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3.2: The Ruins of Space and Time

Chronotope: Kim Stanley Robinson's "Three Californias" and the future of nostalgia.

Published onJun 04, 2021
3.2: The Ruins of Space and Time
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The Ruins of Space and Time

The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied.
Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination


Post-apocalyptic science fiction offers unique insight into what Svetlana Boym has termed “the future of nostalgia.” In this section we look closely at the relationship between the ruins of the superhighway (SPACE) and the operation of nostalgia (TIME) in dystopian science fiction. The recurring presence of ruined highways in the novels of such writers as Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower), Walter Miller, Jr. (A Canticle for Leibowitz), Orson Scott Card (The Folk of the Fringe), David Brin (The Postman), and Kim Stanley Robinson (the Orange County Trilogy) incite in the protagonists a longing for a time just prior to our own: not for a return to a pastoral Eden but for a golden age of technological progress and faith in the future, before the dawning realization that our faith in infinite progress through technology may have been naively misplaced. As an added component, ruins of the technological past in these novels take on crucial significance for characters living on the edge of survival: thus nostalgia is not for the leisure and convenience of individual consumer items (the manufactured spirit of a Populuxe future) but for potentially productive infrastructural works such as the superhighway. This longing is used to great effect, for example, in David Brin’s The Postman (1985), in which the transportation and communication system created by the Post Office is heralded as a sign of the return to civilization.

Nostalgia for Progress

In each of these stories, depictions of ruined highways point to a larger cultural moment—the collapse of the infrastructure of America, whether as a result of urban decay or nuclear apocalypse. But not all post-apocalyptic science fiction features characters sitting on the ashes, nostalgic for an automated age. Unlike the “boy-wonder-engineer” amazing tales of the fifties and sixties, which themselves have been swallowed up by the lucrative culture industry, humanist SF is often concerned with the very real survival of the species, both from an ecological and social standpoint, and thus tends to reinterpret nostalgia as a critique of technological futurism. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore (1984), for example, the image of the superhighway stands as a site for precisely this tension between progress and nostalgia.

The Wild Shore expresses a much more complex attitude toward the narratives of technological progress than we have seen in the designs of Norman Bel Geddes or the stylish products of the Populuxe era. The characters in Robinson’s novel maintain a guarded hopefulness for a rebuilt future despite their knowledge that the past’s “future” was squandered, and nature was exploited for the sake of luxury consumer items. Positioned between the nuclear wastes of the 1960s and 1970s and the urban wastes of the 1990s, Robinson’s Orange County Trilogy—The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988), and Pacific Edge (1990)—propose three alternative futures of Southern California, a landscape permeated by images of highways. The Wild Shore, the focus of this section, is set in a future California struggling to survive in the wake of nuclear war. The Gold Coast, which is considered in this chapter’s third section (3.3: Specters), is a super-urbanized and wired-up California, held together by high-tech communications networks, fast highways, and the technological machinations of the defense industry. The trilogy’s final novel, Pacific Edge, shows a future that avoids both of these perils by remaking California into an environmentally sustainable, communitarian social order. Written during a period when the nuclear threat was being replaced by anxieties about the rapid privatization and exploitation of resources and the encroachment of militaristic imperialism, key to all three of these novels is the concept of community: how to build it, how to restore it, how to sustain it.

As alternative futures, Robinson’s novels provide a kind of coin-flip for the future: will we continue to create the conditions that will lead to our destruction, a highway heading toward a future of scorched ruins? Or will we try to harness the best of what technology has to offer in order to avert catastrophe? And if disaster happens, how can we undo it? A key focal point in these debates is the superhighway, which represents both the “road to the future” and a road to nowhere. In this respect, the Orange County books are concerned with finding a balance between technological progress and the need for sustainable resource consumption and livable communities.

Both The Gold Coast and The Wild Shore engage critically with the very narratives of progress that figured so prominently in GM’s Futurama and in the media representations of the Interstate superhighway during the mid-twentieth century. While The Gold Coast creates the picture of a highway culture gone mad, the slowly degrading ruins of those same highways in The Wild Shore critique an imagined future in which technological progress alone will save us. This golden age, Robinson shows, is one that we have substantially constructed out of the dubious rhetoric of national and economic expansionism. In The Wild Shore characters in a post-apocalyptic America long to return to a past in which technology still promised to save humanity, and yet, as Robinson points out, this longing merely reproduces the naïve optimism that led down the road to destruction in the first place. The novel thus attempts to differentiate between irresponsible and responsible uses of nostalgia as a tool in the service of reconstruction, echoing Christopher Lasch’s observation that:

Just as we should reject the thoughtless equation of progress and hope, so we need to distinguish between nostalgia and the reassuring memory of happy times, which serves to link the present to the past and to provide a sense of continuity. (The True and Only Heaven, 82-83)

The Wild Shore

In The Wild Shore, a post-nuclear narrative in which the characters live in isolated communities along the West Coast of North America, the most pressing concern after survival is how to rebuild the infrastructure of California, allowing humans to renew contact between towns and states. The people of The Wild Shore live in the shadow of the freeway, both literally and figuratively.  Its heavily mechanized construction is on a scale unimaginable to the postwar survivors who must make do with hand and community-built houses. Ruined and overgrown as it is, the freeway still stands, one of the most enduring monuments to prewar civilization, and the people who live with it view it with both awe and nostalgia:

Despite the years of work done in the valley, despite the square fields by the river, and the little bridge over it, despite the rooftops here and there, wood or tile or telephone wire—despite all of that, it was the freeway that was the main sign that humans lived in the valley . . . the freeway, cracked and dead and half silted over and worthless. . . . Below us the freeway lay like a road of giants, gray in the wet green of the forest, and I wondered if cars would drive over it ever again. (30-31)

For the people of San Onofre, the highway is haunted by the ghost of a glorious technological past. Robinson’s protagonist, Hank, tries to imagine the freeway as it once existed in a scene that recalls J.G. Ballard’s “Autogeddon:”

I could almost see them flashing back and forth, big metal machines of every color and shape just flying along, weaving in and out amongst each other and missing the dreadful crashes by an inch as they hurried to do business in San Diego or Los Angeles, red and white headlights glaring off the wet concrete and winking out over the hill, plumes of spray spiraling back and enveloping the cars following so that no one could see properly, and Death sat in every passenger seat, waiting for mistakes . . . (31)

Here we see the golden age of the automobile, turned glamorous and deadly; but in this case the potential horror of the car crash pales in comparison to the nuclear devastation that has ended the reign of the motorcar. Hank romanticizes the imagined past glories of the highway in the same way that he romanticizes his own future as a hero repelling foreign invaders from American soil. The highway represents for Hank not just death but the thrill of unimaginable speed and the technological superiority of the prewar days.

If the highway represents technological superiority, it also reminds the people among the ruins that prewar living was removed from actual survival, conducted instead for convenience and leisure. The idea of engineering on such a massive scale for the sake of comfort, rather than raw physical need, astounds Hank, while on a mission to San Diego:

We got off and followed the San Diegans down the freeway. It led right into the middle of the lake and disappeared. The piece of freeway standing on stilts in the lake’s center was on a line with it, and in a notch of the hills forming the opposite shore I saw the gray concrete rising out of the lake again. All at once I understood that the section of freeway on stilts in the lake was all that was left of a bridge that had spanned the whole valley. Rather than have their road dip into the valley and rise again, they had placed it on towers for well over a mile, from hillside to hillside—just to avoid a drop and rise for their cars! I was stunned; I stared at it; I couldn’t get a grasp on the sort of thinking that would even imagine such a bridge. (92)

The highway here is thus haunted, both by memories of a golden age that never really existed and by narratives of future reconstruction that may never happen. But it is also, and perhaps most importantly, a signifier of American hubris in the second half of the twentieth century. While the Bomb is a consequence of that pride, the freeway serves as the everyday reminder of the magnificence and corruption of a time when survival took a second place to convenience, and engineering for comfort was business as usual.  Looked at with the estranged gaze from other side of the future, the highway in The Wild Shore thus invokes both nostalgia and incredulity.

This incredulity at the softness of prewar civilization is underlined by the actions of the people Hank has come to see in the ruined city. The Mayor of San Diego, a charismatic expansionist bent on recapturing the glories of former days—to “make America great again”—lives in a white house on a piece of freeway standing alone in the center of the lake. The Mayor throws lavish parties for his selected guests, impressing them both with his ability to freely hand out food and his magnificent house packed with china and silver. His dwelling on the ruins of the most powerful symbol of prewar days, the freeway, is a calculated statement of status and intent: as it was, he seems to be saying, so it shall be again, if you stick with me.

In The Wild Shore, the highway thus exists as a reminder of the infrastructure that the people have lost.  The Mayor of San Diego plans to use the freeway ruins in an ambitious project to reconnect the West Coast, running railway tracks along the length of the highways. However, the world outside America has decided the Americans cannot be allowed to rebuild; a U.N. charter blocking access to the United States appears to be under a mandate to prevent reorganization. Thus large-scale attempts to restore communication and travel between towns are dissuaded by mysterious bombs and laser blasts coming from the sky.

These punitive measures by an unseen authority lead to an important debate about the nature of community and sovereignty. The Mayor of San Diego imagines a rebuilt future in which material technological gains stand in for nationalistic might:

“To make America great again, to make it what it was before the war, the best nation on Earth. That’s our goal. . . . [O]ne day we’ll spring out on the world again like a tiger. . . . The day will come. Another Pax Americana, cars and airplanes, rockets to the moon, telephones. A unified country.”  (104-5)

In the Mayor’s vision, America is not only rebuilt but once more in the position to carry its brand of technological superiority abroad; a new Pax Americana that will effectively quash (again) the control of overseas powers. However, the people of San Onofre are concerned with the more immediate problems of survival. At a debate about the plans of the San Diegans, fisherman John Nicolin points out that “America” is a fiction, remote from the lives of the communities struggling in isolated pockets along the West Coast:

“We should be working. That’s what we should be doing. We should be gathering food and preserving it, building more shelter and improving what we got, getting more clothes and medicines from the meets. . . . If we do anything in the way of fighting, it should be right here in this valley, and for this valley. Not for anybody else. Not for those clowns down south, and sure not for any idea like America.” (188)

At stake is the issue of local survival versus national renewal. However, given that the Mayor is portrayed as an ambitious and untrustworthy schemer, the issue is also a larger one: that of technological achievement as a narrative in the service of nation building. Just as in General Motors’ Futurama, the rhetoric of the Mayor suggests that infrastructural renewal is based not just on need but also on questionable rationales for expansionism: manifest destiny, national pride, military power.

The nostalgic impulses in The Wild Shore can be seeen as two types: a kind of “restless” nostalgia that Christopher Lasch might characterize as “appeal[ing] to the feeling that the past offered delights no longer obtainable” (The True and Only Heaven, 82-83), and a more pragmatic manifestation that seeks to make use of the past in order to create a sustainable, rather than glorious, future. Both of these forms harness a belief in the value of the past, but use it to achieve different goals in the struggle for survival: the first, to recapture and recreate the glories of the technological past in the service of the future; and the second, to reuse objects from the past to create a sustainable subsistence-level existence. In both cases, nostalgia is harnessed in the service of material survival. Within the framework of restless nostalgia, the past is clearly “better” because it was less concerned with day-to-day survival, which was simply taken as a given. Pragmatic nostalgia, on the other hand, acknowledges continuity with the past, but uses the past practically to make decisions for the future.

For the restless nostalgic, the material objects around which nostalgia accrues are significant solely for their promise of a future time that will be as good as the past. Thus the younger and more ambitious dwellers of the post-nuclear world value consumer items, such as the Mayor’s expensive china, as symbols of status, as attempts to call back the past in aid of a rebuilt future. For those experiencing a more pragmatic nostalgia, non-survival items, such as an old man’s phonograph, also represent a sadly missed time, the strains of music stirring memories of a world in which an appreciation of beauty was not a rare luxury but an everyday occurrence. But Robinson’s older San Onofre dwellers are well aware that these objects are of limited practical value. Instead, they travel to scavenger markets looking for old pieces of technology (batteries, etc.) that can be reused for everyday survival.  The difference between restless and pragmatic nostalgia in The Wild Shore, thus, exemplifies Lasch’s distinction between the destructive capabilities of restless nostalgia and the comfort of continuity through memory.

In both cases, the highway figures as a focusing point. For the restless nostalgic, the highway represents the return of the golden age; the highway must be rebuilt to extend the scope of the Mayor of San Diego’s dreams of nationalistic unity. For the pragmatic nostalgic, on the other hand, the highway has practical potential as a trade route; it is a place for storytelling of the past, but not a past that must necessarily be reconstructed in terms of conquest and manifest destiny. Robinson’s lesson is that the ruins of the technological past must be used in new ways so as not to reproduce the tragic ideological circumstances—imperialism, nationalism, and unchecked capitalism—that resulted in a nuclear catastrophe.  The highway, ironically a product of all these ideals, must be repurposed to improve the lot of the communities living after the Bomb.

Choosing a Path

Finally, The Wild Shore features a meeting, a revelatory moment on the road. Tom Barnard is a recurring character in the Orange County Trilogy who figures as a kind of oracle/conscience/trickster/ghost, a storyteller relating (sometimes nostalgically, sometimes critically) tales from the past. In The Wild Shore Barnard is a tricky and unreliable narrator, often lying about or concealing true details (e.g., his age, his location at the time of the holocaust). But he uses the details chiefly didactically, in the service of parables that convey both a wistful nostalgia for the past and the recognition that the past was destructive and, in a post-apocalyptic America, impossible to duplicate.

Tom relays a story in which, before the nuclear strikes, he picks up a hitchhiker late one night while driving across the continent: that hitchhiker turns out to be another version of himself. After a discussion they establish that they are from different timelines:

In the end we pinned the moment down exactly: the morning I left for New York, driving before sunrise, there was a moment getting on Highway Forty when I couldn’t remember if the onramp was a simple left turn, or a cloverleaf circle to the right; and while I was still thinking about it I came to, already on the freeway headed east. The same thing had happened to my double, only he had gone west. (216)

Tom, a lawyer, views his doppelganger as a person who has (literally) chosen another path, quitting his job and becoming a wanderer. But later in the story he comes to recognize that both half-lives are fundamentally out of tune: “You see, we couldn’t live a whole life in the old time” (223). Whether or not the tale contains elements of truth (beyond the classic “moment of choice on the road of life”), Tom’s choice and lesson is clear: build a whole life, a life alienated neither from human community nor from the natural world, or keep on traveling down the highway to a crash future.

In his discussion of Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, written after the first two Orange County novels, Kenneth Knoespel points to Robinson’s engagement with “multiple systems, histories, and plots” (115). Similarly, in the Orange County Trilogy these “intersections or knots” that Knoespel associates with synchronism (114) are played out in the same space (California) but over multiple alternate timelines. In many ways, Tom Barnard’s experience on the highway acts as a kind of index for the choices San Onofre’s residents are offered in The Wild Shore. The space of the highway serves as a physical manifestation of one of Knoespel’s “intersections or knots”—a momentary thinning of space and time in which humans must decide which way to travel: down the pathway laid out by nostalgic but ultimately unsustainable visions of the future, or the more difficult pathway toward a world (later laid out by Robinson in Pacific Edge) that pragmatically balances ecological and human needs.

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