An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

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featured ksrKim Stanley Robinson is probably best known for his Three Californias series (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge) and his Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars). Other novels include Icehenge, The Years of Rice and Salt, Antarctica, Forty Signs of Rain, Galileo’s Dream, 2312, Shaman, Aurora, etc. He has won three Nebula Awards, two Hugo awards, one World Fantasy Award, six Locus Awards, a British Science Fiction Award, and a John Campbell Memorial Award. His doctoral thesis was on the novels of Philip K. Dick.

Darrell Schweitzer for Amazing Stories: Could you give us some sense of your background, who you are, where you were educated, and (that life changing moment on the way to Damascus), what made you realize you wanted to be and could be a science fiction writer?

My life-changing moment in terms of science fiction happened early in college, when I finally realized that science fiction was a full-blown genre

Kim Stanley Robinson: I was born in Waukegan Illinois, same town as Ray Bradbury, in 1952, but my parents moved us to southern California when I was three.   We lived about ten miles from Newport Beach, and I spent a lot of my childhood and youth at the beach.  I also loved sports, music, and reading.  I had an English teacher in high school, Catherine Lee, who encouraged my interest in Shakespeare and poetry, and this caused me to pay more attention to the idea of studying literature.  I went to the University of California at San Diego, and began as a history major but quickly changed to literature, figuring I would be a teacher, which is what I eventually became:  I taught freshman composition for eleven years, both in grad school and then for a few years after I got my PhD.

My life-changing moment in terms of science fiction happened early in college, when I finally realized that science fiction was a full-blown genre; in my high school years, the town libraries had sf in its own section, and I never noticed it, and thought Jules Verne (who was in the regular fiction section) was just like anyone else, although very interesting.  I also want to mention that I adored Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which I read when it came out, but I had no idea it was part of a genre.   But in 1969 I checked out a Clifford Simak paperback, The Goblin Reservation, and enjoyed it and went looking for more.  I started reading sf alphabetically, as I read everything in those days, so I quickly discovered Asimov.  Pretty soon I was off to the races, and sf became the genre for me, and at that time (around 1970) the New Wave was going full steam, and I fell in love with New Wave science fiction.  The older stuff wasn’t as appealing to me.   I shifted from writing poetry to writing poetry and science fiction stories, and after a few false starts I got a story that seemed okay to me (“In Pierson’s Orchestra,” later the first chapter of The Memory of Whiteness).

Around that time I expressed my interest to one of my professors, Fredric Jameson, who it turned out was a science fiction fan also, though he only told this to people who shared the interest, as far as I could tell.  He was the first to show me a Locus, to which he subscribed; and he suggested I visit Willis McNelly, a professor at Cal State Fullerton, which also housed the Philip K. Dick archive.  McNelly was friendly in the classic sf way, and recommended that I come back and see a Harlan Ellison lecture, and ask Ellison for the address of the Clarion workshop, which I might want to go to.  When I did that and asked Ellison for Clarion’s address, in front of hundreds of people, Ellison grilled me at length, and only later gave me the address when I came up afterward.  I thought the whole evening was great, and drove back to San Diego determined to apply to Clarion.  I applied and went in 1975, after a year at Boston University, and Damon Knight bought some of my stories, and I was on my way.

ASM:   I heard a rumor about you at the time, to the effect that after your early successes in Damon Knight’s Orbit you had to “retrain” yourself before you could sell anywhere else. Is this true?

Damon was nothing but a positive force in my life…. I owe him a lot, far more than I can give back or even express.

KSR: No, not at all.  Damon was a very ecumenical editor and I wasn’t thinking about what he wanted, only what I could do.  He didn’t buy all my stories, only a few, and if I wrote one and he didn’t buy it (I was very slow while going to grad school, and didn’t produce very many) I couldn’t sell them elsewhere.  Finally that broke when Ed Ferman and Terry Carr bought stories from me, admittedly after Damon had stopped buying for Orbit—possibly Damon would have bought those too, I don’t know—but in any case Orbit was done, and I began to sell elsewhere, but without changing anything in terms of my stories.  I was still just trying to do what I could.

Maybe this rumor started because I mentioned once or twice that it took me a few years to untangle everything that had been said at my Clarion.  Six teachers in six weeks, 24 fellow students; it was a lot to take in, and after a while, I realized I didn’t even want to.  I wanted what I wanted, which came from reading literature for my BA and PhD, and in sf, loving most the New Wave.  Much of what was said at Clarion was not right for me.  After I sorted that out, and started writing entirely new stories, those stories seemed better.   But it was probably all just part of the process: Clarion, Damon, my reading and writing, the work on PKD for my dissertation for Jameson (I had returned to UCSD at that point), and my love of the New Wave writers.

For sure Damon was nothing but a positive force in my life.  He was a great teacher as well as a great editor, and he believed in me.  I think now that he gave me my twenties—I mean he gave me the feel of my twenties, the sense that I could be a professional writer—he gave me that when I was 22 years old, and I never looked back.  Everything I did after that was constructed around that idea.  So I owe him a lot, far more than I can give back or even express.

ASM: Your stories tend to have a classical feel to them, even the ones in Orbit. A pretty far cry from much of what was in New Worlds. So how do you think the New Wave actually did influence you?

I was using the term “New Wave” to refer to a period rather than a style; what I meant by the term was really everything in the years 1965-1975, which I regard as a high point

KSR: I see what you mean by this, and it’s true; my stories aren’t much like the ones from New Worlds in the the Moorcock years.  I think it can be explained in a number of ways.  1)  I could only write what I could write.  No matter what I liked as a reader, when I wrote I was constrained by my own abilities and interests and tastes.  Then 2) I read Proust’s great novel Remembrance of Things Past in the late 1970s, and that taught me that high modernism was not just stream of consciousness conveyed by fractured syntax and therefore difficult language.  Proust’s sentences were long but crystal clear, very much in the French Enlightenment tradition of rationality and forensic analysis of emotions, etc.  It was a different version of high modernism, somewhat the opposite of Joyce.  I was understanding my model, New Wave sf, as the introduction of high modernist techniques into the old sf ideas, with the addition of some new social material as well, and what I saw in Proust was a new way to do it, by focusing on clarity above all.  This fit with my own natural sensibilities, and gave me ideas about my own way to do “post New Wave” stuff.  Also, 3) I began to realize that I was using the term “New Wave” to refer to a period rather than a style; what I meant by the term was really everything in the years 1965-1975, which I regard as a high point, maybe the highest point, in SF literary history. So I’m not thinking of Moorcock’s New Worlds when I say New Wave, but rather that whole period, including all the usual suspects, then also Le Guin and Russ, Wolfe and the Strugatskis and Lem and Disch, but also Vance and Niven and Anderson, etc.; the whole gang across the whole spectrum of styles and approaches. Tremendous work was being done in those years, and I thought of it all as New Wave.  And for sure, that period of sf influenced what I wanted to do myself.

ASM: I can of course easily look up your age, and I see you are about 6 months older than me, so I’d guess you were exposed to some of the same things at the beginning. I remember The Goblin Reservation too, but I read it as a serial in Galaxy. Were you reading the magazines? We both can remember Orbit but do you also remember John W. Campbell as a contemporary figure, albeit at the tail-end of his career? Did you read Analog?

I thought of John W. Campbell as a figure from the 1940s

KSR: No, I didn’t read Analog. I thought of John W. Campbell as a figure from the 1940s, and didn’t read any magazines at all, and didn’t know that fandom existed.  Everything I knew about sf I learned from the paperbacks, usually used paperbacks.  But that, from 1970 on, was enough.   The paperbacks gave me the whole history of the field, repackaged in many cases, but pretty comprehensive too.   What I missed and didn’t know existed was not the literature, but the community and the culture.  When I came to Clarion in 1975, my classmates were amazed at my ignorance.   They would do the “this parrot is not dead it’s only sleeping” routine and I’d be on the floor laughing and saying “You guys are so funny, I can’t believe you can make that stuff up!” and they’d say, “It’s called Monty Python, Stan,” and I’d say “What’s Monty Python?” and then they would be the ones laughing.  But of course in those six weeks they brought me up to speed.

However, after Clarion I returned to San Diego and went back to grad school, and stayed focused on academia and the beach.  I didn’t get Locus or go to conventions until about 1982, when my sales to F&SF and Asimov’s made me more aware of the magazines, the community, SFWA, and the conventions.  I started to meet the writers of my cohort and go to conventions, but then my wife and I moved to Switzerland, so we disappeared from the American scene for a while, but got to meet the British sf community, also the French and Italian sf communities, all of of which were great fun.   When we moved back to Washington DC in 1988, I became a more typical member of the SF community.

So for the first ten to fifteen years of my career, I was somewhat of an outsider to the field, but not too much, because I went to Clarion, and in truth the paperbacks had the whole genre in them.

ASM: I tend to think of the New Wave as a period, too. How does awareness of the history of the field affect you as you write? When I was at Clarion, there were people who seemed to think it was really a bad idea to clutter your mind up with all that stuff. There was even resentment when I told somebody who was writing short-shorts that he should study the work of Fredric Brown. They seemed to think that ignorance was an actual virtue and would lead to originality. I still think it is more likely to lead to the reinvention of the wheel. So do you feel that you are part of the main edifice of science fictional tradition, and is this a burden or an asset?

Ever since World War Two sf has been the best realism of our time…knowing the sf tradition gives me ideas.  I’d like to write a novel in each of the sub-genres that interest me.

KSR: I definitely feel like part of the science fiction tradition, and I’m happy about that.  Ever since World War Two sf has been the best realism of our time, especially in the USA, and then, more and more, everywhere.  So it’s a great tradition and continues so.

I also think it’s very helpful to know the tradition, and not just the canon that everyone has read, but also one’s own personal favorites, the books that you keep no matter what.  All that reading does help to avoid re-inventing the wheel.  For me it’s just another aspect of being an English major, which I’ve stayed my whole life, in effect:  I like literary history and criticism, and getting a feel for the changes through the decades of fiction, and getting to know the work of the great writers.  It’s one of my chief pleasures. So it isn’t just the science fiction tradition but the larger literary tradition that I enjoy and think is important to know.

And knowing the sf tradition gives me ideas.  I’d like to write a novel in each of the sub-genres that interest me. By now I’ve tried many of them, and I don’t want to ever repeat myself, so I’m running out of sub-genres, maybe, but that’s okay.   The thing to emphasize here is that reading the sf tradition has given me lots of ideas, and more importantly, a way to structure my ideas in a structure larger than my own thinking.  Genre is an enabling structure, but how can you use it if you don’t know it?

One thing to add here, is that sometimes a writer can come in from the outside and with little or no knowledge of the science fiction that has been written before, add something to sf that has precisely the values of originality and strangeness, of newness.  One example is Cecelia Holland’s Floating Worlds, which brings to the planetary romance the greatness of Holland’s historical novels, and resembles her Great Maria more than it does generically aware science fiction.  But for every positive example like that one, there must be ten examples of people who come in and do something quite bad that is partly the result of their ignorance of what’s been done before.  The thing to do here as a reader is to stay open to the good outsider attempts, and don’t worry about the bad ones.  Those might even make quite a splash in the larger world, but you can in a chapter or two get a sense of whether they are any good or not.

ASM: At the same time, your work seems to be more engaged with the real world than a lot of science fiction we see (and have always seen). It’s the difference between, I suppose, early Heinlein and Captain Future. Your work is often distinctly political. How do you balance any didacticism with art?

I come out of the American leftist tradition and regard all art as political, so I am happy to be called a political novelist, though it is a redundancy.

KSR: I like writing fiction that is in the sf tradition, but can work for any reader who happens to pick it up.   That’s a matter of subject and style, a kind of openness to outside readers, I guess you might call it, but I’m not sure how that is created, as it is a fuzzy business, and really you never know much about who is reading your work or why.  I see an extremely wide set of reactions to my books.

One working principle for me is to think that the more “realistic” a fiction seems, the more it will engage the reader.  So I often try for a “reality effect,” but mostly this is an effect.  No fiction is particularly realistic, so it is not the main virtue to try for.  But it can enhance other things you want to do.

I come out of the American leftist tradition and regard all art as political, so I am happy to be called a political novelist, though it is a redundancy.   An apolitical novelist would be a weak thing, being in fact a status quo political novelist, possibly unaware of the political level of their work.  I always assume the more you are conscious of in your project, the more your unconscious impulses can flourish.  So I do my best to keep various kinds of balance, and I often comfort myself with the example of Proust, the thought that his novel is very political, in its support of Dreyfus and its attack on class snobbism, etc.  So even the most artful novel ever written is very political.

This balance of didacticism and art is hard, I think, and what I want more than anything is to write good novels, and I am not a consistent or coherent political thinker anyway.  So I try to give my various characters different political views, and let them defend those views well, and keep my hand on the scale as invisibly as I can.   In my Mars novels, it helped that I myself was undecided on the Red-Green question.  And I believe there are many different possible political routes to a good human result, so I’ve tried to express that too.  In my climate trilogy (now re-released in a single-volume compressed version as Green Earth) I took it as a given that climate change is coming; I don’t regard that as a political opinion, however.  That wasn’t being so much didactic as realistic, paying attention to science.

So, I hope to make art that is not too didactic and yet includes politics.  It is for sure a balancing act, and it’s possible to lose that balance, but I try.

ASM: You’ve also got to balance it with science. Your Mars books of various colors are surely the most detailed and scientific novels ever written about the colonization of that planet. You must also be excited about the expanding frontiers of human knowledge, not just a novel as politics. Or is all knowledge likewise political?

 the human impacts of technological change, isn’t that how he (Asimov) defined science fiction?  It’s a good definition.

KSR: No, I am interested in science as science, something distinct from politics, which I take it is about arranging relations between humans.  That’s always there in everything we do, but there’s also this matter of science exploring the universe that is not us, and inventing different ways of looking at us and our interactions with each other, the planet, and the cosmos.

Then also, science as practiced in this civilization (STEM, science technology engineering and mathematics), has a kind of utopian political project to it that I find very interesting, because I like utopian efforts. Science tries to understand the world better in hopes of making us more comfortable in it, as for instance in medicine, a very important science. All the sciences seem to me a kind of empirical or pragmatic utopian politics, attempting to finesse the power struggles and go right for what helps us.  But that can never quite work, so it gets bogged into the rest of all our efforts, tangled with them and mangled by them.

Over and above that political element of science is what you call the expanding frontiers of human knowledge, and yes, I find that exciting.  It’s an expansion that creates many new stories, and telling those stories is the work of science fiction, maybe even one definition of science fiction.  I think it’s Asimov’s:  the human impacts of technological change, isn’t that how he defined science fiction?  It’s a good definition.  New stories are not hugely easy to generate if you don’t pay attention to the sciences, so again, science fiction is the right place to be in our era; it’s the realism of our time, and the most exciting literature, the place where you get what Damon called “the sense of wonder.”  All fiction has always wanted to create that sense, so focusing on science fiction today makes sense in many ways.

ASM: I note with some dismay that a lot of science fiction seems to have given up on the future. You obviously have not, but some has. Why do you think this is? After all, we are living in a moment in which the universe has suddenly been shown (as opposed to hypothesized) to contain thousands (and by implications billions) of planets. It’s the biggest expansion since the discovery that those points of light in the sky are other suns. Surely this should awaken anybody’s sense of wonder and possibility.

let’s say that science fiction is always really great at capturing the mood of young people when they contemplate their own futures.

KSR: Well, I’m thinking the space program as practiced so far has shown that although there are many planets in this galaxy, they are all out of our reach.  Then, if you focus on our current moment on Earth, you see climate change and the massive injustice and inequality of global capitalism, which wants to be the law of the planet forever, and is trying to do that with mortgages and debts of all kinds, in effect buying the future.  So the real situation is enough to generate a huge amount of fear in the young.  Their prospects look bad.  And let’s say that science fiction is always really great at capturing the mood of young people when they contemplate their own futures.  Recall Jack Williamson, isolated on a ranch in frontier New Mexico but thinking, “We’re going to the stars!” and having that optimism and excitement.  Today a young person could be thinking, “The planet is wrecked and I’m competing for jobs with people who get paid a dollar a day.”  Not so encouraging!  And so we get the YA dystopias.  They’re popular because they express people’s fears so well.  The global political situation causes these stories to manifest as expressions of our fears.

Then we still also want to express our hopes, which are always there, stubborn and persistent, even if subtle and small. So we need utopian fiction too.  And there is some of it. It’s what I’ve often tried to do, basically to portray positive futures, so we have something to orient our efforts in the present, and can express our hopes as well as our fears.

ASM: If we can go a little further into the politics, do you think the world could, within a lifetime or so, evolve something better than capitalism? Utopianism is one thing, but can we actually get from here to there, particularly when so many powerful people are making a short-term profit off the present system? Will it take a crash to change things?

We need some kind of post-capitalism so badly, that I hope it can be invented and implemented

KSR: Good questions. We need some kind of post-capitalism so badly, that I hope it can be invented and implemented—or simply implemented in hodgepodge style by successive tweaks without an overarching theory, as often happens.  Laws change and history does happen, so the process is real, and the need is there.  Capitalism as currently practiced exteriorizes the costs of the damage to the biosphere’s natural resources and support systems, and this isn’t realistic, in terms of long-term sustainability; and it also unequally distributes surplus values, so you get immiseration, the precariat, and the infamous one percent, the oligarchy that hopes to buy governments and forestall significant change.  They have a lot of money, so it will indeed be a wicked political battle.

Raymond Williams discussed the idea of the residual and the emergent, so that capitalism is a mix of feudalism and whatever comes after it; and whatever comes after it will therefore include some aspects of capitalism as its residual.  I’ve been thinking that if the necessities of life were all public utlities, and the work of civilization some kind of landscape restoration and biosphere balance, and adequacy for all, then the residual could be a market in toys and games and diversions.  Capitalism on the margin, so to speak.  People who want that risk, pressure, and urge to innovate, all the things capitalism exemplifies, could focus it there where the stakes are not life and death, with death for the losers (meaning the 99 percent and the planet).

Getting from here to there:  crucial, and hard.  Mainly, politics.  But it’s worth looking at the book Why Civil Resistance Works to contemplate politics as mass actions too, I mean more than voting and talking.  Economic non-compliance, mass action, and so on.

This brings me to your question, will it take a crash to precipitate real change; it may be true, but I hope not.  And we have the 2008 crash as a model.  We didn’t take advantage of that one, but we did nationalize GM, one of the biggest companies in the country.  And we almost nationalized the banks.  That would be the good move, next time.  If finance itself were a public utility, it could get very interesting; that’s a post-capitalist thought.  So I think we need to be ready to do that, by discussing it. I’m going to write sf about it, which is my way of joining the conversation.

ASM:   Ultimately, though, isn’t a story more about the experience than the idea? That is, not so much about the idea of a terraformed Mars, but what it’s like for individual characters to live there, and the emotions of this being shared vicariously with the reader.

The reader gets to be transported into other times and places, and crucially, into other people’s minds.

KSR: Very true.  Novels are about characters and experiences.  The social sciences call this “thick texture” which is not a bad term for it.  But in the context of our genre, I would describe it by saying novels are forms of time travel and telepathy.  The reader gets to be transported into other times and places, and crucially, into other people’s minds.  This is the magic of fiction.  If that mental traveling doesn’t happen for the reader, then all the ideas in the book are reduced to just that, mere ideas.  Thin texture, maybe.  We’re always immersed in ideas, and political opinions are flying about like flies, but the experience of time travel and telepathy is rare enough to be valuable in a different way.  So, I try to focus on novels.

ASM: By way of a collapse I was thinking of something more like the French Revolution, which, of course, did not turn out very well. I don’t think the original revolutionaries foresaw Napoleon as emperor. Likewise, Mao may have succeeded in getting rid of the remains of the feudal order in China, but I don’t think he foresaw that in a generation the Party itself would chuck this Communism stuff and go whole-hog capitalist. Surely revolutions have a way of surprising us. And surely the science fiction writer’s job is to imagine how social change might bring about results that no one otherwise thought of, right?

…revolutions are wild and can eventually result in terrible regimes.  They’re dangerous, but we are in a situation where we kind of need one (or more).

KSR: I’ve been thinking about more recent revolutions as being more likely to model the ones to come.  For sure revolutions are wild and can eventually result in terrible regimes.  They’re dangerous, but we are in a situation where we kind of need one (or more).  So I’ve been looking at books like Why Civil Resistance Works [by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan –DS] and thinking about the crash of 2008, and how when the next bubble bursts and we are on the edge of financial collapse, we might seize that moment and turn it into a kind of virtual, democratic, legal or semi-legal revolution.  But your final point is undeniable: such a social change would very likely bring results no one has thought of.  That’s history for you.

ASM: You focus on novels so the characters have room to come to life? Why can’t you do that in shorter works? In your early career you certainly did, in the pages of Orbit.

…it seems like all my ideas these days are for novels

KSR: I guess it can be done in shorter works, although the word count makes it hard.  But for me the problem with short stories comes not from trying to portray characters, but simply in coming up with short story ideas.  They’re not the same as novel ideas, and it seems like all my ideas these days are for novels.  I’d like to do more short fiction, but a particular kind of idea has to come to me, or I can’t do it.  So, I keep looking.  Recently I wrote one, for the first time in several years, but it’s only two thousand words and is not exactly a character study.

ASM: So, seriously, if you want to put on your prophet’s hat for the moment, what do you think the world will be like in 2050?

I think 2050 will look and feel kind of schizophrenic.

KSR: That’s 35 years from now, so it will still be a mixed picture, meaning human civilization won’t be clearly disastrous or obviously and definitely on its way to balance and sustainability.  The two possibilities are both so stranded together and full of momentum in their different trajectories that I think 2050 will look and feel kind of schizophrenic. So in human culture, the environment, and people’s minds, there will be enormous stresses, a feeling that a race is on between utopia and catastrophe, a sense of wildness and revolution, stupidity and greed, but also huge potential.  Anger and hope.  So:  like now, but more so.  An exacerbated now.  This of course is a kind of easy vague call, almost your classic straight-line extrapolation, which is usually wrong.  Especially since, at our current pace, we will by then have burned the 500 gigatons more carbon we can before we raise the temperature globally by 2 degrees C., and therefore will likely be cooking our home by the year 2050.  So, even granting we cut back on burning carbon, which hopefully we will, the situation in 2050 may feel like a permanent emergency—life with the hotel fire alarm ringing your ears, all the time.

ASM: Let’s talk about writing methods. Are you an outliner or someone who just jumps in with an evocative scene or even a phrase? Did you know that your MARS series was going to be that extensive when you started it?

 Even after all these years I have no sense that I know what I’m doing, although I do now have confidence that if I persist, something will result.  Mostly it still feels like exploring.  I like the work.

KSR: I did know the Mars series was going to be a trilogy, or at least a single long novel.  I thought it was a single novel, and yet had not yet gotten to Mars and had written 200 pages (early draft work), and my new agent Ralph Vicinanza said to me, “Stan, we call that a trilogy.”  That was fine; I wanted a broad canvas.

I don’t outline, but I do usually have scenes in mind that are scattered through the story, like islands in an archipelago. I know I want to visit all of them, so I have to design a plot that will get me to them in a plausible way.  Most of the work of figuring out the story happens along the way while I figure all that out.  It’s a process of exploration, and works for me; there’s a certain amount of tension as I write my novels, but in a productive way.  Could call it excitement rather than tension, in any case it definitely engages my full attention.  Even after all these years I have no sense that I know what I’m doing, although I do now have confidence that if I persist, something will result.  Mostly it still feels like exploring.  I like the work.

ASM: The thing I’ve most obviously neglected to ask you concerns your thesis on Philip K. Dick. Given that you wrote such a thesis, you must have thoroughly mastered his work, so was his work a major influence on yours? Did you ever meet or correspond with him?

To me, what mattered in his (PKD) work was the structural matter of his third person limited point of view, roving from character to character, and also the jamming together of lots of different sf elements into one story.

KSR: I read all of PKD’s published novels, and while I was doing my dissertation on him, visited Cal State Fullerton, where his papers were kept in 24 boxes, basically unsorted. This was around 1980, and he had sold his papers to Cal State Fullerton in a deal brokered by Willis McNelly. McNelly got Cal State Fullerton to give PKD $500 for his papers, which allowed PKD to afford to move from northern California to Orange County, leaving a very chaotic part of his life behind and transitioning to its relatively calmer end phase. In the 24 boxes were about 10 mainstream novels, all since published, and some significant fiction fragments, letters, etc. It was quite a trove, and I struggled to sort it out and read some of the mainstream novels, to get a sense of them for my dissertation. I did not do a completist job; there wasn’t time.

I really like PKD’s fiction, and reckon that about a dozen of his novels are truly brilliant, also often hilarious, and there are flashes of wit and insight among many of the other 35 or 40. I used to say there were 37 published novels, but that was in 1981 and I’ve lost count of how many more have been published since then. A lot, for sure. To me, what mattered in his work was the structural matter of his third person limited point of view, roving from character to character, and also the jamming together of lots of different sf elements into one story. So, mainly matters of form, with the first more important to me than the second. Then in terms of content, I like his anti-capitalism, and his focus on ordinary people. Also the portrait of California that emerges from all his books taken together. These were the aspects of his work that spoke to me. I don’t think of him as a major influence, but definitely a benign minor influence. His classic move, the “reality breakdown” as I called it, is not something I’m much interested in. Although in his work it can be spectacular.

I never corresponded with him. I intended to send him my dissertation, with the hope he would like being written about in that way, even if he didn’t like what I actually said. A few years earlier he had gotten mad at Fredric Jameson and Peter Fitting for describing him in the context of Stanislaw Lem, and writing about him from a Marxist perspective (I think that was his beef, anyway) so I was not confident he would like my dissertation, but I was going to send it anyway. But he died two months before I finished it, which was a horrible surprise for everyone, or at least to those not aware of his health problems.

I did meet him once. This too happened on the night of the Harlan Ellison appearance at Cal State Fullerton. PKD and Avram Davidson were in the audience, sitting together just a few seats from me, part of a full hall of about 500 people. After Harlan read the first half of his Kitty Genovese story, and gave a hilarious monologue, there was the question-and-answer session during which I asked my fateful question about Clarion. Later PKD stood up and told Harlan how much he appreciated Harlan’s raising of the level of respect for science fiction among the general public. It was a statement rather than a question. Harlan was obviously moved. Afterward I ran into PKD in the hall outside the auditorium, and I said, “Mr. Dick, I really liked your novel Galactic Pot-Healer.” He looked at me like I was insane, nodded and passed on without a word. But I was glad I had spoken to him.

ASM: What are you working on now? You mentioned a short story, but what’s the next big project?

KSR: I’m writing another novel. This one is about major sea level rise as a consequence of climate change, and takes place in lower Manhattan. I’m having fun with it.

ASM: Thanks, Stan.

Learn more about Kim Stanley Robinson on his website;  visit his author’s page on Facebook

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