Interview: Kim Stanley Robinson

By Lynne Jamneck

Kim Stanley Robinson is widely regarded as one of the best SF writers working today. Best known for his Mars Trilogy which began with Red Mars in 1992, and won the 1993 Nebula for best novel, the trilogy continued with Green Mars (1993) which won the 1994 Hugo for best novel and concluded with Blue Mars (1995) which won the Hugo for best novel in 1997. His work has also garnered him numerous other awards, including the John W. Campbell Memorial, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards.

Forty Signs of Rain, the first novel in a new sequence, was released in 2004, and Fifty Degrees Below, the second book, will be released in hardcover this October.

Lynne Jamneck: If the concept of causality is anything to go by, where are we heading as a collective species within the next 50 to 70 years?

Kim Stanley Robinson: The population will be between 7 and 10 billion, and I imagine it will be a time of considerable tension, as people struggle to get out of capitalism into something more sustainable and just, and to forestall any further damage to the environment. That will require a world effort and considerably more cooperation than we have now, so who knows how it will be dealt with. Race of progress against catastrophe. Interesting times.

LJ: Do you think that the cyberpunk literature movement has run its course? Is there an antithesis to it its dystopian outlook?

KSR: As Reagan-era SF I should think cyberpunk is done, but it might be argued that the Reagan revolution won so completely that it is still in control, and cyberpunk thus is still describing the moment it predicted and invoked all too well.

The antithesis of any dystopian fiction is of course utopian fiction, which continues to be written, and always will be. Indeed dystopias are also utopian in the end, so really it could be said that all these sub-genres are part of the larger science fiction project of invoking a certain kind of future. Utopias say explicitly "there could be something better," and behind the satire and defeatism of cyberpunk, as with all dystopian fiction, there is always the bitter implication "it could be better," which makes the dystopian's disappointment in the likely future all the more savage.

What this brings into question is whether cyberpunk was dystopian, as you described it, or celebratory of an ugly social order, which would be a different thing entirely, something more like "welcome to the machine."

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LJ: Your novel Forty Signs of Rain is the first in three linked novels. Tell us about the influence and inspiration behind the story. What type of research was involved?

KSR: It's a sequence of novels about science and capital in the near future, in a world coping with global warming. Inspired by the current news, like a lot of SF.

I had the opportunity to do a lot of personal research this time, participating in NSF grant evaluation panels, talking to people in Washington and in the biotech industry, and shadowing a good friend of mine as he went about his daily work in a biotech lab in San Diego. I also included a lot of Washington DC details from the time when my wife and I lived there.

LJ: Your work is well known for its views on ecology and environmental issues. In South Africa presently, there is a huge move towards enterprises such as Permaculture, not only in terms of environmental interest, but also as a way of empowering communities and creating jobs. Do you think that government-funded institutions are doing enough in terms of preserving the natural balance of our biological environment, or does the future of preservation lie within the self-determining concerns of the world's communities?

KSR: Self-determining concerns of the world's communities will have to make use of government-funded institutions, and government itself. It's a total-culture project. It's a pleasure to see the word "Permaculture" in your question, as this is one of the best names we have for this very crucial movement, but it is not a name well known in the USA. By and large, mainstream American culture is still in a state of deep denial about all this, and of course that is a huge problem. It seems to me worthwhile to write novels about such an interesting and important situation, just to heighten awareness.

LJ: There have not been many reasonably good SF films in roughly the past ten years. What do you think makes the film industry so leery of approaching SF films? Surely, it cannot be a lack of viable material.

KSR: I know next to nothing about films. It seems to me there have been some good SF movies in the last decade, for instance Cameron's The Abyss or Sagan's Contact. In each case the movie came out of an individual's unique SF vision and was terrifically difficult to get through the filming process. So, maybe the viable material is everywhere to hand, but good movies of any kind very hard to make, because of the huge money needed and the committee nature of the work.

LJ: Have there been any recent discussions about turning some of your own work into film? Whatever happened to James Cameron directing Red Mars as a mini-series?

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KSR: Cameron has Mars stories of his own to tell, and he did not pick up the option on my work. Now the Sci-Fi channel is developing a mini-series for Red Mars; there's a six-hour script by Greg Widen but it has not gone into production yet.

LJ: Will our dependence on technology be our greatest downfall? Do we actually understand our own advancement enough to use it positively?

KSR: We've been depending on technology for about a million years now, but then again we have fallen down a lot too. Our greatest downfall is not our technology but our social system, built as it is on fear, greed, anger.

We understand our advancement, but are still too mired in the old hierarchies and injustices to make proper use of it yet. It'll be a race to get clear and take advantage of all that permaculture-tech can bring us.

LJ: Do possibilities that are addressed in SF fiction subconsciously influence and shape the way in which our reality evolves? If we can imagine it, will it inadvertently strengthen the possibility of becoming real?

KSR: Or on purpose. Shelley said, "Anything that can be conceived can be executed." I'm not sure that is true, but certainly SF serves as a kind of modeling or climate forecasting; its scenarios tend to have a group similarity, or a majority report, that invokes a certain kind of future which everyone then assumes will come true in some form or other. SF has been doing well enough with the general tenor of its predictions to make people confident that it is doing pretty well at capturing the feel of the future, in some senses. Ironically, this may account for the decrease of interest in SF lately (if there is one, as often reported)—people don't want to know. The future is scary, and people think it can only get worse, so they read something else. No one likes dystopias as a steady diet. This was one of the worst aspects of cyberpunk; to the extent it succeeded (particularly in its implication that this dire future would be fun and that canny people could get by surfing the badness) the vision of a better future tended to fail. Dystopias need to be warnings, not invitations to cope, and give up on change.

LJ: With the tremendous and rapid advancement there has been of late technology wise, are there some things not yet in existence you maybe thought would've been invented by now?

KSR: Renewable energy, for one; I would have thought solar or wind or tidal or piezoelectric power generation would be already accomplished. It seems a judgment on the impedance of the oil and nuclear industries, and our political systems, that we don't have this already; although there are some technical problems, obviously. But a major push on this front would seem the obvious thing to do. But capitalism is not ready to go there, and may not be until it is later than one would wish.

LJ: Is it still the case that SF writers shy away from far-future stories because they are afraid the technology in their stories will be outdated within 15 or 20 years' time?

KSR: No, I don't think this describes the situation at any point. Far-future stories are being written more now than in many years (see the Locus articles on the new space opera, etc), and in these kind of stories the technology is so like magic, as Clarke pointed out, that they seem about as solid—or as unsolid—at the start of their appearance, as they do much later. The tech in Zelazny's Lord Of Light, for instance, seems perfectly fine, because he waved his hands so generally, and used notions from quantum mechanics, which will always serve as a plausible name for the techs invoked, because who can deny any weirdness of quantum mechanics? It will always seem fresh and undated.

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LJ: Your novel The Years Of Rice and Salt deals with the premise of alternate history. Presently, are there issues which, given immediate address and consideration (or indeed, a lack thereof), could well swerve us into a completely different direction than what we currently anticipate?

KSR: Sure, but that is always true. All the "big events" of history have pushed us in different directions than were anticipated. New plague, terrorist nuke in a major capital, but also greens elected to office, or a positive intervention of science in policy—negative or positive, or some unique combination, any of that could swerve us into something other than the consensus feel of the future as it now exists. Just recently, the Bush "win" of the US presidency, and the 9/11/01 attacks, both seem to have shoved us into alternative histories to the ones we expected. Both for the worse, but the better is also possible.

LJ: Where do you see space exploration going in the next 50-75 years? From all that has been found out recently about planets like Mars—and now the research interest in Pluto—do you think our exploration of space can possibly help us deal with the environmental crises on Earth?

KSR: Well, comparative planetology is a powerful tool for investigating how Earth's biosphere behaves, so going to Mars and studying it would be a great thing to do. Even if most of the big lessons from comparative planetology are already learned (if not applied to Earth yet), still the news of people on Mars would emphasize every day that we too live on a planet, finite and capable of crashing ecologically. So space exploration still has a defensible place among the human projects, I think. None of it is going to go very fast, but that's okay too. It would mean that significant space travel would be occurring in the context of a healthy global culture.

LJ: You are a self-confessed utopian, and certainly, this comes through in your work. When faced with current world conflicts like war, famine and AIDS, what makes you veer towards this positive outlook rather than the opposite?

KSR: War, famine, and plague have existed for millennia, maybe for as long as humans have been a species, and so given this situation as a baseline, we're now approaching a time when we must do something about it, or cause the sixth great extinction event for the Earth's biosphere, and untellable suffering to humanity as well. And we have a very rapidly expanding technological ability, and scientific understanding of the world. So it seems to me a kind of race between progress and catastrophe; and that being the case, why not write about progress winning out? We need some visualizations of what we might want to work toward, and how we might go about it.

It makes for interesting novels to try to tell these tales, and there are not that many novels doing this work, so it is a slightly empty ecological niche in world culture, especially given its potential importance. So obviously it's one of the things to try.

LJ: What are your views on globalization and the so-called global village?

KSR: Globalization seems to be one name for late capitalism's enmeshing of every culture on Earth, and the biosphere itself, into its system of strip-mining for short-term gain. I think globalization should be understood to be a malignant process, like a social cancer.

The "global village" on the other hand strikes me as real, for the fraction of the world's population that has access to the global media, and potentially very good for world history. Not everyone is in the village, but it may be a really big fraction; and maybe almost everyone is aware of the rest of the world, more or less fully. It's an information cascade that has touched everyone not living in isolation. That awareness of everyone else on the planet can very easily lead to the conclusion "we're all in this together," which while frightening for the currently privileged to contemplate, may yet be a spur to action by all, and to a general support of justice applied worldwide. Permaculture as the global project of the global village; as opposed to globalization, which is a kind of Taylorization of all humanity.

LJ: Are you a Star Trek fan? Many people are still critical of Gene Roddenberry's view of the future. Is the Trek universe pure naïve idealism?

KSR: I have no idea, as I am not a fan, and have seen very little of Star Trek. I love Spock who strikes me as a hilarious image of The Scientist in our culture, but beyond him I have little impression of the series.

LJ: Read any good books lately?

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KSR: Sure have, many about the issues discussed above, one way or another. Geoff Ryman's Air, due out very soon; Gwyneth Jones's Bold As Love sequence, Terry Bisson's Dear Abbey, Ken MacLeod's new sequence, and lots of others; science fiction is really going strong these days. In other fields, lots of Penelope Fitzgerald and Henry Green, Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin. There is more good stuff to read than there is time to read it, and what a blessing that is.

LJ: How have the events of 9/11 and after changed our collective view of the future?

KSR: Depends on what "our" collective vision was before. Maybe there are many who now realize the global reach of problems, who didn't realize it quite before. But I'm also convinced by those who argue that American culture in particular became more withdrawn rather than less, in reaction to this realization. Perhaps most people now view the future as something deeply dangerous and unresolved, no easy march of progress imaginable anymore. Islam is just one of the current cultures or aspects of reality that will not easily dissolve into globalization's system.

LJ: Are there any current trends in SF that you have picked up on—stylistic or theme-wise? There seems to be a move toward breaking away from genre, from classifying fiction as fitting into a specific slot.

KSR: I don't read enough of it to have more than a slight impression as to what is going on. There are lots of new hip space operas, and, more difficult and bold, I think, a number of striking visions of the near future. But isn't this always true? And "breaking away from genre, from classification" is something people have been talking about since I started publishing nearly 30 years ago. I think the only people who can really say anything about patterns for the genre are professional reviewers and perhaps some editors, people who really read a lot.

LJ: If you could arrange to be buried on Mars, would you? What would your epitaph read?

KSR: My epitaph! What a Greek notion, very nice. I'll have to think about that for a few decades to capture the proper pith.

As for my ashes, they will mostly be scattered in my wife's family plot in Maine, and in various parts of California. On Mars there is a tradition of naming craters for people, but only after the people in question are dead. So I feel there is no particular hurry on that.


Lynne Jamneck Photo

Lynne Jamneck is a writer/photographer from South Africa. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various markets and anthologies in the UK, USA, Canada, and South Africa. Her first mystery, Down The Rabbit Hole—A Samantha Skellar Mystery, is available from Bella Books. She is the creator and editor of Simulacrum: The Magazine of Speculative Transformation. You can read more by Lynne in our archives.