The Mars Man

Although colonising the nearest almost habitable planet is a frequent subject for science fiction, with more than 15 Mars books coming out in the last four years, one writer has dominated the red planet recently as much by the scale of his ideas and themes as by the scale of his Mars trilogy. But Mars certainly isn’t the only interest of the versatile Kim Stan Robinson (or Stan, as he’s referred to by everyone including himself) as Mary Branscombe found out and for all his skill in plot and character he clams to be the last to get plot twists on TV.

With the majority of his books and short stories mentioning Mars, at least in the background, the obvious question to ask Kim Stanley Robinson is ‘why Mars?’ In an interesting case of art imitating life, it turns out that Stan’s interest was piqued by Voyager’s images of Mars in The Atlas of Mars, put out by the US Government, with stereo-optical pictures taken by two cameras, so you can see a three dimensional image of the surface of another planet. “I was fascinated when I saw all these geographical features that were like the mountains and deserts I love so much, but huge. Incredibly tall cliffs, giant volcanoes, enormous canyons as long as the United States is wide. As a rule of thumb you can think that features on Mars are about ten times as big as the equivalent geographical feature on Earth.”

And the size of the Mars trilogy is to scale, not surprisingly with over a hundred years and a whole world to cover (Stan jokes that he kept a map of the journeys the characters made around and around the planet “just to make sure I hadn’t missed anywhere that I could explore” - but knowing him it’s likely to be true). Now that the chunky third volume, Blue Mars, is out, we wondered if he know how big the story was going to be when he started. “More or less. The timescales that are put on terraforming vary from 100,000 years or 20,000 years down to 50 years, but that is a pretty extremist judgement, so my timescales are within the bounds of possibility. When I first started on Red Mars and after the first hundred pages they hadn’t’ even got there, I realised that to cover all this it would need to be a trilogy so I stopped and went back to my agent and my publishers, who weren’t at all unhappy!”

Over such timescales, you either need a succession of characters, or characters who stay around for longer than usual and the Martian colonists handily develop techniques for extending their lifespans. “I don’t like the generational saga and I wanted the same people to be alive through the whole extent of that Martian novel, so at first it was just a practical technical novelist question that quickly led into the larger things. I think it’s important to take the whole treatment of longevity as a subject seriously if you’re going to use it at all but it’s certainly is convenient when you’ve got a long scale narrative.

This whole longevity thing in science fiction is also an interesting way of talking about the felt experience of our own lives, how long it sometimes seems. Living a long time but losing your memory is an interesting analogue for ordinary experience. It’s a way of talking about it in a heightened way.

The nice thing about that Martian project is that everything fell together so well. I needed the longevity so that I could talk about Mars properly but I really wanted to talk about longevity and our own relationship to memory in a landscape anyway, so it was a very magical falling together of all kinds of different topics in a way that made it good for me.

It started as a convenience long ago when I did Icehenge and the novella Green Mars; I saw immediately how useful it was going to be. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for years, I’ve been writing about this topic now since the late 70s, off and on, and there’s a development in my thought about it. I did the research on gerontology and senescence intensively for Blue Mars; after years of playing with it and seeing what I thought about, Blue Mars is like a culmination of a lot of things.”

In fact Blue Mars is the culmination of years of hard work, researching geography, meteorology, space construction, politics, genetics… “It’s a novelist’s talent to research effectively for what I need for the book rather than for a complete knowledge of the subject so there’s a kind of stagecraft to it - but I’ve been reading about these related groupings of topics for so long that especially near the end I was beginning to make connections over broad areas. I think the combination of those two adds up to a fairly information dense book”.

One character who exemplifies that intense research is Sax, the withdrawn scientist and one of the big surprises of the trilogy is that out of all the fascinating characters in the First Hundred, Stan picked on Sax to carry much of the narrative in the second and third book. “For a long time my social life was my wife’s social life (she’s a chemist) and when I came to write Sax I found I had all this information about the scientific mind, at least from the point of view of chemistry.” Tortured for information about the rebels, the precise (if devious) Sax returns in Blue Mars - aphasic, struggling for words and coming out with phrases that are not quite right, but often revealing and almost poetic. “That was great fun to write. I wish in a way that Sax could have carried on like that rather than learning to speak again.”

“But at the end of Red Mars I realised that I had killed off all my male point of view characters with John Boone and Arkady and Frank and I was thinking ‘that was silly - what do I do now?’ and Sax just stepped forward.” Put that way Sax’ development makes a lot of sense, although when I ask about the intense pressure that he puts his characters under to get such developments, almost too much for the reader to empathise with, Stan laughs and says that the complaint he gets most often is that there isn’t enough happening to his characters.

Talking of research, he has been as close as you can get to Mars without going into orbit, spending some time at the South Pole last autumn (“It was 30 degrees below zero at night” ) as the first science fiction writer to win a National Science Foundation grant - “I heard about this and applied and was accepted, basically because of the Mars books. It was five weeks in Antarctica. I spent a week in a glacier area with a team doing field research then we spent a few days at the pole.” He’ll be using the experiences in his next book, Antarctica, an ecological thriller about what happens when the polar icecaps melt. He also seems tempted by the idea of a novel based on his experiences in Washington DC; “I think I could do quite a good book based on that.”

However, the next book out will be A Martian Romance, a concordance to the Mars trilogy with explanations, essays on terraforming, short stories, his experiences while researching and writing the three books, plus poems and songs and stories - “all the things I couldn’t fit into the books.”

To avoid confusion, it’s worth remembering that although many of his books are set on Mars, not all of them are on the same Mars. In particular, the original Green Mars - a novella about climbing Olympus Mons that deals with the now-familiar themes of the ethics of terraforming Mar and the memory problems of longevity - seems to be set in a slightly different universe. “Yes, I wrote that mainly to stake a claim - at least a moral claim - on the name. I thought Green Mars was such a good name, such an obvious name. And when I heard about Olympus Mons, this enormous volcano, I just had to write about climbing it.” It turned out to be a sensible precaution; he’s since heard that Arthur C. Clarke considered using it as the title for his collection of articles on terraforming Mars (now called The Snows of Olympus)..

He chuckles. “I suppose that I should write a Blue Mars equivalent - I have Icehenge as Red Mars and Green Mars the novella and then I’d have my own alternative Mars history.”

But then Kim Stanley Robinson likes playing with history. In his short stories The Lucky Strike and A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions (the later collected in the carefully named Remaking History) he considers the possible alternatives to the bombing of Hiroshima as examples of the many different theories of history. His favourite short story is again historical; the World Fantasy Award-winning Black Air tells the story of the Spanish Armada from the viewpoint of a press-ganged child.

His main experiment in alternative history is The Orange County trilogy (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge), which tells a story about growing up within a community on the coast of southern California - in three different histories. “Now that I am very proud of because I invented something quite new. They’re all three set in the same locale, in southern California, about the equal amount of time into the future (fifty years or so) but they’re three different futures - radically different in fact - so that one is after the fall, one is a dystopia and one is a utopia. They all three have one character who has lived three different lives in the three different futures but is given the same name so that if you’re paying attention you’ll see that there’s that one character who’s in all the three books.” The result is three wonderful inter-linked stories ringing the changes on all the possibilities in the situation.

Stan plays with time in many of his books, confounding our expectations of chronology. With his long-lived characters there’s always the tantalising possibility of discovering what really happened from those involved (assuming that they can actually remember) rather than piecing it together from archaeology and documents that may or may not give a true picture. But then the uncertainty is the point in Icehenge, which he refers to as a three-part rebus, a word game and when I ask him what the real truth was he protests “I can’t remember! I deliberately wrote it as a puzzle. I showed it to my wife and she was convinced that Emma was Carolyn and forbade me to put any clues in that made that impossible! But I wouldn’t have anyway, because I wanted to leave it open for the reader to construct themselves.”

Mental effort in the books is usually accompanied by physical exertion. If the characters aren’t repeatedly walking, gliding and driving around Mars, they’re climbing up or hiking across mountains or going surfing. “What I try to do - as far as the circumstances of the plot allow for all these things like bodysurfing - is to give the sense of us as physical animals. We are not just brains in bottles,” he insists and condemns the modern tendency to get absorbed in “the industrial machine” to the exclusion of the outside world. "The whole notion of the standard science-fiction modes of the future is like Asimov's Trantor, where an entire planet is a city; all these models are intensively urban or space-ship or completely metallic and it's beginning to look like none of these ultra-techno futures are physically possible to sustain."

He’s pretty active himself but despite the accounts of climbing that capture the detail and spirit closely enough to have climbers of my acquaintance lusting to climb with the man, he’s not an obsessive climber. “I’ve climbed about half a dozen times, but I’m more into hiking and scrambling.” He has been to Nepal and found it pleasantly mad - “we laughed every day we were there, it was just so ridiculous, with the contrasts” - very like his bitingly funny Himalayan story of yetis, Shangri La and American hippies, Escape From Kathmandu. The novella Green Mars was “a homage to the British climbers of the 70s, the Chris Bonnington group”, but he comments sombrely “many of them have died in climbing accidents” and confesses a healthy fear of falling. He adds that he gets a lot of his exercise these days from cultivating the land rather than clambering over it and points out with a grin how strenuous gardening is when you work at it.

A rather more laid-back attitude this, than the high-speed, drug-filled world of The Gold Coast or the censorship and grim committees of Icehenge. Many of his characters from that era feel trapped within a system they oppose and confused by not knowing how to voice their objections, let alone rebel. When I ask him about this he considers for a while and says “I know which characters you’re referring to”, then pauses again. When he continues, it seems he’s trying to draw a clear distinction. “At the time, that was something I was very concerned about. Now I’ve found that my writing is actually a political statement and I’m involved with running a community in northern California. I guess I’ve found my way to work within the system.”

“I believe in Shelley's great statement: that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And I believe that science fiction is one of the most powerful modes of poetry of all time. Science-fiction is just a metaphor for the world we live in and metaphor is one of the basic tools of poetry."

This all sounds much closer to the utopian and ecotopian possibilities of Pacific Edge and the 1994 collection he edited as New Ecotopias. In the introduction he discusses the ideas of Future Primitivism in the stories and it’s a concept that seems to fit a lot of his own writing as well. “At the time that was a label I was exploring to see how it described my work but whatever the subject matter, that is a collection of truly excellent stories.” The same can be said of almost everything Kim Stanley Robinson has written.

Stan on Stan

Kim Stanley Robinson’s works cover a surprisingly wide range, from murder mystery short stories (set on Mercury) to the magical realism (or just magic) of Black Air, as well his more famous Californian novels - and of course the Mars books.

The Planet on the Table (1987)

The first collection of short stories, including the award-winning Black Air and the thought-provoking Lucky Strike. “Those are my first eight short stories and that was back when short stories would take as much mental effort as a short novel so they’re probably my densest short stories.”

Remaking History (1994)

The second collection of short stories, including A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions and the political Down and Out in the Year 2000. “At that point I was trying all sorts of different experiments in short fiction so they aren’t as coherent as the first grouping - a bunch of experiments.”

Icehenge (1984)

Three linked stories about the search to understand a giant monument on Pluto - that’s made of ice. The first appearance of familiar themes like terraforming Mars, revolution, longevity and memory loss - plus a baffling puzzle. “One of my very first longer narratives where I stumbled into a lot of things that I was going to explore later. I particularly like the middle novella.”

The Memory of Whiteness (1985)

The travels of a touring orchestra and the blind young conductor whose music is more than it seems. “That was an experiment - one of the first long narratives I ever tried and it proved to me that you can’t write about music!”

Escape from Kathmandu (1986)

A glorious bitter-sweet romp of a book about the hidden secrets of the Himalayas (with a little help from a pair of American hippies). “That was a gift out of our trip to Nepal - my wife and I went to Nepal and afterwards the book wrote itself. Was it really that crazy? Yeah - if anything, more so!”

A Short Sharp Shock (1990)

Stan describes this tale of travel and transformation as ‘the weird one.’ “A surrealist science fantasy, written right after my first son was born in a state of sleep deprivation. I wrote it partly because I knew I’d be writing this huge realistic trilogy.”

The Orange County trilogy

The Wild Shore (1984)

Growing up in a post-holocaust America based on barter between isolated communities, a young boy finds that rebuilding the railways is as much about political ambition and betrayal as about travel and trade. “That was my first published novel, a kind of science fiction homage to Huckleberry Finn.”

The Gold Coast (1988)

Poetry and radical action, drugs and defence contracts, friendship, love, sex, lies and videotape in a futuristic mechanised, urban society. “One of the books that’s most importantly to me. It’s a very personal book about Orange County in the 1970’s (or the 2020s!)”

Pacific Edge (1990)

The third book shows a co-operative ecotopia in 2020 - but there’s still conflict, still corruption, still politics and ambition - and still love and loss. “My utopian novel. It gives me a lot of pleasure as a novel whereas as a utopia it was a very frustrating experience - the form of the book made it hard to talk about larger issues in the way that I might have wanted to.”

Red Mars (1992)

One hundred picked scientists set out to colonise Mars. “What can I say! Probably the other book along with Gold Coast that’s most important to me personally. That was where everything really felt like it was falling together in a nice way.”

Green Mars (1993)

The First Hundred have gone into hiding at the pole but the children born on Mars have their own plans that don’t include the multinational corporations from an increasingly desperate Earth. “More of the same! That one was a tremendous challenge, to try to describe in detail a successful revolution. It was a political education to write that book!”

Blue Mars (1996)

The triumphant conclusion - can man live on Mars or just exist there? “I’m happy the way it ended - I’m happy with all of Blue Mars. I think of the three books as one novel really - a three volume, three-decker Victorian novel and I’m pleased with the way it ended.”

(Published in SFX magazine)


Kim Stanley Robinson
SF Journalism