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Blaise Zerega: Hello everyone and welcome to Alta Journal‘s California Book Club. It’s a thrill to be here tonight for Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast with special guest Cory Doctorow and host John Freeman. If you, by accident boarded the wrong plane and you’re here for a different book, we encourage you to stick around anyway. My name is Blaise Zerega. I am Alta Journal‘s managing editor and broadcasting tonight from San Francisco, and I encourage everyone to say hello in the chat where they’re joining from. But first, some housekeeping. The California Book Club is our free monthly gathering featuring books that reflect the wonderful diversity and humanity of life in the Golden State. In the weeks leading up to each club meeting, altaonline.com publishes numerous articles, excerpts, interviews, and essays about that month’s pick. If you had a chance to read them, you’ll want to make sure to go back and do so.
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John Freeman: Thanks, Blaise. Really nice to be here. Greetings everyone from points near and far. I think when we put this book club together, our hope was not just to read the very best of literature written about and from the golden state, but also to have a meditative club that talked about how we live today. And when we think about how we live today, we have to also consider how we thought we might be living today. And our guests tonight, Kim Stanley Robinson, is better placed than almost anybody alive to talk about that. Not only is he the author of more than 20 novels and several books of short stories published in over two dozen languages, winner of the Nebula, World Fantasy and Arthur C. Clarke Award.
He is most notably for our discussion tonight, the author of a trilogy of novels about California sets within the golden state various points of time all around Orange County, one after a nuclear winter has occurred. One set in the year 2027, the Gold Coast, the book we’re going to talk about tonight, and one sent further in the future called Pacific Edge, which imagines a kind of green egalitarian future and what happens there. One of the great striking things about Kim Stanley Robinson’s work is not just simply the ecopoetics, which are at the heart of it and the way that he asked questions about social egalitarianism, about the destructive nature of capitalism and how from its very beginning capitalism was dependent on the destruction of the natural environment, but also the sheer beauty of his prose. You see that very clearly in the Gold Coast, which is a novel set only five years, hence from where we are now in Orange County development has taken over.
Military contractors are slightly ruling the roost as perhaps they do to some degree today. And a series of characters are enmeshed in this system and to some degree trying to succeed within the system and to some degree trying to get out. They include a father and son pair, one who works at a military contractor trying to build what sounds a little bit, which we’ll talk about tonight, like a supersonic missile as a way to kind of preempt nuclear attacks and war. The other one, the son of this man is working as a kind of instructor at a community college, living somewhat hand to mouth with a bunch of friends. One of who works as a EMT, driving up and down the roadways, collecting bodies from terrible car accidents, one who serves big wave, well, not just simply big wave, but tries to live close to the ground.
And a third who kind of embraces the sheer kind of selfish and money grabbing individualism that might succeed in this time and becomes a drug dealer. There are other characters, they spin around an orbit, which involves several plots, which Blaise mentioned, including obviously this contract with the defense department, but a smuggling job of rhinoceros aphrodisiac, the taking of many drugs through eyelid delivered mechanisms, and to some degree trying to seek out what it means to be alive and be happy. It’s an extraordinary book, also a really dark book because of how much it touches the surfaces of a life which is meant to numb you, it feels uncannily apt for our time period. So without further ado, please join me in welcoming Kim Stanley Robinson to the California Book Club.
Robinson: Hi there, John.
Freeman: Hi. I hope I didn’t butcher your own book and my reaction to it there.
Robinson: Oh no.
Freeman: Reading it was a disturbing and wonderful experience for many reasons. But before I get to what the book is about, I wonder if you could say something about this trilogy, which I understand you conceived of kind of all in a moment. And I wonder if you could take us back to that moment and talk a little bit about what was informing your thinking at the time. I can see behind you, Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth hardback edition that was published in 1982, which would’ve been just prior to when you must have begun working on these books. Can you talk a little bit about what was on your mind at the time?
Robinson: Sure. And thank you for that. And I first want, I just thank everybody involved. This has been a marvelous experience already with the essays online about the Gold Coast, the chance to think about that book again. So I just want to thank everybody involved in the California Book Club and Alta and the rest of you. And thanks for this question. I was, I don’t know, a freshman or sophomore in college. I grew up in Orange County, as maybe obvious from the book. I went to UC San Diego. So this was beginning around 1970. It was the height of the ’60s turning into the ’70s. And I often joke that I drove 15 years in 90 minutes by going from Orange County. My high school years in the late ’60s were more like the early ’50s, Orange County being what it was then. UCSD was in full ferment, revolutionary moment with Marcuse and Angela Davis and the war.
And one night I drove my stupid Cortina from San Diego back to my parents house in Orange County. You cross Camp Pendleton. So I went from, San Diego was a sleepy little town at that time. Then Camp Pendleton was completely empty, the coastal mountains that were there before and are still there. Then a border into San Clemente and back into the full on OC Freeway thing. And it was in Camp Pendleton driving and I thought, I can write three science fiction novels. I had just run into science fiction. I was very much struck by it, a conversion experience. And I thought you could do three futures from this present, one after the fall. So the nuclear threat that was so prominent then, and famous novels of course, then also the dystopia and the utopia, a simple trilogy.
And the thing that occurred to me even in that first moment was that there could be an old man in all three novels that had lived three different lives unbeknownst to him, but the readers would know and therefore you would see how much history, conditions, the lives that we lead, that it isn’t just you and your decisions, but what happens to you in your time. Well, it was a great thought. I clung to it. I wrote it down when I got to my parents’ house, said, “don’t forget this one.” And then I had nothing I could do with it. I didn’t know how to write a novel. I was just barely beginning to write short stories.
So it was years later, but I held onto it and I first wrote the Wild Shore several years later with a few books in between that were more solar system science fiction. I finally got to the Gold Coast when my wife and I were living in Zurich. So I was doing the work in exile, I was in Joyce’s town, I was thinking about my hometown and I finally pulled it together and wrote it there.
Freeman: People have compared this novel to some degree to 1984. And it’s interesting, you used the word dystopian, which I think is obviously apt, but the novel also has a lot of pleasure seeking in it. It’s people getting high, it’s people having sex, it’s people sitting in hot tubs. All things that still happen in California, I’m apparently told. But I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the structure of the novel, because as I was rereading it this last week or so, I wasn’t thinking of Orwell, I was thinking of John Dos Passos. There are these sections that cut through where you get voices, you get kind of strobelite descriptions of sensory feeling. And I wonder if you can talk about why you wrote it that way and what that sort of, how that idea for how to interrupt the book came to you.
Robinson: Yeah. Well, it’s not, as a dystopia, it’s saying that Reagan’s America was going to turn into dystopia that pleasure seeking can be desperate and pointless. But also it turned into one of the most autobiographical novels that I ever wrote. And that’s usually dangerous ground for me. I wouldn’t recommend it. But this particular novel being the entirety of my 20s as written from my 30s, I was pleased with it that when I was done for one thing, the plot is a kind of a train wreck where the readers can see the train wreck coming, but none of the characters can. I’m not usually that good at plot to tell you the truth, but this one was, felt, had a feeling of inevitability that was quite horrifying. And also there’s portraits of my good friends, a kind of a skeptical portrait of myself of course, but I felt like I could be mean to myself, but with my friends and with my parents in particular, I had to be, make it a positive portrait.
So there you have dystopia with ordinary people. People in fact whom I loved stuck in it. So it turned into, although the schematic was for a dystopia, the actual writing of this book turned out to be more of the young man’s autobiographical novel, which again, I don’t recommend. I also want to say that I don’t like novels in present tense. But in the Gold Coast it was a specific point that this was postmodernism in its first moments of understanding. Jemisin was explaining it to us at the time I wrote that the past goes away, you’re caught in an internal present, history doesn’t matter anymore. So I had the passages in italics that were in past tense that were historical, trying to hold onto history. But the flow of the narrative is in present tense, which as I say, I think is a fad and a bad way to write a novel. But in this case, it seemed like the form had to follow the function, so to speak.
Freeman: As I mentioned in my introduction among the characters in the book are Jim McPherson, who works at a military contractor who’s been pitching the air force for a missile defense system of sorts. And his son, sorry, Dennis and his son Jim.
Freeman: Jim is living with Tashi who’s a surfer who’s kind of decided to unplug from the grid. Sandy, who’s a drug dealer, and Abe who I think has the scariest life of all who’s been driving up and down the freeways in this 1000 horsepower van pulling people from the wrecks of cars. And I wonder if you could talk a bit about these, I also [inaudible] that’s got whiffs of The Dharma Bums and this sort of gro, but it’s a very unsentimental portrait of friendship to some degree. And it feels like that portrait is existing outside of the systems that your book is slightly critiquing. And I wonder if you can say something about sort of young friendship at the time in the midst of systems that were deeply to some degree brutal.
Robinson: Well, it is how it happened. In the ’70s, we didn’t know the ’80s were going to happen. Writing about it in the ’80s, I was still suffering from the shock of a revolutionary moment gone away or a feeling that anything could happen, which is how I would somewhat characterize the ’60s and ’70s or history flying off the handle and going crazy. And then the ’80s were like a door smacking you in the face. These are my friends. I was lucky, I had a kind of nest of friends. We were in high school together playing cards, very innocent kids. We went to UCSD together. We were body surfers and athletes. We were hippy jocks, which was a real thing in those days. And so to write about them and get them into a novel, their stories, one of my friends was a fireman who had to do rescue work.
My mom had to tell a friend that her daughter had been killed in a car crash, anything… And my dad, this Dennis McPherson is a rather, now for me, quite beautiful, but at the time frightening portrait of my father and of both my parents, just as clearly as I could see them, I wrote them down. Well, this is intrusive. I’m amazed that I had the gall and the nerve to cast their lives into sentences like that. And my only excuse was I was making it a positive and affectionate portrait of them, but now I can hear their voices in Dennis and Lucy. And so it’s become quite moving to me. But I also think what a crazy stupid thing to do to write your family and friends into a book. It’s presumptuous. That’s what it is. And I don’t agree that writers should do this, Thomas Wolfe or Kerouac, that by and large being a writer does not excuse you from ordinary human decencies of keeping confidences and the like to yourself. So I’m a little stunned at this book to tell you the truth.
Freeman: One of the things that drives the plot is that Jim gets kind of roped into or ropes himself into what turns out to be an act of far more than corporate espionage of corporate terrorism against a military contractor, which turns out to be his father’s. And one of the things that the book revolves around is this question over, can you get outside the loop of destruction that is created by late capitalism, by doing one final act of violence? Or does that act of violence kind of somehow tip you over morally into a different code of being that you cannot step back from?
And I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you were feeling politically in those times. And as you were writing this, I lived through the same period. I also moved to California around the same age that you did. We spent a lot of time going to nuclear freeze marches. I ducked and covered under wooden desks in my California high school as if a wooden desk could protect you from a 1000 or 2000 mile per hour fireball. Can you just recreate the stakes of politics and whether or not you yourself were ever tempted by the call to a political action that was more than marching and civic action, but on the edge of violence.
Robinson: Yeah, sure. But let’s make distinctions here. And boy, it’s come up big time in my most recent novel, Ministry for the Future. I don’t want to use the word terrorism but, or at least we have to understand that as a political term who’s being terrorized. Also, a strong distinction between murder and sabotage needs to be made. And indeed in the Gold Coast, if I’d wanted to truly complicate things, if one of these acts of sabotage had accidentally killed a night watchman, then you have the weathermen, then you have things that really did happen in the ’70s and you tip over from resistance, almost a form of civil disobedience, civil defense of breaking things which could, it shouldn’t even be called violence at all. The word violence should be reserved for hurting other humans, which clearly is bad and always rebounds against you. So the moral calculus, Gold Coast, same with my Ministry for the Future, it’s confused, murky.
It’s more like real life than it is like a political statement on my part. It gets me in trouble, it makes me worry. It’s hard to tell what these novels are suggesting in terms of political action. I think they’re more to be read as sample cases. And you need something like Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline or Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works. You need these clearer, more philosophical or political science, history texts to unpack all these issues. And I think it’s okay for the novelist to make a kind of Gordian knot out of them and show characters that are confused.
Freeman: Well, one of the things that deepens your portrait of your questioning of what violence actually is, is the ways that the book folds back on itself and looks into recent and long ago history in California, the ways that land was stolen, the ways that that environment was both destroyed and then created and then destroyed again, which you see in these short sections about the orange groves that were in Orange County, which are first introduced in this almost loving way as a kind of sense memory from an uncle of Jim’s who lives in a retirement community called Seizure World.
And when Jim and his father, I guess leave, he at one point sort of slides into this reverie about these orange groves that he grew up amongst. And it sounds idyllic. And then on a later section we are reminded that those orange groves were created on land that was desiccated and stolen from indigenous populations. And so there is no moral purity within the book in terms, there is no so sort of past Valhalla that exists. I wonder if you could possibly read from some section of the book that might bring us to these orange groves. Because to me they’re kind of the molten core of the book in terms of its ecopoetics and also its moral core.
Robinson: Yes. Thank you, John. My pleasure, I’m going to read the very last section about the orange groves, which I appear in myself at the end.
Yeah, Jim McPherson, Kim Robinson, I went to McPherson High School. It’s not particularly disguised that this is a novel about my earlier self and Jim is not a very good poet that was easy to imagine and becomes a kind of historian and doing prose poems, which is also something that maybe was speaking almost to my future self in the way that I was trying to do the rest of it. But Jim’s recovery of Orange County’s history, which is completely obscured and at first looks minor league indeed is really one of the things that pulls him out of the strange and shallow and kind of screwed up world that he’s in at the time. All that, along with his trip to the Sierras with his friend Tashi, all that happened, I can say that.
So this is the chapter I have not been able to write. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the groves were torn down at a rate of several acres every day. The orchard keepers and their trees had fought off a variety of blights in previous years. The cottony cushion scale, the black scale, the red scale, the quick decline. But they had never faced this sort of blight before. And the decline this time was quicker than ever. In these years, they harvested not the fruit but the trees. This is how they did it. Gangs [inaudible] came in with trucks and equipment. First they cut the trees down with chainsaws. This was the simple part, the work of a minute, 30 seconds actually. One quick downward bite, the chainsaw pulled out. One quick upward bite, the trees fall. Chains and ropes are tossed over the fallen branches and electric reels haul them over to big dumpsters.
Men with smaller chainsaws cut the fallen trees into parts and the parts are fed into an automatic shredder that hums constantly, whines and shrieks when branches are fed into it. Leaves and broken oranges are scattered over the torn ground. There is a tangy, dusty citrus smell in the air. The dust that is part of the bark of these trees has been scattered to the sky. The stumps are harder. A backhoe like tractor is brought to the stump. The ground around the stump is spaded, churned up, softened. Chains are secured around the trunk right at ground level or even beneath it, around the biggest root exposed. Then the tractor backs off, jerks, gears grind. The diesel engine grunts and hums. Black fumes shoot out of the exhaust pipe at the sky. In jerks the stump heaves out of the ground. The root systems are not very big, nor do they extend very deeply. Still when the whole thing is hauled away to the waiting dumpsters, there is a considerable crater left behind.
Now it’s the end of a short November day. Early 1960s, the sun is low and the shadows of the remaining eucalyptus in the west wall, one in every three falls across the remains of the grove. There are nothing but craters left today. The backhoes and tractors and bulldozers are all in a yellow row still as dinosaurs. Cars pass by. The [inaudible] work is done for the day of congregated by the canteen truck open on one side displaying evening snacks of burritos and triangular sandwiches in clear plastic boxes. Some of the men have gotten bottles of beer out of their pickups and the click, pop, hiss of bottles opening mingles with their quiet talk. Cars pass by. The distant hum of the Newport Freeway washes over them with the wind. Eucalyptus trees fall from the trees still standing.
Out in the craters far from the men at the canteen truck some children are playing. Young boys using the craters as foxholes to play some simple award game. The craters are new, they’re exciting. They show what orange roots look like, something the boys have always been curious about. Cars pass by. The shadows lengthen. One of the boys wanders off alone. Tire tracks and the torn dirt lead his gaze to one of the cement mixers still emitting its slushy grumble. He sits down to look at it open mouthed.
Cars pass by the other boys, tire their game and go home to dinner each to his own house. The men around the trucks finish their beers and their stories and they get into their pickup trucks and drive off. A couple of supervisors walk around the dirt lot planning the next day’s work. They stop by a stack of wood next to the shredder. It’s quiet. You can hear the freeway in the distance. A single boy sits on a crater’s edge staring off at the distance. Cars pass by. Eucalyptus leaves [inaudible] drift to the ground. The sun disappears. The day is done and shadows are falling across our empty fields.
Freeman: This is beautiful writing. I’m so glad to hear it read by you. Stan, thank you so much. I could talk to you for many hours, but I think one person who ought to come on at this point is someone who knows quite a bit about science fiction, who is one of our most significant science fiction writers alive as well. And that is Cory Doctorow. He’s an author, a journalist, and the author of many books, including recently Radicalized, Walkaway, Chokepoint Capitalism. His latest book is Attack Surface, which is a standalone sequel to Little Brother. In 2020, he was inducted to the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. It is such a joy to have him with us here. Cory, take it away.
Cory Doctorow: Hi, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure as always and as always, as always a pleasure to talk with Stan. Hi.
Robinson: Hi there, Cory.
Doctorow: Hey. So I just reread this book. I had not read it since the early 2000s I would guess. And rereading it, I was struck by the prescience of it. So on the one hand you have drone warfare and autonomous vehicles, which I think that there were lots of people who were talking about variations on it. But what I found quite striking is that the autonomous vehicles are terrible and they kill people like crazy. And everyone has just got this sense of inevitabilism, which is I think what our current crop of autonomous vehicle hucksters would like us to get to is just like, let’s just admit that these things are just going to kill a lot of people sort of the way we think about COVID now and move on with it. When you look at the inevitabilism of so many of our lethal conditions, the climate emergency, our pandemic, our automotive society and so on, do you feel like that’s a thing that you’ve captured in your work that your work has been involved with?
Robinson: I think it’s a little bit a matter of chance and it’s not really the point of a science fiction novel, although it’s nice when it happens. And I’ve talked to you about this before so you’ll recognize this. I think science fiction has a double action like 3D glasses at the 3D movies. One lens, you really are trying to talk about the future. We’re headed in this direction, these things are going to result from it. They could be good, they could be bad. The other lens is just a metaphor, the way things feel right now. Yeah, I feel like a robot, time is accelerating, these are metaphorical statements. And science fiction, when it does both at once, the good readers in our community will put the two different visions together and a false fourth dimension will pop, which is time itself, history. And that’s why science fiction is so powerful.
So when I look at the Gold Coast, of course they’re talking about the Soviet Union. I wrote the book in 1986 as if the Soviet universe is going to last forever. And indeed friends like Ian Watson have said, “oh no, you just predicted their recoalescence later on,” to try to help me out. And the automatic cars are like the slot cars of my childhood. They aren’t autonomous in the same way that they’re now planning. But the idea is there. And indeed we’re not going to get autonomous cars for a very long time despite the inevitability because of liability insurance.
It’s not going to be the technical or not that we wouldn’t all be sheep and get into our automatic cars and occasionally get killed. They will be that, you can’t assign liability well enough for the insurance companies to cover it. So I think actually there’s a big retreat from autonomous vehicles that may last forever, but for Gold Coast, this is one of the games that we play. With old science fiction, we play the game of archeology. What do they think was going to be important back then? And then what is happening now? And so even though old science fiction can look clunky and I think Gold Coast does, the game is still really fun to play to read old science fiction.
Doctorow: Yeah, I mean I agree. So to be clear, I’m not interested in prediction. I mean if the future were predictable, there’d be no reason to get out of bed in the morning, future depends on what we do. I don’t think any activist could believe otherwise. Hari Seldon is the greatest monster of science fiction because his entire shtick is that for the next 3000 years stuff is going to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. But what I do think that science fiction does at its best is these kind of emotional architectural renderings that you can fly through of what a future might feel like. So if we build a technological future where we just kill a lot of our loved ones with technology, whether that’s bad air or cars or the pandemic, that we will just eventually come to accept that as just the cost of doing business.
There will be people whose job it is who are out of sight, who are meant to be thought of as just doing a job and not experiencing trauma who are out there just sort of cleaning up the, scraping up the remains of people and it’ll just be part of the acceptable losses. I found that very profound. I was thinking about this book in the context of Pacific Edge, which as you know is one of my very favorite books in the world. And actually the first time I met you was at the World Science Fiction Convention in 2000 and, or 1993. And it was right after I had read Pacific Edge and I went to your talk on postmodernism because it was the hot ticket at that Worldcon.
Everyone was saying you got to go here as Robinson talk about postmodernism this time. And one of the things that I love about that book and so many of your other books as well, is that they turn on questions of how the civil service and our civil deliberation work. You can talk about the Mars books as sort of quaker meetings in space and certainly ministry is about a ministry and I found a kind of void in this book where the planning normally is, like this is a book about what happens when there is no social consensus.
Doctorow: And I wonder, was that a thing that was in your mind when you were writing it, when you were watching Orange County be transformed as a teen and as a young man?
Robinson: Yeah. Oh God. The Orange County was sold down the river by bad governance that I became aware of only after the fact, sort of when I was researching the Gold Coast. The countywide board of supervisors made land decisions independent of and overruling the tiny little towns which we call Anaheim or Orange or Santa Ana or Garden Grove or Fountain Valley or Tustin. The list goes on forever. But none of them had any power compared to the county wide board of supervisors, which were put forth by real estate developers. Got on a board of five or six and then just okayed every single development project that was put before them. And so you got Orange County, which is indeed a mess, a social nightmare and autopia. It’s what happens when you only have real estate developers thinking, “how can I make a buck as fast as possible?”
And you buy the land, you develop it, there’s no controls. There’s no sense of what the community will live like afterwards except for cars are crucial to it. I saw it happen in front of my eyes as a kid, but of course I didn’t understand it in nor did it strike me as unnatural even it was just the way things were. It was discovering science fiction and getting a political education in college. It was kind of the work of being a college student and an undergraduate looking back at my childhood and driving back into Orange County and looking at it again, comparing it to my memories because truly when I was a kid it was absolutely orange groves with a few streets poked into it, including mine. And then it became what it is. This is governance and so it has consequences and I’ve always love it that you’ve enjoyed Pacific Edge, a kind of acquired and brain damaged utopia.
And I can tell you that dragged me back into this fate. Unlike Kevin in Pacific Edge, I’m on the board of directors of Village Homes California, a subdivision of Davis. And we’re fighting over a preschool with knives out, a bitter fight between old hippies and young neoliberals as to whether our community center should be a preschool for little kids paying it forward in [inaudible] style or a country club place to have your lattes midweek because you’ve retired at age 45, like the people who’ve moved into our village, a vicious wicked battle at the level of nanopolitics.
Robinson: So I’ve been dragged back down into the pit, Cory, and it’s giving me sleepless nights, but it’s also getting me out of my laptop and out of my writer’s solitude and out into a communal collaborative life, which has been good. So yeah, the politics is crucial, governance is crucial and it does feel good to have my hands in the mud trying to strangle somebody.
Doctorow: I think one of your special skills as a science fiction writer is to be both futuristic and pastoral. There’s so many beautiful passages in this book that are about the land and the wilderness, that’s a theme that runs through your work. You spoke about the foolishness of writing memoir and I couldn’t help but smile because of course your latest book is a memoir.
Robinson: Yeah. Yeah.
Doctorow: But I think that there’s something in what we just heard about the orange groves as being both pastoral setting and something utterly new on the land that is captured later on in your other work as well of the glory of a space habitat or a reclaimed land or what have you. That there’s something there about how, pastoralism is when you do something terrible and awful and wait a 100 years until it’s beautiful again. And maybe there’s a lot of that in your work.
Robinson: Well, landscape restoration is going to be one of the things we have to do in this century. And California with its 30 by 30 program, 30% of California given to wild land by the year 2030, we’re at 24%. We have lots of national advantages. We have the political progressive movement in California making it happen. It’s all super encouraging in some kind of Pacific Edge utopian sense [inaudible] orange groves, lemon groves, avocado groves with their eucalyptus wind breaks, this was monoculture, this was a little crazy. It wasn’t sustainable, it was just a cash crop. The people of that time were thinking, I can make a lot of money by selling oranges to the east coast because of refrigerated train cars and the land with the orange groves set out in rows, columns and diagonals was truly weird. It was like an Alice in Wonderland place. You don’t want to eat LSD and go out into a grove like that because you might go crazy with the pattern making that can happen.
So yeah, life in, as a selling Californian who hasn’t really lived there for 40 years, I’m now a northern Californian. I’m in an industrial factory floor when it comes to the agriculture in Central Valley, in a way I’m stuck back in the same bad situation I began in. But that’s accidental and it’s really my fault. Nothing to complain about. But we haven’t yet got out of the industrial model of food production and the landscape as just a factory floor that’s outdoors. Getting away from that will be the project and it’s part, and it’s interesting that it’s happening.
Doctorow: I couldn’t help but smile when I was rereading this book and you were waxing rhapsodic about the eucalyptus and really the only thing I know about the eucalyptus is that it was a terrible idea to bring them over from Australia because their lifecycle involves burning everything around them. And one of the many reasons that my sky turns red every year and my air becomes unbreathable as the ill advisedness of planting eucalyptus.
Robinson: Oh man, they are torches ready to burn. And I make jokes, I go to Australia and I say, “you guys, you’ve got this California tree, it’s taken over your continent.” And I try to reverse it on them. They can be grumpy or they can laugh, but yes they are quite a tree. Very much the smell because UC San Diego was a planted eucalyptus forest when I got there. And it’s still that way. Hundreds and even thousands of eucalyptus trees planted in rows, columns and diagonals at UC San Diego, which is truly a beloved institution for me. I’m still doing stuff down there because of clarion. I still go often. And that was a lucky stroke for me. Orange County was bizarre. And then UC San Diego, which I went to for 10 years because I stretched it out and got my PhD [inaudible] as well as my bachelor’s degree. Well, that was a glorious period of time and I don’t know if San Diego would still feel glorious to live in because it’s so crowded. But what a blessing that coastline was to me.
Doctorow: I remember teaching there at clarion one year and you came out, I think you were teaching the week after me, and I used to take my students for a walk every night at sunset to the cliffs. And you started telling us about how you spent I think a year sleeping in a cave on one of the cliffs.
Robinson: Well, it wasn’t a cave, although there are caves there and there’s a good places for making out. But I was in a scoop right on the cliff’s edge.
Doctorow: All right.
Robinson: That was, a sleeping bag would fit in it and it was very, very unlikely that you could roll over and down the cliff. And it wasn’t a year, but it was a big part of a year of particularly unsettled life for me as a young writer. It was an adventure. I enjoyed it. I love San Diego.
Doctorow: Finally, I want to ask about the military presence in California. Obviously it looms large in this book. I am speaking to you from Burbank, Lockheed country. When we bought our house, we got a note from the city saying Lockheed turned a lot of the ground in Burbank into carcinogenic wastelands. And if you discover that your lawn is no good, we’ve got this trust fund that Lockheed left for us when they left town. And we’ll come and give you clean fill and clear out the carcinogenic waste in your garden.
And of course Lockheed’s all gone for Burbank. The only relic is our little regional airport. San Francisco is not the military town at once was there’s, there’s still Camp Pendleton and of course we learn more and more about the connections between Silicon Valley and the military every time there’s a high profile breach or leak. But California does not feel as military as it did in the Nixon days, say. Do you think so, do you think that that’s something that would significantly change your book or could your characters just as easily become, refuse Nixon and saboteurs of surveillance capitalism rather than wire guided missiles?
Robinson: Well, it’s a good question Cory. We are the perpetual war portrayed in Gold Coast, continuous small wars. We actually have gone through that. The peace dividend of the end of the Cold War lasted very briefly. And ever since 911 we’ve been at war and it’s… There’s two sentences in the Gold Coast, we use weapons as a drug and by that I would mean like crystal meth [inaudible] get wired and amphetamine to an economy. And then we use drugs as a weapon to kill boredom, to kill angst, to kill fear. And these corresponding sentences in there, it’s a kind of Chip Delaney trick to do or that he recommends to reverse the valances of one sentence like that, a piece of poetry tucked into the text. Unfortunately also reality, my dad was in the defense industry. After World War II, the defense industry in southern California had been built to win the Pacific War against Japan.
It prospered. My dad worked for Hughes, for TRW, for Ford Aerospace and then back for Hughes again. And indeed he worked on the early lasers, the guidance systems. He called it a close line. You’d drop a bomb on it like a boulder on a close line and it shoots down to where you want it to go. In the Iraq war that was deployed, both the first and the second one in particular. And in the night when Romania fell, the Christmas period where in 89 when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Empire fell and we won the Cold War, I was celebrating Christmas with my father and he had a weirdly content, none of his programs ever succeeded. He was, when he went from engineer to program manager is just as in the Gold Coast. And in fact, I wrote up one of his experiences in complete detail.
I interviewed him, I asked him questions, he’d do drawings, what happens to Dennis McPherson happened to my dad as forensically as I could write it. And so that happened to him over and over again. He was a disillusioned and disappointed man in his professional life and luckily he enjoyed his retirement. But on that Christmas season, he was rudely content. Okay, his programs didn’t succeed, but America won the Cold War and he had been part of that effort. And as a child of the depression, he was just simply content in a way I had never seen in him before.
It was an interesting moment that came after, of course Gold Coast had been written and come out, and I can say this, I sent him the book, I was scared to death. And finally weeks later, no response. This is before email, before the internet, blah, blah. I called him from Switzerland. “What did you think of the book?” “Well, it wasn’t a major general, it was a lieutenant colonel.” I’m going, “well that’s not so bad.” And then finally he said, “that is a very sad book.” So this echoes something that John said, it’s a sad book. These people, they’re struggling, but the structural situation of their lives is not good and could be made better. So that’s why I had to do Pacific Edge after that to try to think my way out of that one.
Doctorow: They do feel like they’re all trapped on rails or on slots and that the steering wheel is out of their hands and the system is driving itself and it’s headed over a cliff, really feels that way. Sometimes it feels that way today too.
Doctorow: Well, I feel like maybe I should turn this back over to John. I can see there’s a lot of questions in the Q&A there.
Robinson: Well Cory, we will talk on this side between the two of us later on. So yeah, thanks for sure.
Freeman: Thank you, Cory Doctorow, and we might come back to you in about 10 to 15 minutes right as we wrap up. But let me quote Cory Doctorow back to Cory Doctorow, which is he has a reversal in homeland, utopia is impossible. “Everyone who isn’t a utopian is a schmuck.” And I think one of the things that this book presents is just how desperately we need a kind of break from the systems that you find your characters trapped in and yet how difficult it is to imagine them and how difficult it is to actually get there.
And yet you are an optimist and that’s one of the things I think that emerges out of all of your books. A question from the audience is coming from someone named Natalie Zant who says she’s a big fan of Ministry of the Future and an OC native, recently read Parable of the Sower and can’t help but wonder if that may be a portrait of dystopian OC future. But in the Ministry of the Future, you have an optimistic vision of the California’s future. As of today, where do you see California headed and what do you think about the homeless crisis in the state?
Robinson: The homeless crisis is important and big. It’s larger than California. It can’t be solved by California alone. It’s comfortable to live here and the law allows people to move here freely. And so we have a problem that if we try to solve it on our own, we might be able to lead the world that way. So I like Governor Newsom’s attempts to repurpose motels. In all efforts, my wife is down at the homeless shelter right now organizing the Tuesday night dinners. And I usually help her by cleaning up. I can’t stand to do the frontline work there because it makes me too angry that we have a society that lets this happen to, many of these people have mental illness. And of course it’s a chicken and egg problem, whether the mental illness preceded or came after the homelessness, but they are aging two or three or five times faster than ordinary humans from the rough living that they’re living even in the relatively benign climate of California.
So you’ve put your finger on the big problem and if California as a progressive state, that is the fifth biggest economy on earth can show ways of solving it and being a compassionate society again with solidarity for all of us, that would be another great California thing. I’m very proud of being in Californian and that’s part of it. So where are we going? Well, there’s a 30 by 30 program, there’s 35 million people in California and we’re in a drought. The water problem could become severe. We should immediately take the water away from the Westland districts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and tell those people, that’s a desert. It should always be a desert and put the water elsewhere. There’s going to be water wars, there’s going to be intense struggle. It’s not a simple place.
I often, I mean California between the Gold Rush, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. This is like a curse. It’s not a blessing, it’s like a triple curse. It’s no bigger than New Zealand or Great Britain or whatever, but it is the world’s imaginary dreamland, utopia, whatever. I mean it’s California. It’s strange how famous and overburdened it is by its beauty. Like Cory said, you can’t predict. It’s impossible to say I love the state’s politics right now. I compare it to other parts of the United States that I would do a quick [inaudible] and say California good, state X bad. But yeah, it’s a constant struggle because we’re just one part of the world.
Freeman: Scott Wesley, sorry Scott, if that’s not the way you pronounce your name, has a question, he is reading Sierra right now and enjoying it. And it reminds him how much he loved reading long passages and the Mars books involving mountain climbing and preserving the highest lands. He loves that you’re down in the muck, strangling the neoliberals. And it’s very gratifying to hear the back and forth between the high and lows. And I guess one question I want to ask on the back of that comment of Scott’s is if you could talk a little bit about what it was like to write directly about your experience and to write directly about the impact the Sierras have had on your life in many different ways. And if anything has emerged from that direct engagement that’s different from the ways that you dream and fiction.
Robinson: Well, thank you for that. It’s an interesting question. It could be that chapter where Jim goes up with Tashi to the southern Sierras and has his mind boggled and is given a kind of a spine or something to support himself from life on. Well that happened and indeed in my High Sierra book, you can read the realest nonfiction version of that very same event out of an autobiographical novel. I think the novelistic description of it is better than the memoir description of it that I just did a year or two ago because memoir is somehow in my hands not as lively and powerful. I’m a novelist. As a memoirist, I felt like I was judging my younger self in ways that weren’t appropriate, that he might snap back at me. That he might say, well, you’re just [inaudible] repeated your parents life.
You haven’t done anything like I was hoping to do when I was young and idealistic and had handsome… In other words, memoir is possibly a bad genre, but in any case it needs to be in the hands of people who are better at it and maybe had more interesting lives than I’ve had. So I loved writing about the Sierra, it just poured out of me during the pandemic. I had a lot of things to say that weren’t precisely about me, that weren’t memoir, the history, the geology, the other people that have been up there. And that was actually a joy to do. I’m not saying I regret High Sierra. I’m just saying that in writing about my own experiences of the Sierra, there’s a chapter in Green Earth called Sacred Space.
There’s a chapter in Pacific Edge where they go up there and then the Gold Coast. So I keep trying to insert it into novels where it doesn’t even fit, like in the DC trilogy. And to actually be able to relax and write about it from my own point of view, it was a pleasure, but there’s really no pleasure like novels, at least for me.
Freeman: Another audience member speaking of novels, his comment on how nice it was to stumble across Oscar Balderrama from Pacific Edge with a cameo in the Gold Coast. And it reminds me of something David Mitchell once said about central casting and sort of drawing people from various books into others. Do you have a kind of policy about cross connections? Do you do it for amusement? Is it a form of slant rhyme as Grant Canterbury who asked the question asks?
Robinson: It’s a slant rhyme. David Mitchell has a central cast and he’s plugging into some kind of macro novel across the various novels of his. He’s very talented novelist. I like reading him. I don’t do that. I do have games. I have so many characters named Frank and they’re all liars. So this is a very stupid joke. But I enjoy it. And they now are kind of cousins maybe because of the naming games that I play. Same with Oscar Balderrama showing up briefly. I had a girlfriend in college, Norma Balderrama, wonderful woman. I’m not in touch. I haven’t talked to her for probably 50 years. But I often [inaudible] in names of people I’ve loved just for the fun of it, like a message in a bottle. And that’s about as far as it goes. I kind of like to think of my novels as being associational only by weird sidelong ways and slant rhymes is a good way to put it.
Freeman: I wonder if I can bring Cory back at this point because this is a question that both of you could somewhat address and one of the audience members wants to know whether either of you would care to comment on Artemis, the accord seemed to violate to some extent the UN treaty of peaceful uses of outer space. Are we looking at a regression from the optimism of Apollo?
Doctorow: Stan, you go first.
Robinson: I wasn’t aware that there was a military aspect to this Artemis. I thought of it as being NASA. I think of NASA being pretty fire whirled off from the Pentagon. And so this is news to me that I’m going to have to look into.
Doctorow: Yeah, that’s sort of where I land as well. Mostly what I caught off of Artemis and I should note here that I’ve been on a book tour that I only just got back from yesterday in which I’m about to leave again on Monday. So I’ve been kind of heads down and I haven’t paid a lot of attention to Artemis. I’m a lot less excited about space than I was when I was a kid. I just came to realize eventually that it was very expensive and not very useful to put humans into space as exciting as it was to sort of imagine it. And these days, putting robots into space sounds great, putting humans into orbit sounds fine, but I’m just not all that interested in space colonization. And overall my interest in space kind of fell off a cliff when I had that realization.
Robinson: I want to add that I wrote a book Red Moon about China taking over the south pole of the moon and the rest of the nations are colonizing the north pole of the moon. The poles are where the water is and the permanent sunlight, obvious places if you’re going to set up a base. And I had fun trying that, but I’m going to say this, China’s too big to understand and the moon is too small to be interesting. And so that was a hell of a project to try to squeeze those two into one recognizably novelistic shape.
I enjoyed the result myself, one of my strangest novels, but a very fond of it because of the peculiar torques I felt. And what I have to say about the moon is in that book Red Moon, it’s pointless. It’s maybe a bus station for the rest of the solar system, but the rest of the solar system, I mean, really. So at that point you’re thinking, “well, it’s a great place for a really good telescope on the dark side, but now we have the James Webb telescope.” In short, the moon is beautiful to look at from earth’s sky. But functionally, maybe I’m with Cory here, it’s like, until we solve the problems on earth, the space is just irrelevant except for studying earth.
Doctorow: Yeah, I wrote a novella called The Man Who Sold the Moon as part of the series of novellas I wrote with the same titles as famous science fiction novels about people putting a 3D printer on the moon that uses solar centering to turn lunar regolith into tiles that can eventually be clicked together to make a lunar habitat. Not because they ever think someone will live on the moon or anytime soon, but because they want there to be something that if you look up at the night sky as their descendant to let you know that your ancestors thought about provisioning something for you, even though they never met you, they had no idea who you would be. And they just decided they wanted to make something as a gift to the future.
That’s an exciting way thinking about the moon. But colonies not so much. A friend of mine who worked at JPL on lunar rovers described the problem and she said something like, “imagine designing a car to drive around on top of millions of tiny razor blades that shoot lightning bolts into its electronics.” And that seemed to me to be a good summary of the engineering challenges involved.
Robinson: Yeah. And your lungs are going to have to take that burden on too, the very sharp edged lunar dust is too fine to actually keep out of your system. Living there won’t happen, one sixth gravity, one thing about the moon, you can transfer in and out. You can go there, spend three weeks, come back. I reckon that’ll begin to happen. It’ll be similar to Antarctica. And I want to point out how bored everybody is except for me and a small crowd of people with the fact that Antarctica is occupied right now. As soon as we occupy the moon, it will be equally boring and it’ll go on like that through the whole solar system.
Doctorow: And just to answer Kevin, in the Q&A there, what if earth becomes uninhabitable, human life in space will turn out to be pretty important? I think that there is no scenario in which the earth is less inhabitable than space.
Robinson: Yes, and I want to add that if earth was uninhabitable, the people stuck in space would be on a slow road to extinction because they would need earth’s resources to survive. This is a dream, a fantasy of escape or of don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Mars doesn’t work, the moon doesn’t work, a space station doesn’t work. They might have three or four generations. But I wrote Aurora about this, which Cory was very helpful in promoting the message out of my Aurora that we’ve really got no place but here.
Doctorow: Yeah, there’s no plan B.
Freeman: Unfortunately that is the case. I think we have time for two last questions and since we’ve been talking about the Moon, Cory, you might know this book Moon of the Crusted Snow by an Anishinaabe writer named Waubgeshing Rice. It ties into a connection of a guest named Beverly Natiz has asked, which is that, has this speculative fiction of black and indigenous authors had an impact on your writing. You can name whomever you’ve read or anyone that comes to mind. And it seems like it might be worth pausing here to think about it as we’re talking about landscape and tenability.
Robinson: Sure. Well, I speak to you from Patwin Land and indeed working with Wayne Yang, the Provost of Muir College on the project of, what was the name for the cliffs where UCSD is and could that be incorporated into that name, these names. It’s important. It’s a chapter in my Sierra book, bringing back indigenous names. My first Sierra, science fiction teacher was Samuel R. Delaney. Chip Delaney is a genius and a very sweet and generous teacher, is one of the golden luck that I had in my youth began with Chip Delaney and I also ran into Octavia Butler, another Southern California. And once at an award ceremony, we had a brief but impressive [inaudible] conversation and she got the award that night, a Nebula Award. She got up on stage and she said, “I became a writer precisely to avoid situations like this one. Thank you.”
And she got off. So God bless her, she’s become a power… For me, it was always, there was the big three in feminist science fiction, my teacher, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, the amazing, brilliant science fiction writer, and then James Tiptree Jr. who was Alice Sheldon. And so Octavia Butler has kind of crept into that pantheon of the canon and maybe is the most, well there’s no reason to use superlatives or most, she’s become as influential as any science fiction writer that ever lived. And so this is kind of a triumph for good reading. And particularly since she died young. It’s kind of a nice thing for those of us who matter back in the day
Doctorow: I’ll plug Nora Jemisin’s, The City We Became, and it’s sequel, which is coming shortly. NK Jemisin, she does this thing where in City We Became, and in her other work, but especially in City We Became, where she’s riffing on the astral horror of Lovecraft and other racists of the field who never [inaudible] really captured people’s imagination. And she pinpoints in this very subtle but extremely unmissable way that at its core the creeping horror of these weird old racists was the toddler’s horror of your peas touching your carrots.
That it’s this kind of infantile, this must not be connected to that. These must be separate spheres. Categories must have bright delimiters. And when you understand that connection, a lot of other culture war nonsense comes into focus like the fear about gender being a spectrum or any of these other questions about ambiguity. It’s this absolutely childish and [inaudible] to a purity that never existed and that really is an artifact of your own childhood. Someone once said that conservatives yearn for the simpler time of their childhood, and what they miss is that the reason it was simpler back then is they were children and not that things were simpler. And I think Jemisin really, really gets onto that.
Freeman: I think those of us who have all these writers on our bookshelves are having a moment where our heads are kind of slightly exploding. That you were taught by Chip Delaney, that you once stood next to Octavia Butler. Thank you Cory Doctorow for that really beautiful citation and encouragement to read NK Jemisin. The title Marsha I mentioned was, yeah, Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waub Rice, which is a Canadian indigenous writer and he’s basically writing a cli-fi novel, which recreates the cli-fi existence of I think indigenous people in Canada. Yeah, taught by Ursula Le Guin on top of it all as Sherry Rosenberg points out. We have time for one micro question which comes, which I think is good to leave on a humorous note, which is commenting on our backgrounds, Kim and Stan and I have books. Cory has a lot of interesting objects. Someone wants to know what’s going on with all that stuff.
Doctorow: Well, I’m a material culture person. I like stuff, I’m interested in stuff. I have fossil water buffalo vertebra, and where’s my 50,000 year ax head? Somewhere around here I’ve got a 50,000 year old ax head and plastic ray guns and the 3D printed head of Charlie Stross and you know, I was really taken in as a kid by those opening sequences of Ray Bradbury Theater where he would like you, it would just pan around his office full of weird chachkas, which the most unrealistic thing about it is that they were all dusted every week. Speaking of someone who only dusts intermittently, I can tell you that no one’s office full of chachkas looks like that. But I like to have a lot of stuff. My wife is a minimalist. I am in my garage right now, and I’m going to post a panorama of my office into the chat here because I’m not allowed to live like this at home in the big house next door there.
Freeman: Well, listened to both of you, this was a highly enjoyable chat, but also just inspiring and illuminating. It’s so fun to come back to this book. Stan, we hope you continue to write many more. And Cory, thank you for coming in to lift this chat up even higher than it typically is.
Doctorow: Oh, thank you.
Freeman: I think Blaise is going to come back and tell you where you can go to find these books. And to also just stay in touch with Alta. Stan Robinson, Cory Doctorow, it was an immense pleasure. See you on Mars.
Robinson: Thank you, John, and good luck at Knopf. Take care all. It’s really been a pleasure talking to you.
Zerega: Wow. Well, that was great. Big thank you to Stan and Cory and John. We’re just so grateful for this conversation tonight as one of the member, attendees in the comments, but definitely one of the best Alta CBC sessions yet, so thank you for that. And tonight’s program was recorded and it will be up on californiabookclub.com tomorrow, maybe even later tonight. And be sure to join us next month for Jaime Cortez and his amazing story collection, Gordo. It’s going to be back to our third Thursday schedule, so Thursday, December 15th at 5:00 PM, Gordo. And then a little sneak peek at the upcoming books here, Isabel Allende, House of Spirits, Andy Sean Greer, Less and Maggie the Mechanic for the Love and Rocket series.
And don’t forget to go ahead and visit altaonline.com to find out about how to become a member. And that’s special offer for the fancy California book club hat would make a great holiday gift for that book lover that you need to get a present for. It’s altaonline.com/hat or again, there’s also a $3 digital membership option. And finally, we’d be grateful if you would participate in a one minute survey that will pop up on your screens just as soon as we end the event. So thank you so much for tuning in tonight. Stay safe and happy Thanksgiving.•