The Gold Coast

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast reminds one of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853). Nineteenth century industrial London becomes twenty-first century electronic Orange County, California, but the extremely wealthy remain almost utterly unaware of the wretchedly poor. Orange County has become a multilayered “autopia,” with freeways on pylons arching over and shading the old towns, with malls and mansions in the sun, with comparative slums beneath the roads, and with virtually every square inch paved. London’s Chancery Court reappears as the military-industrial complex; this system also aids and destroys its servants, enemies, and casual associates with seemingly complete arbitrariness. The powers of the social and economic order in future California, as in past London, appear to be in a mad conspiracy against the happiness of all individuals. Only a slight extension of contemporary Western consumer-military culture, future Orange County encourages everyone to live in perpetual childhood. The children of the well-off are indulged, for their energy and creativity are not yet necessary to the social order.

Like Dickens, Robinson presents a large cast of characters with a variety of motives, apparently acting out their individual values and interests. Each action is shown to take place “in a network of circumstances.” Jim McPherson’s ambivalent struggle to escape the protecting bubble of his extended childhood leads to a tantrum that threatens either to harm or to save most of his friends and family.

Sandy Chapman works harder than any legitimate executive in the novel, but entirely in an underground economy of recreational drugs. Technically skilled, he has an almost normal middle-class marriage, though it is called an alliance, and a middle-class motive for making money, to care for his ailing father. Despite his mirroring legitimate entrepreneurs, he is kept in a state of adolescent rebellion that shows itself in his leisure life-style of constant parties, pranks, larks, and overconsumption of his own products. He is one of the progeny of Ken Kesey in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968).

Tashi Nakamura is a traditional rebel, trying in every way he can to avoid plugging into the system. He believes that the more ways one has to exchange money, the more ways one is plugged in. He also earns money illegally, reconditioning carbrains, the components that govern the new electronic automobiles. These machines drive themselves, using computer programs to follow magnetic tracks to their destinations, almost always without collision. Tashi lives in a rooftop tent and surfs at night to avoid the hordes of surfing consumers and to participate in the rhythms of the natural sea. Occasionally, he walks into the mountains to escape Orange County. When his alliance falls apart, he moves to Alaska, one place that is not yet like his home.

Only Abe Bernard, among Jim’s closest friends, holds a regular, full-time job in the system. He drives a rescue vehicle for victims of malfunctioning cars. This job requires him to risk life and limb getting his ambulance through traffic. The excitement of this driving fulfills Abe, but the horror of the accident scenes, where he cuts open smashed cars to free the often dead victims, threatens to drive the sensitive young man insane. Even this job, however, is a kind of childish attempt to assert an adult self apart from his fabulously wealthy parents, with whom he lives. It is not a job he can continue, but it sets him apart from his wealth and puts him in contact with more ordinary people, such as the black medic, Xavier, his partner.

Jim, Sandy, Tashi, and Abe have been friends since their high school days, when they were on the wrestling team. Their wealth and their rebellious stance toward their society allows them to continue associating and behaving much as they did in school, prolonging, frustrating, and disguising their need to achieve adult individuality. Jim McPherson is, in some ways, more sensitive than his friends, but they all believe that their lives do not extend into the future and that the present moment, however rich in stimulation, is not adequate. The frantic social pace of their lives, with the almost continuous drugs, frequent casual sexual relations, and the constant warm bath of sensory stimuli for sale, holds them in a womblike bubble that Jim finds increasingly unsatisfying. To find the answer, Jim is constantly seeking avenues into the past, to understand the motions of history that have produced him and his moment. He intuits, but is long in comprehending, that knowing his history will help him find himself and the part he can play as...

(The entire section is 1922 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Booklist. LXXXIV, February 15, 1988, p. 974.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, December 15, 1987, p. 1706.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 13, 1988, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, April 24, 1988, p. 28.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, January 8, 1988, p. 74.

Washington Post Book World. February 28, 1988, p. 8.

Washington Post Book World. June 26, 1988, p. 15.