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Award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson upholds the left wing of SF

By Nick Gevers

O ne of the contemporary giants of American SF, Kim Stanley Robinson is a notable utopian idealist, perhaps the most important single creative spokesman for the genre's left wing. His deep understanding of history, his fine, fluid prose style, his superb evocations of landscape, his gift for endowing his characters with humane charismatic complexity: all these qualities have made Robinson a critically acclaimed and highly popular writer over the last two decades, the repeated recipient of Hugo and Nebula Awards.

His novels to date are: the Three Californias trilogy, composed of The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990); the Mars trilogy, made up of Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996), along with a companion collection, The Martians (1999); and stand-alone books Icehenge (1984), The Memory of Whiteness (1985), Antarctica (1997) and The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). His (excellent) story collections are The Planet on the Table (1986), Escape from Kathmandu (1989), Remaking History (1991), Down and Out in the Year 2000 (1992) and Vinland the Dream (2002). A major new novel, first in a trilogy, will appear in 2004: Forty Signs of Rain.

Stan Robinson lives in Davis, Calif. I interviewed him by e-mail in November 2003, focusing on Forty Signs of Rain.

You've become famous in the last decade for your future and alternate histories, but now you've undertaken a trilogy of near-future environmental thrillers. Why this change of pace, and what will the overall shape of the new trilogy be?

Robinson: I don't feel there's ever been a pace to change. Every book takes long enough that most of the time it feels like all I've ever done.

Near-future SF is crucial if the genre wants to make a complete attempt at envisioning or modeling future history. Also it's a growing test of our ability to come to grips with the present. When everything is morphing before our eyes, can we still write about the shape of things to come? It's an open question.

The shape of the new trilogy is also an open question.

The chief concern of Forty Signs of Rain is the threat posed by global warming. In your view, how acute is this threat? Will it leave any aspect of contemporary life unchanged?

Robinson: I don't know. I'm sure global warming has already begun, but clearly climate fluctuates, and the physical threat this time to human civilization is hard to gauge. We're much more technological; on the other hand we're already stressed by population and consumption problems. So, it's hard to say. That's part of the interest of writing about it.

The Greenland ice-core data have made it clear that "abrupt climate change" has happened before, and when a certain type happens there are big changes in North America and Europe, sometimes within as little as three years. It's a case of science suggesting another amazing scenario.

Global warming is also a way to dramatize or symbolize the social storms coming down on us, as our way of life continues to damage the planet and exacerbate the gap between rich and poor. Stormy weather, yes, I've never been averse to committing the pathetic fallacy, I love it really. Weather is emotion as far as I'm concerned.

Forty Signs, set largely in Washington D.C., is very much about the necessity that the U.S. government recognize, and respond proactively to, global climate change. In your view, is the federal government, with its unwieldy inbuilt processes of gridlock and political horse-trading, genuinely capable of such a coherent, constructive response?

Robinson: Is society capable of such a response? Maybe, maybe not, but if we are, then the U.S. government is going to have to be part of it. Government is where we collate what the majority wants to do. Think of the New Deal in the '30s. But it takes a good working majority of the culture, and a plan or a desire to make a plan. That will be hard to start, as many people work all day to keep gridlock locked. Billions of dollars are devoted to it, and trillions then siphoned off to the side. Changing that will be very hard. But I would not try to put the blame for our current difficulties on government; that is a displacement, I think, and often a political ploy used by "free-market" fundamentalists intent on fingering the wrong problem, and disabling government entirely.

Forty Signs acutely examines the interaction, the potentially transformative synergy, of science and politics. Clearly, you see deep flaws in their relationship as it presently stands; how can—should—that relationship be redrawn? Can science make politics over into something more rational and more humane?

Robinson: I'm going to need the three volumes to think about that.

Lately, I've been thinking of it kind of like this: that in World War II science was understood to be the supreme war resource, giving the allies radar and the atomic bomb and many, many other military advantages; and so during that time it was placed outside politics, like the military itself, so there would be "civilian control" of the ultimate social power (force). After the war, Truman was intent on keeping science subordinate to civilian or now layperson or non-scientist political control, and the postwar organization of federal support for science reflected that. Scientific institutions have been kept outside of federal policymaking ever since, they can only beg for funds and hope for the best; but what follows is that the scientific method has also for the most part been kept out of federal policy-making.

That's a very unfortunate side effect, because the scientific method is too good, too useful and just, for us to be able to afford to keep it out of the process of governing our affairs. But, of course, keeping it out is very useful for those pockets of irrational and unjustifiable privilege that in any scientific cost-benefit analysis would be revealed as parasitic on society at large, a suite of residual injustices from the bad old days that should be altered into a new system. So now, in that sense, science and the spread of the scientific method into governance should be seen as part of the resistance to injustice.

So, my story will explore some of that.

Your detailed dramatizations of procedures at the National Science Foundation, along with your parallel descriptions of working life at a California biotech firm, offer fascinating insights into the differences between science as a public endeavor and science as a private, profit-oriented enterprise. Your career-long critique of capitalism is strongly in play here; in your opinion, why don't science and capitalism constitute a productive combination?

Robinson: Well, nothing can constitute a productive combination with capitalism. It's parasitic by definition.

A worker population makes its nutrient goo (surplus value, life force, stuff) and has it extracted by a small minority with superior force at its command. Like ants with aphids. We pretend not to know this and we are very good at pretending. But the old hierarchies were never rooted out, they only liquefied. Things are more fluid now, everything can happen faster, but it's the same gross inequality. Capitalism is a sort of late feudalism, or ant-and-aphid arrangement, pick your image.

Understand that "capitalism" is not "creation of capital," which is usually a great thing, but the system of rules distributing and controlling that capital. And the system we live in now is wrong—unjust, unsustainable, against all religions and value systems. Its defenders (always privileged in the system) have to resort to bogus versions of nature "red in tooth and claw," or grossly distorted religious claims ("God meant us to be rich and you will be in heaven") to make it look OK, but it's guns ready for deployment that keep those lame justifications staggering along.

Say then that science is an attempt to move out of all that, a proto-politics or alternative politics in which ostensibly neutral values or methodologies are actually stabs at utopian spaces where justice rules. Rational inquiry into everything, in part to enable the reduction of suffering—it's a kind of ethics and so naturally capitalism is offended and tries to buy it, tries especially hard since science makes all the new toys. Maybe capitalism will buy science, maybe science will help the other justice movements to engineer capitalism into permaculture, as in some kind of institutional genetic engineering project (history). Anthropogenic mutation. We're in the middle of the story, part of it.

As we've discussed, critically significant issues inform Forty Signs; a lot of practical research and expert consultation has contributed to the verisimilitude and factual accuracy of the novel. Can you describe the general trends of your research, any especial highlights?

Robinson: Instead of "critically significant issues" let's say "funny new story ideas." Humans trying to control nature, improve the world, it's always bound to backfire more or less. My current books could therefore be thought of as attempts at a new subgenre, call it maybe "utopian farce" or "utopian black comedy." What would that read like?

That's closer to the way I'm thinking about it. I'm always trying to imagine what it would be like for people caught up in these situations. New plots making new demands on people. So I'm exploring these areas because I like the new stories they toss up. Coping with disaster, serious weather, people pretending to be reasonable, new scams, new problems—it strikes me funny and it sparks my thinking. Near-future books like that are among my favorite reading—like Geoff Ryman's Air, or M. John Harrison's Signs of Life, or Iain Banks' The Business, or Gwyneth Jones's Bold As Love sequence. Things are so strange these days that those old SF questions "What comes next?" and "What does Now feel like?" are generating very interesting new stories.

As for my research this time, I had some great opportunities. One hero of the book is the National Science Foundation, which sent me to Antarctica [in 1995], and later to Washington D.C., where I served on panels for the program I had been in. The U.S. Antarctic Artists and Writers' Program models its panels on the science panels at NSF, so I got to experience how NSF distributes most of its grant money (about five billion dollars a year). It was fascinating—another place in science that is intensely dramatic and subjective, but rarely portrayed in science fiction, or in fiction or nonfiction of any kind. So that was fun.

I also had the chance to shadow a friend in San Diego as he worked at one of the biotechs down there. He's one of my oldest friends, and on our summer hikes he fills me in on his work, so in his lab I was able to see the spaces where these stories happened, and see people at work.

Also, I asked many questions of friends in other occupations discussed in the book, such as venture capital, Washington lobbying, university technology transfer and climatology, and their detailed answers helped me to think out the plot. And the conversations were a lot of fun. I still do a lot of book research, one has to, but I'm finding the conversations much more stimulative to my books' plots.

You're noted for your strong and sympathetic characterization; Forty Signs exhibits this in abundance. Let's talk about Charlie Quibler, the Senatorial environmental policy adviser who is one of your major viewpoint characters here. A "house-husband" looking after his two young sons: Is Charlie a self-portrait?

Robinson: Only in the superficial sense that I have done some of the things he does in his home life. I can write that stuff firsthand, con brio, but so can anybody else. My life isn't that unusual, in fact it is usually the acme of California suburban ordinariness, but I've been thinking, isn't that an adventure too, isn't that my Macondo or starship Enterprise? I go crazy or collapse laughing almost every day, and it seemed to me novels should sometimes try to capture that part of life too.

On the other hand, Charlie's work and his internal stream of consciousness are not an attempt at self-portraiture. You know the drill—I'm in all my characters, but they are all characters, fictions that I feel free to tweak this way and that, as the story demands. I'll say things about them or through them according to what the novel seems to need, with no regard for their sources in real life. Charlie is Charlie.

Charlie's wife, Anna, is mother and authoritative NSF administrator all at once. The close connection between the Quiblers' political activity and their intensely natural methods of parenting: Is this a metaphor for the need to reintroduce organic understanding—simple natural humanity—into the sterile political environment of Washington D.C.?

Robinson: I'm not so sure the Quiblers' parenting (or anyone's) is natural, or very unusual. Many working couples in D.C. do things much like the Quiblers—they have hectic family lives, because we're all wired to full speed now, but happy too, often. No, I only wanted to explore more of my characters' lives. The daily suspense of maintaining work, family, everything else. That juggling act as plot.

Another important character is Frank Vanderwal, an anthropological cynic whose worldview is revolutionized as Forty Signs proceeds: mysticism, or quasi-mysticism, infecting vulgar rationality. Is his consciousness shift indicative of one you'd like to see occur widely in real life?

Robinson: No, Frank goes through something a bit too much to wish on anybody else, I hope. A paradigm shift within a person is a shocking thing. Frank has to quit applying sociobiology to everyday life, and get over the idea that reason should be free of emotion. Passionate reason—science as a passionately moral or religious outlook on life, one quite like Buddhism already—this is what I'm exploring in Frank's story, but it's far from over, so I can't say more.

Buddhism is indeed strongly in play: In Forty Signs, representatives of a Buddhist island nation arrive in Washington, set up an embassy, and interact on a profound level with Frank and the Quiblers. This isn't the first time Buddhism has featured prominently in your work—one thinks of Escape From Kathmandu, and the reincarnation cycle in The Years of Rice and Salt. Have you become a Buddhist in an overt sense, or are you simply interested in Buddhism's many philosophical resonances with political idealism such as yours?

Robinson: I've been interested in Buddhism for 30 years, but whether that makes me a Buddhist or not I'm not sure. Maybe some California hippie magpie version, born out of Ram Dass and Gary Snyder and all that. But surely all religions are personal compounds. In my life it has felt right. Buddhist ideas help me place myself, in daily moments and in a larger framework. Some of it reminds me of the "scientific view," and it also seems to me an existentialism or a working philosophy. Other parts of it I simply don't agree with. I don't think this would be of any concern to any other Buddhist. You don't hear much about Buddhist fundamentalists crying heresy on other people.

I'm mainly whatever the novel I'm working on at the time needs me to be. Chop wood, carry water—run five miles, write five pages—call it a religion! Not so much Zen Buddhist as Zen Novelist. It should be like:

Q: What's your religion?
A: The novel.

The Washington politician most prominent in Forty Signs is Philip Krishna Chase, Democratic senator for California. Is he based on any actual politician or cross-section of politicians?

Robinson: No one individual. People told me they thought of Paul Wellstone, but I didn't know about him when I first conceived Phil Chase. It was more all the goofy California politicians we have elected through the years. Anything is possible here, as we just saw recently.

Still on Senator Phil Chase, Forty Signs isn't your first novel to involve him—he is a background character in Antarctica (1997), a near-future eco-thriller in which his senior aide, Wade Norton, plays a leading part. How closely should readers understand Antarctica to be linked with your current trilogy? Will events in the two directly overlap?

Robinson: The trilogy and Antarctica take place in the same future history. I'm thinking of a fictional space hanging perpetually a few years ahead of me, something to visit more than once, following various characters and strands. I'll find out later how that works. Events in Antarctica predate the events I'm telling now, so there won't be any actual overlap.

Another lesser character: the Republican president in Forty Signs is skillfully drawn, cunning if no intellectual. Is he, in effect, George W. Bush?

Robinson: Definitely not. This book is a comedy, and there's nothing funny about George W. Bush. He's a disaster, and I wouldn't want to write about him, it would poison a book to do so. No, in my novel the White House is occupied by a benign sly grandfather, pretending to be a cowboy for fun and profit. Like Reagan but nicer, at least I hope that will remain true.

Parts of Forty Signs are set in California, evoking its splendid coastal landscapes and the public-service ethic of your alma mater, the University of California at San Diego. How important is California as an ecological example, both positive and negative, to the rest of the USA and the world?

Robinson: I don't know. Perhaps not very much. I mean, living in California feels like being in a fishbowl to an extent, and on the edge of history and all that. And too many people from everywhere else on Earth are pouring in and destroying the place, for no reason other than Hollywood, I think, and some older ideas, and good weather and lots of jobs. Hard to say, but it feels like a place beginning to buckle under the inrush of people. I think many Californians live with a sense of their home being destroyed before their eyes. But I'd guess that is the feeling anywhere the population is growing fast.

I've spent a few months of the last two years fighting to keep some agricultural research fields at the university here [in Davis] from getting plowed under for fancy real estate, and from what I've experienced, the prospects for doing things right and avoiding another Orange County-like urbanization in the Central Valley (which would devastate food production for much more than California) seem rather poor. It's like your question concerning the federal government suggests—we need a change that is possible, but seems unlikely because it interferes with greed and power. Thus the election of Schwarzenegger, I think. People feel the social dysfunction, the effects of living in a kind of capitalist cyclone of money and desire. They think, "Anything would be better, anything would be worth a try." Maybe the "anything" one of these times will be something that really is better.

To close: How goes work on volume two of the trilogy, the follow-up to Forty Signs of Rain? Has a title for the book emerged as yet?

Robinson: No title yet. I'm writing it now, and it's bowling right along.

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