Three books, three very different Californias

Three Californias is a trilogy of books by alternative reality specialist Kim Stanley Robinson conceived in the late eighties. Each describes a different middle of the twentyfirst century for South California, especially Orange County, location for plenty of Robinson's other work. In them he plays with the influence Orange County's particular landscape has on its inhabitants, a theme that he picks up again in his Mars novels.

They are:

The Wild Shore: A post-apocalyptic tale of South California after a devastating soviet nuclear attack that transforms the United States of America into a collection of small hamlets without any means of modern communication. Its inhabitants are living off the land, salvaging the remains of its previous infrastructure, their main technological achievements comparable with nineteenth century science. With the coasts guarded by the Japanese, the remaining Americans are kept artificially isolated from the rest of the world and its technological marvels. Robinson follows a group of friends in their struggle to improve their and their families' quality of life and their search for their countries' history.

Pacific Edge paints a much more brighter future for the East Coast: With traditional carbon based fuels increasingly spare, the U.S. transformed itself into a clean, green, post modern society in which most political decisions are made on local level and in which local government has become the most important aspect of government. Solar power and plenty of muscle work have replaced traditional energy sources and within communities there is a strong desire to be self sufficient and independent. In this optimistic future an idealistic first time councillor tries to keep his power hungry mayor from developing a particularly beautiful set of hills into an industrial zone and get his girl.

The Gold Coast is the most realistic of these three futures: in a landscape blighted by urban sprawl and humungous highways, Robinson follows a group of drifters, struggling to make sense of their life in a egotistical society riddled with a drug abuse and mainly engrossed in finding meaningless pleasures.

There are a few similarities that charaterise the plot in those three novels: all three feature a young male protagonist struggling to make sense of their presence and worrying about their future. All three are guided or inspired by a fatherly figure called Tom (interestingly, no cynical bastard called 'Frank' in these. Wouldn't happen in his later work). As usual with all of Robinson's novels there is plenty of communal bathing (I have no idea why this is a recurring theme in his oeuvre, but find me one of his books where there's not more than two people stripping off and having a bath together. Maybe a fetish?). They are as usual immaculately researched and technically very detailed in their description of our future. This is of course one of the features of Robinson's work that makes it so darn interesting to read: just like his Mars Trilogy and his latest books about the U.S. in the throes of climate change, the amount of scientific detail is almost disturbing and makes me think whether the guy has his own group of Ph.D.'s sitting in his living room, just waiting for him to come out of the office to ask them question about the influence of atmospheric warming on the surface winds in the canyons of South Mars.

All three books are immensely readable, with Pacific Edge certainly being the most optimistic and enjoyable and The Gold Coast the most depressing. I always feel that calling Robinson's work 'Sci-Fi' is almost derogatory as none of his books feel like classic sci-fi novels. They just competely lack any harebrained spaceships, betentacled aliens or laser fights. 'Alternate reality' feels more appropriate and better characterizes the enormous amount of scientific research that he obviously invests into his books.

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