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 Reality Break - A Talk Show of Fantastic Literature

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This interview is copyright Reality Break and the interviewee. Republication is expressly prohibited.

Electronic distribution of web pages being what it is, it's tough to write these things in legal language that matches the reality of the medium. The translation is - please don't redistribute this in any form: don't post it anywhere, don't put it on other web pages, don't put it in your print publications. Read it and enjoy it all you want, freely link to it as you wish, but please don't do anything that involves anyone getting this interview in any other form than this web page.

Kim Stanley Robinson

This is the transcript of an interview conducted March 3, 1994 at the home of Professor Bud Foote of Georgia Tech. It was first aired on Reality Break in April 1994.

You are in town [Atlanta] speaking to Georgia Tech students and talking about your new book Green Mars.

That's right. Professor Bud Foote has invited me as part of the Literature, Communications and Culture program [of Georgia Tech] so I am here to talk to some classes and give a speech and do some signings at the local bookstores. It's associated with Green Mars coming out now, but it just happened to be at this time. I enjoy coming out here. The students are interesting. I'm a science groupie myself. I was not trained as a scientist but I'm married to one and I'm very interested in the whole process of science. I like to meet with students and talk with them. Also, I used to be a college teacher and I'm not anymore, so I come back to Georgia Tech to get a flashback of the good parts of teaching without having to grade papers. It's wonderful.

Mars is the current series that you are working on. When you began it, it was before the current Mars craze had hit. What do you make of that? Why do you suppose that Mars has become a hot topic recently?

I'm kind of mystified about it, to tell you the truth. I've been asked the question before because in the last couple of years at least fifteen science fiction novels set on Mars have come out all at once. Everyone has noticed that there is this trend, but no one knows what it means. Neither do I, but it does occur to me that it was 1976 when Viking landed on Mars and gave us a gigantic amount of data. Maybe it has just taken this long for science fiction writers to process that data and figure out what it might mean, what stories you might tell about it, and actually realize the enormous potential for storytelling. I think it's just a coincidence partly, and that it takes that long to process the fact of the new world, which is more or less what we have been given by the Viking and Mariner missions.

Before beginning Red Mars, you've written about Mars a few times, in "Green Mars", originally a short story and the like. What interests you personally in writing about Mars as a subject?

The thing that first drew me to it in these early stories was the landscapes that I saw on the photographs that were sent back by Mariner and Viking. A lot of the Viking photos were taken stereo optically, by two cameras or by one camera in two different positions, so that you could look through a viewer and get a sense of it in three dimensions. I saw some tremendous landscapes. Incredibly tall cliffs, giant volcanoes, enormous canyons as long as the United States is wide.

I'm a backpacker. I really love the time I spend in the high mountains and in the deserts of the American west. It occurred to me from the first look at these photographs that what we had here was an entire world made up of mountains and deserts of the kind that I really enjoy. I like bare rock. So I got interested in Mars at first just because of the potential for backpacking - which is silly, but that's how these things come about. The more I began to think about it the more I began to think that this process of terraforming, of transforming Mars' atmosphere and giving it a biosphere is simply an astonishing idea and it is a new idea in history.

Until 1976 we didn't know enough about Mars to know whether it was possible or not. If Mars had turned out to be as dry as the moon, there wouldn't have been enough water to make a biosphere, and that would have scotched the plan right from the start. Now we know that there is a lot of water on Mars in permafrost form, and it's possible to terraform it. That is a physical possibility, not theoretical. Between the combination of what we know about it and what we know about our own technology, we can do the equations. The times involve vary, depending on how optimistic the scientists are about the technology involved. The shortest estimate I've ever seen has been 50 years but that is kind of an extremist judgement. More typically it would be somewhere between a few thousand years and about 20,000 years. Some at the long end of the scale talk about 100,000 years which is awfully long. If you are only talking about 1000 years then it is within the scale of possibility because we would be seeing progress all a long the way. Terraforming is a real possibility. There is only one biosphere that we know of, Earth, and there are probably millions of Earths throughout the universe but we can't get to any of them. Mars is basically right next door. It is possible that we could introduce a biosphere there that would then begin to self organize and become its own place and that's simply a tremendously exciting possibility to me.

Your book Red Mars is concerned with the ethical conflicts of terraforming, the responsibility that you have to leave as it was versus the pragmatic need to have the planet terraformed. Is part of this superimposing our environmental concerns of today onto Mars of the future?

Yes, exactly. I think it is a nice way of thinking about our own environmental movement and figuring out what it is about our environment that we really value. People talk about the land ethic when they talk about environmentalism. The phrase comes from Aldo Leopold and the notion that what is good for humanity is what is good for the land . People who would advocate the terraforming of Mars would say that when he says the land he doesn't mean the rock, he means the bacteria and the life forms at all scales that exist bonded into the land and on top of the land. What he means by the land is the biosphere. I'm not so sure that's what Aldo Leopold meant. I think he may have included rock amongst the things that we need to grant intrinsic worth and to take care of, but in any case it makes you think about what it is in nature that we love. Is it the simple fact of geology and rock or is it life itself that we are talking about?

In Mars you get to think about these issues explicitly because the Mars that's already there is obviously a beautiful place and it has its own intrinsic worth. It is a spectacular, awesome place. Terraforming it would wreck some features. Introduction of water would immediately begin to tear apart a very arid surface, and chemical reactions that had never happened before would happen instantly. The soil would practically boil. It would change Mars dramatically. If people were committed to the rock of Mars and its intrinsic worth as it is right now, they would be violently opposed to terraforming Mars. I would be violently opposed if someone came to California and said "Let's irrigate Death Valley. We can make this into a pretty place and have forests all over the American west." Perhaps you could, but I would be very offended because I love the American desert the way it is. Certainly in that first group of Martian colonists there are going to be some humans who are going to fall in love with Mars the way it is. They will resist the process of terraformation. I have sympathy for that in a way, because of the analogy to Death Valley and the American deserts.

I teeter-totter back and forth between being attracted and appalled by the idea and it is that that has given me the energy to take on this real big book. I keep on teeter-totering back and forth and I can speak with conviction from the characters various points of views because I myself am so conflicted about it. I think it helps as a novelist even though it doesn't help me to be a coherent human being.

Is that one of the reasons why you chose the narrative structure where you have rotating viewpoints amongst the first 100 colonists - so that you can look at each side of the question and you can be each person with each belief?

Yes, exactly. The story I wanted to tell was bigger than any one character point of view could contain. I wanted to express with conviction the different points of view that are going to exist there. I constructed it so that each chapter of the novel is from a different character's point of view although some of them come back occasionally and there are some repetitions. These characters have strongly divergent beliefs and while I was writing that chapter I just tried to throw myself completely into their mind set and understand them as well as I could. I have this ambivalence. Ambivalence for a novelist is not necessarily a bad thing because it supports the kind of thing that you are trying to do, which is to understand different points of view fully. Not just to be a preacher, but to be someone who presents the whole array of human opinions.

With many novels of this type, the engineering concerns often outweigh other concerns in the book. In your book, the characters and the sociopolitical scheme overrides the engineering problems. Are you more interested in the politics than the actual breaking of the rocks?

I'm interested in all of it, but it seems to me that the engineering, although complicated, is relatively straightforward and it's not as perplexing as the task of setting up a human colony there. Because if humans go to Mars, then they will bring along all of there cultural baggage. All of their various beliefs and ideologies are going to come into conflict. Even though they will be setting up a new society, they will have a lot of patterns of thought and behavior from the old society that will be carried along with them. Some of those are destructive to any environment and don't make any sense, and just happen to be holdover traditions that we haven't managed to escape. Others are absolutely useful and necessary, but sorting out which is which is going to be a matter of conflict, particularly since this is not going to be a single nation effort. It will be an international, multicultural effort so all of the problems that we have on Earth I'm afraid will get transferred to Mars. The thing that I think is interesting about that is that in effect it will become a microcosm situation. Oftentimes when you get small enough international groups, differences tend to fade away and people tend to cooperate. I'm thinking of scientific expeditions to Antarctica and other international cooperative ventures that have been small scale. Everyone realized that all humans are humans and that individuals begin to bond as individuals and their cultural differences begin to fall away. I see the possibility for Mars to develop a multicultural situation that is relatively peaceful but it seem to me that it will be a struggle to get there. That's not a bad thing for a novelist, because the struggle is what novels are about.

With Mars you have the frontier analogy, and you emphasize that by having one of the main characters named "John Boone" and in the path-breaking, frontiersman role. Was that a conscious effort of yours?

It is a frontier situation, and the first man on Mars is an American astronaut in the classic American mold. The name "John Boone" has echoes of Daniel Boone and John Glenn and any number of other plain, all-American names, and seemed to me to remind people of what this character is. Sometimes I think that choices as to who would be the first are sometimes made on peculiar, irrational beliefs. Neil Armstrong is an awfully solid American name compared to Buzz Aldrin and it's crazy but it may not be a coincidence that Armstrong was the one that ended up being chosen to be first. I don't think that it's altogether unlikely that a guy with a real classic name might end up being the one chosen.

Anytime that you have earth expanding beyond it's boundaries, you've got all of the problems of an empire. Do you think that there is any way to avoid these problems or is any colony doomed to the same situations we've seen throughout history?

I think there probably is going to be always a propensity for the people back home to think of the colony or the expedition as an extension of themselves. We sent these people to Mars, they're from Earth, they've been sent out there to do a job and so they've got to do that job. If you send people there, when they stay long enough and if they have kids, very quickly they will begin to develop local loyalties. "Don't tell us what to do, we are a free people." I think that there is in fact an almost natural tendency for people to go through that sequence. The only question is, how quickly will the home empire get it, that they can't control colonies at a distance. It's impossible even on Earth, and with another plant that is nine months distant, the logistics of it just make it impossible. That's not to say that people will admit that right away.

I thought it was very interesting in the book when you discussed the selection process for who would actually go on the mission. Simultaneously, they are trying to select for contradictory attitudes and qualities in this people.

I described it as being a gigantic list of double binds. They were asking people to be extraordinarily talented but also extremely sociable, so there is a lot of contradictions in what the people to be selected are asked. They would know that or at least be aware of it on some level. I'm sure that would create tremendous anxiety because on the one hand they are asked to be brilliant and on the other they are asked to be congenial. That's a hard combination for anyone to encompass in a single personality. My feeling is that the people who get selected will be good at dissembling, at hiding parts of themselves, and at playing the part of a mellow, congenial person. There might be quite a few people who would get on board having played that part when it wasn't really there true nature. Once they got to Mars, there would be no reason for them to continue to behave that way and then we would get the full array of human eccentricity.

This series, by the time it reaches the end, will be the largest continued narrative of your career. Going into the first book, did you realize that it was going to be such a big story?

Sitting down and beginning to work on this project, I thought it would be one novel and that I would call it Green Mars, and I knew it would be a big book. I had the desire to write a real "bug crusher", as we call them, a book you could use as a doorstop with no problem. As soon as I began to work on it seriously, I realized that I wanted to give a lot of attention to many steps along the way. I wanted to go through the process of terraforming stage by stage so that there was a real feeling of authenticity about it, so that you might think it could really happen that way. At that point, I realized that it was even bigger than a "bug crusher." It had to be a multi-volume thing, and publishers are real happy with multi-volume science fiction trilogies. They are a nice commercial item, so there was no protest when I said that this has to be more than one book.

Does your attitude change, do you have to approach it differently knowing that rather than writing a lone book, you are committing several years of your life to this long story?

Yes. There's the technical challenge of making sure that the end of volume 1 and the end of volume 2 represent a satisfactory pause point. If it had been a single book, there would be no reason why there would have to be a satisfactory pause point at the 1/3 and 2/3 mark. When they are actual volumes that come out years apart I felt that it was very important to give a little bit of closure to each episode. I knew anyway that it would take a few years of my life, even as a single novel, and to tell you the truth, I've gotten real comfortable. People are so adaptable, and I've been working on it so long now that that it strikes me as a permanent condition of my existence. I'm not really thinking about product, just process. As far as I can tell by the way things feel, I'm going to be writing a Mars book forever and at this point I'm getting nervous about being done. It feels a little scary.

Throughout your career you have been a critical success, and with these books you have broken out into large market. Is there a difference between a "writer's writer" and a "reader's writer?"

A writers' writer implies that you are doing things tricky enough that only a sophisticated reader or another writer will notice them and that you might be doing things so trickily that a less experienced reader can't follow the story. I would never want the tag of a "writers' writer." I would rather be a reader's writer, and I'm very much committed to the notion of a straightforward surface to a story that contains some depth to it. It seems to me that when you get right down to it, what really makes lit erature interesting to us is not the tricks of the telling but is the actual content of it, the meaning that you are conveying. It is what you have to say more than how you say it, although it is important to be able to say it well. It's even more important that you have something to say at all. The fact that these books have been a bigger success compared to my earlier ones is just a great pleasure to me. I would hope that it would pull those earlier books back into the limelight a little bit. Those books are as straightforward in their style as anything, as the Mars books or anything else I have done, and I feel that maybe it has just taken a while to get known. It is a happy time in my career. I feel that my readership is growing very fast right now and that's real satisfying because when I think about it (although I try not to) it's been twenty years since I started writing.

One reviewer said of you that your work isn't escapism, that it sends you straight into conflict with yourself. Do you think that's an accurate statement? Do you think of your work as provocative?

I'm not interested in escapism. I would like to provide entertainment that also gives you food for thought. That's a classical notion of what literature is about, that it's there to educate or instruct as well as entertain. The entertainment should not be a sugar coating on a serious pill but the two should coexist as a single thing. If you do literature well enough, both happen at the same time. It is high entertainment, and the reason that it is high entertainment is that it is making you think so hard about your own life and about the real world. The books we know and love are the books that have given us that feeling. It should be tremendous fun, but partly the fun of recognition.

I had not noticed this until doing the research for this interview, but someone also commented that your protagonists tend to be almost hyperactive, in that they are always busy. Have you ever picked that out of your work?

That's funny. It's probably true and it's because as a writer or as a storyteller I can't figure out what to talk about when they aren't busy. [laughs] That's probably a failing on my part. I should be able to think of something. You know, people have als o criticized my work for having too much thought and not enough action. My feeling is that these two types of comments are at such odds with each other that I don't know what to take from them. It doesn't give me any useful information about what to do next. Business comes out of plot, and having too much thought comes from trying to indicate what's going on in my character's minds. I need both of these things, so I just have to keep on forging on.

You've written the Orange County books and various other books which are dissimilar from what you are doing now. Do each of these books scratch a different itch?

Sure. I wrote three California novels that were set in my home area and were three different futures for my home area and the world at large. They were near future science fiction, where I was really absorbed in the problems of the next fifty years in Earth's history. It seems to me that science fiction that just skips over those next fifty years and assumes that everything will be alright is making a mistake because it is going to be a very problematic fifty years and interesting to write about. With the Mars books, the interest is specifically with Mars and the opportunity that it provides for terraforming. It does reflect back on our current situation, but it is also a kind of escape from our next fifty years and a chance to talk about landscape and the things that I love in a different way. They are different projects and I like to do something different every time out.

As you write, I'm sure that you basically write for yourself, the work that you enjoy and the work that you want to do. What would you hope that a reader takes out of your work?

A whole host of things, really. I would hope that they would go back into the world and think that they see it a little bit differently and maybe with a little more depth, more of a sense of history - a sense that what we do now will have consequences for the generations to come. Also that there might be more of a sensuous surface to things, that because of reading my descriptions of landscape or of the natural world that they might notice it more when they go back out and see it in person. That would be a great thing to happen.

Your work is very involved with a sense of history. Do you personally have a commitment to looking backward?

I have been fascinated by history for much longer than my interest in science fiction. One of the reasons that I like science fiction is that it is a very historical literature. It postulates events from the present to some fictional moment in the future, so it is always talking about historical processes. I'm interested very much in the history of my home area in California, and in general I find it fascinating to read about what humanity has done so far. That's the flip side of being fascinated with where humanity is going to go from here.


Copyright Notice

This interview is copyright Reality Break and the interviewee. Republication is expressly prohibited.

Electronic distribution of web pages being what it is, it's tough to write these things in legal language that matches the reality of the medium. The translation is - please don't redistribute this in any form: don't post it anywhere, don't put it on other web pages, don't put it in your print publications. Read it and enjoy it all you want, freely link to it as you wish, but please don't do anything that involves anyone getting this interview in any other form than this web page.

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