In the not too distance future, the American West has evaporated and become a place of extinction: plants gone, animals gone, water gone, hope gone. The only things left are scorching temperatures, blazing fires, hot winds, and sand. Gold, fame, and citrus were all lures that brought people to California in the centuries prior to the start of Watkins’s story, but “the influx long ago turned to an exodus.” The only residents left in California are there illegally: wild gangs, outlaws, and those residents who could not bear to leave. It is in this wasteland we meet Luz and Ray, the main characters of Gold Fame Citrus. They fall into the third category: Luz, a young woman of the last generation to see a West with any hint of greenery and water; Ray saved from the depths of his depression by surfing off the coast.
At the book’s opening, we meet the couple living among other outlaws, among the few who stayed behind after California was declared unfit for living and its people evacuated elsewhere. By refusing to evacuate when the chance was offered, Luz and Ray now have no choice but to scrape by as best they can. They have made a life for themselves in the hills above Los Angeles and are well enough, until they find a small girl whom Luz feels they must take in and protect. The pair soon begin to think that they must provide a future for baby “Ig” and, dreaming of the damp, rainy Northwest, they flee.
Heading out of the city, they find themselves traversing a deadly sea of sand. Called the Amargosa Dune Sea, this sand mass is hundreds of miles wide and slowly swallowing up every town, farm, and person in its path. In the closing pages of part one, we see that Ray and Luz’s escape plans quickly unravel and Luz and the baby are left alone on the side of the road, slowly dying of thirst.
At the beginning of part two of the story, Watkins writes an absolutely gorgeous poetic description of the desertification of California, some of the best writing in the entire book. She writes of the legions of scientists brought in to stop the drought, efforts were made but “all of them failed.” The drought and its dunes were “indifferent to science or prayers.” Despite scheming and plotting, “still the dune came” in sheets, clouds, rivers, mounds, a “hot white whale” that left them “entombed in sand.”
Luz is rescued and brought to live in the Colony with a band of rugged outliers being led by a charismatic cult leader, Levi. Levi is using his skill as a dowser to keep Colony members supplied with water, reveling in their utter dependence on him. Luz has catapulted from one type of dependency (first on Ray for her survival in LA) to another. Now she must rely wholly on people at the Colony for survival. When offered a chance to take a starring role in the Colony alongside Levi, an attraction develops between them. “What is attraction if not a form of telepathy?,” Watkins asks, “The wild luck of two people feeling the exact same thing at the exact same time.”
Luz is swept under the spell of Levi’s proselytizing; she too begins to believe in his divinity. To Luz, Levi “revealed the sublime subtext in the long list of civilization’s failures.” His ability to make her believe so powerful “it seemed possible that his words might summon thunderheads, that this voice might bring rain.”
Readers begin to feel ill-at-ease over the decisions Levi makes, and we must ask: is he a seer or snake oil salesman? Does he love Luz or is he manipulating her? Will the direction in which Levi is steering their lives benefit everyone, or just him?
Watkins delivers a book that is stark in its themes and settings, but lush in its writing. The book demands both close consideration of its messages and close attention paid to each intricately written detail. While more of a challenge than many science fiction books, it is absolutely worth the extra effort to discover Watkins’s genius: lines of poetry nestled between her lines of prose so beautifully laid out, like gems for her readers to examine.
The book serves to examine the “tremendous neglect and violence we’ve done” to the earth, offering a warning that our environmental debts will come due much sooner than we realize, that we cannot poison the earth without consequence. Also examined at length is the fantasy of scarcity, with the author reflecting on whether the “drought was a human crisis” rather than an environmental one, “a mechanism of long overdue social constriction” allowing for “reintroduction of hardship. Sloughing off the bourgeoisie! Euthanizing the comfort culture! After offering a pure, liberated” world. Would we better off, the author seems to be asking, if the choice to ignore our sins was taken away and we were forced to live with the effects of our choices immediately? Would those who dream of a life of simplicity and scarcity find happiness in hardship or only despair?