Pacific Edge is the third of three books by Kim Stanley Robinson set in Orange County, California, where I grew up. All three open with a group of characters digging. In The Wild Shore, they're kids digging up a grave to loot the casket. In The Gold Coast, they're pranksters digging up a strip mall parking lot and then fleeing the police in a wacky action sequence. In Pacific Edge, they're community-minded townsfolk digging up obsolete traffic signal boxes so they can put in a softball diamond. Pacific Edge is about what might happen if the world were to be reshaped according to the Green ideals of ecological wisdom, grassroots democracy and social justice. Sadly, it's the weakest of the three books.

It is, however, better than the sort of utopian novel that Pacific Edge criticizes at the beginning of several chapters. That is, it's more sophisticated than a simple exercise in "outsider comes to perfect community and despite initial resistance discovers that this is the best way to live." (cough Ecotopia cough) Furthermore, Robinson doesn't just have everyone wake up one day and decide, "Oh! We could have been living in a utopia all this time! Well, let's do that, then!" — because even though there are no laws of physics that prevent this from happening, human nature does. The bright and shiny future of 2065, Robinson makes clear, has only come about as a result of a long, tedious and continuing struggle against corporate power, starting in the 2010s. (Because in the world of Pacific Edge, it wasn't until then that the US government took to imprisoning people indefinitely without charges.)

The problem is that the long, tedious struggle continues as one of the book's two main plot threads. A company with some shady overseas ties wants to build an office building on the last undeveloped hill in El Modena, and the main character, a dumb guy affiliated with the Green Party, doesn't want that to happen. What follows is 300 pages of city council meetings and lectures on water-rights law. This is not necessarily death — Dahlia Lithwick could undoubtedly make this fascinating. But Kim Stanley Robinson is no Dahlia Lithwick.

The other side of the plot stems from the observation that living in utopia isn't enough to guarantee happiness. So many things in this life have much greater power to cause unhappiness than the reverse. Health is one: it's very difficult to be happy when you're sick or in pain, but few are able to take much consolation in having their health when everything else is going wrong. Money's another: it is a central tenet of American culture that the more money you have the happier you are, but the legions of miserable rich people out there give the lie to this idea. Which isn't to say that money doesn't matter. It does. A lot. The lack of money has immense power to make people miserable. But once you have enough, you usually don't dive around in it like a porpoise and throw it up in the air and let it hit you on the head. You forget about it and focus on what is making you unhappy. Like affairs of the heart.

So that's the other plot: the dumb guy falls in love for the first time and has his heart broken for the first time. Meaning that to a great extent Pacific Edge is a love story written by a science fiction writer. It comes off about as well as Jane Austen writing about Martian soil composition.

"Oh to really be that narrator, to sit back and write with cool ironic detachment about individual characters and their little lives because those lives really mattered!" Robinson has this book's version of Tom Barnard write, as he rejects the idea of writing a utopia in favor of working as a lawyer to bring one about. But of course, Robinson is writing a utopia, and so Pacific Edge is a demonstration of this principle. These characters aren't scraping out a meager subsistence amid radioactive ruins or having their souls ground to dust by the military-industrial complex. Marxist critics can't make the usual charge that the story focuses on the broken engagements and dying relatives of upper-class twits while billions toil in misery to supply them with the coffee they're crying into. In Pacific Edge there are no unaddressed big-picture problems to make personal griefs seem trivial. Robinson actually can write about individual characters and their little lives...

...except Robinson isn't enough of a drama queen to pull it off. Writers who are truly character-oriented rather than idea-oriented seem to me to share a couple of qualities Robinson lacks. First, they see the entire arc of their characters' lives. Each character isn't a set of traits but rather a life story, and what a character is like now is the culmination of all of her experiences to date. I didn't get that sense from Pacific Edge. There's the short-tempered young woman with the crush on the dumb guy — what's she see in him? why's she quick to anger? Unexplained. There's the goofy handyman with the homespun wisdom — how'd he get to be that way? Unexplained. Even the most central characters are given only the flimsiest of backgrounds. Like the patron goddess of their home state, they have sprung full-grown from their creator's head.

The other quality that character-oriented writers share is that they see each of their characters as extraordinary. This means that each one has some quality, some event in her background, that makes her unique. A character-oriented writer looks over her characters and thinks, "Only I can write that guy. Only I really know what makes him tick." In fact, a character-oriented writer will often think the same thing about other people's characters. (The sidebar about fanfic that really ought to go here is left as an exercise for the reader.) I got the opposite feeling from the characters in Pacific Edge — the feeling that if I were to ask Robinson what makes Kevin or Ramona extraordinary, he'd shrug and say, "Nothing — they're perfectly ordinary people in that future. That's the point." That is, for all the talk about individual lives, what he's really trying to portray is a representative cross-section of 2065 El Modena. The main character — as in The Wild Shore, as in The Gold Coast — is The Populace.

So when Robinson writes his love story, it isn't about the unique, specific, extraordinary love between two unique, specific, extraordinary people. Every page is thick with the sense that the author feels he is capturing first What Love Feels Like and then What Heartbreak Feels Like, in the general case — that he's using the names Kevin and Ramona and Alfredo, but he'd be even happier if he could get away with using X and Y and Z. And the thing is, I know quite a few people who think this way, people for whom Pacific Edge might well be the first love story they encounter written in a manner that appeals to the way their minds work. I suspect that these people are well-represented within the science fiction readership.

But I'm not one of them. So why do I own these books? As noted, the main hook is that they're about Orange County. I also like the multiple-futures gimmick, especially since it focuses on issues of community size and stuff that I find really interesting. Finally, The Gold Coast is very entertainingly written, sort of a precursor to Snow Crash. But Pacific Edge fails not only because it revolves around one of Robinson's big weaknesses — characters — but because even the writing, previously a strength, is bad. You know the old joke about the restaurant reviewer who says the food is bad and the portions are too small? Same sort of deal here: the dialogue is annoying, and there's not enough of it. Here's a sample passage:

     Alfredo went through his reasons again. The prestige, the esthetic attraction of it, the increased town shares. On each point Doris assailed him bitterly. "You can't make us into Irvine or Laguna, Alfredo, if you want that you should move there."
     Alfredo defended himself bitterly. The other council members pitched in with their opinions.

"Alfredo defended himself bitterly"? "The other council members pitched in with their opinions"? What ever happened to "show, don't tell"? Was it too much trouble to actually come up with a way for Alfredo to defend himself or to relate what the council members' opinions were? This is terrible. And the whole book is like this. Time after time, conversations are summarized rather than dramatized. Here's another sample: "A lot of people didn't want to talk to him. A lot of those who did wanted to argue with him. Many made it clear they thought he was waging a personal war with Alfredo, and implied that they knew why." How did they convey this? Unexplained. Pacific Edge is a book that never says "'Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side!'" when it can say "Kevin told a joke."

But, again, I can't complain too loudly about the lack of dialogue, because the dialogue is awful. It's weird, because The Gold Coast was often clever and funny, but everything about the character interplay in Pacific Edge made me cringe, especially the attempts at humor. Oh, and then you have the fact that the book is set in 2065 but everyone's pop-culture touchstone is the mid-20th century. They're down with Ingrid Bergman and Groucho Marx — even Zero Mostel — but celebrities of the last 100 years? Not so much. I don't know about you, but I don't really find myself spending a lot of time name-checking noted thespians of the 1880s. Just once I would like to come across a story set in, oh, 2493, where people's idea of retro is 2478.

And why the hell does Kim Stanley Robinson find it necessary to compare women to dolphins in every fucking book? Not just these — the Mars books too. Next on my list is The Years of Rice and Salt and if there are any women-as-dolphins metaphors in there my writeup's going to contain some very rich language.

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