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 make my future seem more plausible to me - perhaps [...] it will even seem possible.
But there's no such thing as a pocket utopia.
I don't think I've ever read a book that radiates sunshine quite so effectively as Pacific Edge (1988), Kim Stanley Robinson's warm, wise love letter to California and his hopes of a better tomorrow. There's an elegiac optimism - I'll come back to this unlikely phrase - that rolls off every page. It infuses the big-hearted, well-meaning characters and brings rich, warm colour to every description of this glittering landscape (and, since Robinson clearly adores the natural world with every fibre of his idealistic and unabashedly liberal being, there are many) - right from the book's opening lines:
Despair could never touch a morning like this.
The air was cool, and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea - air like telescopic glass, so that the snowtopped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away. The flanks of the blue foothills revealed the etching of every ravine, and beneath the foothills, stretching to the sea, the broad coastal plain seemed nothing but treetops.
Pacific Edge is the final instalment in Robinson's 'Three Californias' series, a trilogy of different imagined futures for the state, and it is - I gather - by far the sunniest of them. The book was recommended to me by Niall, who gets a far-away look in his eye whenever he talks about it. I don't quite share his raptures over it: I lack his longstanding emotional attachment to California, don't care about softball nearly as much as anyone in the story does, and (as I'll discuss in a moment) I have some problems with the central character. But, even with those caveats in mind, I found it beautiful and thoughtful in all sorts of unexpected ways. Not least, that it manages to be both optimistic and clear-eyed about utopia and its discontents.
The story is divided, unevenly, between two periods of time. The bulk of the book follows the lives of a small group of people - chief among them Kevin, through whose eyes we see the coastline in the extract above - in a small corner of Orange County in the mid-21st century, as they fall in love, gaze at the stars, go swimming in the ocean, help each other build communal homes, play softball on ground freshly liberated from obsolete roads, and debate water supplies and land use with astonishingly patient earnestness. There is wish-fulfillment in the vision of "orange groves and strawberry fields" saved from becoming "the worst kind of cheapshot crackerjack condominiums [...] bulldozers in the streets, earth-movers, cranes, fields of raw dirt", but a recurring theme is that utopia runs on volunteer labour and committee meetings. Lots of long, long committee meetings full of argument and hard bargaining.
For Kevin, we're told, "to feel was to act", and when the story opens it seems that his life to date has been no more complicated than that. He finds a simple, completely absorbing joy in physical activity, whether work or play, and his relationship with the natural world is one of intense sensation rather than something he spends much time reflecting on:
Kevin felt a stirring in him, the full-lunged breathlessness that marked his love for El Modena's hills, extending outward to these great peaks. Interpenetration with the rock. He was melting like the snow, seeping into it.
Introspection is supplied by Tom, an articulate, much older neighbour who remembers things as they were before utopia was created in Orange County, and to whom Kevin credits his "education - the parts he really remembered" - although he thinks of this primarily as "listening to Tom ramble" about how capitalism was evil, while he himself got on with the more important business of wading through rivers and suchlike.
Then one day he is hit for six (feel free to substitute a metaphor from softball rather than cricket, as preferred):
Everyone was cheering. Kevin looked back at Ramona. She had tumbled to the ground after the throw, and now she was sitting on the outfield grass, long, graceful, splay-legged, grinning, black hair in her eyes. And Kevin fell in love.
Of course that isn't exactly how it happened. That isn’t the whole story. Kevin was a straightforward kind of guy, and crazy about softball, but still, he was not the kind of person who would fall in love on the strength of a good play at shortstop. No, this was something else, something that had been developing for years and years.
The move to deflate the lofty romanticism of the first paragraph with the deliberation of the second is characteristic both of Kevin and, as it turns out, of the novel as a whole. Kevin is a man who operates on gut feeling more than he does on quick wit; he is quick neither to speak nor to reach conclusions, but once he does he is direct and harbours few illusions. Kevin recognises his feelings for Ramona through their physical effect on him ("Whoosh! went the air out of his lungs. His heart thudded, the skin of his face flushed and tingled with the impact of it"), and he is most comfortable with her in the context of shared outdoor activities: swimming, cycling, softball. Likewise, his most extravagant yearning for her dwells on her physicality, to a sometimes queasy degree:
He didn’t understand Alfredo. Imagine the chance to make love with this beautiful animal pumping away beside him, to, watch her get fat with a child that was the combination of him and her... He breathed erratically at the thought, suddenly aware of his own body.
Fair enough; this is who Kevin is. My patience began to wear thin, though, with the combination of puppyish devotion and unthinking entitlement with which he thinks about Ramona; he is nervous about discussing his feelings with her, but is convinced nonetheless that the simple fact of his being a Nice Guy who is attracted to her will make her swoon sooner or later. He gives no real consideration to her feelings - seems, indeed, unable to conceive of the idea that she might have ideas and emotions of her own that go beyond being on his pedestal - except to assume that she couldn't possibly like that jerk Alfredo, her on-off partner of fifteen years.
When Ramona ultimately goes back to Alfredo, it comes as a shock and an affront to Kevin. But the unenticing prospect of Kevin spending the rest of life brooding in bitterness about that evil Ramona's contrarian faithlessness is swiftly undercut, in a moment of epiphany that once again speaks to Robinson's soaring optimism about human nature and its capacity, however rueful or painful, to achieve and then confront self-knowledge:
When he was done he put down his tools. Behind him Orange County pulsed green and amber, jumping with his heart, glossy, intense, vibrant, awake, alive. His world and the wind pouring through it. His hands came together and made their half swing. If only Hank hadn't caught that last one. If only Ramona, if only Tom, if only all the world, all in him at once, with the sharp stab of our unavoidable grief; and it seemed to him then that he was without a doubt the unhappiest person in the whole world.
And at that thought (thinking about it) he began to laugh.
It's a marvellous ending; it doesn't quite reconcile me to Kevin as he is within this story, but makes me feel much better for his future. The process of loving and losing Ramona has woken Kevin to something larger: a fuller, more thoughtful appreciation of the utopia he lives in, and a deep commitment to fighting to preserve it.
The nature and rationale of this utopia is engaged with in the other strand of the novel. Events in Kevin's time are interspersed with short first-person sections, like the one quoted at the top of the post. They are set in 2012, in a world is sliding into collapse on various levels: environmental (a climate gone crazy), political (out of control wars, infrastructures crippled by terrorism) and ethical (in William F. Buckley's dream come true, HIV+ people have been rounded up and left to die in segregation camps). While his wife stranded is abroad by what looks set to be a lasting suspension of international air travel, Tom - the same Tom, it turns out - sits at home battling his growing sense of frustrated guilt and impotence. But however big the problem, he cannot bring himself to accept helplessness as a reponse to it: "One of the worst signs of our danger", he notes, "is we can't imagine the route from here to utopia." So, dreaming of Europe - told you Robinson is a liberal - he sets out to write a solution.
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.
Whether Kevin's Orange County is the future Tom creates, or just the one he hopes for, is never completely clear (or at least it wasn't to me...). But in its emphasis on decision by committee, on everyone pitching in, and on setting more realistic expectations for what constitutes the good life, it certainly fits his model. Tom echoes Kevin's awakening from solipsism into self-awareness when he tells us that there is no such thing as a pocket utopia, because it is defined by the way we go about creating it. There is no good life without communal endeavour and complete equality; no life can be truly good when it coexists with injustice. Any system that depends on the suffering of others, on individuals measuring their success and happiness by how much more they have than their fellow human beings, can never produce utopia:
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.
What do you know, I seem to have gone all idealistic.