Kim Stanley Robinson, The Gold Coast

I write this review of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Gold Coast, the second volume in his so-called Three Californias series, with the knowledge that in Oakland tonight, an estimated 500 police officers moved with tear gas, batons, and flash grenades against a group of peaceful - and of course predictably annoying, unsettling - Occupy protesters. They're doing the work they're assigned to do, in the way they're trained and encouraged to do it. These things happen. I'm appalled by these actions, offended by the naked signals of power the officers are being manipulated to express through their bodies, but I understand the officers' actions.

As Robinson recognized in the late 80s, though, while writing this most immediately activist of his California trilogy if not before that, resistance of some kind is essential unless the current path is to be followed to its painfully logical resolution. In The Gold Coast, Robinson's several characters all embody and enact different kinds of resistance to the system that's nonetheless consuming them. The city has become two stories tall, with a layer of megafreeways on pylons above residential neighborhoods; Orange County's last standing orange trees are in the cemetery, some of them being felled every year to allow for more burials; there's nothing but concrete and fast food and oppression and McJobs.

So the characters try to resist, in different ways and with differing degrees of self-awareness. Through extreme use of designer drugs, or the design and marketing of such drugs (California Mello, or Buzz, or Pattern Perception, and so on); through sex, usually in temporary "alliances" (since marriage appears to be dead) and usually videotaped and simultaneously projected on multiple screens around the bedroom; through art, either poetry or painting; through stepping outside the economy through tenting instead of renting; through missile attacks on military defence contractors: they try to resist. Orange County represents the pinnacle and nadir of 2027 America, and everyone who lives there is overwhelmed by it. This place cannot be celebrated, though the characters do take a nihilistically gleeful run at it anyway, at least until the wheels start to seriously come off.

It's a more powerful novel, for me, than either of the other two volumes in the series. Vol. 1, The Wild Coast, was a relatively standard, uneasily semi-utopic, post-apocalyptic narrative, and my review here was very brief because it just didn't rock me (and because I read it at a ridiculously busy time in my life). Vol. 3, Pacific Edge, which I read quite recently, I found much more enjoyable: I was somewhat annoyed by the narrative structure and by the focus that I wished was directed at slightly different targets, but my sympathy with its politics meant I couldn't get too excited about any complaints I could come up with.

The Gold Coast, on QUITE the other hand, is a richly realized, complexly organized, intricately layered novel and representation of a city. Obviously I'm going to find myself drawn to a main character like Jim McPherson (composition teacher and self-loathingly failed writer, the most socially awkward person in any group, place geek extraordinaire), so I don't have a hope of reading the novel critically unless I work assiduously at it, but still: it's a place-anchored novel exploring modes of resistance to the death of place, with wacky but believable characters, snappy dialogue, and trenchant politics. It's not all about Jim, even though we spend much of the novel watching and participating vicariously in his path toward what looks like it might turn out to be a shaky enlightenment.

So much that's interesting about this novel - the excavation of Orange County's forgotten history (which appears in a strong of separate chapters, presumably written by Jim); the tour of Great Sites Outside America culminating in an epiphany at an abandoned, isolated ruin in Crete; an escape into the Sierras; a person's self-construction after breakdown - that I'm reluctant to privilege any of it through detailed discussion.

I will say, though, that Occupy Oakland, and Occupy San Francisco, and Occupy LA are exactly the kinds of things needed to forestall the culture that develops by 2027 in Robinson's version of Orange County in The Gold Coast. Resistance, friends: resistance! We don't know how to get from here to the world we want, but we sure as hell know some versions of what we'll do anything to prevent the world from becoming. The Gold Coast shows us one of those worlds, more clearly than should be comfortable.

Comments

Fraser said…
Violence begets violence, anger begets anger. "Fuck the Police" presumably begets "Fuck the rioters" though it's expressed through professional PR officers, and crowd-control psych tactics.

For a political protest such as this one, wouldn't it have been more effective for the protesters, upon the deployment of the riot police... simply to go home? Have a shower, take a nice sleep, get some breakfast, and re-occupy Oakland in the morning? I'd be much more impressed by a protest that did that.

And I think it would be more effective, too: how many times can Oakland afford to pay overtime to the riot squads? After doing it a few times, too, I bet they'd lose the political will to do so.

After having sat through the Vancouver riots appalled, I lost my sympathy pretty rapidly for anybody wearing a black face-mask.
richard said…
True enough on the fading away only to reoccupy, I think: plenty of counter-insurgencies over the years have proven that the important thing is to keep re-taking the ground at issue. Go home, get a little rest, come back, and make the authorities keep restarting their efforts.

Though I'm sympathetic to the desire simply to sustain the protest's momentum. Once lost, momentum's a tricky thing to achieve again.
Fraser said…
Regarding momentum... that point is very good. But where is the momentum now?

Occupy Vancouver, in particular, seems to have stumbled somewhat: granted that Vancouver is getting to be a pretty materialistic town, still they seem to have lost patience a little with two overdoses and a tent fire.
richard said…
Yeah, I don't know. I said to somebody yesterday that the protesters might as well go home. The point has been made that there's a lot of pent-up frustration, and there's no pretending otherwise. But the point then is to occupy everywhere, so to speak.

(1) Work for what you want AND for the common good; ask others to do the same for their own goals, and help them do it; make those responsible try to justify the unjustifiable, to lay it bare. Force the banks to explain their salary structures, for example, or demand an explanation for relying on American nuclear power for BC's daytime hydro consumption. (Or is it night-time? Hmm.)

(2) BUT ALSO beware of hijacked messages and of unhealthy collaborations. Nothing good will come from linking 9/11 conspiracy talk, say, with calling for flexible caps on private-sector executive compensation.

Anyway: the momentum is flagging, outside the on-site protests, and I think it can be sustained even if the camping ceases. Occupy Wherever You Are, that's gotta be the next step.

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