I finished Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson to round out the Three Californias Trilogy. All three novels take place in Orange County, usually along the coast. The first imagined a future California after a nuclear war. The second portrayed an all too imaginable future California that was so overdeveloped the freeways were stacked on top of each other and were still bumper-to-bumper traffic all the time. This third book gives us a vision of what a future eco-utopian California might be like.
It is 2065, climate change has been averted, giant corporations have been taken in hand and torn apart, everyone has meaningful work and no one is left in need because there is a guaranteed basic income. No one owns a car, though cars still exist. If you need one to travel a long distance you have to rent it and the cost is quite high. The roads are given over to bicycles, including the freeways, and a good many roads have actually been torn up to make way for parks.
The story takes place in the town of El Modena. Kevin is around thirty, a friendly, gregarious person who remodels old, inefficient energy wasting cookie cutter houses turning them into beautiful, one of a kind, energy efficient dwellings. A good many people live in communal housing where there is a large community living space and shared kitchen but each person/couple/family has their own private space they can retreat to.
Kevin just got elected to the city council. He didn’t necessarily want the job, but a Green Party spot had opened up and he was asked to run. Being the well-liked guy that he is, he was easily elected. There is also a new mayor, Alfredo. He is good looking, a smooth talker, smart, a popular businessman. At the first meeting Kevin discovers just how dull it is, but wakes up pretty quickly when an odd agenda item regarding water turns up smooshed in between a couple of other innocuous items. This sets off the battle for what will turn out to be a fight over a large corporate development on the last unbuilt upon hill in town.
If I had known this was a book with a plot that centered around land development I would never have picked it up. I mean, boring! But Robinson turns it into a nail biting story that involves dark money, secrets, and illegal business dealings. There is also romance and heartbreak for sweetener.
As much as I enjoyed the story it had its flaws. Robinson uses letters from one person in El Modena to a friend in Chicago as narrative summary. There are also letters from another character, old letters from “before” when the world was in crisis and falling to pieces, that while somewhat interesting, are pretty much pointless. But these in and of themselves weren’t bad or all that bothersome, just unoriginal.
What niggled at me the most was how everyone was so fit, cycling everywhere for long distances and not even thinking about it. I mean, this is totally awesome in my world, but completely unrealistic. No one had physical disabilities or chronic diseases that might hinder mobility. Even the elderly are spry. One character, Tom, is at least 85 and he cycles and walks and behaves as though he is a fit man of forty. There is mention of “geriatric drugs” but seriously? That’s supposed to be believable?
All things considered though, even with the flaws it was good reading. Robinson is one of the few authors I know of who can make five pages about California water rights law interesting. I think he does this mostly by putting it into a context, making it a story in itself about people and power and the rights of a community to control its own destiny. And that is something else I really like about this book and the other two books as well. While the story might cohere around a few characters, it is ultimately all about community and its workings and relationships. Good stuff!