoke to that feeling of "future shock" or "landscape PTSD." It was a powerful response, and I think that science fiction is my realist fiction about life in southern California. The actual experience of that time and place was a science fictional experience, and thus best captured by science fiction. 

Because I have always loved fiction so much, to the point of making it a kind of religion, writing nonfiction never occurred to me as an option. Someday I would like to write directly about the Sierra Nevada, but mostly ideas come to me as stories. 

"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." 

— from The Gold Coast

Much more than The Wild ShoreThe 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. 

Other parts of 
The Gold Coast were hard and even painful to write. I could see at the time that it was the most likely of the three futures in my plan to occur — that really it was my version of a realist domestic novel — and that was depressing. It also scared me to give the novel to my dad to read, but he was great; I think he was pleased to have his work experience memorialized, and he only corrected a few technical mistakes and remarked, "That's a sad book." It's true, it is. But it also has a very neat train wreck of a plot, and it tells the story of that time and place, Orange County in the 1970s, in a way I don't think any other novel has. 

...[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. 

— from Pacific Edge

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.

As for Zen: when I was young, at about the same time that the New Wave converted me to science fiction, I was reading Gary Snyder and discovering the Sierra Nevada. D.T. Suzuki, the book 
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. These and other texts joined Snyder and Muir and the Sierra itself to make a combined impact on me. I saw that there was a California culture in which Zen made more sense than European religions and philosophies, and this culture suited me. Also, and this was important, I could write in that style. It was a paradigm or aesthetic in which clarity and directness did not constitute some kind of old-fashioned disability, but was rather a viable alternative way. And I found by practice that in this plain style one can still create quite complex novels. So, Zen realism, sure. Over time I've gotten interested in other forms of Buddhism, but Zen's focus on daily practice is always helpful. It is a very useful novelist's philosophy. 

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. 

On the other hand, Camp Pendleton is mostly still empty. Onofre Valley has been built up quite a bit, the Marines have located a whole village in there, but I imagine it could return to the state I describe in 
The Wild Shore pretty quickly. 

There are also 
Pacific Edge pockets all over Orange County, like a shattered habitat or something enduring that could reemerge. Newport Beach's back bay is still a little wetlands, and the Laguna Coast wilderness park is a fairly big set of open hills, stupidly divided by a tollway, but large considering how completely development has covered south O.C. 

The Santa Ana mountains are still mostly intact and somewhat wild. Despite the 2-3 million people living below, you can still drive up Santiago Canyon, hike over a ridge into Harding Canyon, and climb the canyon to the ridge, horribly steep where it becomes a box canyon. Here one can imagine Swing Canyons all over. So in a way the landscapes of all three alternatives can still be seen. But 
The Gold Coast dominates. As with the books, it is the center of the triptych. It will take hundreds of years to restore that landscape to something decently livable. The Pacific Edge project is a long-term effort. 

Concerning method, I simply visited the places in question, or I had known them all my life, and I pushed them in the direction my scenarios demanded, and it was simple enough. I had the 
Thomas Brothers map book for the county and often referred to it. I drew the map in The Wild Shore, and people at Tor Books helped me with the map in The Gold Coast. I could have mapped every moment in Pacific Edge, but it didn't seem necessary at that point. The house that Oscar moves into, for instance, and hires Kevin to renovate, is my childhood home, and the ghosts that Oscar glimpses one night in the house are my parents and our cat. At that degree of engagement it takes no great effort to imagine a place and the changes that might happen to it. These were hometown novels. 

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. 

That's about as far as it goes when it comes to any desire to rewrite those books. They are books of their time. For years I thought the basic premise of The Wild Shore was crazy, then after 9/11, it did not look so unlikely, unfortunately. I'm always on the look-out for Pacific Edge moments, and people often send me Gold Coast news clippings or now links: the double-decker freeways are still mentioned by planners, and so on.

I would like to see more Californian utopian novels join Pacific EdgeEcotopia, and the many real-world utopian efforts that were made in California in the nineteenth century. The potential exists, both locally and globally, for huge improvements in human life and our fit to the planet. They involve not just technologies but laws and economic systems; they need to go beyond capitalism and its disconnect from ecology, and that next step has to be imagined and envisioned repeatedly, no matter the literary and conceptual difficulties, to give us a better sense of how it might feel and how we might take the first steps. So I'd like to see more of those. 

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. 

I haven't lived in southern California for almost thirty years. I visit San Diego often, but not Orange County. So my interest in the area, and in all the issues it brings up, is like one of the echoes in the three books: news from a previous reincarnation, or an alternative reality. But we are all part of one world, and southern California is in some ways a precursor or limit case. The land there has been destroyed for the sake of money and cars. What we built so fast is not a sustainable infrastructure or social structure, so it's going to have to be extensively rebuilt in the centuries to come. It may remain a kind of test tube for experimenting, and if so I hope my Three Californias helps a little in terms of cognitive mapping. Anyway, they are my testament to what happened and what could happen.

LARB Contributor

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay is Professor of English at DePauw University. He is managing editor of Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies and co-editor of Science Fiction Studies. His most recent book, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, appeared in 2008.


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