Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Surprisingly Accurate Vision for Autonomous Cars — From 1988
Here’s an exclusive excerpt of ‘The Gold Coast’ (1988), which Tor Books is reissuing as part of KSR’s ‘Three Californias’ trilogy
Today, Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for his celebrated Mars trilogy, which follows a techno-utopian society establishing itself on a terraformed red planet, and books like New York 2140, which explore a relatively near future consumed by accelerating tech and ecological collapse. But before those books brought him fame, he began with a trilogy of novels forecasting — and exploring — three different futures for California.
This week, Tor Books is reissuing the novels — The Wild Shore (1985), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990) — in one volume, called Three Californias. Today, the title conjures the specter of the secessionist daydream espoused by fringe ideologues, of splitting the state into smaller ones. That’s fitting, in a way — these are divergent futures for the state indeed, from nuclear apocalyptic to overwhelmingly networked. The books, as you might expect, contain rich and nuanced visions for forthcoming futures — including, in the example you’ll find below, an astonishingly relevant portrait of highways overrun by self-driving cars in Southern California.
When tech titans discuss their dreams of filling the roadways with autonomous smart cars, this is the picture they’re still largely painting today. See for yourself; we’re pleased to share an exclusive excerpt from Tor’s handsome new volume. Enjoy.
Jim McPherson sticks his head out the window of his car, shouts at a Minihonda whose program has just automatically slotted it onto the on-ramp ahead of him. “You cut me off!” The man in the Minihonda stares back at him, looking puzzled. Jim’s ancient Volvo swerves sharply up the curving track, and suddenly, Jim’s hanging halfway out the window and teetering, face inches from the concrete of the freeway. Abe Bernard grabs his belt and pulls him back in.
Night in Orange County, here, and the four friends are cruising in autopia. Stars of their high school state championship wrestling team, 10 years past that glory, they roll over the seats of the Volvo and try to pin Tashi Nakamura, to keep him away from the eyedropper of Sandy Chapman’s latest concoction. Tash was their heavyweight and the only one still in good shape, and they can’t do it; Tash surges up through their arms and seizes the eyedropper, all the while singing along with one of Jim’s old CDs: “Somebody give me a cheeseburger!”
The on-ramp bends up, curves more sharply, the contacts squeak over the power-and-guidance electromagnetic track in the center of the lane, they’re all thrown into a heap on the backseat.
“I think I dropped the dropper.”
“Say, we’re on the freeway now, aren’t we? Shouldn’t someone be watching?”
Instantly Abe squirms into the driver’s seat. He has a look around. Everything’s on track. Cars, following their programs north, hum over the eight brassy bands marking the center of each lane. River of red taillights ahead, white headlights behind, some cars rolling over the S-curved lane-change tracks, left to right, right to left, their yellow turn signal indicators blinking the rhythm of the great plunge forward, click click click, click click click. All’s well on the Newport Freeway tonight. “Find that eyedropper?” says Abe, a certain edge in his voice.
The northbound lanes swoop up as they cross the great sprawl of the intersection with the San Diego, Del Mar, Costa Mesa, and San Joaquin freeways. Twenty-four monster concrete ribbons pretzel together in a Gordian knot 300 feet high and a mile in diameter — a monument to autopia — and they go right through the middle of it, like bugs through the heart of a giant. Then Jim’s old buzzbox hums up a grade, and suddenly, it’s like they’re in a landing pattern for John Wayne International Airport over to their right because the northbound Newport is on the highest of the stacked freeway levels, and they are a hundred feet above mother Earth. Nighttime OC, for miles in every direction. Imagine.
The great gridwork of light.
Tungsten, neon, sodium, mercury, halogen, xenon.
At ground level, square grids of orange sodium streetlights.
All kinds of things burn.
Mercury vapor lamps; blue crystals over the freeways, the condos, the parking lots.
Eyezapping xenon, glaring on the malls, the stadium, Disneyland.
Great halogen lighthouse beams from the airport, snapping around the night sky.
An ambulance light, pulsing red below.
Ceaseless succession, redgreenyellow, redgreenyellow.
Headlights and taillights, red and white blood cells, pushed through a leukemic body of light.
There’s a brake light in your brain.
A billion lights. (Ten million people.) How many kilowatts per hour?
Grid laid over grid, from the mountains to the sea. A billion lights.
Ah yes: Orange County.
Jim blinks a big wash of Sandy’s latest out of his eye, watches patterns pulse. All at once, in a satori illumination, he can see the pattern all the other patterns make: the layers of OC’s lighting, decade on decade, generation on generation. In fact certain grids are lifting off and pivoting 90 degrees, to match the meta pattern of the perceived whole. “I’d call this one Pattern Perception.”
“Okay,” Sandy says. “I can see that.”
“You could take aspirin and see that from up here,” Abe objects.
“That’s true. I can see that too.”
“Ought to call it Agreeability,” says Tashi.
“That’s true. I can see that.”
“We’re at the center of the world,” Jim announces. Abe and Tashi start looking around like they missed the marker — should be a plaque or something, right? “Orange County is the end of history, its purest product. Civilization kept moving west for thousands of years in a sunset tropism until they came to the edge here on the Pacific and they couldn’t go any farther. And so they stopped here and did it. And by that time they were in the great late surge of corporate capitalism so that everything here is purely organized, to buy and sell, buy and sell, every little piece of us.”
“Fucking Marxist Commie.”
“They must have liked lights.”
Jim shakes them off, waxes nostalgic. Mentioning history reminds him of the night’s mission. “It didn’t used to be this way!”
“You’re kidding,” says Tashi. He and Abe share grins: Jim can be funnier than the video.
“No, I’m not kidding. This whole basin was covered with orange groves, over 200 square miles of them. There were more oranges then than there are lights now.”
“Hard to believe,” his friends chorus together.
“But true! OC was one big orchard.” Jim sighs.
Abe and Tash and Sandy eye each other. “That’s a lot of trees,” Abe says solemnly, and Tash stifles a laugh. Sandy doesn’t bother; he goes into the famous Chapman laughing fit: “Ah, hahahahahaha — Ah, hahahahahaha.”
“Say, don’t you want to get off here?” Tash asks.
“Oh yeah!” Jim cries.
Abe ticks over the lane-change switch and they swerve into the right lane, then spiral down the off-ramp two levels to Chapman Avenue, eastbound. Sandy’s street. Only two levels here, and eastbound is the upper. In El Modena even that ends and they’re back on ground level, in two-way traffic. “What now, professor?”
“Park in the mall,” Jim says.
Abe parks them. Jim consults his map for the last time. He is tense with excitement; this is a new idea, this mission, a sort of personal archaeology. Years of reading his local history books have given him an uncontrollable urge to recover something — to see, to touch, to fondle some relic of the past. And tonight’s the night.
They are parked in front of the El Torito restaurant at the end of the Hewes Mall. “This El Terriblo incorporates the oldest building in the area,” Jim explains. “It was a Quaker church built in 1887. They put a big bell in the tower, but it was too heavy and during the next Santa Ana wind the whole building fell over. So they built it again. Anyway, you can’t tell now, the restaurant is built over it and they use the old room as a casino. But it gives me a coordinate point, see, on the old maps. And exactly a140 yards west of here, on the other side of the street, is the site of El Modena Elementary School built in 1905.”
“I missed that,” says Tash.
“It’s gone now. Razed in the 1960s. But my mom’s great-uncle went there as a child, and he told me about it. And I looked it all up. There were two wooden buildings with a dirt yard in between. When they demolished the buildings they filled the cellars below with the debris, then covered it all in concrete. I’ve got the location of those buildings pegged exactly, and the west one is directly under the Fluffy Donuts Video Palace and its parking lot.”
“You mean,” says Abe, “we can just bust through the parking lot surface there — ”
“Yeah, that’s why I wanted you to bring some of your tools — ”
“Bust through the concrete surface there, and dig through three or four feet of fill, and get down to the — get down to the debris of El Modena Elementary School, 1905 to 1960 a.d.?”
“Well, shoot,” Abe says. “What’re we waiting for?”
“Ahhh, hahahahahahahaha…” Out of the car, grab up packs of equipment, walk down Chapman. Faces stare from passing cars at the sight of people walking. Jim is getting excited. “There was a foundation stone, too, with the date carved on it. If we could find that…”
At Fluffy’s people dressed in the bright spectrum-bend primaries fashionable this year are downing incandescent green and purple and yellow donuts, then setting out into the holo reality of what appears to be African savanna. The four friends skirt the building and enter a small dark parking lot, bounded by Fluffy’s, a supermarket wall on one side, a movie complex wall on the other, and an apartment complex wall at the back. The glow of OC, reflected off low clouds, gives them all the light they need. Jim points out the chalk marks he made during his reconnaissance trip, there on oil-splotched old concrete just behind the wall of Fluffy’s. “Should be right under here.”
Abe and Tash take off the backpacks and get out Abe’s freeway rescue tools. Abe shakes his head at the sight of them. “I really shouldn’t have taken these, we always have spares but you never know…” He picks up an oscilloscopic saw, Tash a needlejack, and they crack the surface and chop a hole fairly quickly. It’s noisy work, but the ambient white noise of the city covers most of the sound. They put on work gloves and start pulling up broken blocks of concrete. The blocks are only about four inches thick, so there isn’t much problem. Stuck to the undersides of the pieces are inch-thick crusts of old asphalt. “They just poured it right over the old surface,” Jim says. “Great stratification at this site.”
Soon there’s a square hole about four feet on a side, there in the parking lot.
“They’re going to think someone was trying to break in and steal the secret donut formulas,” says Tash. He and Sandy sing the Fluffy advertisement in a soft falsetto:
All sugar lovers in the know
Love what we leave in that round hole. . .
“Well, Jim?” Tash inquires. “I don’t see any El Modena Elementary School. Looks like dirt to me.”
“Of course. That’s the fill. We’ve got to clear it out.”
Sandy hands Jim a short-handled aluminum shovel. “Your turn.”
So Jim goes to work.
He is not strong; he was the flyweight on their wrestling team, in the 123-pound class despite medium height, and he relied more on speed than brute force, even when Coach “Mad Dog” Beagle had them lifting weights four hours every day.
Nor is he skillful; every stab and scoop of the shovel yields only a handful of dirt. Disgusted with these results, he puts one foot forward, takes the shovel in both hands, raises it far overhead, brings it down in a vicious strike — only to be jerked to a halt by Tashi’s big hand grabbing the stock in mid-air. “Goddamn, Jim, you were just about to amputate your own foot! Watch what you’re doing, will you?”
“Ahh, hahahahahahaha. . .”
But he is enthusiastic. And eventually, the hole is about two feet deep, and Jim is having serious trouble keeping dirt from his sidewalls from sliding down to the bottom of the hole. Abe takes over and makes better progress. An hour or so after the start of the operation, he drives the shovel down and there is a wooden thunk. “Oh ho! Yo ho ho, in fact! Buried treasure.”
Abe clears dirt away from a big beam of wood. It’s solid hardwood, dry and unrotted. Next to it they find a dressed stone block, one side beveled and fluted.
“All right!” Jim exclaims. “This is it! This is the kind of foundation stone that’s supposed to have the date on it.”
Abe scrapes the stone’s side clear of dirt. No date. “Might be on the other side…”
“Gee, Abe,” says Tash, nudging Sandy with an elbow.
“How much do you think that stone weighs?”
Abe gives it a kick. “I don’t know. Maybe a ton.”
“Ah, come on!” says Jim.
“Yeah, okay… maybe only seven, eight hundred pounds.”
“How about a piece of this beam for a souvenir,” Abe suggests to Jim. “Just a starter, of course.” He takes the oscilloscopic saw and neatly slices off a triangular section that looks like a wooden prism, or an antique ruler. He hands it up to Jim. “Don’t touch the black side for a minute or two.”
Jim regards it dubiously. So this is the past…
“Whoops!” says Sandy, who has ESP in these matters. He looks around the corner and out to the street. “Police.” He has an escape route already planned, and without a pause he is gone down an alley between the supermarket and the ap wall, into the applex. Sandy can’t afford even casual conversations with the police, much less an arrest for violating a parking lot surface.
The others snatch up Abe’s tools and follow Sandy, just as a cosmic, white light xenon beam snaps into existence and torches the parking lot with its glare. Amped-up voices of authority command them to stop, but they’re already into the warren of the applex, as safe as roaches under the refrigerator. Except this time the police are in after them, can’t let these hoodlums be tearing up the parking lots of OC, and it’s chase time, the four friends dodging in irregular dispersal from the closetlike courtyards to second- and third-story walkways, dumpster nooks, doorway niches . . . The applex is typical L-5 architecture, dominant form of the 21st century, but it’s smaller than most OC applex mazes, and there just aren’t as many good spots to scurry into. Crossing one 12-by-12 courtyard Jim stumbles over a kid’s robot and drops his archaeological find, it clatters away and he’s hopping around trying to locate it when Sandy runs into him and drags him off into a nearby elevator nook. Just in time, because a policeman wearing a helmet with an IRHUD happens by and well, who knows but what he can see the heat of their footprints right there on the ground!
Maybe so. He’s paused in the courtyard. Sandy and Jim, praying that their shoe soles have been thick enough, crouch in the dark elevator doorway and watch the policeman’s headlamps swing around the mini-courtyard.
For a moment the beam of light illuminates the fragment of wood, there under a dead bush.
“Now, that’s a piece of wood,” Sandy whispers in Jim’s ear. “And that,” gesturing after the departing policeman, “is a night in jail. You have to weigh your priorities, Jim. You’ve got to think before you act…”
They recover the piece of wood and sneak off in the other direction. By this time Jim is hopelessly disoriented, but part of Sandy’s ESP is a perfect internal compass, and he leads them east, then back down through the applex’s laundry/ recreation/administration building, with its wall of 500 mailboxes, and out to Chapman Avenue again.
The cop car is still parked in front of Fluffy’s. Ah ha, there’s Abe and Tash, up ahead of them. After them and across the street to Jim’s car. “What happened to you guys?” Tash asks.
“I dropped the piece of wood,” Jim says. “Had some trouble finding it.”
“I hope you were successful,” Abe chides him, “or we’re sending you back for it!”
“No, here it is! See?”
His friends laugh loud and long. All’s well that ends well. They jump in the car, click on the motor, slide back onto the track, and roll out onto Chapman. Abe says, “Let’s get this precious fragment to the museum and track down to Sandy’s to see how the party’s going.”
“Ah, hahaha. No party tonight, boys.”
“That’s what you think.”