Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Wild Shore, Pt. 1

I have finally managed to get some reading done in Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore, the first novel in what I call "The California Troika." But, now that I've started, it should flow quickly to the end.

I've now finished Part 1, "San Onofre." The story is possibly set in what is now San Onofre State Beach. The year is 2047, some 60? years since the war. It wasn't much of a war. The US was caught by a sneak attack--planted bombs--only a few survivors were left. Tom Barnard is the only one among the 20 some households that make up the settlement who remembers before the war. He is their sole repository of their history.

One of the continuing arguments at the local swap meet among the few who survived the war is the identity of the attacker. Some thought it was either the Russians or the Chinese, others the South Africans, some the French, and others the Vietnamese. Another debate is about whether the President of the US was right in refusing to retaliate. In a discussion that reminds me of Theodore Sturgeon's short story, "Thunder and Roses," Tom Barnard insists, in defense of President Eliot, that "'We were goners as soon as the bombs went off . . . Makes no difference what happened to the rest of the world. If Eliot had decided to push the button, that just would've killed more people and wrecked more countries. It wouldn't have done a thing for us. Besides, it wasn't the Russians or the Chinese that planted the bombs--.'"

Regardless of who did it, it was effective. Moreover, the rest of the world was not affected. Somehow there was an agreement among the nations of the world on two points: for future peace, the Americans must not be allowed to rebuild beyond a certain point and no one was to attempt to settle there. The West Coast was patrolled by the Japanese Navy to capture anyone who left (they were never seen again) and to prevent anyone from attempting to make landfall. At the beginning of the story, a bullet-riddled body washes ashore, apparently a Chinese who perhaps had attempted to run the blockade. They can only speculate.

This is not one of those post-holocaust novels filled with slavering mutants, zombies, or vampires who suddenly appear as the result of a nuclear war, nor is it that post-holocaust Edenic garden so beloved of some groups who believe Life would be Perfect if we could just get the Dang Government off our backs. It is a relatively realistic attempt to portray life where most of the inhabitants have died, and the infrastructure has been destroyed: no power, no water, no transportation (except for the original means of getting from one place to another--walking). There's no existential despair either ; the survivors are too busy surviving.

The first person narrator is Henry, a seventeen year old boy who is just beginning to get restless. There's a whole world out there about which he knows nothing. He and his friends have a lot of energy that isn't quite used up by the daily struggle to survive. The novel opens with an example of this:

"'It wouldn't really be graverobbing,' Nicolin was explaining. 'Just dig up a coffin and take the silver off the outside of it. Never open it up at all. Bury it again nice and proper--now what could be wrong with that? Those silver coffin handles are going to waste in the ground anyway.'

The five of us considered it.

. . . . .

Gabby Mendez tossed a pebble out at a gliding seagull. 'Just exactly how is that not graverobbing?' he demanded of Nocolin.

'It takes desecration of the body to make it graverobbing.' Nicolin winked at me; I was his partner in these sorts of things. 'We aren't going to do any such thing. No searching for cuff-links or belt buckles, no pulling off rings or dental work, nothing of the sort.'"

The swap meet was run on the barter system mostly, but silver was slowly becoming important as currency. The people of San Onofre, living in the hills just off the beach, found that fishing served several purposes: it provided a dependable supply of food, and the surplus could be dried and traded at the swap meet for whatever they lacked.

"Part One" of the novel focuses for the most part on the lives of the people clustered around the San Onofre River, as Henry experiences it. It is hard work, but there are the good times also, and Henry is the optimistic sort.

"As I turned up the south path towards the little cabin that my pa and I shared, the smells of pine and sea salt raked the insides of my nose and made me drunk with hunger, and happily I imagined chips of silver the size of a dozen dimes. It occurred to me that my friends and I were for the very first time in our lives actually going to do what we had so often boastfully planned to do--and at the thought I felt a thrilling shiver of anticipation. I leaped from root to root in the trail: we were invading the territory of the scavengers, venturing north into the ruins of Orange County."

But, nothing stays the same. Near the end of Part One, two strangers appear. They have come up from San Diego. The Mayor of San Diego has ideas and plans:

Lee, one of the two strangers, tells them that "'We've been working on the rails north of Oceanside for a few weeks now. . .The Mayor of San Diego has organized a bunch of work forces of various sorts, and our job is to establish better travel routes to the surrounding towns . . . And since the Mayor began organizing things, we've accomplished a good deal. The settlements are pretty well scattered, but we have a train system between them that works well. All handcars, you understand, although we do have generators providing a good supply of electricity back home. There's a weekly swap meet, and a fishing fleet, and a militia--all manner of things there weren't before.'"

They are there as sort of ambassadors. The Mayor would like to establish communication as far north as the Los Angeles basin, and they would like the permission and the cooperation of the San Onofre people. Part One ends with Tom Barnard and Henry going down to San Diego to meet with the Mayor. Henry is excited, for he is leaving San Onofre for the first time in his life and going to a place that has maybe 2000 people and electricity, but Tom is somewhat suspicious about what really is on the Mayor's mind.

End of Part One

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