- Reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias Triptych as Petrofiction
By projecting the narrative point of reference beyond the present, science-fiction stories foreground the future-orientation that is usually unacknowledged (and often unconscious) in most historical writing. The placement of the readerly present in the future makes the present, which most people view uncritically as a consummation of past developments, appear as a moment in the process of changing into something other than itself.—Istvan Csicsery-Ronan, “Possible Mountains and Rivers”
I thought science fiction was the literature of California. I still think California is a science fictional place. The desert has been terraformed. The whole water system is unnatural and artificial. This place shouldn’t look like it looks, so it all comes together for me. I’m a science fiction person, and I’m a Californian.—Kim Stanley Robinson, “Planet of the Future”
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias Triptych extrapolates three different futures from the present of the 1980s: blasted cities, tangled highways, and enlightened communes take shape in each story world. These novels—The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988), and Pacific Edge (1990)—unfold a chronology of fictional future events within the bounded cultural geography of Orange County. Robinson routes the Three Californias Triptych in parallel rather than in series, as with a trilogy, which does not prevent the generation of meaning across texts. A difference between a triptych and a trilogy is that the meaning gets fixed not in the bildung of [End Page 409] character, but in the difference between these extrapolations of Orange County. Though each novel depicts a wildly different future for Orange County, all three are, tellingly, petrofutures, meaning that the social relations that allowed fossil capital to thrive still hold remarkable sway precisely in connection to the long afterlife of the built world of oil. In this way, they play off of an actually existing California caught in the full grip of fossil-fuel reliance. This observation does not mean they necessarily fall into the mode of extrapolation that Gerry Canavan describes as “retrofutures” (331); the Triptych does not get stuck in fantasizing about a return to a pre-fossil-capital past. Robinson’s first novel, The Wild Shore, copes with the aftermath of both nuclear destruction and petroculture.1 The Gold Coast extends the pace of highway development and shopping-mall lifestyle. Pacific Edge dreams that the communal past of California triumphs against state-backed corporations. Robinson’s freshman attempt at working with different genres of science fiction lights up a new mode of future-thinking that highlights the impact of fossil reliance and the possibility of futures powered by alternative energies.2 I read the commitment to utopia as process—part of all three novels but particularly in Pacific Edge—as the glue that holds the generic categories together and enables the working through of the dominance of petroculture.
This paper seeks to define petrofiction as a critical genre. The usefulness of the term comes from its ability to name culture’s material connection to fossil fuels and, crucially, to identify the fictive quality of fossil capital.3 I do not mean to suggest that the carbon-based mode of production is a fiction, but rather that it requires fiction to operate—the entrenchment of fossil fuels is as deeply cultural as it is economic. Importantly, in order to stake out the ambit of petrofiction, I work through its relation to science fiction, arguing that Robinson’s Three Californias Triptych exemplifies both petrofictional and science-fictional qualities. Critics have long argued that science fiction is uniquely positioned to grasp the inner workings of late capital.4 The foundational perspective of much science fiction criticism asserts that the genre defamiliarizes empirical reality while maintaining an attachment to how that reality functions, thus making apprehensible structures and patterns that would otherwise be indiscernible. Furthering this perspective into [End Page 410] the specificities of energy, my larger claim is that texts such as Robinson’s, which read as science fiction and take a position on energy systems, are uniquely positioned to cognitively map fossil capital.
The way the Triptych fits (or not) within the...