Monday, September 26, 2011

Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge

Now, I've talked about Kim Stanley Robinson before on this blog (twice, actually), and I wasn't crazy about what I took to be his normal approach to constructing a novel. After reading Pacific Edge, the third novel in his California trilogy, I'm still not crazy about KSR's approach to narrative structure, but there's more going on in this novel, so I responded more positively to the determinedly unresolved ending.

Plus I'm looking forward with great nerdish excitement to the essay collection he's co-editing with Gerry Canavan, provisionally entitled Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction. I'm kicking myself for not getting a proposal in, but what were the odds I'd find time to actually write something? Sigh, and argh, but that's another story.

The year is 2065, and the world's gone post-corporate. There are small companies still, but corporations as such - especially international ones - are illegal, and there are minimum and maximum thresholds for individual earnings. Earn too little, and you get more; earn too much, and you get to choose which public works your dollars will support. Everything, almost, is calculated against questions of ecological sustainability; the dams in Hetch Hetchy are due to come down soon, for example, and in a fit of social justice, the criminally pillaged Owens Valley runs the California water supply.

Basically the novel follows the attempt to build a commercial development where our protagonist, Kevin Claiborne, would hate to see such a development built, but Robinson's genius here is to have a relatively light touch for all the various elements going into it. Municipal politics; the complex intimate relationships of a small town; the altered friend/family dynamics in a post-corporate world; massive technological change, such as the reliance on bicycles and sailing ships for large-scale cargo transport: each of these things gets its time in Pacific Edge, but somehow Robinson manages to prevent them from getting heavy and from going on for too long in sequence.

Really, it's an ideas novel - environmentalism's the new mainstream, anti-corporate struggle (hello, #OccupyWallStreet! though also, holy crap at items #10-15!) is the new normal - but an ideas novel that trusts you to figure out most of the ideas part on your own, and I really liked that part of the reading experience.

Characters live complicated lives in this novel - carpentry labourer plus Unitarian minister, materials scientist plus sculptor - and there's a welcome richness to the lived experience that's portrayed here. Some readers really don't like the novel at all, and that's fine, but mostly it's a question of politics. If you're not on board, then the small things will grate disproportionately, and if you're on board, then you'll give Robinson something of a pass. I gave him enough of a pass that I'm not as critical of Pacific Edge as I should be. And I'm perfectly comfortable with that move.

(For the record, I could totally see myself living in Robinson's 2065. And also, I fell a little bit in love with Ramona myself. These things happen.)

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Alexander said...
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