Blueprints

Letters
from a
Utopian
California

(Part 1)

Notes from Kim Stanley Robinson’s
first utopian novel: Pacific Edge.

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Anyone versed in the utopian strain of contemporary science fiction needs no introduction to Kim Stanley Robinson’s work. No living author has spent as much of his oeuvre grappling with the idea, its implications, and its achievability.

Pacific Edge, his third novel (published in 1990), predates the Mars series he’s best known for and introduces many of the themes that permeate his later work. A deceptively low-stakes story of infatuation and heartbreak set against the backdrop of small town civic life in Orange County circa 2065, it paints a quietly powerful portrait of a California recovering from the excesses of late capitalism, but (this being America) still negotiating a balance between commerce, community, and the land.

It has never been more relevant. Here are some choice excerpts. ☼

“Fucking Iain Banks died and Ursula died, and I’m like the last utopian.”

From “The Climate-Obsessed Sci-Fi Genius of Kim Stanley Robinson“, Wired Magazine

“Utopia is when our lives matter.”

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“For now, all is calm. White flakes falling. I write in a kind of pocket utopia, a little island of calm in a maddened world. Perhaps it will help make my future seem more plausible to me—perhaps, remembering Switzerland, it will even seem possible. But there’s no such thing as a pocket utopia.”

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“I hated capitalism because it was a lie!” Tom would say, fording Harding Canyon stream with abandon. “It said that everyone exercising their self-interest would make a decent community! Such a lie!” Splash, splash! “It was government as protection agency, a belief system for the rich. Why, even when it seemed to work, where did it leave them? Holed up in mansions and crazy as loons.” “But some people like to be alone.” “Yeah, yeah. And self-interest exists, no one can say it doesn’t—the governments that tried got in deep trouble, because that’s a lie of a different kind. But to say self-interest is all that exists, or that it should be given free rein! My Lord. Believe that and nothing matters but money.” “But you changed that,” Kevin would say, watching his footwork. “Yes, we did. We gave self-interest some room to work in, but we limited it. Channeled it toward the common good. That’s the job of the law, as we saw it then.” He laughed. “Legislation is a revolutionary power, boy, though it’s seldom seen as such. We used it for all it was worth, and most liked the results, except for some of the rich, who fought like wolverines to hold on to what they had. In fact that’s a fight that’s still going on. I don’t think it will ever end.”

“We are the aristocracy of the world. But this time the revolution will bring down more than the aristocracy. Could be everything. Crumpled newspaper, compartmentalized disaster. Catastrophe by percentage points. We can avoid it, I swear we can. Must concentrate on that to be able to continue.”

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“We can protest, I say. Pam shakes her head, mouth bitter. Picks up In’tl Herald Tribune. Southern Club defaulting on all debt. Prediction of twenty-five percent reduction in world population called optimistic by. Civil war in India, in Mexico, in. Deforestation in. World temperature up another degree Centigrade since. Species going extinct— I’ve already read it.”

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“My daily workload reminds me constantly that in fact it exists entangled in intricate webs of law. Their system is a mix, combining a communalism of the Santa Rosa model—land and public utilities owned in common, residents required to do ten hours a week of town work, a couple of town-owned businesses in operation to use all the labor available, that sort of thing—with aspects of the new federal model: residents are taxed more and more heavily as they approach the personal income cap, and they can direct 60 percent of their taxes to whatever services they support the most. Businesses based in town are subject to the same sort of graduated system. I am familiar with much of this from my years in Bishop, which has a similar system. As usual in these set-ups, the town is fairly wealthy, even if it is avoided by businesses looking for the best break possible. From all the income generated, a town share is distributed back out to the citizens, which comes to about twice the national income floor. But people still complain that it isn’t higher. Everyone wants to be a hundred. And here they believe that a properly run town could make everyone hit the cap as a matter of course. Thus there is the kind of intense involvement with town politics typical of these set-ups, government mixed with business mixed with life-styles, etc.”

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“What a cheat utopias are, no wonder people hate them. Engineer some fresh start, an island, a new continent, dispossess them, give them a new planet sure! So they don’t have to deal with our history. Ever since More they’ve been doing it: rupture, clean cut, fresh start. So the utopias in books are pocket utopias too. Ahistorical, static, why should we read them? They don’t speak to us trapped in this world as we are, we look at them in the same way we look at the pretty inside of a paperweight, snow drifting down, so what? It may be nice but we’re stuck here and no one’s going to give us a fresh start, we have to deal with history as it stands, no freer than a wedge in a crack.”

“Must redefine utopia. It isn’t the perfect end-product of our wishes, define it so and it deserves the scorn of those who sneer when they hear the word. No. Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever. Compare it to the present course of history. If you can.”

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“Kevin listened to the wind, and looked around at the dark peaks poking into the night sky. Suddenly it was clear to him that Sally had had a reason to bring them up here to have this talk; that this place itself was part of the discourse, part of what she wanted to say. The university of the wilderness. The spine of California, the hidden source of the south’s wealth. This hard wild place.”

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“She saw the doggie look on my face, smiled. “So how’d the book go?” “The same.” It’s not fair, really. I can’t understand a word she says when she talks of her work, while for me, on this project at least, she is a crucial sounding board. “I’m thinking of alternating chapters of fiction with essay chapters which discuss the political and economic problems we need to solve.” “My God.” Wrinkled nose, as if something gone bad in fridge. “Hey, H.G. Wells did it.” “Which book?” “Well—one of the major utopian novels.” “Still in print?” “No.” “Libraries have it?” “University libraries.” “So Wells’s science fiction adventures are still in every library and bookstore, while this major utopia with the essays is long gone, and you can’t even remember the title?” I changed the subject. Think I might pass on the essays.”

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“They stepped and balanced, hopped and teetered. Occasionally they bumped together, arm to arm. Their skin was warm in the sun. They talked about this and that, and Kevin felt certain boundaries disappearing. Ramona was willing to talk about anything, now, about things beyond the present moment. Childhoods in El Modena and at the beach. The boats offshore. Their work. The people they knew. The huge rocks jumbled under them: “Where did they come from, anyway?” They didn’t know. It didn’t matter. What do you talk about when you’re falling in love? It doesn’t matter. All the questions are, Who are you? How do you think? Are you like me? Will you love me? And all the answers are, I am like this, like this, like this. I am like you. I like you.”

Strange, this life, isn’t it? We think, nothing could ever get more real than this! Then this becomes nothing more than a darting fragmentary complex of pure mentation, while a new reality, more real than ever! steps in to obscure all previous candidates. I never get used to it.

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“Been on plane four hours now. Liddy finally asleep. Tapping on lap keyboard. Might as well distract myself. Strategies for changing history. Invent the history leading out of this world (please) into the world of the book. Causes of utopian process gaining upper hand. Words scroll up and disappear forever, like days. Lincoln not assassinated, no, no, we know it didn’t happen that way, we know we can’t take that road. Not useful. Someone appears to lead us, no! No Great Man theory here. No individual can save us. Together or not at all. Together or nothing. Ah, Pamela— Some group. In power or out. Act together. Say lawyers, the law? Still can’t escape the feeling that there’s where a difference could be made, despite my own experience. Remake the law of the land. Say a whole class of Harvard Law School, class of ’12 goes out to fill posts of all kinds, government, World Bank, IMF, Pentagon. Save the twenty-first century. Plausible? No. A story. But at least it’s possible, I mean we could do it! Nothing stopping us but inertia, ideology. Lack of imagination! Teachers, religious leaders … but there are few politically active people in any group. And to agree on a whole program of action, all of them. How implausible can something be before it’s useless? It’s conspiracy theory, really. We don’t need that either. History changed by a popular book, a utopia, everyone reads it and it has ideas, or vague pokes in the direction of ideas, it changes their thinking, everyone starts working for a better world— Getting desperate. Marcuse: one of the worst signs of our danger is we can’t imagine the route from here to utopia. No way to get there. Take the first step and you’re there. Process, dynamism, the way is the life. We must imagine the way. Our imagination is stronger than theirs! Take the first step and you’re on the road. And so? In my book? Stare at empty screen.”

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“Reminds me of Muir’s night on Shasta,” the turtle said. “He was tough, his father was a Calvinist minister and a cruel man, he beat Muir and worked him at the bottom of wells. So nothing in the Sierras ever bothered him. But one time he and a friend climbed Shasta and got caught in a storm up there at the top, a real bad blizzard. It should have killed them, but luckily Shasta was more active in those days, and there was still a hot spring pool in the summit caldera. Muir and his friend found this pool and jumped in, but the water in it was like a hundred and fifty degrees, and full of sulphur gas. So they couldn’t stay in it, but when they got out they started to freeze instantly. It was scald or freeze, no middle ground. All they could do to survive was keep dipping in and out of the pool, lying in the shallows and rolling over all night long, one side in the water and the other in the wind, on and on until their senses were so blasted that they couldn’t tell the hot from the cold. Afterwards Muir said it was the most uncomfortable night he had ever spent, which is saying a lot, because he was a wild man.”

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“One advantage to hiking alone; you can do things so stupid that no two people together would ever carry on with it.”

“Down the beach a fire licked over the edge of a concrete firepit, silhouetting children who held hot dogs out on coathangers bent straight. The twined scent of charred meat and lighter fluid wafted past, cutting through the cold wet smell of seaweed. Waves swept in at an angle, rushed whitely toward them, retreated hissing, left bubbling wet sand. We do this once, it never happens again.”

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“Corporate law is a gigantic body of stuff, see, very complex. The main thrust of the twenty-forty international agreements was to cut down on the size of corporations, cut them down so far that only companies remain. It’s actually anti-corporate law, I mean that’s what we were doing for twenty-five years. We chopped up the corporations and left behind a teeming mass of small companies, and a bunch of associations and information networks—all well and good, but there are projects in this world that need a lot of capital to be carried off, and so mechanisms for that had to be instituted, new banking practices and company teamwork programs, and that’s where you get the morass of law dealing with that.”

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“In a camp in Virginia. Interned. Big mistake to antagonize that immigration officer. That a single official’s enmity can result in this! But it’s more than that, of course. A tidal wave of fear. Lawyer says private tests all negative, so this is just a ploy to hold me while they put together a case under the H-G Act. False positives. Meanwhile here in a kind of camp. Wooden dormitory barracks in rows, dead grass, dirt baseball diamonds, benches, fences. Barbed wire, yes. City of the dying. False positives, those bastards. Actually a lot of people here make the same claim. Some of them obviously wrong. Summer in Virginia, hot, humid. Thunderstorms black with hail and lightning. The daily blitzkrieg of the news. War spilling into the Balkans like a bad summer re-run. TV apocalypse. Four planes blown up in transatlantic flights, and international flights soon to be severely curtailed. Pam will have to return by ship, if she can get home at all. World getting bigger as it falls apart. I can’t write any more.”

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“At dawn I would get up and go to the canteen and drink coffee and try to write. All day I would sit there staring at the page, staring into the blank between my world and the world in my book. Until my hand would shake. Looking around me, looking at what my country was capable of when it was afraid. Seeing the headlines in the newspapers scattered around. Seeing my companions and the state they were in. And one day I stood up with my notebooks and went outside, around the back of the canteen to the dumpsters. The book was in three thick spiral ring notebooks. I sat cross-legged on the concrete, and started ripping the pages away from the wire spiral, about ten at a time. I tore them up, first crossways, then lengthwise. When I had a little pile of paper I stood and threw the pieces into the dumpster. I did that until all the pages were gone. I tore the cardboard covers away from the spirals, and ripped them up too. The twisted wire spirals were the last things in. No more utopia for me. After that I returned to the canteen and sat just like before, feeling worse than ever. But there was no point in continuing, really there wasn’t. The time has passed when a utopia could do anybody any good, even me. Especially me. The discrepancy between it and reality was too much. So I sat there drinking coffee and staring out the window. One of my dorm mates, he sleeps a couple beds down, came by with his lunch. Hey Barnyard, he said, where’s your book. I threw it away.”

“Out. How I hugged that lawyer. He just looked tired. Lucky, he said. Procedural irregularity. He drove me to a restaurant. Looking out the car window, stunned. Everything looked different. Fragile. Even America is fragile. I didn’t know that before. At the restaurant we drank coffee. What will you do? the lawyer said. I didn’t have the faintest idea. I don’t know, I said. Go to New York and meet my wife’s ship when it comes in. Get cross country to my kid, find some kind of work. Survive. There was a newspaper on the next table but I couldn’t look at it. Crisis to crisis, we’re too close to the edge, you can feel the slippage in the heat of the air.”

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“Because I have to do something. Not just write a utopia, but fight for it in the real world—I have to, I’m compelled to, and talking with one of the people here late one night I suddenly understood why: because I grew up in utopia, I did. California when I was a child was a child’s paradise, I was healthy, well fed, well clothed, well housed, I went to school and there were libraries with all the world in them and after school I played in orange groves and in Little League and in the band and down at the beach and every day was an adventure, and when I came home my mother and father created a home as solid as rock, the world seemed solid! And it comes to this, do you understand me—I grew up in utopia. But I didn’t. Not really. Because while I was growing up in my sunny seaside home much of the world was in misery, hungry, sick, living in cardboard shacks, killed by soldiers or their own police. I had been on an island. In a pocket utopia. It was the childhood of someone born into the aristocracy, and understanding that I understood the memory of my childhood differently; but still I know what it was like, I lived it and I know! And everyone should get to know that, not in the particulars, of course, but in the general outline, in the blessing of a happy childhood, in the lifelong sense of security and health. So I am going to work for that. And if—if! if someday the whole world reaches utopia, then that dream California will become a precursor, a sign of things to come, and my childhood is redeemed. I may never know which it will be, it might not be clear until after we’re dead, but the future will judge us! They will look back and judge us, as aristocrats’ refuge or emerging utopia, and I want utopia, I want that redemption and so I’m going to stay here and fight for it, because I was there and I lived it and I know. It was a perfect childhood.”

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“Things were changing, the pendulum swinging, the Greens’ day had passed. To fight business in America … it was asking for trouble, always. Kick the world, break your foot.”

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“Hank stood in the gazebo by the stream, in his minister’s shirt again. His voice lifted and again he took them away, just as always. Kevin recalled him dusty in the yard, saying, “Ain’t nothing written in stone, bro.” Now he led Ramona and Alfredo through their marriage vows, “for as long as you both shall live.” It’s not stone, Kevin thought, we write these things in something both more fragile and more durable. Hank made him see it. You could believe in both because both were true. These were vows, sure enough. But vows were only vows. Intentions—and no matter how serious, public, heartfelt, they were still only vows. Promises. The future still loomed before them, able to take them anywhere at all. That was their great and terrible freedom. The weird emptiness of the future! How we long to fill it in, now, in the present; and how completely we are denied.”

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“It was only by feeling that love that he could do justice to what had happened since. So he had to feel this good, and this bad. He stepped over a big gap between stones, landed perfectly. It was coming back, the art of it. You had to dance over them, keep committing yourself to something more than a normal step. Like life: like that, and that, and that.”