Kim Stanley Robinson answers your questions
im Stanley Robinson has had a remarkable career since he published his first novel, The Wild Shore, 12 years ago. Since then he has averaged slightly less than a book a year (not counting short story collections), and nearly every one has defined its own niche in the science fiction genre. But with the conclusion of his Mars trilogy, Robinson has created what might be one of the grandest literary science fiction epics to date. Together the three novels -- Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars (see our review, this issue) -- chronicle the colonization and terraformation of Mars over hundreds of years and through dozens of viewpoints.
Last week Robinson sat down with Science Fiction Weekly the Mars trilogy to dystopian science fiction. Here's what he had to say:
1) What inspired you to write the Mars trilogy?
--Ian Watts, email@example.com
Many of the things I'm most interested in can be talked about in a new and interesting way by putting them on Mars. I like mountains above tree line, desolate coastlines, deserts, and wilderness generally, and Mars gives you a lot of that. The pictures returned from the Mariner and Viking missions gave us an entirely new wilderness planet, with many stupendous features, and all of it as rocky and bare as I like it. So it was a good landscape, and relatively untouched, in that the earlier Mars science fiction had to work with very little information about the landscape, some of that wrong. Also, the process of terraformation, which Mars is a great candidate for, brings up all the issues of ecology and environmental management that are most pressing for us right now here on Earth. Mars functions as a mesocosm experiment in planetary control, in that it's bigger than a lab but smaller than the Earth's complex biosphere.
To terraform, however, is to colonize or inhabit, and there you get into the social world; any inhabitation of a new world is almost automatically a utopian effort, in that it will be a planned society with serious attempts to avoid obvious problems in the current set-up of the world. The way we try to run Antarctica, or near space, is a small illustration of this utopian effort. Then, as more people move there, it gets more complex, more like the world of daily politics, where we struggle to balance needs, rights, responsibilities etc. in a just way.
So many topics that I find very interesting, wilderness, ecology, utopia,
politics, and overall the relationship of person and landscape, all come together in this marvelous place that is both real (with detailed maps and geology) and still imaginary (no one has been there yet). What, for a science fiction writer, could be more inspiring? Virginia Woolf said that the test for a book, for the writer, was how easily and naturally it allowed you to say what you wanted to say anyway. Those books pass the test for me.
"I have little French and less German."
2) Before beginning a multi-volume work, how much detail of the series do you work out?
-- Greg Young, firstname.lastname@example.org
When I began I had a few ideas or images that I knew I wanted to get to somehow. Sometimes these were events, sometimes thematic issues, sometimes lines of dialogue, sometimes a place on Mars I wanted to make sure to visit. The first notebook has about 20 pages of these kinds of notes, just lines to remind myself of everything that was in my head at that point. As I went on I returned to those pages occasionally to see what I had said and whether I was getting what I wanted into the book.
Then, as I went along, the story as written began to require that other things happen later in it. This is the great interest of novel writing; 20 pages of image fragments have to be worked out into 1,600 pages of narrative. A lot of it necessarily gets worked out en route, and some of it what appears late in the game is very surprising to me. Every day's work involved thinking about what was needed to make that scene work, then how the scene worked in the part, how the part worked in the book and the trilogy. So interesting!
(Did this question come from the Greg Young I played tennis with in high school?)
About the motto "Shikata ga nai":
"I ran across the phrase in an essay on Japanese culture."
3) If it were feasible, would you help to terraform Mars, or are you against it (and why)?
-- Mike McCollum, MMcC1@aol.com
I have gone back and forth many times about the question of whether or not to terraform Mars; this teeter-totter in my mind is one of the great engines of the project. I believe that Mars is already a sublime place with its own intrinsic worth. On the other hand, I believe terraforming it would be a beautiful achievement for humanity. Now, in the end, I have to say I am probably a kind of low-keyed green, in that I believe we should (if we determine there is no life there, which is a big if) terraform to the point of being able to walk around in shirtsleeves at low elevations, by oceans in biospheres, with the higher elevations kept in the primal state by their great altitude. In effect Mars's immense vertical scale allows you to have it both ways, with green and blue Mars low, and red Mars high.
About going to Mars:
"We could have been on Mars in 1986, as Stephen Baxter shows in his new book Voyage; we can definitely get there by 2026, if we want to."
4) Why couldn't the geneticists of the Mars trilogy alter the human genome to allow humans to breathe and live in a less-altered environment?
-- Jim McKay, email@example.com
The technology described in the Mars trilogy is not super-science, and the genetic engineering as outlined in some detail in Red Mars is not that far beyond what they are doing now. So you can make some changes, but you can't just drastically remake creatures and plants. The existing Martian environment has an atmosphere of 10 millibars of mostly CO-2, and no genetic engineering is going to make us able to breathe that, nor keep all our capillaries from exploding (die by hickey as Damon Knight put it), etc.
And so, if you're altering the environment a little, you might as well go for a little more and not get into the realm of super-science, or the postulated realm of radically altered bodies. I like our bodies the way they are.
About a possible Mars movie:
"No. It would be a long movie."
5) Do you believe the colonization of Mars to be a possible way to relieve the population and environmental problems that are threatening Earth?
-- Johannes Keukelaar, firstname.lastname@example.org
No I do not. As Blue Mars makes explicitly clear, the Earth's population is too big, and crossing space too difficult, and Mars too barren, for Mars to be any kind of relief for the population problems that will increase here in severity in the 21st century. The only solutions are going to be right here on Earth. Mars can help as experiment in planetary engineering -- what we learn there will be applicable here -- but it cannot help us as a new physical space, because the problems will be severe in the next hundred years, and Mars cannot be made inhabitable in less than 300 years; probably more like 3,000. So keep your focus on Earth and don't go escapist on us, science fiction readers. Mars is a mirror, not a bolt hole.
"I'm reading Downriver, by Iain Sinclair, Omeros by Derek Walcott, and The Vixen by W.S. Merwin. Oh also Green Rage by Christopher Manes, and How Many People Can the Earth Support? by Joel Cohen, and about 10 Antarctic books (research)."
6) Why do you keep coming back to the idea of ultra-long lifespans, and do you think we will actually ever achieve these kinds of lifetimes?
-- Norman Cook, email@example.com
I keep coming back to this idea because it is so interesting. First, it would be nice to live 300 years in good health. Trees do it, some of the dinosaurs did it; let's give it a try. Second, the lives we live now, when you think about them intensely, feel (from some angles) like they are centuries long, and us moving from period to period in our own history, so that after a while a period three or four back is like an earlier incarnation; and then we forget so much. So that the extended lifetime motif becomes one of the great science fiction metaphors for expressing the way life feels. In this way science fiction becomes the most powerful generator of poetry in our time: its metaphors are so striking and beautiful.
As for whether we will ever actually extend lifetimes, I can't tell. The biology is so complex, and there's so much we don't understand, that I think the court is still out on that. It might be possible, though; it's not physically impossible, as far as we can tell now; and so I ran with it in the book, and hope for it for our descendants. I'm afraid we were born a bit early for it, or perhaps well before it; there's a good Robert Silverberg story about this very notion, called "Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn."
W.S. Merwin, Derek Walcott, Gary Snyder, Joyce Cary, Cecelia Holland, Virginia Woolf, Gene Wolfe, Peter Dickinson, etc.
7) Do you try to keep the future history of your books as consistent as possible?
-- Vincent Kargatis, firstname.lastname@example.org
No, I'm not a big fan of the coherent future history that overarches several different books. It seems to me you lose more than you gain there. The solar systems portrayed in Icehenge, The Memory of Whiteness, and "Green Mars" are all different from the one portrayed in the Mars trilogy, though I have re-used ideas I liked (like Mercury's Terminator) if I feel like it; one of the great things about stealing from yourself is it isn't stealing! But in each novel what I like to try for is the sense of a complete and full internal creation, that has very little dependence on anything else, and is basically an independent work of art.
On remodeling other planets:
"At the end of Blue Mars I do a complete solar system makeover. There's nothing more for me to do! On to Aldebaran!!"
8) You did your doctoral dissertation on the works of Philip K. Dick -- how much has he influenced your writing?
-- Jeff Young, email@example.com
I learned a lot from reading Phil Dick's novels; he was really a great novelist. What I see of his method and vision in my own work is not what others seem most to appreciate in Dick -- the paranoid visions, the surrealism, the black humor, the crazed inclusion of all kinds of wild science fiction effects in one text...all those things are great, and no doubt major parts of his work. What I like are the little protagonists struggling to create decent personal worlds no matter how wild the outside world gets. I also like the method of shifting point of view from character to character within the novel, and trying to convey the internal reality of that character as fully as possible, and then letting the thematic "truth" of the novel emerge from the conflicting music of all these different voices.
The novelist can then make points so much more subtly and interestingly than if there is a single narrator or arbiter of values. I am also reminded by Dick that things are not simple, that they aren't always what they seem to be or what the dominant society of the time says they are; that there is a powerful spiritual drive in people. And I like his politics, which were anti-capitalist in the extreme.
On writing by hand:
"I can write in cafes and go slow; I can make the letters. Also, being left-handed, I can involve the right side of the brain more than otherwise, and as most word work is from the left side, it makes for a fuller brain."
9) At a time when dystopian science fiction seems more popular than ever, does utopian science fiction still have a role to play in the genre?
-- Simon Brown, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dystopian science fiction has its place, as a warning sign, saying "Don't go this way." So it can be important. But the dystopian cliche of our times is just too easy, it no longer says "Don't go this way" but rather "This is the only way no matter what you do, so don't try to fight it." That kind of dystopia is reinforcing of the status quo, it's a capitulation. I'd say most dystopias today are of the latter type: people don't really suffer (not the book's protagonist anyway, they're too "street smart"), and the reader is told that no alternative world is possible, the dystopia being the most likely of all possible worlds.
Okay, say that we're in trouble at the end of the 20th century. We are. Resources are depleted, populations are rising, we're in a race to invent a kind of living that will work before our problems overwhelm us. That being the case (and who but the rich think tank experts can deny it?), what kind of political art do we create? The utopia is the only choice. And for a novelist, the problem then becomes the utopian novel; which is a kind of bastard genre, from two very different kinds of parents, because the novel is about what IS, while the utopia is about what should be; so what then is the utopian novel? No one knows.
Through the history of utopian writing the human story in the text has gotten more and more novelistic, but the results are all pretty weird right up through Huxley's Island, until you get to Le Guin's The Dispossessed and Russ's The Female Man; that's 1974 and 75. So -- it's a new form. But therefore interesting, and fun: how can you make this ugly thing work, how can it be good at politics and art too, at should and is, at fiction and science? The knottiness of the problem makes the texts more fun; if you can pull it off.
On the delay between Mars books:
"They published the second volume the day after I turned it in, so I had no lead time."
10) I loved the books, but why are they so long?
-- James Latham, email@example.com
Maybe if they were shorter you wouldn't have loved them. I can't speak for all modern books, but for me, form follows function. Having decided to write a novel about the terraforming of Mars, I was committed to a long novel. The long novel, or the Really Long Novel, is another sub-genre slightly different from the novel, like the novella in the other direction. Several Really Long Novels are among my favorites: Moby Dick, Dhalgren, Remembrance of Things Past, The Book of the New Sun, A Suitable Boy, War and Peace. So, I decided to try one. If you want shorter books, they're still out there; try my "A Short Sharp Shock," or any of the great novels of Terry Bisson.
"My favorite rock band is Yes."