Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore

It’s fun to begin reading a book that starts with the line, “It wouldn’t really be grave-robbing.” However, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Locus Award-winning novel, The Wild Shore, isn’t about petty thieves. The story is a written memoir by the narrator, Henry Fletcher. It concerns his transition from a teenage boy to an adult. The Wild Shore is set in 2047 in the area between Orange County and San Diego in California about 60 years after the United States was struck by an orchestrated suitcase nuke/neutron bomb attack. In the years following the attack, the UN quarantined the States and instructed the Japanese to enforce the Western border. In the midst of this, Henry lives in an anarchistic, cooperative village called Onofre, which is near San Clemente.

The lives of the Onofrians are tough, but their community is clearly a utopia. People work cooperatively and share the spoils of their efforts. Trade and goodwill abound amongst the citizens of the commune. Though, their lives are structured by the necessities of survival. It’s not an artisan’s paradise as in William Morris’ News From Nowhere, but it’s more similar to Anarres in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

Henry acts as the utopia’s visitor, because he is experiencing an awakening of awareness of the world around him, which is developed by his transition from childhood to adulthood. Therefore, the familiar and common place suddenly takes on new meanings for his broadening consciousness. Tom, who is Henry’s centigenarian (throughout the story he pretends to be much older than his 80 something years) teacher and friend. He guides Henry’s development through stories as well as teaching him how to read and write. Also, Tom represents the champion of the new world order in opposition to those persons who want to revive the States as they once were.

Following Le Guin, Robinson’s novel should also be given the subtitle, “An Ambiguous Utopia.” Onofre is never explicitly threatened, but it does exist in a precarious position challenged by Scavengers, the militaristic San Diego Mayor Danforth, and the Japanese. their existence is also tied to the land and sea, which places them under the threat of a new and violent Nature present in the post-apocalyptic world.

Henry’s gradual shift toward adulthood is one of the most interesting things about the story, because it’s subtle and believable. Robinson constructs Henry’s development gradually with enough self-doubt and uncertainty that he acts and feels like a teenage boy. However, he continually has a growing critical awareness that creeps up on the reader to the point that the voice at the end of the novel actually feels older than the one at the beginning. Furthermore, this is accomplished by the author, because Henry never fully understands everything. The community and his futures are uncertain, yet hopeful. Also, philosophical dilemmas are not discarded. Henry works them over for himself, but consciously shelves them if they extend beyond his current capabilities. However, as readers, we see the connections he makes as well as the gap waiting for a connective spark. This allows Henry to become a well developed character that establishes his own framework, outlook, and conceptualization of his life and the way it fits into his larger reality.

From Henry’s act of writing the story, he’s constructing a past and therefore, paving the way for the future. His father is described as “slow” and is a tailor in a town where no one really needs his services. Henry, as the tailor’s son, he “stitched together words” (351). His words are based on memories–his memory–the memory of the new generation. His intelligence as well as the fact that he’s writing the story, privileges him over the adults that form the community’s current hegemony. Then, he tentatively joins their ranks at the end of Chapter 22 when Tom and John (both considered community leaders–lacking a better term) listen to him and engage his opinion about the future of their community. This is reinforced by the imagery he records ending the chapter:

I looked out at the horizon, and this is what I saw: three sunbeams standing like thick white pillars, slanting each its own way, measuring the distance between the grey clouds and the grey sea (368).

The “three sunbeams” are the three men walking back from the sea to the community inland. The light appears as “thick white pillars” supporting the people, but they slant in different ways reflecting each person’s viewpoint. And finally, they “measure the distance” between the sky and the sea where the land is. They attempt to determine their (i.e., a favored North American humanity) place in the world and the boundaries within which they can work and prosper.

The novel was an enjoyable read. Robinson artfully builds a complex narrative around him as the author writing a novel that is a memoir by the narrator/protagonist and that character/author draws on cultural links (both real and imaginary–real to his world) to reinforce and reflect on his own narrative. The novel’s development of female roles is lacking and in some ways regressive. For example, within the Onofre, some women such as Kathryn have special skills (medicine/doctor), but her primary role is that of a farmer. The men in the community (John, Tom, Doc, and others) appear to have the most voice over community matters, and even the boys (Steve and Henry) plan, join, and invite other young people (girls and boys) to join a group of San Diegoians on a raid against the Japanese and the Scavengers. Also, race isn’t an issue in the novel besides the conflict between the American survivors and the Japanese on patrol boats. The Japanese that Henry does encounter could easily have been replaced by other nationalities. Also, race amongst the survivors isn’t brought up, which is interesting with the power of racial divisions in Southwest California. Perhaps the author reasoned that people dropped those conflicts after the bombs went off. However, the short time following the attack doesn’t seem long enough to heal racially divisive wounds.

Another element that falters is the nuclear attack. The novel was released during the beginning of Reagan’s second term in office in 1984, at a time when there was a certain tension between the United States and the USSR, though it does predate Mikhail Gorbachev coming to power in 1985. In this context, it can be viewed as a very late Cold War text written possibly as a warning or as a way to envision the author’s own wish fulfillment of a utopia via a return to the pastoral garden in a post-apocalyptic world.

I do recommend this novel, but it does lack certain extrapolative elements that would seem important to this kind of text. Now, I need to follow up this novel with the other two books of the “Three California Trilogy.”

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.