Kim Stanley Robinson interviewed

AUG ‘06

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Axes of Evil

Robert Neilson talks to Kim Stanley Robinson
an Albedo One interview

 

This interview was published in Albedo One issue 25.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the most acclaimed SF authors writing today. He reached an audience beyond genre SF with his trilogy about the terraforming of Mars - Red Mars (1992) which won the 1993 Nebula award for best novel, followed by Green Mars (1993) which won the 1994 Hugo Award for best novel and concluded by Blue Mars (1995) which won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1996.

Kim Stanley Robinson was born in Waukegan, US on the 23rd March 1952, but spent his early years in California. In 1974 received a B.A. in Literature from UC San Diego before studying at Boston University where he gained an M.A. in English in 1975. His 1982 Ph. D. thesis was published as The Novels of Philip K. Dick in 1984. He lived in Switzerland during the 80's but has now returned to California.

This interview took place at the occasion of the appearance of his brilliant The Years of Rice and Salt, covering seven hundred years of alternate history, of which the Albedo One reviewer said it “may well be the first truly great work of science fiction in the twenty first century”.

More information about his work can be found at kimstanleyrobinson.net.
 

RN: Define Kim Stanley Robinson.

KSR: Kim Stanley Robinson, Science fiction writer, Californian, kinda green, Buddhist, Leftist Mountain Lover. Mister Mom. House-husband.

RN: What did you do before you were a house-husband?

KSR: For a while I was a teacher of English Composition at the University of California and mountain person, spent a lot of time up there. And I've always been a science fiction writer since my college days.

RN: Was it when the writing became lucrative…?

KSR: No, no I wrote short stories to begin with like a lot of science fiction writers and published relatively early on, but short stories won't make you a living and that's when I taught composition, worked in a book store, did a variety of things and then got married and began to sell novels. My wife had a post doc appointment in Switzerland so we moved there. At that point I had sold a couple of novels so I slung my hook and quit my teaching job and I've only been a writer since then. A few years after that the first of our boys arrived and I shifted heavily into parenting and doing the house-husband, Mister Mom routine. My wife is a chemist and she works full time so I had the pleasure of staying home.

RN: Do you find the parenting element fulfilling?

KSR: It's been the greatest joy to come out of the writing life, which was a complete surprise to me because as a young man, like any other young man, I never thought of it, had no knowledge of it and didn't look forward to it in any active sense. But when the time came and it was me and an infant ten hours a day, five days a week for his first two years. That was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. So ever since then it's been less pure. I learned about day care and we have more friends now with kids and my wife has had more time away from work but it's been a major part of my life since then. The writing I fit in where I can.

RN: Are you a person who needs a routine or do you just…

KSR: I like a routine. I need a routine. My writing I think of like carpentry where you have to put in a lot of hours and you've got to hit a lot of nails and so in general it's gotten real easy these days. I send the family off in the morning. I have a few hours free to try to write every day, during the week. I take the weekends off, just like any other job and the rest of the time is family stuff.

RN: Do you target a number of words or hours?

KSR: It's more a number of hours. I'm not really in control of the number of words and I don't want to get, feeling guilty when I'm doing my best, so I try to get in two or three hours. If I get one page it's an acceptable minimum for my puritan conscience. Usually I'll try for three pages and hope for five. And five per day is a damn good day's work and it's time to party.

RN: Your current novel, The Years of Rice and Salt, looks like you did an awful lot of research.

KSR: Yes.

RN: How many hours research to an hour's writing?

KSR: Tough to calculate but an awful lot of research for this particular project because I didn't know much about Asian history and the idea forced me to learn these things or I wouldn't have been able to do justice to the idea.. I do like to read and I can read in the evening when the kids are watching their video or after they've gone to bed. I hesitate to say. I'm sure there's a few hours of research for every page written. Not to imply that it's dense in that sense of being nothing but facts, but I needed to know, to imagine what it would feel like, so there was an awful lot of research that had to be left out. But nevertheless I had to do it.

RN: What sparked the idea?

KSR: The idea came to me about twenty or twenty five years ago and it was just one of those things as a science fiction writer that once in a while will pop up its head. The alternative history is an established form within science fiction itself and it's interesting. Science fiction itself is a historical literature because every time you postulate a future you're also postulating the history that got us from here to that future. So alternative history works in the same way off of some moment in the past, some interesting moment in the past that's different and then you follow it out. And as you're following it out you're saying this is how history works. This is why things go the way they go. It's very much a matter of historiography or theory of history. It's been implied in every science fiction novel but especially in alternative histories. So I had thought of a really good idea, I thought, about twenty five years ago, about someone else going to bomb Hiroshima and the bombardier decides he doesn't want to do it. And that turned out satiscience fictionactorily and I've often tried little alternative history short stories, but at that time, twenty to twenty five years ago, I can't really remember when, I had this idea what if all the Europeans died in the Black Death. And it's such a big change; everything changes. So many things change that I knew it had to be a novel and I knew I wasn't ready for it, so I just nursed this idea for all these many years. About three or four years ago it was its turn and then I was faced with this daunting situation: if I was going to do justice to it, it meant I was going to have to dive into all kinds of problems, not just with research but also how do you structure a novel that traverses 700 years? Because the novel basically isn't meant to do 700 years. You can argue about what its natural length was because often times they'll tell a story of a whole life or even a couple of generations. So they were models and possibilities but that was the problem to be solved.

RN: There was no pressure to turn it into a series of novels?

KSR: Not from publishers and not from me. My feeling is that the alternative history, while it is interesting, there is no given alternative history idea that justifies a series of novels, it's a little too distant from our world and I think that it will quickly become something like a game or a crossword puzzle. I've never heard  an alternative history idea that would suggest to me more than one book.

RN: I think Harry Turtledove might argue that.

KSR: I wouldn't agree with him. I haven't read his books, nevertheless I think that what he's doing is overextending the natural strength of the form. I'm really interested in novels. If you said choose between science fiction and the novel as to where your ultimate loyalty lies, I'd say to the novel instantly. The integrity of the novel is really important to me. My Mars trilogy as they call it in science fiction is really just an old Victorian three-decker. It's one novel. It has a beginning and an end and there won't be any sequels. It wasn't a series it was just one of those novels that you need three volumes to tell. It's a big idea. This one I suppose could have been a three-decker but I was interested in compacting, a compression. I know it's silly when you've got a 700 page book to talk about compression but I squished to get it in that far. I think it does it good, it gives it a kind of springiness like when you compress a spring, a certain internal tension in the pages. I hope the pages fly by.

RN: In the Years of Rice and Salt you use the device of reincarnation to bring character types around again and again. You seldom have science fiction writers actualising themes like that and making it an actual element of the book itself.

KSR: Yes. It follows right on what we were saying before. It was a technical problem with the novel. How do you traverse 700 years and it's still a novel about people you care about? And I don't like the multi-generational saga as a form as a reader myself. You start reading about characters, you start caring about them, and their children are introduced and you say, "All right, I'll care about them too." And then late in the book you're introduced to their children and at that point it's like enough already I can't care about these great-grandchildren or whatnot. So, personally disliking the form I thought I need some other thing so it started as a technical trick. It's an Asian novel, it's a Buddhist novel and I've always been interested in Buddhism since my college days so I thought, "Let's use that as the device to get these people that are the same characters all the way through." It's actually a remarkably small cast: three major characters and a couple of minor characters you can identify that keep coming back. And I thought, "You don't want to make this some detective story or guessing game where the poor reader is always saying who's who or what's what?" So I thought, "Let's do what they do in certain Buddhist reincarnation tales where they have a certain identifying mark." In Mishima's reincarnation tale it's a mole in the same position always. They're always a little bit silly when you describe them. In my case it's just their names always begin with the same letter so very quickly the reader, with no clue from my part will notice there's always this B character who's always fumbling around and this K character that's very angry and always this I character trying to figure out how things work and being a scientist. And I think, I hope that that's relatively evident as you read so that every time a chapter begins you can just look at their names and say, "Oh, yeah, now it's a woman, now they're weak, now they're powerful, now they're this, now they're that, but you know it's the same character that's coming through.

RN: Some of the movers and shakers who would have seemed peripheral to the main story turned out to be part of the group being reincarnated, which made me focus away from the main characters, wondering where this or that one got to.

KSR: I wanted to introduce variety because there are ten reiterations of this so I thought once the readers got the rules of the game that then you could find out that… Like this Japanese Samurai that the Indians called Fromwest - at one point he will say my real name is Basho and then the reader would have the game of going, "Yeah, I thought it was the B character," and sure enough it is. So, yeah, I wanted a little bit of something going on so that it wasn't just automatic and repetitious.

RN: And yet he seemed much cooler than all the other B characters. He was a hero type.

KSR: Right. But in the bardo (editor's note: the afterlife where the characters go to be reincarnated) right before that the K character kind of kicks his ass and says, "You're useless, you're always just hanging on and encouraging us and you've got to do something yourself.."  He really gets lashed in a lecture in the bardo right before that lifetime and so even though they don't remember these bardo events I wanted to suggest that the B character was trying to do what the K character would have done in his own way. And it's true, this is his high point as an agent of history and of action.

RN: This novel seems to have a theme in common with the Mars and California novels that the progress of history is taking what's good from the past and adding to it. I see you as a utopian writer. Is that your view of history?

KSR: Yes that's a good way of saying it, I think. That's one way of saying it. It's obviously so complicated but we can't deny culpability or responsibility or opportunity that I think history is just six billion biographies added up and so we're part of it. It's not just the movers and shakers or politicians or the rules of the past but no matter what was set down by parliaments a hundred years ago that seemed to trap us, we're actually still free agents in the existential sense and if we all chose to tomorrow we could restructure all the rules, cancel all the debts. None of these things are binding physical forces, like gravity or even manacles, they're all just things we have agreed to. This is in some ways Marxist, to the degree that I understand him but in any case it's a collective, that we're all doing history together, and that being the case when there's six billion of us what one person can do looks so limited but it isn't. It's just that it's small. But one six billionth of something is not the same as zero and therefore you have to take on that burden such as it is. And that's what I wanted to show people doing, and also that every once in a while for certain people, maybe not us but maybe, it's not at all written in stone who it's going to be, a moment will come big things depend on just you. That's sort of something I took out of Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle and I think he talks about this explicitly where Mr Tagomi this little bureaucrat in an office in Japanese San Francisco, there suddenly comes a moment where he can save the world by taking action against these Germans and he's not an important person. Generally there can come these moments where you need to act and so I keep telling those stories. They make interesting stories. It's almost the novelist's view of history. I think a lot of novelists, if you pressed them, would come down to saying, "Well, yeah, that's how history is made, by this collection of stories."

RN: Even though you can do anything at all in alternative histories, they very often parallel our own - you have a version of the Great War and the Enlightenment. What made you chose which particular tangents?

KSR: In each chapter as I went along it seemed to me that Europeans or not, there are certain things happening; there are really powerful Hindu mathematicians, there were alchemists all across Asia and there was a lot of Chinese technology that was incredibly advanced on its own in the 18th century. So those things already existed and in the 18th Century they were all thoroughly hammered by the European Imperial powers so we don't know how they would have developed. I eventually came to the conclusion that certain things would happen no matter what because humans would like to better their lives and make things easier so that the guys in the machine shops and the artisans - once again it's history from below, it's not just the Newtons and the Gallileos  and the Leonardos, but these guys were trying to figure out how to make a harder plough edge or how you could make a sharper sword edge. Here's a lot of weapons pushing that part of metallurgy. But also people were saying, "Why do things fall?" and "How fast is sound?" These questions are answerable because I do believe reality is the same no matter which culture you come at it from. I mean a certain aspect of reality is there to be discovered not invented. So it just seemed like and automatic logical conclusion that some of these things would have happened for sure.

Here we must thank the staff of the Shelbourne Hotel for interrupting and altering the reality of this interview.

I didn't just want to replace Europe with another colonial power that conquered the world, say China. It seemed pointless. So I wanted to create a plausible world where never did anyone dominate the whole world and where there were multiple forces who were powerful enough to imagine that they could survive. And that being the case it seemed that after the industrial revolution there were possibilities for a severe war between civilisations that saw each other as a fundamental enemy as opposed to Germany, England and France who essentially shared the same culture with different languages who were dickering over who was going to control the spoils. I mean they had a terrible war over that, in World War One and World War Two; ridiculous really when you think of the stakes involved. But what if it was China and Islam, two cultures that thought of each other as being fundamentally different, then the war might be worse. And I thought, "Oh well, that's an unhappy thought but nevertheless I am doing an alternate history and in this world there is going to be a world war that's even worse. So this is the kind of thinking I was running through. And that was such a dismal thought I thought I'm going to make that chapter really short. It might be dismal and brutal and a really bleak chapter, some of the darkest writing I've done, but it's only 30 pages out of 700. I really crushed it. You don't need much of that to get the tenor of what's going on.

RN: Yet a lot of writers having set that up would have made it the focus of the novel.

KSR: Yes I can see what you're saying but I'm just not that kind of writer. It affects me what happens in my books and that was a very hard chapter to write. A little goes a long way when it comes to describing trench warfare or warfare in general. There are so many clichés and so much darkness that some writers are willing to avoid the consequence of what they're really saying in terms of devastation but I'm not like that. It was a hard process to write that chapter. After I was done I didn't want to re-read it. And I would certainly never read from it aloud, at a reading, I'd never subject anyone to that. It's dismal stuff. And researching World War One was just a painful experience, there was so much waste.

RN: I liked the metaphor you used, the War of the Assuras, a war between gods. It conveyed the monumental nature of it quite well.

KSR: I thought that that was a powerful image and also the Assuras being the servants of the devas and also thinking about forms of Capitalism and privilege and power, that it's really these superhuman economic powers, people who are using ordinary humans to fight their battles for them, who are not in the trenches. Yeah, I thought it was a good image in many ways.

RN: Is this your single big venture into Alternate History or will you go back again.

KSR: No I'll never go back, that was it. For one thing I think it's certainly the best alternate history idea I'll ever have. I can't conceive of a more powerful one. And also I don't think, now that I've explored it, my feeling is that the alternate history form is not as powerful emotionally as the standard science fiction format: this is the future. There are two statements that these formats are making. SCIENCE FICTION says this is what's coming to all of us. So it's like the Ancient Mariner grabbing you. It has very much of a prophet kind of thing. Alternate History is saying, well, this might have happened if something had gone different in the past that we know didn't go different. Rhetorically that's a much weaker statement, a much weaker stance. So what good you can take out of Alternate History I think comes out of these theories of history and thinking about our world and there are things that it can bring to us, but in the end I think that the stance on the future is probably the more powerful one. I'll probably go back to that, writing out of our future.

RN: It seems to me that there are relatively few science fiction writers who are writing about a sustainable future, using it more as a setting for ray guns and spaceships.

KSR: Every genre has its degraded possibilities or its lowest common denominator to have wish fulfilment fantasies. That's true in every genre. Science Fiction is certainly full of that.

RN: Would you see yourself as a future social historian?

KSR: Just as a novelist or a science fiction writer. I think we've got to focus on that part of science fiction that's doing the full job, or taking full advantage of what the form can do. And also I think of myself as a utopian and a leftist or a political person and my novels are my political statements. And science fiction is a really powerful tool of human thought and we need a hopeful scenario; scenarios of sustainable futures to be sketched out because if every single science fiction novel says the future is going to be bleak, gonna be a wasteland, then the human community begins to think, "Well what's the future going to be like? Well, our professional imaginers all agree that it's going to be a wasteland and a devastation, so why shouldn't I buy a SUV and burn all the gas there is in the world right now. I mean there's this American kind of Gotterdammerung sensibility - why change my ways and work for a sustainable future when it's all going to hell anyway.

RN: But don't many writers, like Philip K. Dick, say it will go to hell unless…? And the unless is always implicit, and you can see the set of mistakes these people made to get to this future.

KSR: That's right, there's a critic called Tom Moylan who lives in Ireland who has written about the difference between the dystopia and the critical dystopia. There can be a dystopia which says everything's going to hell so get your own while you can, a sort of an excuse for another Mad Max fantasy. And then there's a dystopia that's saying if we don't watch out we'll end up here and tries to point out the things that are going wrong, to be correctible. 1984 or any of the classical dystopias that seem to be making a point rather than just using the scenario like a video game. But on the other hand we had so many dystopias, the 20th century's science fiction literature was really dominated by dystopia, what we also need, given this historical situation we are in right now, 2002, globalisation, overpopulation, environment in danger, what could go right? And it's harder to imagine and it's harder to dramatise with good stories, 'cause it doesn't have that natural shoot-'em-up aspect, but it's also an empty ecological niche. It's an opportunity. If you can make a good story that's also utopian, if you can pull it off then there's seven hundred science fiction novels published a year or maybe more but they'll say, "Oh there's really interesting thing. I mean it's completely bogus or implausible but nevertheless you should check out this thing." So you have this empty ecological niche. People do like to have hope. It's not as if we are enjoying this dark moment in history. It's useful.

RN: You have a very positive view of science and technology.

KSR: I think science is a kind of unconscious utopianism. What we think of as neutral rules of the scientific method are actually political rules and ethical rules hidden so that when you talk about peer review or reproducible results or talk about things scientists would insist are just methodology to get to the truth, these are actually ways of dealing with other humans and with reality that are at their heart utopian already. So that I think of science at its best, in its theoretical sense or in the abstract, is one of the best hopes we have going. It sets rules of human behaviour that are very polite and are orderly, there's no corruption and everybody has to be straight. It also is trying to make things easier and better. Let's understand things better so we can make the ecology work right. A sustainable human civilisation on this Earth is going to be scientific. Given this historical moment right now we have no other choice. It's going to have to be a scientific world or no world at all. I like science, I like scientists and I like to encourage them in their utopian aspects so they aren't always just selling out to business. I do think there's two big forces in the world, science and capitalism. Two ways of thought or controlling capital. One is a kind of absent minded professor, "Let's just see how things work, that's what I'm interested in, I'm not interested in world domination." The other is just completely interested in getting control of as much as possible and piling up as much capital at the top as they can. And that these two are in a giant 'War of the Assuras' and yet down here below we don't really see that or understand it yet, and scientists don't really see it or understand it. Really, capitalism has the capital and the guns so it looks like an uneven battle but science is the power that is understanding the world, making all the new toys and tools and weapons, so in the end I think science could have the upper hand. One of my goals as a science fiction writer is to bring to consciousness the political element of science or scientists, to take them by the lapels and say, "You guys are the bosses of the world and yet you're like monkeys on a chain with the organ grinder and business and capital are telling you what to do, what to work on and now they're trying to privatise the results. And this is where it is going to get interesting because science used to be open and public and now there are forces which are trying to make science just another commodity maker.

RN: Your Genes™.

KSR: Yeah, you got it. So now even the seeds in this are part of business and can be ground for a profit. So now, will science resist or not? And if it does resist, how? And this is the story I'm interested in next.

RN: Have you begun on that next?

KSR: I have. I've got a comedy about science policy in Washington DC where despite all the odds things begin to go remarkably right. I'm just going to tell the story of scientists coming to consciousness and struggling for all of us. And it's going to be very implausible - I might do like Gwyneth Jones who called her latest novel a fantasy even though it's near future science fiction, but I think what she's saying is that this is a scenario that's so implausible that I'm going to call it fantasy.

RN: You must have a ringside seat for the whole struggle in California, what with Enron and the energy crisis going on there.

KSR: Yes. And silicon valley and industrial agriculture, agribiz, ownership of the seeds and of the… the genetic heritage of the Earth being privatised also. I think we're at a moment now, this moment of globalisation, when almost everything is being privatised. Amazingly. It's not a great moment in world history obviously. But I do think that the more clarity you can bring to these issues or if you can at least illuminate them from this perspective and say, "This is what's going on," to the extent that people agree, it might allow them to chart better their own personal strategies, their own lab strategies or company strategies. The models have also been ethical documents and so this is just one more version of that.

RN: You seem to be very focused on doing the right thing.

KSR: Yes. I suppose that's true. I feel spectacularly lucky: white, male, prosperous Californian in this world where half of the population gets by on less than two dollars a day. I don't think you can rest easy in your mind unless you're working towards a world where everyone has the same opportunity for these privileges. It's one of those cases where maybe I believe too much those things that you're told in school. In any case I'm uneasy with the amount of luxury that I live in knowing what I know about the world and if this isn't truly a global village, which I think it is, something's got to be done.

RN: So what replaces capitalism, because communism, while theoretically fine, it didn't work.

KSR: That's a good question and nobody yet has a great answer for it. This is the great theoretical void. But particularly if you don't believe in revolution to get us to the next state, whatever it is. Then you're talking about reform and that's a scary process because it seems never to work but I'm thinking that there will always be capital which is just the results of human labour or natural resources, so it's not like you can dispense with that. You can't even dispense with the markets because there's so many things we need to trade and balance but if every company was a co-operative owned by the employees, if employees hired management the way management hires labour right now and if the profit of the work of a company was distributed amongst its employees and if this was universally true - which in a way is saying an abolishment of the stock market, an abolishment of the way many things work today, so I sound like a complete loon, and yet on the other hand why not? I read some statistics recently that boggled my mind: the average American worker creates a surplus value of about $66,000 a year, the average American's salary is about $25,000 a year and the amount the average American worker pays in taxes is about $10,000 a year so you have literally millions of Americans complaining about their government and the taxes they pay, living on the very edge, especially with terrible health care possibilities and always on the edge of disaster financially, and their children, you know, uncertain and sometimes even hungry, and $66,000 a year, which is a hefty amount of money, being siphoned off by the shareholders which they never know about. And it's a giant siphon going up to people who don't really need more than what they've got. There's this sort of sufficiency of means that if you're making more than - pick your number - about $50,000 dollars a year, you don't need more than that, so these millionaires and billionaires that are walking around like the Assuras, what's with them and what are they thinking?

RN: But the problem is, pick your number and when you're making it it's never enough.

KSR: No there's a number that's enough. Pick a bigger number and it's enough.

RN: Okay, but how much bigger?

KSR: Once you've got food shelter, clothing, education for you and your kids and medical care, that's enough, you know, and there's an old English saying, it's actually one of the oldest sayings out of the Bartlett's Book of Quotations, 'enough is as good as a feast', and it's a very powerful statement coming from the Anglo Saxons. And so I think these millionaires and billionaires are crazy and I think all of the workers who go ahead and do their work and then go ahead and vote for the Tory or Republican party, I think they're crazy, deluded. We're walking around like sleepwalkers in a whole mass of delusions, an imaginary relationship to a real situation and the real situation is dire and stupid and the imaginary relationships can be, perhaps, manipulated. And there's a guy, like Andre Gortz who says just let people work twenty hours a week even in the current system and give them the rest of the time to do what they want and give them a decent minimum living recompense and let's not worry so much about imposing models like communism where everybody has to share, let's just slowly morph into a more just system and see what people do with their lives.

RN: But that takes legislation because people won't do that of their own volition.

KSR: Yes. But notice in France - Gortz is a French intellectual who came from Romania - France legislated a thirty hour work week. Everybody said it can't work, and in America they don't even publicise this fact. The neo-classical economical model said, fools that they are, their productivity will drop, how can they do this? But in fact their productivity has been fine and their unemployment has dropped. Unemployment is a false figure anyway and the model that we live in now says that you have to have five percent of the population unemployed or there might be pressure for higher wages and inflation might happen. So we live in a system where deliberately five percent of the population is kept unemployed so that labour won't be able to ask for higher wages. It's an amazing system.

RN: The funny thing is, it does work. We got to a situation here a few years ago where Irish people wouldn't take a low-paid job and suddenly we had a need for labour. And suddenly they were talking about trucking people in from the third world to pick fruit. Because it seemed there was no decent day's pay that would make Irish people dirty their hands.

KSR: Those situations arise. The distaste for getting your hands dirty has been inculcated in our schools. I'm a gardener myself, and I think this is something that's learned not natural, and also when you're young and you do a summer harvesting it's a lark but when you're old and you've done it all your life it's a grinding horrible job. So there are ways that the social burdens could be shifted around here. But the deliberate plan to keep people immiserated to make the economy work or when two thirds of the surplus value of all of our work is being siphoned off to people who don't need it… no we're in a crazed system. Not to say that it isn't highly articulated and highly defended - by guns in our faces - so it isn't like we can say that the system's crazy and I can talk the world into changing itself, because it does work in the way that it works now in a highly articulated fashion. I mean economics is a vast subject and so are the laws. And not only that but the future is kind of sold and mortgaged. They've already bought the next century or so, that's supposed to go the way things are right now. If we say that things have got to change there's already debts and mortgages that say the future is already bought up and can't change. "You can't do that, it would be illegal." So, yeah, this is a kind of frozen moment where the things that are wrong can't be fixed easily and all I can say is from my position as a science fiction novelist is to say, "At least I can talk about this stuff. But wait, couldn't we do this, couldn't we do that?" What's powerful about utopian fiction is what if I write ten books, one a year. Each one is like a weather projection saying, "Things go right because we did this, this, this. None of them very plausible at the start but look where it came out to: where things are decent. And then I try a different version. That's actually my plan right now as just being the most useful thing I can do because I don't think we're in a moment where any of it's going to be easy.

RN: It is an exciting thought though, that you could actually make a difference.

KSR: Yes, I would love to think that. As you know, H G Wells was our great forbearer. I think that the British post war social system comes out of Wells's utopian novels. He must have written ten of them and there are none of them famous any more and they were all derided heavily by the intellectuals of the time and Wells himself called it crazed, but if you look at A Modern Utopia, his novel from 1905, The Shape of Things to Come and several other of his books he always is saying that it will be a scientific meritocracy and everybody will be taken care of and when you get old there'll be a little stipend that you are given so you don't starve. And none of these things existed in his world and yet it was part of what you could call British classical liberal reform. People always deride the British liberal reform as just being a cover-up for capitalism but every little thing they did, the corn laws and the work week laws was helpful in its way. It reduced misery. The way that Marxists and the far left dismissed that as being a cover-up is not adequate. You've got to give credit where credit is due and that's another thing I would like to talk about - there are many ways to betterment and you shouldn't put one down just because it doesn't solve all the problems at once, because I don't think we can solve them all at once now.

RN: They want a quick fix or nothing at all.

KSR: Yeah, sure. Well young people, young men particularly, are such absolutists. "We need things right, right now."

RN: Just what you said in relation to that and the idea of not imposing a particular system on things, doing away with things like Capitalism and Communism and systems like that; the anti-Globalisation movement for example, tends to be heavily criticised because it doesn't have an alternative vision to Capitalism or Communism and yet it's very very popular.

KSR: That's the thing, we're lacking those theories, we're lacking those visions, images, we're lacking a working utopian vision, or what to do right now or what to do next, so it's a nice moment for science fiction. In a way science fiction is not fulfilling its responsibility or not taking up its opportunity. If a whole ton of science fiction writers were trying to write positive futures in the largest sense then the  anti-globalists could say I've got my Frank Herbert or whatever the equivalent is of an ecological novelist and they read this book and this is what inspired the: "Let's do it like this or do it like Wells's A Modern Utopia." There should be a lot of these folks. I think it's a sign of the illness of our time that there aren't more people trying this.

 RN: Is it not that people who are thinking about this are all coming to the same conclusion. "We're going to screw it up."

KSR: Utopianism is mocked, is not a very well regarded. But this is a political attack on it. Utopianism equals socialism equals communism equals Satanism. What you're saying is true. Naturally you look at the situation now and try to work out the most likely next twenty years and it looks really dire but I know some people who are working for the UN's environmental protection offices and everyone knows some people who are working in some kind of social health jobs. If only they had fictions that would give them encouragement for what they are working so hard to do, which would be science fictions, then they would have a better sense of the ultimate goal. So I think there are lots of people working towards the good and science fiction writers, too many of them are going for just the easy story - the teenage wish fulfilment fantasy, the violence, because violence is always dramatic. It is easy and it might sell and there are all these reasons to it but it's not helping out these folks in the UN or the WHO. We all know people who are - poorly paid usually - working for charities or the social services. It all needs to be supported by visions; William Morris, William Blake; there's always been these visionaries who are saying things will be better. It's never been a very realistic statement.

RN: Visionary when you mention those kinds of guys, particularly Blake, has always had a subtext that says Looney.

KSR: Yeah, but we all still remember William Blake and he was writing in the 1780s. He'll never be forgotten while people know English.

RN: Maybe the problem is we're not prepared to be Looney, just let our minds go?

KSR: That's right. That's certainly not rewarded. That's a function of the young. It used to be true. You'd have a much more hefty percentage of  idealists and loonies and unsocialised hopers at the college level or high school level than you do among adults. Adults tend to have seen ten or twenty years of hammering and they know that it's not easy and not likely.

RN: But aren't kids much more pragmatic now? You don't see so much of the eighteen-year old idealist any more.

KSR: Right. That's why I qualified that. I think the percentage might have dropped. You do get a lot of the anti-globalisation movement coming out of the young and the percentage was never as high as it looked like when all of us hippies were doing it in the early seventies. Then it looked universal but ten years down the line you realised that it was just a fashion for a lot of people.

RN: Has your current novel been even more politicised by the current political events? It's interesting that it should come out at this time, showing a positive view of the East. Has this been picked up on?

KSR: Yeah, sure, to the point where the book had to be vetted by Muslim experts because British publishers particularly are very sensitive to this after Rushdie, and so it had to be checked out to make sure I hadn't made any gross errors - which I had but they were fixed - and you know I finished it last June and I had no idea any of this was coming. I wouldn't claim at all to have predicted any of this. It just was the logic of this idea drove me into the east and into a contemplation of Islam. I have a fair number of Muslim readers because of the Mars trilogy. There was a nice solid Islamic element on Mars in it, just because of the old… kind of making up for Dune, and saying that a planet that looks like the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia is going to attract some Bedouins and also that Islam is a major world culture that has not been taken into account. Like the big celebration of the year 2000. It didn't seem to occur to anybody that it isn't the year 2000 universally; it's the year 1423. It was a celebration of the British Empire, of Colonialism or Westernism and all these other cultures were supposed to go along with it as though there weren't other calendars. So yeah, I was already hip to the idea that there was a world culture that was not commensurate with Western values. Whenever you've got a culture that says separation of Church and State is crazy and that the Church and the State ought to be the same; that I find deeply frightening and needing to be taken into discussion.

RN: Which one isn't doing its job if they're both together?

KSR: As an American and fully believing in the separation of Church and State because I don't believe in any of the religions, I find the Islamic insistence on a theocracy and an Islamic State to be absolutely frightening. I think that is actually one of their major problems. It's their problem to solve but if they're ever going to get past a kind of reactionary regressive era of the mullahs they're going to have to do something about that because in this world you can't just declare that everyone has to be this religion or else they are second class citizens. I don't think it will wash. I think this is one of the world problems but the thing is it's not our problem to solve or it looks like Imperialism all over again. That's a different part of the ugly moment of our time.

RN: It seemed to me that you tried to honestly cope with the shortcomings and the problematic nature of an Islamic state.

KSR: What I did was I went to the Islamic feminists and read what they said about it. I did not feel comfortable thinking up solutions as a white male Californian to the Islamic situation or even critiquing it, but there is a vast literature by Islamic feminists and Islamic progressivists that is saying we need to do these things in order to follow Mohammed's instructions to always modernise, always improve. They point out the parts of the Koran where Mohammed says this is just the basic template, take these basic rules that all humans are equal and then keep improving the system and so they always seize on that as opposed to the hadith and the regressives. A lot of the hadith are false and faked and the scholars can prove this, so the Islamic progressives are in a terrible battle and for them it's a physical battle. When they give lectures the windows of their cars are broken afterwards; they're jailed, they're assassinated. In Iran the progressive Muslims trying to fight the regressive government put in since the revolution, they're in big trouble. And since America is the one that fucked over Iran and put the Shah in power and caused the reaction that has the mullahs in power, just as an American I feel an extra responsibility to the progressives in Iran, just to support them in any way possible. For my idiot president to call Iran part of an axis of evil has just been devastating to their cause in Iran because now they have to defend themselves on both fronts.

RN: Pity we didn't get to the idiot president earlier.

KSR: Yeah.

RN: Also China and India are very much in the news at the moment. China shaping up to be a superpower, it's all coming to a boil, an East-West divide.

KSR: We'll see. Chinese are hard bastards; I hate what they're doing in Tibet. But I'm more comfortable thinking about China because of the rationality involved. A bunch of people who, because of their leftist roots and the way that they've come out of their own people and the way that they've taken their own fate in their hands and the way that they're not religious, I just feel that I can understand and talk to them. I feel that they'll accommodate my values faster than Islam will. I felt that throughout the novel. I was always more in sympathy with the Chinese characters and situations. I could understand them faster and have more sympathy.

RN: But you did say at one stage that not having a god made them hard and cruel.

KSR: Having said that you can't deny this hard and cruel aspect to them and also as a supporter of Tibet I don't want to be sounding like a Chinese apologist because there's just too many things I object to. Nevertheless they don't make me uncomfortable in the same way.

RN: Is there any hope for Tibet as you see it?

KSR: Yes. But for some sort of… exactly what the Dali Lama's asking for. The Chinese don't like living there - they'll never give up that land, it's just a huge tract of land - but they could let the Tibetans survive rather than trying this slow-motion genocide.

RN: Can outsiders have any effect on the situation?

KSR: Sure. We shouldn't have given those bastards the Olympics, that's what I think. And on like that. We could keep on the pressure saying, "You're not yet in the human community." And this is something America can always do. I mean America is the heart of Capitalism so it's really the axis of evil in some ways. But on the other hand it's also the country of countries. Everybody else sent their people there - you know I'm Irish-American myself - it's such an international community there and everybody's contributed so it's like our world experiment in doing things right.

RN: Or doing things wrong.

KSR: But that's the thing about being American, there's so much of both and they're so tightly intertwined, like a shrub or a hedge that's it's hard to pull out the part and say, "I like this part I'm proud to be American. I hate this part I'm ashamed to be American." And oftentimes they're just twisted up, the two parts.

RN: I always think it would be a much healthier to be able to say that you're proud to be American despite the bad, rather than denying its existence.

KSR: There is an American patriotic mode that our idiot President represents and has got huge approval ratings for, although he did not win the election, the bastard, so even in America a majority of the people are saying let's keep with the third way, a soft liberal reformist slow-paced thing that Clinton and Gore were doing. More people wanted that than this.

RN: I have to say, as an outsider the September 11th tragedy has been a Godsend to your idiot president, in that it has taken the spotlight off his idiocy.

KSR: And now he wants to keep it a permanent war economy, like all governments, war is really good for government. That's why Iraq, the war on terrorism, it's all so transparent. So far it's working like a charm.

RN: It's probably going to get him re-elected.

KSR: I retain some hope, and there's precedent. His father was stupendously popular after Kuwait and lost just two years after. So anything can happen.

RN: Just like science fiction.

 

(c) 2004 Robert Neilson - Albedo One. All rights reserved

 

(c) 2006 Aeon Press and Albedo One. All rights reserved

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