The Gold Coast is the second novel of the Three Californias triptych (or Orange County trilogy). It was published in 1988 and by his own account is the most autobiographical of all of Robinson’s novels.
In a future California where technology has run wild and everywhere is an urban sparwl, a young English teacher tries to find love, meaning and a way to make things right.
It follows the story of young Jim McPherson in the not so distant future, where Orange County is an endless urban sprawl full of highways, malls and condo towers. The novel depicts different modes of resistance to the capitalist system and most prominently to the industrial-military complex; this is best illustrated with the confrontation between Jim, who takes active part in sabotages against aerospace companies, and his father, who works in one of these companies.
The novel is composed of 83 short chapters, all written in the third person but each taking the point of view of one of the characters (a technique later used extensively in the Mars trilogy). These "a day in the life" chapters give the reader a sense of the everyday life of the characters. Poetry, either from the thoughts of one of the characters or from the lyrics of the music being listened to, often illustrates the descriptive prose. Intermittently, certain chapters detail the history of Orange County, from its prehistory to the present time of the novel; they are detached from the main narrative but their source is explained at the ending.
Jim McPherson is a young man of 27 who lives in an Orange County full with malls, condos and freeways, a sprawl of urbanism, in 2027 AD. He works only in part-time jobs (as a writing teacher and in a real estate agency), a source of arguments with his parents, particularly between father and son. With his friends Sandy, Abe and Tashi he tracks along the well-known freeways, takes part in parties and loses himself in a world of design drugs and video-obsessed sex. Jim is a poet and writer with little self-insurance; he loves history and satisfies his quench of OC history by visiting his old uncle Tom in a retirement home. He and his friends try to find a way to be as independent of the capitalist system as possible. Sandy designs and sells drugs. Abe drives a rescue truck for car accidents. Tashi lives in a tent and sells repaired items to the black market. Without having properly left his previous ally, Jim starts a relationship with Virginia for the sake of her looks; but the couple argue often. Jim, dissatisfied with his preposterous world, accepts to help his friend Arthur in a kind of underground resistance. First, it's sticking anti-war posters; fast enough, it involves using small stolen missiles in sabotages against aerospace defence contractors, destroying their hardware and software (with no human losses). Jim enjoys doing something active and meaningful immensely.
Dennis McPherson, Jim's father, is an engineer in Laguna Space Research (LSR), an aerospace defence contractor; his superior Stewart Lemon is a manager who is all profit and doesn't understand anything technical. Lucy, Jim's mother, is a social worker with the catholic church. LSR wins a superblack (secret) program "Stormbee" from the Pentagon to develop a reconnaissance system for drones. Dennis is so impressed by the speed and efficiency of the first results that he thinks that if both parties in the ongoing Cold War get hold of such a technology, an all-out war would effectively be impossible! But eventually the superblack program becomes a proposal in an open public bid; much at the bewilderment of Dennis and the wrath of Lemon, LSR loses the contract to another company. At the instigation of Hereford, LSR's mother company's vice-president, Dennis starts legal procedures to overturn the military's decision at Washington.
Sandy is offered by an associate to operate the transfer of a new illegal aphrodisiac by boat off the OC coast. Sandy at first refuses but economic difficulties make him accept. While carrying the merchandise, a search by the coastguard makes Sandy and Tash to hide it on the coast, at the base of LSR HQ. In view of the recent sabotages, LSR announces heightened security and Sandy is unable to retrieve the merchandise. Sandy, Jim and friends take a trip to Europe while things calm down. They visit Russia (which looks surprisingly like OC), Cairo (where Jim is shocked by the level of human suffering and poverty) and Crete (where the sheer history of the place is overwhelming in contrast to OC).
Dennis is also assigned to a project involving laser defence against soviet ballistic missiles (“Ball Lightening”). The project proves impossible to render, with LSR having previously faked test results to take the contract; Houston, one of Dennis’s engineers, succumbs to alcoholism complaining about a system that puts one company against the other in a meaningless game of competition, destroying many people’s lives along the way. The Stormbee appeal is denied but Dennis keeps trying at the advice of his lawyer Goldman. Goldman gets the unofficial story that the entire Stormbee program was but a small pawn in a personal power struggle between two Air Force Generals
Jim starts a relationship with Hana, a teacher in arts who corresponds more to Jim’s intellectual aspirations. Involuntarily, Jim spreads sorrow once again when Hana witnesses him with Virginia. Things seem to be going worse for his surroundings: Abe and Lucy are devastated by the death of a young friend and Tashi ends a long relationship. Sandy links Jim to the underground resistance and resistance to an acquaintance’s personal vendetta against the airborne military. Hereford suggests to Lemon that they can manipulate the resistance to attack LSR, thus getting rid of the annoying Ball Lightening program. Jim and Arthur get assigned the job.
The second Stormbee appeal is denied; all hope dies in Dennis. Lucy tries to reunite father and son in a common dinner. Jim and Dennis confront their ideas and means of ultimate struggle for a better world, one through immediate action, the other through technological advancement. Jim leaves, discomforted and unsure of the legitimacy of any kind of action. He sabotages the resistance effort by taking the sabotage material and attracting the attention of the police to Arthur; he then goes on a spree of violence attacking aerospace industries’ infrastructures, real estate offices, malls, and trashing of his own apartment. Sandy, who was told to retrieve the merchandise simultaneously, is arrested by coastguards; he is released later. Jim is stopped by Tashi, who takes him on a trip to the surviving wildlife preserve; a tiring but reinvigorating experience for Jim. The aftermath at LSR has Dennis and his team being fired. Jim abandons extreme actions and seriously decides to start healing those friends whose feelings he has hurt, mainly Hana, and to turn to writing as his weapon of choice in view of a better world.
James ("Jim") McPherson
Though he’s 27, Jim admits he doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t have a very high opinion of himself and lacks self-insurance dramatically – he thinks of himself as a dull, humorless person. He loves his friends all the more and prefers talking about them than about himself. He describes himself as a culturevulture, in his choices for reading, music, art and his will to know the past in order to build the future. He is a history buff and loves maps; more particularly, he loves to study the history of his own environment and he knows every little detail about the history of Orange County. On his spare time he tries to write, mainly poems, but he is never satisfied enough with them for him to show them to others. He lives in a small apartment among the pylons of an elevated highway. In his relationships and alliances he is rather awkward and progressively realizes he inflicts much more pain than he ever intends to. He works in the First American Title Insurance and Real Estate Company and in writing classes at night. These small, not entirely satisfying jobs get him a small living; his laziness to pursue more ambitious professions often get him in odds with his parents. He has some vague ideas of the reality of social injustice – later reinforced by a trip to Europe – and of the unfairness of the American defence policy – which gets him into taking action through sabotage. Ultimately, the sabotage actions and his confrontation with his father’s worldview bring him close to a breakdown. After a trip discovering a non-urban, natural environment, he decides the best way for him to take part in a resistance against the established system is through his engaged writing – for example a critical history of Orange County.
Dennis has been working at LSR for 27 years as an engineer in high precision guidance systems. Far from being pro-war, he justifies his work in the defence industry as developing technology that might ultimately make the whole process of conventional war-faring moot. Thus he trusts the system and has a strong belief that though it makes one’s life difficult, it is ultimately fair. Adamant on technical precision but uncomfortable with management and human resources, he often comes to a head with his more profit-inclined superiors. At home he fancies doing maintenance and repair on his car, or the one of his son Jim. He loves his ally Lucy and when the work is too stressful, his thoughts turn to her. He sometimes considers moving to other things by settling in the land he owns in Eureka. Through a legal investigation into the decision-making progress of his country and after the restructuring of LSR, he will end up getting fired, with the bitter realization that his life’s work is nothing but a pawn in a machinery far outside of his reach.
Lemon, LSR executive and Dennis’s boss, is comfortable in his position of power and takes advantage of his acute sense of human psychology and skill assessment to manage his employees so that his company may benefit the most. He often curses the engineers who look only at the technical aspects and do not adopt a wider, financial view. Highly stressed by his job, he lives under the constant impression that his career is on the brink of destruction. When orders that will have heavy consequences on his company come from higher in LSR’s hierarchy, Lemon will comply, comforted he is not the one to make such ruthless decisions.
One of Jim’s friends. Very active and lively and with a big laugh, Sandy is the one to look for having fun. With his ally Angela he lives in his rich apartment which, with its many rooms and screens and powerful sound system, is often home to many friend gatherings or night-long parties. Sandy is a drug designer – an occupation mixing biology, chemistry and artistic intuition. He develops the drugs in his rented warehouse-turned-laboratory, then he has awfully busy days meeting suppliers and distributors. He hopes the money he gains will be able to pay for his father’s liver treatment. These facts Sandy tries to hide behind his intense sociability. Though his is a high-risk illegal job, Sandy has his own strict rules of conduct he won’t stray from. However, financial problems will finally push him into a deal that turns wrong.
Tashi ("Tash") Nakamura
One of Jim’s friends. Tashi is secretive and doesn’t talk much, but he’s highly estimated by his friends, always compassionate and ready to help others. He lives for free in a large tent, installed on the top of a condo tower – an illegal agreement with the tower manager. Decided to live as independently of the machine and of money as possible, he makes his living by repairing salvaged equipment and reselling it to the black market. He loves surfing, especially at night when there’s less people. He also loves trekking away from Orange County’s urban nightmare, illegally accessing national parks.
Abraham ("Abe") Bernard
One of Jim’s friends. Abe works in Orange County’s Freeway Rescue squads as a car driver. He tracks or drives to an accident scene and helps get victims out of their damaged vehicles, using even chainsaws to separate flesh from metal. With all the horrors he sees, this mentally exhausting work has him going to the edge – especially when he discovers Lillian, a girl he knew, dead in an accident. He lives in a wealthy neighborhood of Orange County with his parents, with whom he has a very good, almost fraternal, relation.
Lucy shares her life between home and church. She is a social worker with her church, a work which includes baby-sitting and general help of poorer families in Orange County or Bible readings. She helps set up this and other humanistic activities with people like Lillian Keilbacher. She often clashes with Reverend Strong, whose sectarian views of faith and church she doesn’t share.
One of Jim’s friends. Arthur is a pacifist and idealist who became part of an underground network of resistance against the war-encouraging military-industrial system. He sticks anti-war posters, but more importantly he’s involved in using stolen military equipment to strike against military equipment manufacturers – taking extra care not to have anyone killed or wounded in the process. All persons involved, Arthur included, are very secretive and won’t reveal all the workings of the organization. Arthur is the one that brings Jim in the fold, and Arthur will be very surprised when Jim betrays him and the means Arthur thought was just.
Jim met Hana in her night art classes, they became friends and eventually lovers. Hana is an abstract painter and her house is filled with her creations. She loves to talk about art, music and many other cultural topics; in that way, and also in her physical appearance and clothing, she is different from the average youth of Orange County. However, she doesn’t bear with all of Jim’s eccentricities and comes to cut off all contact with him. Jim is determined to make up for it and share with her his writing, that he previously hid from her.
Uncle Tom is Jim’s old uncle (probably Lucy’s father), over a hundred years old, hospitalized and scarcely visited by relatives. In his youth, Tom tried to fight the social injustice by doing his best as a public defender, but he lost the strength in his cause through meaningless repetition and time. Now he can but only tell Jim stories of Orange County’s past, confined in his room that feels too much like a prison cell.
'Xavier ("X") is Abe’s co-worker in the rescue squads. He has had a complementary experience as an army medic. Once in an accident he mistook a victim for his own son; this traumatizing experience leads Abe to fear for X’s sanity in their ungraceful job.
Virginia Novello became for a time Jim’s ally; for Jim it was mainly because of her attractive looks and the prestige his alliance with her would bring. Very quickly their relationship becomes just arguing and sex, always parting swearing they’ll never make the mistake to speak to one another again.
Dan Houston is an engineer working under Dennis McPherson. He knows very well the problems tied to the Ball Lighting program and grows desperate as the program heads to a dead-end. His personal life doing no better than his professional life, his drinking problem develops. He tragically deplores the fierce competition among defence contractors encouraged by the Air Force that result in many lives’ worth of work becoming useless ("the American way").
Donald Hereford is LSR’s president and a fast rising power in LSR’s mother company Argo AG/Blessman Enterprises. His variety of skills and his ruthlessness won him the admiration of Stewart Lemon. He coolly makes big decisions with an understanding of the worlds of the industry, the Pentagon and the underground.
Sheila Meyer was Jim’s once ally. Jim suddenly cut all contact with her and left her with no explanation. This came very hard on Sheila, much more so than Jim had suspected, a fact that ultimately led him to take fresh resolutions for his life.
Angela Mendez is one of Jim’s friends and also Sandy’s long-time ally and often helps him in his business.
Humphrey Riggs is one of Jim’s friends and also colleague in the First American Title Insurance and Real Estate Company. He is notorious among his friends for his thrifty attitude; he is known to go to great lengths to make savings or bargain a good deal.
Lillian Keilbacher is an innocent girl of 18 and could be seen in Sandy’s parties. She is much appreciated by Lucy McPherson with whom she works in church. Her death in a car accident was a heavy blow for everyone.
Bob Tompkins is one of Sandy’s most important drug dealers; the two of them will have to work together to bring in a shipment of a new aphrodisiac. He lives in a rich seaside villa South of Orange County.
Raymond is Bob Tompkins’ dealing partner. But ever since some friends of his were killed by drone planes in Venezuela, Raymond has invested his resources on a personal vendetta against the US Air Force, who provided the planes. He is behind the sabotages of the military equipment manufacturers and is responsible for recruiting people for doing the job – Arthur being one among them.
Louis Goldman is LSR’s lawyer on the Stormbee proposal rejection case. He is Dennis McPherson’s contact in Washington DC and though Dennis hates lawyers, he comes to appreciate Goldman. With much work and thanks to many contacts and unofficial channels, he is able to unravel much of the political intrigue that goes much higher than LSR. But despite his efforts to push the case with repetitive appeals, LSR puts an end to the case.
Glossary: the world of The Gold Coast
- OC: Orange County, a part of the continuous urban maze of the West American coast. Orange trees no longer exist.
- Ally: a term describing a close relationship that can mean many things, like boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife. People make allies and break alliances. The term is probably used as a result of the decline of the concept of marriage as a social means of declaring a long-term relationship.
- Condomundo: term that describes the residential areas of the limitless urbanized world, a concatenation of the words condo and mundo ("world" in Spanish). Residential towers offer hundreds of apartments (aps) and form apartment complexes (applex).
- Mallsprawl: term that describes the huge areas where individual malls have merged into one. Malls are enclosed environments that can offer accommodation, food and leisure, so much that one can live all his life inside a mall without really needing to get out.
- Track: Cars no longer have combustion engines running on gas or oil, they are electric cars that follow the electromagnetic tracks set in the streets or freeways. The driver taps in his destination and the car’s central computer (the carbrain) does the rest. Cars rely heavily on software and electronics. Also used as a verb, to track, instead of driving.
- OC Freeway Rescue Squads: emergency teams that drive cars that can follow the track system but can run on internal combustion engines when necessary. The squads rush to the scene of the accident (sota) to assist the California Highway Patrol (CHP, or Chippies) in extracting people from the cars involved in the accident and providing first aid. Some victims can be already dead at the time (dots – dead on the spot), otherwise they’re carried to the ER. An accident can be attributed to a non-human error (sits – something in the silicon).
- LSR: Laguna Space Research, an aerospace company based in New York; division of Argo AG/Blessman Enterprises (or A/BE). It has offices in Orange County and an open air test facility in White Sands. Among their projects are:
- Project Ball Lightning: a Star Wars-like strategic defense program that would use ground lasers bounced by mirrors in orbit to destroy Soviet ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles) in their boost phase.
- Project Stormbee: a precision guidance system that would guide an unmanned drone (RLV – Remotely Piloted Vehicle) to an extremely fast strike against ground targets.
- Designer drugs: drugs are most often chemical molecules designed in laboratories. They come in liquid form and they are taken directly from dropping the liquid on the eyeball, using an eyedropper. The verb for using an eyedropper is to lid.
- Molecular ceramics: a molecular glue that is activated by passing a rod over it. It is used to stick posters on walls.
- Sleepwalkers: young gangs who surf at night time. "Nazi" is used as a compliment (for example, "that's real nazi", or "surfnazi").
- Warsaw Pact: established in 1955, still in force. To this day, the line of Soviet forces in eastern Europe are ready to invade the Free World.
Different modes of resistance (Sandy, Tashi, Dennis, Arthur) Resistance against industrial-military complex War as economy stimulant Extreme urbanization Globalization (trip in Russia) Fascination with the image (video screens), looks (Virginia vs Hana) Culturevulture vs Postmodernism Recreational drugs Tom: old people put away to convalescent homes to be forgotten in a society that lives only for the young consumer Consumerism, pop music culture (to be expanded)
- Excerpt at Macmillan.com
- The Gold Coast at The Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- The Gold Coast at Google Books