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Placid Boyhood Memories Inspire a Personal Utopia

January 11, 1991|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kim Stanley Robinson's new science fiction novel, "Pacific Edge," concludes his Orange County trilogy.

The three novels--each set in the middle of the 21st Century--offer alternate scenarios for Orange County's future.

"The Wild Shore" (1984) is a post-catastrophe novel in which the United States has been destroyed by terrorist nuclear attacks. As a result of a mild nuclear winter, Orange County has been abandoned and forested over. The few remaining people have reverted back to being hunters, fishermen and farmers.

"The Gold Coast" (1988) is a dystopian novel, in which Robinson extrapolated unbridled land development to its most nightmarish conclusion: With 10 million residents, the county has become a frantic, overcrowded, overdeveloped suburban quagmire with freeways stacked upon each other, vast shopping malls topped with high-rise apartments and widespread drug use.

Now there's "Pacific Edge" (Tor; $18.95), Robinson's utopian vision of Orange County.

The novel is set in El Modena, a futuristic Arcadia where high-tech industries are tucked among the gardens, truck farms and nurseries. Bike paths, swimming pools and sports fields abound. Many of the residents, who are required to perform 10 hours a week of town work and who also receive a portion of the town's income, live in communal homes.

Although there are human-powered flying machines and computer-controlled sailing ships in Robinson's utopia, he has focused more on social than technological advances.

"I haven't really extrapolated many technological developments," Robinson said from his home in Chevy Chase, Md., where he lives with his wife, Lisa Nowell, an environmental scientist for the Food and Drug Administration, and their 2-year-old son, David.

"Utopias are often abstract and impersonal," said Robinson, 38, who grew up in Orange's El Modena district. "I wanted to make this a personal vision. In my utopia, they play softball and ride bikes. I didn't want to make it abstract. I wanted it to be my vision, so I went back to El Modena."

In creating his utopia for "Pacific Edge," the 1970 graduate of El Modena High School said he wanted "to sketch a positive future that seemed attainable. So many futures in science fiction are negative, and I think it's important that we have something to shoot for, some visions that are positive and worked out in the detail that you get in novels."

But Robinson's utopia, as one character notes, is not without its "Machiavellian battles": El Modena's 21st-Century mayor is trying to appropriate an undeveloped hilltop for his firm's offices.

Indeed, all's not perfect in Robinson's Orange County utopia.

"I did that on purpose," Robinson said. "I wanted to make people rethink the idea about utopia. The way we have it in our minds currently is utopia equals the impossible dream, and therefore there's no need to work toward it because it's impossible by definition. But in 'Pacific Edge,' what I wanted to do is define utopia as just a positive progression in history--that as soon as we start working towards utopia we can call it that."

In writing "Pacific Edge," Robinson said, he wanted "to show that even if the large-scale stuff is going right (in society), there's always going to be political battles over little things. . . . People would still die, fall in love with somebody who didn't love them or get into outrageous feuds with people they work with or live with. So there's still a possibility in utopia for massive unhappiness."

Robinson said he also wanted to address the question of what land is for, "to bring up the argument in Orange County that the speed of development has gotten out of control, and sometimes it's better not to develop."

In researching his Orange County novels, Robinson said, he kept coming across different versions of the same statement: "That everything we loved about Orange County is going away."

In "The Gold Coast," he illustrated "how bad it will be if we don't stop" development. But in "Pacific Edge," he said, "I felt it was important to try and show a positive historical model for the next half-century. And I think it comes down to local politics time after time."

Now that the final installment of his trilogy has been published, Robinson has left Orange County behind as a setting.

"Basically, I'm done," he said. "I don't know what else to say."

He is working on a new science fiction novel about as far away from Orange County as a writer can get: "I'm trying to tell the history, of human colonization of Mars."

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