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Pacific Edge, Kim Stanley Robinson, Orb, 1995, 326 pp. (originally published in 1988)

Pacific Edge is the concluding book of Robinson's Three Californias series, and it is as entirely unique as each of the others. To characterize the society of each book rather broadly, I would say that The Wild Shore is post-apocalyptic, The Gold Coast hyper-urbanized, and Pacific Edge utopian -- and the power of each book comes from its transcendence of such narrow labels. Fortunately, Pacific Edge is not a static or boring story, like some utopias, and Robinson does not use the condescending or moralizing tone often associated with the utopia subgenre. Yes, he has a plan for fixing the ills of society as we know them, but he also asserts that human frailties will be with us no matter the political or economic system. Pacific Edge tells a deceptively simple story, and the implications grow and deepen upon reflection.

Kevin Claiborne lives in a small town in California sometime in the twenty-first century. Kevin builds houses, the environmentally friendly kind, and Robinson does well to give us a fair amount of detail about the design and construction. The utopia of this book starts in the smallest concrete aspects of our main character's life, and then broadens from there. The community, the country, the economy -- all of these interact together in complex ways. For example, living in utopia does not mean becoming a Luddite -- Kevin's houses are run by computers, and these computers are made elsewhere in the country. Nor does utopia mean that conflict has ceased. The main story of Kevin's life, as told in these pages, has to do with a political conflict on the town council, and an intertwining love story. Kevin is in love with Ramona, and Ramona has a troubled relationship with Alfredo, the mayor of their town. Alfredo and Kevin are locked in a vicious zoning battle, where Alfredo wants to create a new development and Kevin wants to stop it.

Robinson has a knack for creating believable supporting characters. Tom Bernard, the old wise man, might sound familiar to those who have read the first two books (more on that in a minute), and he is as likable and sympathetic as ever. However, I was a little disappointed with the way Robinson uses Tom's fate here as a kind of magic trick to end the book. We get to know a number of other characters, on the softball team, on town council, on Kevin's construction team, and so forth. My two favourites were Doris and Oscar, Doris because of her forthrightness and Oscar because of his plain craziness. Robinson lets us see into the lives of a number of interesting people, and that was one of the biggest joys of the book. While Pacific Edge does have quite a few characters, I never felt that Robinson was losing control of the proportions of the story, as was sometimes the case in his Mars series.

Utopia. The word means "nowhere," and any utopia that ignores such a central irony will fall flat immediately. Robinson knows this, and he has a striking response. Some of the chapters of Pacific Edge begin with an italicized portion, in which we find out about the younger days of one Tom Bernard. A number of horrific things happen to him and his family and this has the consequence of making him an activist for change. First, he tries writing about his experiences (and about how they could be transcended), and then he starts agitating for political change. The story of Pacific Edge (I'm referring to the Kevin Claiborne storyline) can be seen as a three-tiered way of causing the advent of utopia: first Tom writes it as a fictional narrative, then he works for its reality, and finally he lives it himself in his old age. And the genius of Robinson's Three Californias is its parallel to this very structure. Robinson presents us with three options of how the future might be, and some concrete ideas for making the third (and best) future come true. And even more brilliantly, this structure subsumes Robinson's entire career. The Mars series functions as an offshoot of Robinson's vision of utopia in Pacific Edge -- I don't want to give away too many plot details, but there are some obviously similar names (just as Tom Bernard persists through the Three Californias). Will we go to Mars and develop a rational and ethical society there? Red Mars and its sequels might help that very thing happen. Will we develop a utopia? Pacific Edge is Robinson's plea for such a future.

I mentioned that Robinson has concrete ideas for creating a utopia. I don't want to do them an injustice by ripping them out of the context of the narrative. But Robinson's most important idea seems to be that we should limit the size of corporations. He also proposes a number of societal changes, some of them dependent on advances in technology (cheap access to a videophone being one of them). Like any work of fiction, the case is stacked in favour of the author's ideas. Would the absence of multinational companies really make the world economic system a fairer structure than it is now? Maybe. It's an attractive idea, and Robinson balances the various elements with skill. He makes the notions seem possible, while making sure that we see how hard they could be to implement. All of this is worked out nicely in the life of our main character. And the book finally rests on the story of Kevin Claiborne, his friends, his loves, and his struggles. The bittersweet ending will stay with me for a long time as a perfect way of encapsulating the underlying ideas of the book, as well as capping off what is a fine story in its own right.

Last modified: March 15, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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