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Interview A Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson
Conducted by Ruth Mariampolski
Kim Stanley Robinson's three tomes chronicling a future history of extra-terrestrial colonization, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars each won either Hugo or Nebula Awards. In those books, and in his earlier Three Californias trilogy, he imagined what would happen if the boundaries by which we currently live our lives were radically altered—by colonizing Mars in the former series, and by nuclear holocaust in the latter. In his newest novel, The Years of Rice and Salt, Robinson again describes a world that's very much the same and yet different from our own—a world in which the Black Death of the 14th century killed nearly everyone in Europe. Told as a series of linked stories, and deeply steeped in Buddhist thought, The Years of Rice and Salt is an engrossing alternate history from one of the most outstanding storytellers of SF.
After writing very successful future fiction and post-apocalyptic stories, what made you change directions to alternate history?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I've been interested in alternate histories since reading Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, my favorite of his novels and, in my opinion, one of the best SF novels ever written. I wrote several alternate history short stories through the years, and always found it very interesting because it was a way to write both historical fiction and science fiction at the same time. At that time I had the idea for the novel that eventually became The Years of Rice and Salt—that means it was about 20 or 25 years ago. I had other projects to do first, but I always knew it was the best alternative that had ever occurred to me. I bought books that looked like they might help me and kept them in a special spot on my bookshelves—it looked like a miscellany but was devoted to this project. It seemed to me that taking Europe out of world history around 1400 added the maximum disorientation (or de-Occidentalization) to the history we are familiar with, while still leaving all the issues of emerging modernism there to be explored down an entirely different path.
Can you elaborate on the title? In one section of the novel it seems to indicate a time of mundane but satisfying work. How does this connect to the book as a whole?
KSR: I like your definition of it very much. In Chinese culture it referred to one of the stages of a middle-class woman's life, between when the children were born and when they left the house. I liked that (I'm in those years myself) but also it seemed to me that humanity as a whole might have a period between when they conceived of making a decent civilization and when they finally actually managed to achieve it; these would be hard years, and no matter which way history went in 1400, we would perhaps still be in them. So I like the title very much.
The new novel is made up of many short tales that cover a long time frame, each building on the last. Tell me about your writing process. Did you have the different mini-tales planned out or did they unfold as you wrote?
KSR: They unfolded as I wrote the book, and as each chapter was sketched out and drafted, it set limits on what could then happen afterward, so that some choices were made for me by what I had chosen before. I knew I wanted to take the story up to the equivalent of our time, and then a century or so further, to complicate matters even more, giving readers not only an alternative past but also a vision of another kind of future.
A great deal of your book concerns the clash of religions that many in the U.S. and Europe are only vaguely familiar with, for example Confucianism or SufiIslam. Did you already have knowledge of these religions before you began the book? If not, what sources did you use for research?
KSR: I have been interested in Buddhism ever since my hippie days, and have put together a kind of California New-Age version of Zen that has been very helpful to me in my own life. I've read a fair bit about Buddhism, although what I like about Zen is that it is about behavior and not book learning, a way of thinking and paying attention. Beyond that little bit, I knew next to nothing about Asian religions. My main source of information was Moe's Used Books in Berkeley, California, where I bought whatever looked interesting for many years. I have a good shelf of books on the subject now, but still feel I know very little about it.
The concept of samsara, or the endless cycle of rebirth, figures prominently in this book. What are your thoughts on the afterlife?
KSR: I suppose I could be called an agnostic. I don't know and I don't think anybody else does either. I subscribe to something like the standard scientific viewpoint on these issues, and figure we are our bodies, more or less. But reincarnation, or the passing along of our spirits, is a different thing having to do with language, culture, children, and paying attention to the differences in the various stages of our own lives. In other words, there are many karmic lives or little reincarnations within our longer biological spans: In the sense of childhood, the years I was in college, the years I lived in this place or with that person, and so on, are like entire existences of their own, with only parts of us carried along into the next "life." This can be extended out into a day-by-day thing, with fruitful results in terms of paying attention and noting changes and things that stay the same.
You use many different styles of writing in Years of Rice and Salt. For example, you tell stories in verse, rely on old-fashioned expository chapter headlines, etc. Is there a mode you are most comfortable in, or is it a matter of the right tool for the right job?
KSR: I try to adapt the style to the project at hand. In this case, I wanted to suggest the period and place of the story by imitating in a superficial way the storytelling or writing styles of the period in question. So, the earlier chapters reflect the first Chinese novels and various oral storytelling and folk tale traditions, then Sufi parables, the Qing dynasty novel, and later, variants on the modernist styles we see in our world. It gave me ways to voice the material, and generated new ways of phrasing things and so forth. I also think it gave some variety to a very long novel. It was great fun to try it, too.
There was a rash of SF movies last year, most of them fairly bad. Yet the Harry Potter and The Fellowship of the Ring movies have proved that some genre movies can be both compelling and commercially successful. Would you ever consider having any of your books made into movies?
KSR: I'm not a movie person; it's books I love. But, I'd be perfectly happy to see someone make a movie from one of my books, just for the obvious reasons of finance and advertising for more readers for the books, as well as seeing what it might look like. I think Antarctica and The Gold Coast are the two of mine that would make the best movies. Currently the Sci-fi Channel has optioned Red Mars with the idea of making it a mini-series, so we'll see what happens with that.
Is The Years of Rice and Salt the beginning of a new series or will it stand alone? What will your next project be?
KSR: Oh my, most definitely a stand-alone. My next project will be a set of short novels about science, politics, global warming, Buddhism. Whatever they will be, they will be short.