The world of SF has been filled with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories since its very beginning as a separately identifiable genre. Do we really need another one? In the case of this book, the answer to that is a resounding yes! Robinson has crafted a finely wrought work of character and theme that will resonate with readers, that is highly evocative of some of the other truly fine works within this sub-genre, from Pangborn's Davy to Stewart's Earth Abides, that delivers insights into societies and individual human motivations at a level rarely found in any fiction.
This book is part of Robinson's triptych (the other two pieces being The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge) that deals with various futures as seen from the perspective of Orange County, California. These books are related by theme only, and can all be read independently of the others. In this one the United States has effectively been destroyed by the use of about 3000 neutron bombs that were smuggled in by truck (the country of origin never provable but supposed to be Russia), turning almost every city into a waste land and wiping out the economic and industrial structure that allows today's Americans to enjoy a standard of living so very much higher than most of the rest of the world. The United States has now been placed in quarantine by the rest of the world, and any attempts to try to re-organize and re-build the country are ruthlessly disrupted. Orange County has returned to a fishing/agrarian level society with government by communal consensus. But this is the mere background to a remarkable tale of two young men, Henry and Steve, trying to find their own way and life answers within this community, underneath the strong influence of the town elder Tom, one of the last survivors who remembers what America was like before the bombs. Henry and Steve are close friends but are two very different personalities, and how each reacts to the opportunity to 'do something' to those who are maintaining the quarantine forms the main basis of the book.
The depth of characterization here is remarkable, and the portrayal of the society that grew under these imagined conditions is just as remarkable for its believability and economic viability. I found myself living and feeling right along with the main characters, could see myself in just the situations portrayed, facing the same moral dilemmas and wondering just how I would react, what I would do. The prose is smooth and with a nice balance between description, dialogue, and action, and a theme that is presented via 'show, not tell' methods.
All of the 'Three Californias' books are good, but this one is clearly the best, and should be put on everyone's 'must read' list.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)