Sunday, January 30, 2011

Kim Stanley Robinson: The California Troika

When Kim Stanley Robinson published these three novels--The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988), and Pacific Edge (1990)-- they were known collectively as "The Orange County Trilogy." In 1995, the three were reissued in trade paperback editions and were then called "The Three Californias." This probably represents the recognition that these three works do not constitute a trilogy, at least not in the accepted sense of the word. Calling them three Californias does suggest that they are related but not as tightly as a trilogy would be.

I think a better descriptive would be the Russian term "troika," which is a sled or carriage drawn by three horses that are harnessed side-by-side. The three horses therefore move forward into space side-by-side and are equals in that sense--no lead or trailing horse. The same is true of Robinson's three novels, for they move forward side-by-side into time. There is no first or last novel. All three are independent, and it makes no difference in which order the three are read. I read them over twenty years ago in the order of publication, and for this second visit, I will read them in the same order.

I never learned the reason for the change from Orange County to California, but my guess would be a marketing decision--more readers might go for a series set in California than in Orange County, because California is a more recognizable locale than Orange County.

These three novels are inhabitants of my TBR bookcase (To Be Reread in this case). I won't read all three back-to-back but hope to be able to move them eventually during the year out of the TBR bookcase. I shall start within the next week or two with The Wild Shore.

The Wild Shore is a post-holocaust novel and belongs in the "what if" SF category. "What if the US was suddenly attacked, and it was the only country attacked." No other country came to the aid of the US for fear of retaliation. The novel begins in 2047, several decades after the war, if a one-sided attack can be called a war. The POV character, Hank Fletcher, is a young man who lives with his father in a small community made up of others who struggle to survive on the California coast in what was once known as Orange County. He can see ships from Japan and other countries as they maintain a blockade along the Pacific Coast. They will prevent any ships from entering or leaving the coastal waters.

The people survive by farming and trading surplus goods and pre-destruction artifacts with other small communities in the area. Not surprisingly, barter is now the dominant economic system. These people's lives are not characterized as part of that idyllic pastoral romance that shows up in so many post-holocaust fantasies. It is a hard, difficult life, and there is little in the way of significant change until several strangers arrive, who claim to be from San Diego, and they have some ideas about disrupting the status quo.

The Gold Coast belongs to the "if this goes on" category of SF. It is Robinson's extrapolation of what life would be like in Orange County, California, if some existing trends continued. It is set in 2027 and the back page description says it better than I could:

Southern California is a developer's dream gone mad, an endless sprawl of condos, freeways, and malls. Jim McPherson, the affluent son of a defense contractor, is a young man lost in a world of fast cars, casual sex, and designer drugs. But his descent into the shadowy underground of industrial terrorism brings him into a shattering confrontation with his family, his goals, and his ideals.

Pacific Edge, the third novel in the troika, is set also in the same area in 2065, but again in a very different universe. It belongs to the "what if" category, and frankly I consider it to be closer to fantasy than the other two works. I, anyway, believe this universe to be the one that is least likely to happen because the question answered by Pacific Edge is this: "What if the whole world suddenly goes green?"

Big is bad, small is good. Air and water pollution are not to be permitted for any reason. No company can have more than a certain number of employees. Growth, unless it is demonstrably necessary for survival, is forbidden; increasing profits has nothing to do with survival and therefore is not considered an adequate reason for expansion. A new set of three "Rs" has been added to the traditional "Readin', 'Ritin', and 'Rithmatic": "Reuse, Recycle, and Repair."

From the back cover description: "Kevin Claiborne, a young builder who has grown up in this 'green' world, now finds himself caught up in the struggle to preserve his community's idyllic way of life from the resurgent forces of greed and exploitation." I suspect this book is on or would be on every Chamber of Commerce's black list.

While there are no links among the novels--all three are independent and occupy separate universes--there are some commonalities among them. Locale, of course, is one of them. Another commonality is that the main character in each is a young male. A third is that shortly after the novels begin, the young male is involved in digging up something from the past. A fourth is the presence of the old man, who provides a type of historical commentary or perhaps even continuity with the past in each of the three novels.

What Robinson has created is a work that provides three different futures for Orange County or California, if you prefer, each of which takes place roughly during the middle third of the 21st century. Robinson thus gives readers an opportunity to select and discuss which is the preferable one and which is the most likely one.

I don't know of any other author who has created a similar series. If there is one, I would certainly like to hear about it.


  1. Troika is a good word too, though I've come across the term "Three Californias triptych" more often. Triptych, like Hieronymus Bosch's painting of Heaven-Garden-Hell. I think that term fits this series better.

    You can call "Pacific Edge" as too utopian or unrealistic judging from today's standards, but again you can ponder at how much longer the "if this goes on" of today and of "The Gold Coast" can realistically continue without all the problems making themselves overwhelming and forcing the system to change.

    Good re-reading!

  2. Kimon,

    Thanks for the comment.

    How long? Probably until the supplies of fossil fuel are so depleted that we will be forced to rely on other sources of energy. Then if no new type of energy as cheap as fossil fuel is developed, then we will be forced to change our way of living and working drastically.

    My doubts relate to the world changing voluntarily, as it happened, if I remember correctly, in _Pacific Edge_.

    That probably will be the only way that the global warming problem will be resolved also. We certainly don't have the will to do it voluntarily and in time to prevent the major disruptions that will come about.

  3. I really should go back and re-read these three. It has been a VERY long time but I do recall enjoying both of them a lot. If I remember right, wasn't one of them somewhat hard to find in book stores at the time?

  4. Scott,

    That could be. It's been a long time since I've read them. I did manage to find all three in the mass paperback edition, and recently I found and bought the later trade paperback versions. So, if you have a problem finding them, I have an extra copy of each of them.