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Finding a Lever
on January 20, 2002
This book does not have any big bangs or soaring flights of imagination, instead it is a very straight forward linear extrapolation of trends present in the mid-eighties involving the military-industrial complex and the urbanization of America. Both trends have had some deviations from that straight line in the years since this was written, but that does not invalidate the main focus of this book, that of not only how an individual can make a difference in the world around him, but why he should try to make that difference.
Jim, the prime protagonist, is a much conflicted individual, who really has not found out what he really believes is right or what he should do with his life. Involved in a seemingly endless round of parties with his friends, having no serious commitment to his lady friend, holding two desultory part-time jobs that he has no enthusiasm for, considering himself to be a writer with a strong interest in the history of Orange County but without any finished product he thinks is good, and still partially dependent on his parents for support, he is a prime target for suggestion and peer pressure to define his actions. When one of his friends suggests that he should actually do something to change the domination of the country by the military-industrial complex, he jumps at the chance, and soon finds himself involved in industrial sabotage. His father, in the meantime, is also fighting the same war, but from a completely different perspective of an engineer actively employed by that same complex, trying to find a technical solution to the MAD arms-race.
Along the way to Jim finding his own resolution to his life, we are treated to historical snapshots of Orange County from its very early settling by native Americans to the coming of the Spanish, to its flowering as an agricultural paradise, to its great industrial expansion during and after World War II, and finally to the condition depicted at the time of this book, as an almost totally asphalt covered warren of apartments, malls, offices, and neon lighting that has forgotten its historical and ecological heritage. These sections, viewed separately from the rest of the book, form something of an extended prose poem, with a very heavy 'back-to-nature' message, that intertwine with Jim's search for meaning in his life, and provide a strong under-current to the novel's action.
The opening of this book is very rough, with too many characters introduced too briefly, with trivial and sometimes outdated dialogue, and without any apparent clear focus or direction. It is not till almost halfway through the book that it settles down and starts showing depth and direction. From this point on, the novel becomes much better, as the reader becomes interested in the characters and moral dilemma's they and their world face.
This is not KSR's best novel. The book wanders for too long before finding its legs, and the ecological sub-theme is sometimes too strident, the bashing of capitalism inadequately supported. But it has something to say about both our current industrial society and about the everyday individual's place in that society, about making a difference, about having commitments and moral integrity, about both the 'how' and the 'why' a life should be lived.