Note: This interview originally appeared in Amazing Stories Magazine Fall 2013.
Today we are joined by award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson. Stan writes science fiction that pushes the threshold of imagination into humanity’s possible future while turning a mirror on society. His tireless efforts to explore deep social and scientific issues while delivering thought-provoking entertainment continue the traditions that founded science fiction. Stan chooses not to flood the shelves with shallow attempts at profit. Instead, he masterfully crafts each of his tales with passion and precision.
Evidence of his rare combination of scientific knowledge and artful storytelling can be found in his long list of awards. Stan has been awarded two Hugos, three Nebulas, the World Fantasy Award, six Locus Awards, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. His scientific mind and his ability to identify logical pathways towards the future have inspired countless universities, scientific organizations, and government agencies to seek his opinion on a wide variety of topics. His latest novel, Shaman, was released earlier this month (September 2013). When not devising new societies and scientific breakthroughs, Stan spends his time hiking the mountain trails of Mars.
R. K. TROUGHTON FOR AMAZING STORIES: Welcome to Amazing Stories, Stan. Much has been written about how scientists, engineers, and astronauts were inspired by the science fiction they were exposed to in their youth. Many believe that science fiction in a way has a symbiotic relationship with science and the evolution of our world. Scientists inspire authors, who then inspire scientists. Some suggest that science fiction has an obligation to the future of the world by continuing to fuel minds and inspire invention. How do you see this relationship between science and science fiction?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: I think it’s a kind of feedback loop, with very different actions in the two parts of the loop, as if some kind of cometary orbit. Science fiction writers can read scientific results and instantly come up with new ideas for stories, that happens all the time; then young readers of science fiction read stories, and become inspired to become scientists, which can take them all the rest of the lives. So one part of the loop is nearly instantaneous while the other takes decades, but it’s still a loop, and it has a powerful effect on the world.
ASM: You are well known for your visions of the future, but this month you published a new novel that looks at the past. Please tell us what inspired your latest masterpiece, Shaman, and what we can find beneath its cover.
KSR: I think of my novel Shaman as a particular kind of science fiction, which examines what we are as human beings by looking at how we became what we are now. Also, it took the sciences of archeology and anthropology to provide the information necessary to write the book, because prehistory is literally prehistorical, in that we have no texts from the time, and have to infer what life was like by what was left behind, and by analogy to first peoples still around when industrial society colonized the planet. So, this is partly a scientific process, and I have made use of all those findings, some of them very new, to write my book.
In particular, the 1991 finding of the ice man on the glacier between Italy and Austria, with all his gear frozen and intact, was a big inspiration to me; his gear kit was very sophisticated and resembled my backpacking gear in design, and I wanted to write about that. Then the discovery of the Chauvet cave in 1994 gave me my particular story; it was painted 32,000 years ago, the paintings are beautiful, and they suggest an animal-focused culture with mysterious beliefs. So I tried to tell the story of the people who painted the cave.
ASM: You are perhaps best known for your Mars Trilogy. Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars each took home at least one of the major awards. Many consider these books to be one of the pillars of modern science fiction. They are must-reads for any science fiction fan. For those not familiar with the series, please share with us what we will find in your vision of Mars.
KSR: The Mars trilogy tells the story of the human inhabitation of Mars, and the creation of a viable Martian biosphere, using Terran life to start things off, and altering the atmosphere of Mars and creating a hydrosphere, both by heating the place up. In the process of doing this, a new society with new social forms, politics, and economics, also grows up with the planet. In the terms of the book, everything there gets areoformed. The story is told by following a cast of characters that is relatively small, but central to the action; mainly they are members of the first hundred permanent residents, and some of them get life extension treatments so that they live through the entire two centuries that the novel traverses. So, some kind of epic novel.
ASM: So much of modern science fiction speculates on dystopian futures, but many of your works lead the reader towards utopian possibilities. What inspires and drives this positive outlook you portray in so many of your novels?
KSR: I think it’s interesting. Dystopias are all basically the same, and easy: oppression, resistance, conflict, blah blah. Like car crashes in thriller movies. But utopian novels are interesting (I know this is backwards to the common wisdom) because they force us to think about what we are, what we could become, and if we were to make a decent civilization, what would endanger it, or keep it from spreading, etc. One point I’ve been making all along is that even in a utopian situation, there will still be death and lost love, so there will be no shortage of tragedy in utopia. It will just be the necessary or unavoidable tragedies; which perhaps makes them even worse, or more tragic. They won’t be just brutal stupidities, in other words, but reality itself. This is what literature should explore.
Also, thinking of utopia, I’ve always felt this: since we could do it, we should. And that will take some planning, some vision.
ASM: In your Three Californias Trilogy, you explore three different futures. In each one you begin with a framework and impose different conditions in order to explore distinct possible futures. Some might suggest each book represents a slice of a many-worlds theory where every possible outcome exists. Most of your work deals with the future, but each appears to portray a unique future. Please share with us your passion for the future and your approach to looking at different possibilities.
KSR: It’s very true that the Three Californias represent a kind of trio or triptych of possible futures, very distinct from each other, but with the suggestion that all futures are possible starting from now. The trick was to have the old man be the same in all three books, but him having lived very different lives, depending on the historical conditions he lived in. I think that speaks to something very true, that we aren’t completely free in our lives, but exist within conditions that shape what we become and even who we are.
So, this is science fiction’s basic action, reduced to one trio: sf looks at the present and imagines the various futures that could come to pass, given where we are now. It’s not prediction of one future, but consideration of a multitude of possible futures, and that gives sf readers their particular flexibility of mind, their ability to react to history without huge surprise and disorientation. In effect, they saw it coming. So sf reading is a kind of cognitive mapping that orients people in time. It’s not just great fun, but useful too.
ASM: Your passion for science fiction comes through in your writing. What was your first exposure to science fiction, and how old were you?
KSR: I came late to science fiction. I read everything as a child and youth, but did not distinguish sf from the rest of what I read; so I read Tom Swift Jr., and Jules Verne, but only thought of them as marvelous adventures. In a sense I was recapitulating the history of the genre, because there was a lot of sf published before the name “science fiction” existed. Thus with my reading. But when I was 18 and leaving for college, I reached the end of the fiction section in my library (I had been going through it in alphabetical order) and there was this section with rocket ships and radiation symbols on the spines of the books. I started with Asimov, as having the biggest part of the As (I was still moving alphabetically), and at first I thought, this Asimov is so good, he must be an anomaly. People often make this mistake, I find. Then I picked up a paperback by Clifford Simak, just to fill out my ten book limit, called The Goblin Reservation. I loved it and concluded, All science fiction is great. This too was wrong, but I was on my way.
ASM: What authors have influenced you the most?
KSR: Influence is a funny word. Does it mean, the writers I’ve loved the most? That would be a long, long list. Does it mean, the writers I’ve tried consciously to be like? That would be a really short list, maybe non-existent.
Maybe it means, the writers I suspect have taught me the most even though I wasn’t trying to learn from them. In science fiction, that would include writers like Wells and Stapledon, Le Guin, Russ, Wolfe, Delany, Lem, the Strugatskis, Disch, Bisson, Park, Kessel, Fowler, Banks, Macleod, Ryman, and many more. In literature more generally, Thoreau, Gary Snyder, WS Merwin, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Proust, Conrad, Cecelia Holland, Peter Dickinson, Daniel Defoe, Joyce Cary, Patrick O’Brian, Henry Green, Melville, Shakespeare, Isak Dinesen, Dos Passos, Garcia-Marquez—and on and on it could go. But notice how this list makes no sense, in that it’s random and doesn’t explain anything.
ASM: You seem to have a true passion for science. What scientists and discoveries have most inspired you?
KSR: I can now say Galileo with some emphasis, because I love him as the protagonist of one of my favorites among my own novels, and his example of working hard in all circumstances is truly an inspiration to me. Also, for the most part his scientific discoveries are things I can understand.
I can speak with equal or greater fervor of my wife, Lisa Nowell, who is a working scientist, an environmental chemist deeply enmeshed in scientific work and the scientific life. That’s taught me a lot and also been an inspiration. She, and a lot of scientists alive today, work with a kind of Galilean intensity and effort. It’s quite amazing to witness.
Discoveries, that’s hard, isn’t it? They are all bricks in a wall of understanding. Obviously we should all be impressed by the ongoing work on the part of the wall that is medicine.
ASM: It is obvious to anyone who reads your work that you take great pride in your craft. Some authors begin with a character, a technology, or even an ending. Some outline in vast detail, while others loosely plot everything out. Please give us a glimpse of your writing process from conception to award-winning novel.
KSR: It usually starts with an idea, fairly simple and basic. Inhabit Mars and terraform it. What would the world be like if all the Europeans had died in the Black Death? What if Galileo were taken by time travelers to the moons of Jupiter? What if a mercurial personality and a saturnine personality fell in love?
Then I build from there. Often it takes many years, and eventually I have a sense of the story’s basic outline, with some events, and the climax or ending, but a lot of vagueness. Eventually I need to figure out a form, and then a narrator. The story tends to create the characters necessary to live the story. And so on it goes. Much is never decided until I am faced with writing particular scenes. That’s when it gets really hard.
ASM: How have science fiction and the publishing industry changed since you sold your first story?
KSR: I don’t think I have a very good view of the changes; it’s like I’m a fish in a river, and it’s been flowing downstream, and presumably through curves and different countryside, but how would I know? My perspective is limited by being inside it. Lots seems familiar. There are publishers, story markets, editors and agents and book-sellers, readers; it’s still a team effort as an industry. The internet is a new platform, and mail-order books are bigger (amazon), and self-publishing can work like it couldn’t back when I was young. These are major differences, I think.
KSR: I think it looks like a lot of the industry will move to e-books and away from physical books and physical bookstores, but the physical side will always remain as a kind of love of objects, and because it remains a really good tech: several hours of immersive entertainment in a small cheap resilient bundle of paper. So, I think a balance of platforms will be established by practice and preference, and publishers will continue to exist, as people making choices and letting readers know what is considered the very best stuff, so the readers don’t have to dig themselves through the huge number of texts out there. So I see a certain stability in all the changes. But this is an easy and conservative call to make.
ASM: Within the science fiction community, the bond between fans and authors approaches symbiosis. How do you view this relationship, and how has fandom changed since you first fell in love with science fiction?
KSR: Again I came to all this late, as I walked into my first sf convention when I was 26, and at first didn’t understand what I was seeing. Eventually I learned that this was a community like a small town, cast across space and time as in some wild sf scenario, that reconvenes (partially) at weekends in hotels scattered everywhere. It’s a very intense intellectual community, very expert at thinking about the future, in ways that most of our culture is not—although it is true that everyone thinks about the future to one extent or another. But fandom makes it their hobby and so is expert at it. This can lead to the myopia of expertise, but generally is a very good thing. I’m proud to be part of the community, which is my intellectual home and where I met many of my best friends.
Fandom has gotten bigger but more diffuse, with interests in media and gaming and things other than literature per se, but stories stay at the heart of it, so there is common core interest. For the literary side, maybe it’s true that fandom has gotten older. I mean we do all get older, but a community aging as a totality, that’s different. But it’s hard to say, also.
ASM: For someone that is new to your work, what should they start reading first?
KSR: Anything. I don’t know. Maybe 2312 to see what I’m doing now, or Red Mars to check out my most famous work, in some ways characteristic of what I do. Maybe, if the new reader likes reading historical fiction, The Years of Rice and Salt, or Shaman. So hard to say. I guess I would advise not starting with Blue Mars.
ASM: Looking back on your career so far, what makes you the most proud?
KSR: I am proud of: the readers who have enjoyed my books; my friends in the science fiction community; the science fiction community itself; Ralph Vicinanza; the National Science Foundation sending me to Antarctica; being Worldcon guest of honor in Melbourne; my career in translation (especially Spain and France); the two Hugo awards given to my books; the Locus and Nebula awards given to my books.
ASM: You are well known for your visions of the future. What do you feel will be the most important discoveries or advancements in human civilization over the next two hundred years?
KSR: I think it’s necessary to speak of complexes here, if we really want to talk about what’s important: so, the invention of permaculture, meaning a sustainable civilization in balance with Earth’s biosphere; this would include adequacy, justice, and health for all humans and all the mammals and other animals and ecologies on the planet. We haven’t discovered that complex yet, and it will be a big advancement; also necessary for survival.
ASM: What projects are you working on now that we can look forward to?
KSR: Another science fiction novel, of course; this time, about a multi-generational starship to a nearby star.
ASM: Thank you for joining us today. We always enjoy your amazing tales and appreciate the expertise with which you craft them. We eagerly look forward to the next snapshot from your imagination. Before you go, is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of Amazing Stories?
KSR: I’m really happy to see Amazing Stories in the world, because the magazine has had a long and wonderful history, and the name calls all that back and keeps it going. Onward into the 21st century!