Edan Lepucki’s first novel, California, quakes and freezes our world into dystopia, adds a dash of refuge with dark undertones, throws in the nefarious older brother from Ender’s Game, and stirs.
Protagonists Cal and Frida flee a crime-infested and broken-down Los Angeles, making home out of a shed in the woods. As memories mix with their day-to-day struggle to survive and search for companionship in this new world, they stumble upon the causes of their civilization’s decline.
In this not-too-distant future, the wealthy live in Communities, with infrastructure and protection paid for by supporting corporations. Those who can’t afford to get into the Communities, like Cal and Frida, are left fending for themselves in the wilds of America. Outside a Community’s high walls of safety brace, they brace for raids from marauding pirates, plant vegetable gardens and fish, and wait for the horse-riding tradesman to arrive.
This book is probably on your radar as its hype machine has been running hard. It was featured on Ford’s Audiobook Club, and The Colbert Report. Currently, it is up for a Goodreads Choice Award for Best Sci-Fi.
I waffled quite a bit while reading California, not sure if I loved it or hated it. Main characters Cal and Frida, like most of us, seemed dull rather than dazzling, struggling in dystopia rather than building evil empires or falling apart into little pieces. They make dumb mistakes and don’t stand up for themselves. They have sex a lot because they’re bored, they hate eating vegetables every meal and miss their friends and families. Maybe this makes California authentic to a post-disaster life, and maybe this makes it a bit boring. They’re just trying to survive, scared and hungry and lonely. As other reviewers have mentioned, the language here isn’t doing any cartwheels, but I don’t think Lepucki intended her narrators, Cal and Frida, to speak eloquently or rhapsodize about their experience.
California scared me not because I live in it’s namesake state, home of earthquakes and the current drought, but because the concept of privatized Communities felt so plausible. I lived in Oakland, CA for many years, and there’s been much debate about private security cars roaming the nicer areas while the poorer areas are left to fend for themselves. Google is building an airport in Mountain View complete with a blimp hangar. I winced when I read about a world in which corporations keep the wealthy safe in compounds and forget about the rest of us, because it does seem so plausible based on some of the current struggles in the Bay Area.
What makes this book great is all that necessary societal evil brimming under the surface. In this California, you can’t have everything, and the sacrifices made for safety or its opposite, for comfort or control, are staggering. This isn’t just another dystopian novel, but (like the best speculative fiction/dystopia) it feels like an accurate criticism of life in our society today.