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Sandra Bullock, Julian McMahon, Mennan Yapo
Kim Stanley Robinson
David Tennant
Skeet Ulrich, Carol Barbee, Lennie James
John C. Wright
Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Mark Steven Johnson
Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Gabor Csupo
Joe R. Lansdale
Tim Kring
Olivier Martinez, Agnes Bruckner, Katja von Garnier
March 05, 2007
Kim Stanley Robinson's most famous novels may take place on Mars—but at the moment he's more concerned with saving the Earth

By John Joseph Adams

Kim Stanley Robinson was born on March 23, 1952, in Waukegan, Ill., the birthplace of Ray Bradbury. He grew up in Orange County, Calif., and currently lives in Davis, Calif., near Sacramento, with his wife, Lisa Nowell (an environmental chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey), two boys and two cats.
A full-time writer since 1985, Robinson worked a variety of jobs prior to that, including bookstore clerk, but spent most of his pre-writing career as a teacher. He enjoys gardening, backpacking, sports and reading.

He is the winner of two Hugos, two Nebulas, a World Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for best science-fiction novel). His most famous work is his Mars series—Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars—which details the terraforming of the Red Planet. His most recent project, the Science in the Capital series, which is made up of three volumes—Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting—speculates on the effects of and fixes for global warming. He is currently working on a science-fiction novel about Galileo.

SCI FI Weekly interviewed Robinson via e-mail in January 2007.
There's a new movement in the field known as "mundane SF," founded by Geoff Ryman and others, which Charles Stross describes as SF that "eschews the impossible and unknowable in an attempt to focus on the possible and the relevant." Is this series an example of that?

Robinson: Yes, many of my books would serve as examples of the aesthetic described by "mundane SF," if I understand it right, although I'm not part of that group, and don't like the idea of literary groups. And I must say I don't much like this group's name, as the ordinary connotations of the word "mundane" include words like "boring" or "tedious." The in-joke irony here, referencing the SF community's meaning of "mundane" as well as its literal meaning, strikes me as a bit much, maybe even "too clever by half."

Why not just call all these texts science fiction, especially since what's really possible or impossible in the future is a bit hard to determine from here. If you decide to write about humanity a million years from now, you pretty much have carte blanche to assert "this could happen." If you write about humanity 20 years in the future it gets more constrained if you want to appear realistic, which is always a literary effect anyway, but a good effect in certain circumstances. So there are a number of subgenres or protocols, and each novel sets up its own rules in tension with that part of the genre, and also the whole rest of world literature, not to mention reality.
Although Geoff Ryman has said that the name "mundane SF" is derived from the fact that "mundane" means "of the world," the scope of the movement also suggests—the "in-joke irony" you mentioned—that this kind of SF might appeal to what those in the SF field sometimes refer to as "mundanes"—readers who only read literary fiction, or otherwise don't typically shop in the SF section. Is it important for SF to branch out and infect the mainstream with its forward-looking ideas?

Robinson: It is indeed important for SF to infect the mainstream, and it has always done very well. I think it's good to point out that science fiction is prophetic literature and has a touch of the ancient power of prophecy. SF speaks "from the future" and also for the future, because all its stories together have the effect of invoking the reality of the generations to come. We want to keep their possibilities open and pass on to them a world that is substantially undamaged.

So the process has been going on, SF as the forward-imagining part of our culture, and now the present resembles a jumble of the various worlds science fiction wrote about in the 19th and 20th century. The prophecy as a group act has been pretty accurate! The challenge now becomes for science fiction to continue to imagine futures from this point forward, given that we're in a complex science-fiction story already, and in a feedback relationship with the culture that we help bring into being. It's beginning to get a bit mind-boggling to do it.

Attracting readers who don't usually read SF, or refuse to, is a different matter, having to do with public relations (the real purpose of most literary groups) and also labeling. Cormac McCarthy's latest was an end-of-the-world story, Pynchon's latest is a thousand-page steampunk epic, there's a new movie from P.D. James' absence-of-children novel, etc., etc. Science fiction, in other words, is everywhere now, but the label, not. And people often react to labels rather than content, so you can call it literary science fiction or mundane science fiction or unusually good and/or realistic science fiction and there will still be people who won't read it by habit, in part because of the scary power of the words "science" and "fiction" in combination, in part because of the very thought of the future, which is even scarier. I tend now to forget worrying about those people, who are clearly very resistant, given that we are all living in an SF novel anyway; you might even call them stubborn; and I acknowledge that every art form has its audience, the people who are sympathetic to the idea and therefore have ears to hear. It helps that the science-fiction audience is a very good one; smart, informed, loyal, willing to be exposed to unusual things.
James Gunn's motto is "Let's save the world through science fiction." Is that part of what you're trying to do with this trilogy?

Robinson: Sure. I'm very happy to keep trying to write utopian science fiction, and I would agree with Gunn's implication that all science fiction has a good effect, as I said above; it reminds people there will be a human future, and that it could be good or bad, and that we now have a hand in propelling it one way or another. We have a very brief moment of generational power, in struggle with the dead hand of the past, etc., and then it gets passed on to the generations to come, and they make their effort. In that effort, lots of stories about how things could be are a help to the imagination, and help people to decide what's important to work on here and now. The stories function as warning or as blueprint or exhortation, or even just as a reminder that things will keep changing and be different, which is always a good lesson to remember in any part of life. Scary but interesting.
Your Mars books were about terraforming Mars; the Science in the Capital series is to some degree are about terraforming Earth (to repair the effects of global warming). What are our chances of doing either before it's too late?
Robinson: We are the major force changing the surface and atmosphere of Earth now (we're faster than the natural processes changing it, I mean), so terraforming is indeed physically possible, but we're not used to thinking of ourselves in that role. It would require a changed paradigm, which admitted that we have become some kind of conscious "global biosphere maintenance stewards," and that environmental thinking now ought to include an openness to at least the concept of doing things deliberately to reduce our impacts. We have to reconceptualize wilderness as being a kind of ethical position as well as a piece of land, meaning active and conscious stewardship on our part. This is a kind of interaction with the Earth that has been going on semi-consciously since the beginning of humankind, but now it's become obvious, and it is a frightening thing to contemplate, because it's a stupendously complex system and we don't know enough to do what we now need to. And the unintended further consequences of anything we might try are hard to predict.

Even so, we may eventually agree through the U.N. or something else to try some things, if we get desperate enough. The crux may come if the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet begins to detach in a big way. About a quarter of the world's population lives very near the coastline, and the disruptions there could be so severe that we would contemplate mitigating actions.

Beyond that, I think it's best not to put the problem as a question concerning whether we are "too late" or not, because either answer leads to a kind of non-active response: i.e., if it's not too late, I don't have to change, and if it is too late, then there's no point in changing, so either way—party on! Also, in some sense, encompassing all life on Earth, it will never be "too late," in that even if we trigger a mass extinction event, the surviving life would quickly fill the empty niches and evolve onward. You can't kill life on Earth, short of toasting it in an expanding sun or whatnot. But you can kill a lot of species, and wreck a lot of biomes, and you can probably wreck human civilization for a time, which would kill a lot of people. So I think it's better to think of it in terms of "do we save more or do we save less," of the other species in particular.
You've been to Antarctica before. Could the effects of global warming be seen even then? And what was it like to visit there?

Robinson: Very hard to see the effects of global warming when in Antarctica. It's still very cold down there. It's something specialists see, or deduce, or at least it was back then.

I did, however, see the Adelie penguin colony at Shackleton's hut on Ross Island, and I've heard that since I was there that entire colony (5,000 birds) has died out or moved, because an iceberg, a really big tabular berg, grounded offshore from them and cut off their access to the sea. Also, when in the Dry Valleys I saw the oddity of a deglaciated area where it seemed there ought to be glaciers, and I saw the physical evidence in the rock of previous eras when the region had been underwater; these were sandstone bands, pointed out to me by geologists; I wouldn't have seen them at all on my own, and their interpretation is contested anyway.

In general, visiting there was a tremendous experience, one of the greatest times of my life. For one thing, I had no schedule; every few days something new would come along and I would follow it, without a plan, and how often does that happen in our lives? And the landscapes, the air. It was great in so many different ways that when I got back it was almost like a huge surrealistic dream that I could not fit into the rest of my life. So I've made efforts in the decade since then to keep the experience real in my life, by spending more time than before outdoors, and by studying the many issues that the trip brought up for me. You can see some of that in my novel Antarctica, and my story collection The Martians was strongly influenced by my trip to the ice; also, this Science in the Capital series is a kind of back-home sequel to Antarctica. That means that five out of my six books since I went there have been strongly influenced by the trip. I've never thought of it that way before. I owe a lot to the U.S. National Science Foundation for sending me down there. And it's been fun making NSF the institutional hero of Science in the Capital.
Which of the global-warming fixes in the book could be accomplished right now?

Robinson: We could do almost everything I described in this series, although some of the actions are perhaps politically impossible (right now), rather than physically impossible. If we made the social decision to do it, we could certainly build clean-energy generation, and a clean transport system. We could decarbonize our technology a great deal. These are very big investments, but it's a very big economy, and retooling our basic technology is something we've done many times before. It's a business opportunity in some ways.

The biological mitigation schemes discussed in my novel, and unleashed in one case, are definitely not at all ready for deployment, and maybe never will be, for reasons I think my book makes clear.

The main thing we could do now is vastly increase our construction of clean-energy generation.
And why aren't we doing any of that?

Robinson: We live by the rules of capitalism, and right now it isn't the most profitable investment. And the big governments of the world are for the most part run for the sake of those making the profits. It'll be a kind of test to see just how democratic we are, if we ever understand the conflict to be between capitalism and the health of the biosphere (meaning all of us); if that's the choice and we choose capitalism, did we ever really choose? And if we did, how smart are we? Maybe this is a test of our collective intelligence and sanity as well. So I see a time of real conflict coming, not that this is hard to see, as we are in it already, a war of paradigms, fighting for the will of the culture, the rules we live by, the laws we enact. Every economy, capitalism included, is a system of laws, and we change the laws quite often, so it could be the laws will change very substantially, over time, although now we're under pressure to do it fast. I hope we can.
Is the answer to create a climate-change task force, as the government does in the book? If so, do you think one is likely to come about anytime soon?

Robinson: Yes, I can see all kinds of signs of these kinds of programs starting up. Europe has been way ahead on this issue, and in a different way so has Japan, and their efforts will provide information for the later efforts in the rest of the world. Here in the U.S. there has been a lot of talk since the recent election, and action may follow. China and India may have to join the effort since their environments are being horribly damaged, poisoned in ways they can't sustain. So it may become a global effort, which is good because it needs to be global to work. Because of that fact, the political obstructionism from the Bush administration has been one of the worst of their many stupidities and crimes.
There's talk of an attempt to rig a presidential election in the book. Is that in there purely for plotting reasons, or do you think the 2000 election was really stolen?

Robinson: The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) has declared, after being asked to look into this by Congress, that electronic voting methods are not securable in practice or in theory, that tampering could occur, and that if one were to try to figure out whether or not tampering had occurred, without a paper trail, that it could not be done. So this is the situation we are in now, a very foolish and dangerous situation; no one can trust voting to be real anymore. It's another test of democracy, I think; just how real are our democracies, when we acquiesce in a move that delegitimizes voting itself?

In my novel it becomes a bit of a question just exactly who rigged what in the presidential election described at the end of volume two. In the real world, we have ongoing questions about the 2004 election in Ohio, in 2000 in Florida, and elsewhere, particularly the Cleland loss for the Senate in Georgia. I don't what happened in these, and I don't think anyone can know, and that's the point; the system has been wrecked, and no one can be sure. We really ought to legislate a paper trail requirement immediately.
Do you think some of the global warming fixes you suggest in the book would already be in motion or already have been implemented if Al Gore were president?

Robinson: Yes, I think if Al Gore were president he would do all he could to rejoin the global community in working on climate change. He sees it as a moral imperative and also a business opportunity. He's made it his main professional focus, and I think there's good reason for a national-level politician like him to do that. I wish he would run for president, and I wish the American electorate would look past media-generated images of his "character" to listen to the man himself, and also to pay attention to the policies he's advocating, and choose him (again) to fill that job for eight years and see what happens. The thing is, being president of the U.S. is a weird job and very few sane people want to do it, and I feel that Gore is one of those few, and he's prepared for it, and all its side effects. It could be good.

It's also true that whoever is elected president next will be far better on this issue than Bush has been, so there is that to look forward to. Maybe it's a good point to say that these politicians speak for various cultural drives and social forces, and so it's possible that the "Al Gore moment" has come to the U.S. even if he is not involved in presidential politics anymore. We'll need to do this as a collective and in our daily actions, it won't just be a government project by any means.
Speaking of presidents, the president in the trilogy is a man named Phil Chase. He starts a blog to "put the electorate in touch with his thinking as a citizen." Do you think a president will ever really just strip away all the rhetoric and give it to us straight or otherwise give the American people a window into his thoughts, as Chase does?

Robinson: I don't see why not. Really it would be a modernizing extension of FDR's radio addresses, or JFK's press conferences, both very friendly venues in which the president spoke pretty freely—or else certainly created a vivid public persona, which is what blog writers are doing, too, no matter how personal or autobiographical they may seem to be. I presume there is a White House Web site already, and if a president decided to add a personal blog to that space, I think it would be well-read. It might be a tough test to make it both interesting and honest, but that's always true of all writing.
The primary protagonist, Frank Vanderwal, is a pretty strange guy. Which of the crazy things he does have you attempted yourself, even if only for research purposes?

Robinson: You make me laugh with this, because I guess I've tried them all at one time or another, but I don't think of any of them as particularly crazy. Well, maybe climbing trees is a little crazy, and I haven't done much of that, not as an adult, anyway. Nor rock climbing proper, which I've only done once or twice, following the lead of friends who knew what they were doing. That does strike me as crazy. But the rest of his activities, sure. I play our "steeplechase Frisbee golf" regularly, and the park I play in is in fact home base for the models of the Frisbee guys and the homeless characters in Fifty Degrees Below.
What made you decide to inflict Frank with a brain disorder?

Robinson: Frank got hit on the nose by something during a night melee in Rock Creek Park. While I was writing the book, I got hit on the nose by a softball I missed, during a night softball game. Frank's broken nose included a subdural hematoma, a blood clot inside the dura, which put pressure on his frontal cortex and therefore impacted his thinking. My broken nose did not include that particular problem, but it was a very suggestive injury nevertheless, as I felt a little more scattered than usual for a time after. I thought, here's a character who has a hard time making decisions (maybe part of a culture likewise hampered, even down to voting machines). What if he got injured in a way that exacerbated that problem, and made him think about deciding as a basic cognitive process? Wouldn't that be interesting in terms of modern brain science, which is telling us emotions are crucial to decision-making—thus the latest in science about consciousness, but also something novels have always been saying—while also ratcheting up the narrative pressure on my protagonist? Once the idea came to me it seemed strong. I knew I could write accurately about what it felt like, and I like my novels to be alive to my own experiences, to change, over the year or two I am writing them, as I live. So there you have it.
One of the other major characters is a policy advisor named Charlie Quibbler, who is also the primary caretaker of his infant son. Were you raising an infant, while writing this trilogy by any chance? The relationship between Charlie and his son Joe seems very spot-on.

Robinson: I was the home parent for an infant while writing my Mars books. Part of that happened when we were living in Washington, D.C., so I decided to use those experiences, too. Time spent with infants is an interesting, under-explored realm for fiction, and if you're writing about doing things for the generations to come, then depicting a representative of those generations already on hand seemed very appropriate. I enjoyed doing the child care, and I enjoyed writing about it. It was tricky, because it's hard to find the plot of such a story, or to include it in a different plot, as it often consists of small actions repeated daily, which is not what plots usually consist of, but deploying the "pseudo-iterative" mode, with the idea of an immense psychological power enclosed in such a little being, as if some kind of reincarnated lama (and this is true of every toddler), I found my way. I'm sure there are other ways, too. It's a good story to tell.
Charlie's son Joe was somewhat changed by an encounter he had with some monks from the flooded (fictional) nation of Khembalung. Why did you decide to bring that kind of mysticism into what is otherwise a very scientific trilogy?

Robinson: I wanted to suggest that there is a spiritual aspect to science, that it is a kind of religion in some senses, that the world it investigates is constantly revealed as miraculous through and through, and that the practice of science could be seen as a kind of worship or devotion, and that this is a good thing. I was also interested in the ways Buddhism could be said to be scientific, or science said to be similar to Buddhism, in basic philosophical ways. I wanted the two to collide and illuminate each other, maybe to become one larger thing.

My way of thinking about matters like these is to make up a story that throws these elements together, and then see what happens, with the idea that the plot is a kind of experiment or meditation on these ideas or forces. The plot has to feel realistic and interesting, and those requirements (sometimes in opposition) make the plot a kind of thought about the matters under discussion, symbolic or suggestive in various ways, I hope.

Although my island nation of Khembalung, given to Tibetan refugees by the Indian government, is fictional, I recently was sent the following article, which appears to confirm my sense of who is in the most immediate trouble from global warming:
"Rising seas, caused by global warming, have for the first time washed an inhabited island off the face of the Earth. The obliteration of Lohachara island, in India's part of the Sundarbans where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, marks the moment when one of the most apocalyptic predictions of environmentalists and climate scientists has started coming true." [link]

So now a Khembalung has actually gone under.
Nuclear war used to seem like the most likely way the world could end; now it seems like the ecological catastrophe described in these books is more likely. What do you think?

Robinson: The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising now and is sure to rise more, so ecological changes are coming, for sure. Meanwhile the nuclear weapons and fuel in the world are still extant and often poorly secured, so that nuclear accident or a deliberate explosion, even a non-general nuclear war, remain possibilities. So it's a dangerous time. I think it's best to act as if we need to foreclose both these bad possibilities, or, in the case of global warming and nuclear waste poisoning, make them less possible or reduce the impacts we can't avoid.