The Climate-Obsessed Sci-Fi Genius of Kim Stanley Robinson
As one of the solar system's pre-eminent writers of climate change-driven, politically astute science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson wouldn’t be anyone’s prime suspect for a crime against nature. Yet here we are, standing at the edge of his plot in a community garden, and it’s bare except for some scrubby, dying shrubs and what looks like sparse, thick-bladed grass. “It’s purple nutsedge,” Robinson says. “If you weed it, it just comes back.” He didn’t know that when he started weeding.
It gets worse. The only way to really kill the plant, he says, is with injudicious applications of RoundUp or a purpose-built herbicide called SedgeMaster—a name Robinson says with a delighted evil-villain inflection—but the garden, at the heart of the 1970s experiment in residential communitarianism near Davis, California where Robinson lives, is organic. The gardener is on board, but he’ll need permission from the community council for a one-time SedgeMaster application.
The nanopolitics of this ecological microcatastrophe run deep. Robinson’s little town, crisscrossed by bike paths, is full of artists and scientists. (The guy who works the next garden plot over is a researcher at Monsanto; Robinson says everyone can tell that neighbor secretly threw down some RoundUp to clear a pathway.) Robinson tried to build a perfect ecosystem within the constraints of scientific and political realities. It went wrong. Now, only a polymerization of advanced superscience and hardcore diplomacy will fix it—and ignoring those realities will make things worse.
In other words, Kim Stanley Robinson is living inside a Kim Stanley Robinson novel.
His new book, Red Moon, comes out this week. It’s set in the same universe as his last one, New York 2140, but it’s a standalone, a couple-on-the-run thriller set against political unrest in China and among various international colonies on the Moon. That’s the plot; the program is Robinson’s attempt to untangle what a spacefaring future will be like when China is at a peak of its new ascendance. There are car chases, rocket explosions, and philosophical meanderings. Genre, as always, is a good tool for taking big ideas and making them fight.
Robinson has been writing since the 1980s, but it was arguably Red Mars, the first book in a trilogy about the colonization and terraforming of you-know-where, for which he became best known. It came out in 1992, the same year as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash—which I bring up only because it suggests, maybe too conveniently, a crossroads for science fiction. Stephenson’s book was a graduation ceremony for the cyberpunk subgenre, funny and wild, and it assumed that the future would mostly take place inside computers.
Red Mars was different. It evoked the grand, old Golden Age of adventure—rocketships, engineers solving technical problems, a love triangle. But then there were the meetings. So many meetings. The newly minted Martians argued philosophy, created mythologies, aligned into political factions, and in general engaged in the messy work of building what they hoped would be a utopia.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of book Robinson’s mentors and idols would have written, but it wasn’t unlike one, either. He’s a Californian, so his ideas all have the Western tinge that equates frontiers with futures. He spent a month training with Ursula LeGuin at UC San Diego; in 1975 his instructors at the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop included Gene Wolfe, Samuel Delany, and Roger Zelazny—“our gods,” he says. “They were so good. We haven’t matched them.”
Robinson hoped to evoke the warmth and emotion that LeGuin’s writing did, but “a lot of things I was told about how writing worked, I had to unlearn,” he says. The 1980s style sheet called for pulpy action. Exposition and explanation were for suckers—an infodump. “I thought, you know what, these people are cramping my style,” Robinson says. “I’m gonna blow them away with infodumps. If it’s interesting, it’s fucking interesting.”
Cyberpunk had other ideas. Books like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix played out a future dominated by corporations, where code and cybernetic body modification threaded through underworlds full of murderous gangsters. It wasn’t to Robinson’s taste. “Cyberpunk was an aberration,” he says. “They were somewhat antifeminist, with their hard noir gals. It was defeatist. Or nonpolitical. Or collaborationist—like noir. So I hated them, and they hated me.” The tropes of film noir, he says, weren’t up to the task of laying out a useful future.
Ironically, headed into the third decade of the 21st century it’s Robinson’s can-do (or must-do) attitude about the future that seems almost retrograde. His stories often take place after apocalypses, but, hey, they aren’t the end of the world, right? The Mars trilogy is about building a society. Antarctica is about finding permanence in the most alien place on Earth. Shaman is about how humans became human. New York 2140 is set in a flooded New York City. (“I wanted to write a book about global finance,” he says, and his skeptical editor suggested maybe confining the action to a recognizable but inventive future location. The book also explains how capital exploits cities, and exhorts people to collectively stop paying their bills to force the government to nationalize the banks.)
But with his Science in the Capital trilogy in the early 2000s, Robinson explicitly started writing about how to avert (or survive) a specific apocalypse—the warming climate of Earth. He’s not alone in that subgenre. Paolo Bacigalupi excels at gritty adventures set in a flooded, drought-afflicted world run by corporations and scavenged by the rest of us. Even the Song of Ice and Fire series is, according to author George R.R. Martin, a piece of climate fiction at its heart.
The last couple of decades have in some ways made climate collapse the apocalypse of choice for science fiction. It wasn’t always so. The “post-” in the first three Mad Max movies was nuclear, right? But Fury Road seemed to retcon that. It read as almost anticlimactically climatic. Of course there was no water left, of course the trees were gone, of course women were chattel and men were mostly insane, tumor-engorged barbarians. You get the apocalypse you deserve.
Whether you come out the other side of it—well, I suppose that’s what Robinson is trying to answer. “I want to give a vision that’s detailed,” he says, “not just the nostrums but a thick, textured statement of how things could be.” Robinson respects the newest generation of sci-fi writers for being “forensic in taking apart capitalism,” he says, but thinks that for stories to stick—to make their way into the hands of congressional staffers (so they’ll tell their bosses) and think tanks (so they’ll turn into policy statements that turn into laws)—the stories have to have heart, too. “You can’t predict,” he says. “But you can push.”
Since 2007 or so, Robinson has written outside, in a blue-upholstered chair that probably looked better when he first dragged it out to his front yard and set it next to a glass-topped table. He tied tarps above the seat to keep the rain off. An electric fan is plugged into an extension cord running from the house for when it’s hot. When it’s cold, he wears a lot of down. Booties and an electric blanket are key; Robinson spends a lot of time hiking in the Sierras, and he knows about keeping his feet warm. He’s in the chair for six to 10 hours every day. Even the birds are so used to him they don’t fly away anymore. “A writing day is an outdoor day,” Robinson says. “It has extended my sanity and my writing career.”
He aims for Cal Ripken streaks, he says—as many days in a row of writing something, anything, for as long as he can. “I get to the end of a day where I haven’t written and I think, fuck it, I can’t break the streak,” he says. So he writes a paragraph, for 20 minutes. Words on the page. “I know what I’m doing today. I’m right there in that chair,” he says. Between that and a supportive editor, Robinson has been able to transform himself into a rarity: a late-career science fiction writer.
The stories are realism, as far as that goes in genre. Sure, every once in a while Robinson threatens to write a story about vampires trapped in a car with zombies. (Vampires represent the global rich, the sexy tempting oligarchs feeding on the working class; zombies are the mob.) But in general, fantasy has never interested him—even when Harry Potter and his fellow magic-academy alumni dominated the genre shelves.
Maybe there isn’t much effective difference between a warp drive and a giant eagle when it comes to powering a character’s journey, but everything Robinson writes comes from a base layer of reporting. He pored over topo maps of Manhattan to figure out what parts of town would be underwater after catastrophic sea level rise, and he traveled to China for Red Moon. Because of a visa snafu, he had just 71 hours in Beijing, so his hosts careened him across town in a rush to compress, distill, purify an impression of the city—an experience echoed in one character’s mad dash across a Beijing gridlocked by a mass demonstration.
New York 2140 ends with some positive feelings about a Chinese-style managed economy, so I ask Robinson if that doesn’t let the country off the hook for ethnic atrocities and a repressive surveillance state. But all that is in the new book, too. Robinson marvels at the country’s market socialism, but points out that it’s a mysterious gerontocracy with an oppressed working class of 500 million people. “I want to bracket all that by saying that I’m just guessing,” he says. “The more I read about China the less I understood, which is backwards to my usual process. I talked to some Chinese friends, and they said, ‘Stan, that’s good. We don’t either.’”
The surveillance technology of the future certainly made the chase parts of the book hard. “In China, you can hide but you can’t run,” he says. “If you run, they can get you.” So two of his main characters, neuro-atypical engineer Fred and Qi, pregnant leader of a nascent Chinese workers’ movement, spent 40 pages bottled into a hideout reading to each other. And why not? Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint spend a few scenes together on the train in North by Northwest, and that works fine.
Robinson’s writing chair and table stand on top of a circle of medium-sized and small stones embedded in the dirt. Almost all of them have a story. Robinson bends down and starts pointing. That white one, one of his sons brought back from the beach. That black one, his father brought from the Alps. One came from Hemingway’s house in Cuba; another from John Muir’s. Ursula LeGuin picked that one. That’s from Herman Melville’s house. That’s from Louis Armstrong’s place in Queens. One from Virginia Woolf. One from Percy Shelley. Robinson brought a few small ones back from Antarctica, and he put them near a bunch of pieces of his beloved Sierras.
Here, again, the metaphor is possibly too convenient. Robinson’s stories literally arise from a rock-solid foundation of earlier work. The almost throwbackish formalism of his writing sets it well apart from more trope-busting work by, say, Nnedi Okorafor, whose work Robinson admires. But the callbacks don’t diminish its effect. “He has such a powerful voice as a writer, and he uses it to help us imagine a future that is both too scary and too weird for us to wrap our heads around,” says Charlie Jane Anders, co-editor of the web site io9 and author of All the Birds in the Sky. “It’s a genre that’s uniquely suited to helping us imagine strange and alarming scenarios, and that means SF has a responsibility to help us face up to what’s coming.”
“Even the kind of distant-future science fiction that he writes, the context is a kind of climate change-ravaged earth,” says Adeline Johns-Putra, a reader in English literature at the University of Surrey who studies climate fiction. “He writes the most politically informed work on what needs to happen if we’re going to deal with climate change, over a whole network of issues—science, politics, economics, how people have to work together and talk to each other.”
That emphasizes the meetings Robinson’s work is full of—people doing the hard work of building consensus policies. But it downplays his stories’ spirit. Every Kim Stanley Robinson book I have read has radicalized me in one way or another, about the environment or the movement of global capital or the power of collective action. That’s on purpose. As sure as he’s embedding other narratives in the ground beneath his writing chair, Robinson is embedding manuals for revolution in his own narratives. “That said, maybe I just want to write a good novel. But maybe that’s what a good novel is,” he says. “Fucking Iain Banks died and Ursula died, and I’m like the last utopian.”
Possibly. Unless his books train a few more.