Gold Coast is the second of three books by Kim Stanley Robinson set in Orange
County, California, where I grew up. Each covers a different possible future. The
Gold Coast is about what might happen if the trends of the 1980s were to continue
unchecked. It's the best of the three, and one of my favorite books.
It's written in a manic style — present tense, mile a minute, stream-of-consciousness
in places, lots of humor, lots of slang. There's a little sex, gallons of drugs, and even a
tiny bit of rock n' roll. And it's set in the future. It'd be tempting to call it cyberpunk,
except Robinson evinces little interest in computers. What he and the main character are
interested in — fascinated by — is how people came to surround themselves with a
tangle of freeways and trade in their downtowns for malls. Call it city-planning-punk.
I am a geek about this sort of thing, so I'd be sold even were The Gold Coast not set
at my house. But it is, almost. At any rate, it's set in the Orange County I recognize, unlike
the other two books in the series — and very much unlike The OC, set in a Newport
Beach that's little more than a 90210 du jour. There's a bit where some of the characters
decide to cruise around for a while, and the route they take is a loop from the 91 to the 57
to the 22 to the 55 and back to the 91 again. These are the freeways I imprinted upon; they
describe the first square in my mental Civilization map. There's another bit where the characters
spend a few paragraphs just naming streets — wasted ink if you're not from OC, but I had
strong associations with every name. (Actually, most of the characters are themselves named
after Orange County thoroughfares.) One of the climactic moments in the story (such as it is)
takes place a block from my high school. The Gold Coast name-checks the Tucker Bird
Sanctuary, for heaven's sake. It is pretty trippy.
The Gold Coast is set in 2027 as imagined from the vantage point of 1987. The Cold War
is still raging, with forty active hotspots at any time and about 350 American soldiers dying
every day. People listen to compact discs and watch videocassettes. There are no cell phones.
Computers are used pretty much exclusively for engineering and word processing. Oh, and one
other thing — for driving cars, which now work on autopilot, following magnetic tracks in
the roadways. The population has continued to grow geometrically, so the urban sprawl has
swallowed up the last open corner of OC and then moved upward, malls growing to twenty stories
and including apartments, freeways becoming multi-decked to accommodate the traffic (no
Loma-Prieta quake to scare people off in the alternate 1989 of The Gold Coast, it seems).
Interspersed with the episodes that make up the plot (such as it is) are chapters from a book
on Orange County history written by the main character.
On page 3 of The Gold Coast, this guy, Jim McPherson, announces: "Orange County is the
end of history, its purest product. Civilization kept moving west for thousands of years, in a
sunset tropism, until they came to the edge here on the Pacific and they couldn't go any farther.
And so they stopped here and did it." But then later he says that OC is the "greatest
expression of the American Dream." Meaning that "everything here is purely organized, to buy
and sell, buy and sell, every little piece of us." Is that really the American Dream? I will
now do my impression of every grade-school student in the United States and consult
Wikipedia for the answer. "The American dream is the idea
(often associated with the Protestant work ethic) held by many in the United States of America
that through hard work, courage and determination one can achieve prosperity." What's prosperity?
In recent months the governing party in America has suggested that it's participation in the
"ownership society": owning your own home, owning your own business, owning your own car and your
own retirement account and your own children's education and so forth. If you've achieved the
American Dream, you've worked hard and now you own a lot.
This seems to me to be, despite what Jim says, pretty much the antithesis of civilization.
Civilization is not just the lack of wilderness. Civilization is the recognition that staking
out your little patch of mud and jealously guarding it against all comers is no way to live.
Civilization is the understanding that, for a lot of things, a hundred people pooling their
resources doesn't mean they each get 1/100 of the pool — they all get to benefit from the
entire pool. An ownership society is one with lots of bookstores where you can go get a book
of your very own and then watch it sit on a shelf for 99.98% of the time you own it; a civilization
is a society that builds libraries so that every citizen has free access to every book published.
An ownership society is one in which you can buy a pricey painting and hang it in your boardroom;
a civilization is a society that builds museums so that every citizen can look at even the most
exalted works of art. A civilization sets aside land for public parks. An ownership society
builds theme parks. Orange County, sadly, is known for the latter.
But here's the thing. Orange County is not just part of the United States. It is part of
California. And while there's no "South Dakota Dream," and "Delaware Dreamin'" isn't exactly
burning up the charts, the California Dream has been kicking around for over 150 years
now. At first it meant rivers full of gold. Later it meant, as The Gold Coast puts
it, the "Mediterranean vision of a rich and easeful agricultural life, under an eternal sun."
Americans came west to flee the Depression, to build planes for the war effort, or just as a
stopping point on the way to fight the Japanese, and found that in California you could find
yourself with wide sandy beaches in front of you, snowcapped mountains behind you, orange groves
all around, the warm dry air redolent of eucalyptus, sage, and orange blossoms — and this
in February. A place without winter, without blizzards and gray skies; a new place, without
narrow crooked streets and centuries of blight; a place where you didn't need to work
hard to buy things to be prosperous, because just living there was prosperity enough. "And
they said: When this war is over, I'm coming back here to make my home."
And so they did. They chased the California Dream to Orange County and promptly built the
American one. Malls, gated communities, Disneyland. They gridded over the landscape with
freeways and turned the blue skies brown. Midway through The Gold Coast, Jim McPherson
rides through the last undeveloped space on the map, the Marine base at Camp Pendleton, and
realizes that he doesn't actually know what California is like. He only knows the chunk of
America that's sitting on top of it.
One last thing — as a one-off joke, Robinson has a character mention how things started
going downhill around the time of the Gingrich Act. Because in 1987, he was a fringe politician
best known for ranting to the C-SPAN cameras in the deserted House chamber. Things would have to
get pretty dystopian for Newt Gingrich to take power! Ha ha ha ha ha sob
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