Kim Stanley Robinson’s Gold Coast is not my favorite of his books so far. Since this is only the third book of his I have read that means it still comes in at number three. This is book two in the Three Californias series. The great thing about this series though is that each book is completely independent of the others. The point of the series is to imagine three possible future Californias. The Wild Shore was a California after a nuclear war. Gold Coast is a California that is nothing but endless sprawl, almost too real to actually be the future.
It is 2027 in Orange County, California. The land has been so completely developed there is no open space left and few remember what real oranges on real orange trees look and taste like. Even the Cleveland National Forest has been cut down and built on. There are malls so huge that contain everything from grocery stores and doctor’s offices to apartments that a person could live an entire life without having to go outside.
Which might not be so bad because outside is mall after mall and freeways everywhere. The freeways were so crowded that the solution was to build more freeways. But since there was no room to build out, they built up, freeway on top of freeway. And it is still bumper-to-bumper traffic. Cars are no longer gas powered though so that’s a plus. Instead they run on magnetic tracks. The best part about this book is that the young people call it “autopia.”
Anyone who has ever been to Disneyland will recognize the reference. When I was a kid, Autopia was one of my favorite rides. I got to drive a car! Sometimes, if my sister was in the car in front of me, I got to run into the back of her and make her mad! When you are nine, what more could you want from an amusement park ride?
The version of autopia in Gold Coast is not a fun ride, however. Even though the cars are on tracks, the driver still controls speed and everything else and fatal accidents are not uncommon. One of the book’s characters is a paramedic and we get to go along on a number of harrowing calls with him. On one, he pries open the mangled car to discover a dead friend.
The main character of the book is Jim. His dad is an engineer who works for a defense contractor. Jim is a disillusioned twenty-something who wants to be a writer and makes his living teaching night classes at a community college and selling insurance by day. His friends are all equally troubled in one way or another. To make life more bearable they take designer drugs and have casual sex. Jim gets involved in anti-military terrorism that eventually brings him into a confrontation with his family.
As bleak as the book is, it ends on a note of hope as Jim finally finds his way into writing something worthwhile. I felt like maybe he would be okay. There is no way he is going to change the world in any dramatic way, but perhaps he has found a way to be in the world in a way that doesn’t compromise his values. And isn’t that what we all have to find our way to no matter where or when we live?