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Reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias Triptych as Petrofiction

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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. 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. 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 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.

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A global economy powered by non-solar energy sources is limited by global warming, finite reserves and concomitant insults to the earth's biosphere, including our own species. Some of these impacts, such as loss of biodiversity, will be irreversible. Without constraints on the reproduction of capital, the global driver of the contemporary environmental crisis, these impacts will intensify. This is not a necessary outcome for an economy utilizing the high efficiency capture of solar energy, a conclusion informed by consideration of the heat budget of the earth's surface and the laws of thermodynamics. Such a solar-based economy managed by containment of the socially modified environment is a necessary condition for a global civilization realizing the Marxian concept of communism.
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In this essay I look at two novels in Kim Stanley Robinson's THREE CALIFORNIAS TRILOGY, The Gold Coast (1988) and The Wild Shore (1984), in which the image of the superhighway represents a site for the tension between progress and nostalgia and plays a key role as marker of future human survival. These books, as alternative futures, provide us with a choice: will we continue to create the conditions that will lead to our destruction, a highway to a future of ruins? Or will we try to harness the best of what technology has to offer in order to avert such a catastrophe? I argue that a focusing point for these debates is the superhighway, as a representation both of the "road to the future" and a road to nowhere. The THREE CALIFORNIA novels are concerned with finding a way to develop a balance between technological progress and the need for sustainable resource consumption. But both The Gold Coast and The Wild Shore also engage critically with the narratives of past and future expansion so evident in highway literature of the twentieth century. It is these narratives, embodied in the ruins of the superhighway, that I believe are important.
Article
View full resolution Most current attempts to envision the commons of the future in fiction and film are relentlessly dystopian. Fromcormac mccarthy’s The Road (2006) topaolo bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and fromroland emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) toneill blomkamp’s District 9 (2009), speculative fiction and film tend to envision future breakdowns of democratic governance, justice, education, health systems, and civic awareness far more often than societies that are improved over present ones in any but a narrow technological sense. Evenmargaret atwood’s well-known MaddAddam trilogy—Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013)—which ends on a reconciliation between two genetically different human species and a biologically evolved pig species with human-like intelligence, can only envision such a peaceful future after global genocide, pervasive violence, and the breakdown of civil society. In this vast field of dystopian imaginings, the work of kim stanley robinson stands out for its steadfast commitment to utopian possibilities, or, as he likes to call them referencingjoanna russ , “optopian” visions that seek out the best rather than the worst scenarios, given particular historical conditions. After completing, in the 1980s, a doctorate in English under the direction of Fredric Jameson and concerning the novels of Philip K. Dick, Robinson went on to write numerous science fiction novels and short stories of his own. His Three Californias trilogy of The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988), and Pacific Edge (1990) juxtaposes three different visions of California’s future: the neo-primitivist aftermath of a nuclear war, capitalist business-as-usual, and an embattled ecotopia. The Science in the Capital trilogy—Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007)—portrays the world-wide consequences of climate change as well as the struggles that accompany the translation of science into meaningful public policy—struggles that in this set of novels end on a moderately hopeful vision of progressive politics in Washington. But Robinson is best known for Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996), a trilogy that traces the terraforming of Mars and the development of a multicultural, conflictive, and ambiguously utopian society on the Red Planet, even as Earth remains prone to military conflict, corporate exploitation, and ecological degradation. To what extent can and should Earth provide the templates for how to design a biosphere and organize the social sphere in a brand-new society? In what way might models developed on Mars be applied back to Earth’s histories and conflicts? In playing Martian and Terran societies against each other, the Mars Trilogy develops an extraordinarily complex and nuanced engagement with current ecological, economic, and social crises. The Mars Trilogy not only traces a detailed outline of the ecological and eco-political challenges of terraforming that obliquely reflects on current debates about environmental politics on Earth; it also seeks to portray the social, cultural, and political turmoil and compromises that arise in the colonization of another planet not so much by humans understood as a homogeneous group, but by Americans, Arabs, Japanese, Russians, Swiss and many other groups that bring very different histories and traditions of how to organize society to bear on the emergent Martian communities. The novel 2312 (2012) expands the scenario of the Mars Trilogy to the solar system, and Aurora (2015) even to other star systems. But in Aurora, the biological, chemical, and physical challenges of multi-generational travel ultimately overwhelm the ambition to colonize other planets, and they force a return to the home planet and a more limited project of ecological restoration that ultimately foregrounds the conceptual difficulties in any detachment of human histories from the planet on which the species has evolved. Robinson’s imaginations of the future focus above all on two dimensions: the future of nature and the future of the socio-economic order. While his utopias are always dynamic, embattled, and heterogeneous, they seek to outline what an economic organization beyond capitalism might look like, and how natural ecosystems might be inhabited sustainably for the next few hundred years. Marxist-influenced critiques of capitalism play a crucial role...
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If our oil addiction is so bad for us, why don’t we kick the habit? Looking beyond the usual culprits—Big Oil, petro-states, and the strategists of empire—Lifeblood finds a deeper and more complex explanation in everyday practices of oil consumption in American culture. Those practices, Matthew T. Huber suggests, have in fact been instrumental in shaping the broader cultural politics of American capitalism. How did gasoline and countless other petroleum products become so central to our notions of the American way of life? Huber traces the answer from the 1930s through the oil shocks of the 1970s to our present predicament, revealing that oil’s role in defining popular culture extends far beyond material connections between oil, suburbia, and automobility. He shows how oil powered a cultural politics of entrepreneurial life—the very American idea that life itself is a product of individual entrepreneurial capacities. In so doing he uses oil to retell American political history from the triumph of New Deal liberalism to the rise of the New Right, from oil’s celebration as the lifeblood of postwar capitalism to increasing anxieties over oil addiction. Lifeblood rethinks debates surrounding energy and capitalism, neoliberalism and nature, and the importance of suburbanization in the rightward shift in American politics. Today, Huber tells us, as crises attributable to oil intensify, a populist clamoring for cheap energy has less to do with American excess than with the eroding conditions of life under neoliberalism. © 2013 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
Article
While Buddhist sensibilities pervade all of Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction, their most aesthetically consistent development can be found in his first major achievement, the three novels depicting alternative futures for southern California: The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge. Zen realism is quite rare in science fiction, since the genre’s most characteristic topoi are alien to Zen’s insistence on suchness. That is why Robinson’s vision is so distinctive. Each novel in its own way meshes science fiction and the aesthetic values of Zen: in narrative protocols, in linguistic style, and in the relationship between reader and text.
Article
The basic oil-supply situation continues despite a two-year glut and lower real prices, but the author warns that the world remains vulnerable to supply disruptions during a glut, especially one that could disappear before 1990. He uses three scenarios involving a minimum-duration glut, a maximum-duration glut, and a price break to explore these ideas and to push for better oil policies than simple decontrol. Government intervention, he feels, is justified in the oil import markets, oil products taxes, and oil-stockpile fill rates. 4 tables. (DCK)
elaborating on Robinson's descriptors, has called these novels a "neoprimitivist aftermath of nuclear warcapitalist business-as-usual," and "an embattled ecotopia" (18); whereas Csicsery-Ronan Jr. describes the Th ree Californias Triptych as "science-fi ctional alternative histories of the future
  • Ursula K Heise
Ursula K. Heise, elaborating on Robinson's descriptors, has called these novels a "neoprimitivist aftermath of nuclear war," "capitalist business-as-usual," and "an embattled ecotopia" (18); whereas Csicsery-Ronan Jr. describes the Th ree Californias Triptych as "science-fi ctional alternative histories of the future" (149).
a contemporary version of the return of sail technology to prominence can be found in Paolo Bacigalupi's novel Shipbreaker
  • Cf
Cf. a contemporary version of the return of sail technology to prominence can be found in Paolo Bacigalupi's novel Shipbreaker (2010).
Wilderness, Utopia, History: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson
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Archaeologies of the Future: Th e Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions
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Fossil Capital: Th e Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming
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Malm, Andreas. Fossil Capital: Th e Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. New York: Verso, 2016.
Th e Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power
  • Mark P Mills
Mills, Mark P. "Th e Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power." Aug. 2013. Web. 15 July 2016.
Utopia is when our lives matter': Reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacifi c Edge
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Petrofi ction and Political Economy in the Age of Late Fossil Capital
  • Amy Riddle
Riddle, Amy. "Petrofi ction and Political Economy in the Age of Late Fossil Capital." Materialism and the Critique of Energy. Chicago: mcm Prime Press, forthcoming 2017.
elaborating on Robinson's descriptors, has called these novels a "neoprimitivist aftermath of nuclear war," "capitalist business-as-usual," and "an embattled ecotopia
  • Ursula K Heise
Ursula K. Heise, elaborating on Robinson's descriptors, has called these novels a "neoprimitivist aftermath of nuclear war," "capitalist business-as-usual," and "an embattled ecotopia" (18);
describes the Th ree Californias Triptych as "science-fi ctional alternative histories of the future
  • Whereas Csicsery-Ronan
whereas Csicsery-Ronan Jr. describes the Th ree Californias Triptych as "science-fi ctional alternative histories of the future" (149).
Malm's term "fossil capital" throughout in order to name the historical formation of energy capital as a social relation
  • Andreas I Use
I use Andreas Malm's term "fossil capital" throughout in order to name the historical formation of energy capital as a social relation.