1984’s The Wild Shore is the first volume in Kim Stanley Robinson’s California triptych. The Wild Shore was also the first volume published in the Third Ace Science Fiction Specials series.
In the America of tomorrow, traffic jams, the military-industrial complex, and taxes are all things of the past. Lifelong friends Steve, Gabby, Kristen and Mando, Del and protagonist Henry need not concern themselves with such matters. This is because about fifty years earlier, someone unknowndetonated neutron bombs in the centers of the United States’ two to three thousand largest cities. Fifty years after America’s annihilation, the quintet’s home town (San) Onofre is doing well to have assembled a functional village and regional market.
Nevertheless, there are common elements that run through American societies of all varieties. In particular, young people are quite creative about finding stupid ways to waste time and risk their lives.
While the group’s foray into graverobbing fails due to the fact that ancient villager Tom lied outrageously about how wealthy old-time Americans were, at least all of them returned from the expedition alive. In a backward land with abundant dangers and rudimentary medicine, survival is not guaranteed. Don’t get too attached to all of the kids.
Diversion appears in the form of an expedition from San Diego, a bustling community of several thousand people. San Diego’s mayor is a man of grand ambitions. Currently, those ambitions take the form of repairing ancient railway systems. This is the first step to reuniting the West Coast under San Diego’s wise guidance. This plan has encountered a snag.
Much to the irritation of a vocal subset of the elders, President Elliot (or whoever succeeded him when Washington was irradiated) did not launch the United States’ nuclear arsenal in retaliation for the late 1990s attack. Therefore, only the US was depopulated. In the years since the attack the other nations of the world have quarantined the radiation-poisoned US. Armed patrols police the borders. They take their duties seriously, as evidenced by the bullet-riddled corpses that sometimes wash up onshore.
The other nations do not limit themselves to isolating the US. Untoward industrial developments, such as rail networks within the US, are also forbidden. Although no official communique to this effect has ever been delivered to the US, the aerial attacks that destroy any railways noticed by the foreigners make the point clear.
Henry accompanies Tom on a diplomatic mission to San Diego. This does not produce the alliance San Diego desires. It does provide Henry with experiences that should satiate any desire for adventure. Henry’s caution is overwhelmed by his desire to be one of the crew. When his chums argue in favour of sneaking off to join San Diego’s resistance, Henry does not ague his friends out of this bad idea; he accompanies them.
Not everyone will be coming home.
I am curious what the 2000th or 3000th largest community in the US might be, without being quite curious enough to find out. Tom, the elderly survivor of the attacks, has to admit that the old US was in some ways a terrible place. (Obviously one of its most notable flaws was the security blind spot that allowed someone to sneak 2000 – 3000 nukes into the country without a single one being noticed and the whole plan stymied.)
On this reread I noticed some parallels between the international situation vis-a-vis the US in this novel and how the US is treated by other nations after the limited WWIII in Whitley Streiber and James W. Kunetka’s War Day . Given Steiber’s predilection for enthusiastically mining other people’s work for inspiration, I wonder if that element was inspired by The Wild Shore . Since the two books appear to have been published almost simultaneously, I guess it’s just another example of parallel development.
Henry’s Orange Country isn’t as depopulated as one might expect: it appears to have been very specifically depopulated, in that the only Asians Onofre’s people are familiar with are the “Chinese” (actually Japanese) whose corpses wash up on shore.
In fact, this curious exclusion is not unique to Asian people. An account written by a someone who claims to have been that rarity, an American world-traveler, contains this observation:
I saw people dressed in all manner of clothing, with features Oriental, or Mexican, or with skin as black as the night sky; […]
Non-white folk: startling!
Apparently, the neutron bombs were very selective and neither Asian Americans nor African Americans survived1. Or perhaps somehow Robinson had never noticed that persons of that description live in California2. Or perhaps one of the things that provoked the annihilation of the US was a massive continental genocide. Tom does not mention it … but as the book makes very, very clear, Tom is not a reliable witness.
Although the cause of the apocalypse is a bit ludicrous, apocalypses often are. But (worldbuilding quirk) it’s hard to believe that the world would let an empty America remain empty even if the Russians were to demand that it be so and even if nations were actively patrolling the US coast. There’s a lot of coast and if there is one thing history teaches us, it is very porous.
Another detail that caught my eye, one shared with many nuclear apocalypse stories, is the Onofre custom of inspecting babies for defects and discarding those deemed defective lest they become a burden on what is, after all, an impoverished community. Presumably, the issue here is supposed to be radiation-induced mutation. I rather suspect that a great many medical conditions get lumped in with mutations. It’s not clear if this practice is peculiar to Onofre or something common among post-Americans. It is clear that some mothers have seen all of their children disposed of for the greater good. The relevant phrase here is probably “life boat rules” and the book I now suddenly have an urge to reread is Wyndham’s The Chrysalids .
This novel is yet another treatment of young men doing foolish things with tragic results. We frequently see this theme in wilderness novels, but it is also quite popular in other genres. Real life as well, alas.
Nothing spells adventure like bad life choices made in haste by people too young to know better. Readers can take some comfort that Henry’s story is told in the first person; we know from the start that he survived his bad choices.
Possible ethnic cleansing aside, this wasn’t a bad little novel to kick off the Third Ace Specials series. Robinson, who (as you know) had previously appeared in Knight’s Orbit series, was a competent enough stylist. As long as one doesn’t overthink the details, the plot moves along nicely and comes to a satisfactory, believable conclusion. Bad decisions are made, but not implausibly bad decisions. Not the best entry in Robinson’s early trilogy — I think Pacific Edge is — but it’s worth a look.
1: Native Americans did survive and are quite hostile to incursions into their territories. Well, who can blame them?
2: In KSR’s defense, it’s better than the “Wow, Muslims are a stabby bunch” from the Mars books or the “Wouldn’t it be simply terrible if we were like that dreadful Africa?” bit in 2312 . I too have wondered why it is fans do not read out various dubious passages so other fans can guess whether it’s from a Robinson book or a Jerry Pournelle book3.
3: Editor’s rebuttal: yah, but KSR loves his Tibetans in his Science in the Capital series. And I remember his New York 2140 as being quite multi-ethnic. Hmm, Ministry of the Future as well. Also … the stabby Muslims in the Mars books are offset by some preternaturally good Sufi Muslims.