Further Thoughts on The Wild Shore

On April 15, I wrote about Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1984 novel, The Wild Shore. We talked about this and the other two books in his Three Californias Triology: The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge, during our Utopias seminar today. Before class, I collected some notes that I wasn’t initially aware of when I read The Wild Shore.

John Clute’s entry on Robinson in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has a lot of relevant information about the author and this trilogy. The author earned his PhD in English from the University of California in 1982 and his dissertation was published in 1984 as The Novels of Philip K. Dick, which is still an authoritative work on the subject.

Clute goes on to state that The Wild Shore was originally released as an Ace Special, and he says that, “[it] lucidly examines the sentimentalized kind of US SF pastoral typically set after an almost univeral catastrophe” (1015). Also, the three books, “may be read as three versions of the same story, each nesting within the other” (1015). Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to read the other two novels yet. Sunshine and Christian each took one of the other novels to speak about in class.

Another valuable resource is Helen J. Burgess’ “‘Road of Giants’: Nostalgia and the Ruins of the Superhighway in Kim Stanley Robtinson’s Three Californias Triology,” which appears in Science Fiction Studies, #99, Vol. 33, Part 2, July 2006. Burgess writes about the highway infrastructure of the United States and how it came about as a corporate construction of the mythopedic ideal of the open road and American expansion into the West of the future. Car manufacturers utilized nostalgia of American west expansion and they projected that nostalgia into the future to sell more cars and construct new roads. Nostalgia is therefore turned into a created construct when it’s applied to futurity. She draws parallels between this and William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum,” because of the use of nostalgia and the choices we make about the future.

She goes on to makes an argument about the uses of nostalgia in The Wild Shore:

The Wild Shore uses the longings of a group of people in post-apocalypse America to show that nostalgia for the technological ‘progress’ of the past, and the wish to rebuild that past, repeat dubious patterns of nationalism and manifest destiny. The Wild Shore thus attempts to make a distinction between irresponsible uses of nostalgia as a tool in the service of reconstruction (278).

Connected to this is Robinson’s recurring character in the trilogy, Tom Barnard (however, each novel is a separate time line sharing the same space so Barnard in The Wild Shore is not the same Barnard in the other novels):

[He’s] a kind of oracle/conscience/trickster voice, a story teller relating sometimes nostalgic, sometimes critical tales of the past in The Wild Shore. Barnard is a tricky and unreliable narrator, often lying about or concealing true details–for example his age of his location at the time of the holocaust. But he uses the details chiefly didactically, in the service of parables that convey both nostalgia for the past and the recognition that the past was destructive (286).

Through Barnard, Robinson uses parable and stories to reach out to the other characters as well as the reader to instruct and guide as is often the case of the guide in utopias.

Again, I recommend The Wild Shore, and I’m looking forward to reading the J.G. Ballard-like dystopia of The Gold Coast and the utopic vision of Pacific Edge.

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.