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The Wild Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson, Orb, 1995, 378 pp. (originally published in 1984)

To start on a controversial note, I would like to say that Robinson's Three Californias series, of which The Wild Shore forms the first part, is one of the most brilliant series in science fiction. The Wild Shore is an astonishing novel on its own, and I would rank this debut novel in the same league as that other, more famous debut from 1984, Gibson's Neuromancer. The two books are worlds apart, in tone and intent, but that only speaks to me of the power and versatility of science fiction. Robinson's ambition is not clear from the start, unlike Gibson's, but The Wild Shore is indeed ambitious, and the implications deepen and develop as the series continues. But I don't want to discuss the series yet -- it would take Robinson four years to write the next book, The Gold Coast, and another two years for the concluding book in the trilogy, Pacific Edge. For most of the 1980s, The Wild Shore stood on its own merits.

The Wild Shore begins in a low-key manner -- a group of teenagers want to make some money. But this is 2047 in a primitive, perhaps post-apocalyptic America and the teenagers want to strip the silver off a coffin from the old days. This opening serves several purposes: to grab the audience's attention immediately, to introduce this group of people (and the narrator, Henry "Hank" Fletcher), and to depict the ignorance of this new culture. Characters in this book talk about the "old days" constantly, and Tom Barnard, the only one in the town old enough to have been there, fabricates more than a few details as the story progresses -- "'[Shakespeare] was a great American. Maybe the greatest'" (26). Steve Nicolin, one of Hank's best friends, believes Tom's story about silver-crusted coffins, and Steve convinces his friends to come along. Steve's hotheaded behaviour in fact drives much of the narrative later on, as the tiny community of Onofre becomes much too small for him. The Mayor of the town of San Diego tries to create a resistance force, and Steve coerces his friends into helping. The resulting shootout is not quite what Steve was expecting.

But the character of Hank is clearly the heart of the novel. He is the narrator and he is aware of his own book -- near the end of The Wild Shore, he tells us the story of telling us this story. Only at that point does he admit any uncertainty; for the majority of the narrative, he is a very reliable narrator. If such a thing exists, and Robinson uses the first person style to great effect. Hank's community is a kind of utopia, ironically enough, with its agrarian lifestyle, close-knit community relations, its own wise man in the form of Tom Barnard, and so on. But Hank is young, a teenager with his own wild urges and impulses, and under the influence of his rash friend, Steve. Hank is also smart and tough, which is why he survives a night adventure out at sea. Some of his wisdom as an older narrator filters through at times (which Robinson uses as foreshadowing), especially in his relationship with Melissa Shank. But we are on Hank's side even through his foolish behaviour and some tragic consequences of it -- and Hank's desire to write the story of his life provides some interesting closure for the book. Robinson toys with our expectations of this subgenre -- will Hank and Steve discover what brought America down so low? Will they rebuild civilization? Instead, Hank discovers that both of those questions are perhaps loaded with irrelevant assumptions and that life means "hunting the new" (377), in the moving final passage of the book.

Robinson carefully constructs an entire community around his main character. There is the group of teenagers Hank's own age, Kathryn, Steve of course, Melissa Shank, and a few others, like Del, Gabby, and Mando, who are more minor characters. The adults of the community are also well-portrayed, from John Nicolin, mainly defined by the rocky relationship with his son, to Tom, the old wise man. We get glimpses of the other adults in Onofre mainly through Hank's participation in various aspects of community life, like the bath-house or town meetings. Robinson also demonstrates the next few levels of proximity through Hank -- Hank goes to a local swap-meet, he accompanies Tom south to San Diego, and so on. Most of these people take what they have for granted, consumed as they are by stories of America's past glory.

What is it that they have? As I stated already, a kind of utopia. An environmentally friendly, people-based, agrarian community, with hard work for everyone, yes, yet the trade off might seem worth while. Tom is perhaps the only one who recognizes this, but he also sees the complexity of the situation. We do not find out the exact nature of America's collapse, but the primitive state of affairs in 2047 is enforced by other nations -- any bridge or ostentatious road visible to the sky is blown up by some kind of satellite. And while Tom may perceive the advantages of the current lifestyle in Onofre, I suspect that he is wise enough to know that an enforced utopia (at least this type of enforcement -- Robinson considers this exact question more overtly in Pacific Edge) is no utopia at all for some. So he tells stories, with patent exaggeration, and Steve falls for them and Hank manages to sift through the lies to the truth. Steve's actions, and the consequences of them (for Mando), bring the edifice of lies to a crashing ruin. And so calling Onofre a utopia is perhaps problematic, just as problematic as calling Wild Shore post-apocalyptic. The situation resists both easy labels, and therein lies the genius of the book. Onofre is depicted so lucidly by Hank that we cannot distort its reality into our own notions. The future is as complex as the past, and Robinson makes that stunningly clear in this book (and in the larger achievement of the entire trilogy).

To close, I would like to say that the Orb editions of the Three Californias are all gorgeous. Robinson must be quite proud of these matched volumes, which feature some lovely cover art by Tony Roberts. The art is simple, almost repetitive, but ties the three books together perfectly, with subtle differences in mood that capture the varying futures. Nice work.

Last modified: November 12, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

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