This Science Fiction World
One of the best kept secrets of the Sacramento Valley is the presence of science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson of Davis. A winner of the top awards bestowed on sci-fi writers for his Mars Trilogy, Robinson seems perched on the verge of even wider fame and a broader audience with his new novel Antarctica, about the struggle over global warming. Even that renown may be just a sign of things to come: A few months back, the author's Mars novels were optioned for a movie by Titanic producer-director James Cameron. Robinson graciously agreed to a few hours break from his daily writing schedule and family life to sit down with SN&R senior editor Ralph Brave to talk about his development as a writer, the past and future of sci-fi lit, movies and "this science fiction of a world we live in." The interviews occurred over two sessions, on May 21 and July 9. What follows is an extended excerpt. Interested readers can find the complete text of the interviews online at www.newsreview.com.SN&R: How do you begin a story? How do you figure out where it's going?Kim Stanley Robinson: The first draft is very much a process of discovery. That's why it's so hard and can't really be forced. I do start off with a set of scenes in my head and a sense of the basic story I want to tell. It can be very sketchy or it can be relatively detailed depending on how long I've been thinking about it ahead of time. There is a kind of a pipeline of story ideas I think about during my insomniac hours or on runs or swimming. So by the time I get to the first draft, I have a certain amount of information about the story, mostly images or scenes that are isolated from each other. The trick of it is to try to concoct a narrative that will take me with an illusion of logic or plausibility from one of these scenes to the next in a sequence. But that makes the story. Beforehand, I've got just a set of scenes that are more or less coherent, sometimes very incoherent, and the story really has to be like a crossword puzzle to make these things fit together. Sometimes they are a very natural sequence and it's not so hard.Where did these fragments of images or scenes initially come from, or is that a mystery?It is a mystery. Fundamentally, I feel like they are just being phoned in. I often feel as somewhat of a medium, in the sense of table rapping or whatever, that the things get phoned in to me. That's a good feeling. That's part of the pleasure of it-the getting, the transmitting from somewhere else. But I suppose that it comes from what I observe in my life, the people around me and what I read. It's kind of basic, but that's as far as I can go.You're only 46 and yet you have published TK books, quite a body of work already. What is your process of writing?For many years I have written mostly every weekday in the morning. It depends whether I am doing a first draft or I am doing revisions. When I am doing first drafts, I try to work Monday through Friday for at least a couple of hours and get anything I can down. About three pages is excellent, five pages is really good and if I get even one page down, then I try not to worry about it. Just to get something down, to keep the momentum going.How did it feel when you sold your first short story?I was ecstatic. I got the news as I was driving cross-country to Boston from my mom's at the Continental Divide up in Wyoming. I spent the night right next to the enormous statue of Lincoln's head, which sits on the Divide right off the freeway, in my car. There I decided, "Okay, this is what I want to do." At that point, I was committed to the life.What do you mean by "the life"?That I was going to do whatever it would take to clear space to write stories, science fiction specifically. I had no expectation that I was going to make my living on it because even then it was not particularly lucrative and it would take me two or three months to write a short story. A short story would get you a couple hundred dollars, so I could see that I might have to do something else, which looked like teaching. Teaching is a great way to make a living. But I told myself that teaching would be just what I do to make a living and writing would be what I am focusing on.Was the experience of getting your first novel accepted for publication similar?Oh yeah. It was a tremendous moment. I distinctly remember the phone call. And I went skipping through the street in Davis down to the State Market to buy things to celebrate. I had this ridiculous goal for my 20s, because, as you know, science fiction writers usually start quite young. So I decided I wanted to sell a novel by the time I was 30 or else I wouldn't be on my proper course. Which is stupid, I know. But this did happen a few months before my 30th birthday.You have mentioned before that you always felt this distance when it comes to science fiction film and yet you have been approached about multiple projects for your books.In the past, my agent has gotten a lot of inquiries, but they were never developed until last year, when James Cameron's production company came through and took an option on the three Mars books together. To me, most of this is all new.Money issues aside, was there any hesitance on your part?Yes, some hesitance. But the books are mine. The books won't change. So whatever they do or don't do with these projects is basically theirs. It will be interesting and very useful in terms of advertising my books, so in a pragmatic sense, it is sort of a win-win situation.What is the relationship between the trip you took to Antarctica and the novel Antarctica that's just been published?When I was doing my research for my Mars books, I kept running across references to Antarctica because it's the best analogue to Mars on earth. A lot of the Mars scientists actually go down to the dry valleys of Antarctica to do research. So, while I was reading one of these books on Antarctica to prepare for my Mars novel, I noticed a reference to a National Science Foundation program that sends artists and writers down there. And so I was going down there specifically to research a science fiction novel slightly on Antarctica. So I went down there in November and December of '95 with some ideas in mind. But basically I was open to experience and figured that I would wait before making any real decisions on the novel until after I had seen it, in the hopes that the novel would come organically out of the place and out of the people down there, rather than just being an exotic backdrop for some story imposed on it by me. I went around like a roving reporter for about six weeks or so, visiting various scientists who I had contacted ahead of time, and also visiting other scientific teams that I had met while I was down there in various places: the dry valleys, the south pole, the trans-antarctic mountains, all around Ross Island. The novel sprang from that experience.Because it's supposed to be the Earth landscape that is closest to Mars, did Antarctica meet your imaginative expectations?The dry valleys, which are an area of Antarctica that are free of ice, and are about 2 percent of the continental mass, a selection of valleys that are all next to each other-that looks very Martian. Shockingly so, because it's arid, lifeless, red rock, all wind-blown and shaped by the wind. A beautiful landscape and extremely Martian. The rest of Antarctica is ice-covered. And so it has its own look that's not Martian at all.The book Antarctica is in some ways a departure from sci-fi. It's earthbound landscape and technology are not imagined that far from what we have today. Do you see it as a departure?There's a science fiction sub-genre that you could call the near-future novel, where the events happen the day after tomorrow. And that clearly a few things have changed very slightly that allow the story to take place. In essence, it's a novel about the contemporary scene pushed slightly to reveal certain aspects of the contemporary scene. That's the kind of novel that Antarctica is. I think of it as science fiction, but it's not marketed as science fiction. You could come to it as a technological thriller in the style of [Tom] Clancy or Michael Crichton and it would work by the same rules, because a lot of what they do is actually near-future itself. It's just not labeled as such. So, there's no problem. I think that anyone in the American public can read anything these days, because in effect we're all living in a big science fiction novel now. But this book is particularly open to readers who do not usually think of themselves as science fiction readers.In the book, a central plot device is that the global ice caps are melting. How close is that to the science of today?In this book I have taken global warming and progressed it to about its maximum predicted rate. So that in the near future I have global temperatures some three or four degrees Celsius higher than they are now. And that conforms with scientific opinion of what could happen, although I put it right at the maximum, just to give people an indication of what that might feel like to live in. Now in Antarctica what that means is that the ice shelves-there's a difference between ice shelves and ice caps-the ice shelves are floating on the ocean and those are very susceptible to minute changes in global temperatures, especially ocean temperatures. And they're already coming off. The Larson Ice Shelf is gone. All of the ice shelves are in danger, especially the thinner ones. And even the thick ones probably have a sensitive dependence and might come off even if the ocean temperatures were just raised a degree. And that would start a process by which the ice caps that are on land would also begin to come off, because the western Antarctic ice sheet, as they call it, is actually on land that is under the sea floor. So it's stuck to land, but the land is below sea level. So if the ice shelves come off, that ice sheet begins to come off pretty rapidly. And it has historically in the past. Even if only the western Antarctic ice sheet were to come off, global sea levels are predicted to rise about seven meters, which would be an unprecedented catastrophe.Is their any debate left that this change is linked to global warming?No question that the ice shelves are coming off due to global warming. But there's a long-term question about the ice sheets, because global warming might increase precipitation in Antarctica , because right now it's a desert. It gets very little snowfall per year. But the snow that does fall doesn't go away. If there's vastly more precipitation down there, it could be that the ice would accumulate almost as fast as it's being lost. So in the long term, the question of ice in Antarctica is really, really complex.Some people read sci-fi as a game to see, "How well did Kim Stanley Robinson get the science?" How important is it to get the science right?There are different kinds of science fiction. And they all exist under the umbrella of that same term. Some science fiction is not really concerned with science at all, but is playing a different type of game that is basically fantasy with some scientific trappings on it. For those novels, what counts are literary values that have little to do with scientific accuracy. And they can still be valid novels. But there is another kind of science fiction, which I'm very interested in, which is very faithful to scientific realities. It just attempts to reveal what is going on in science right now by pushing the envelop of developments a little bit. And there, scientific accuracy is a big part of the game. You get to the point as a reader where you cannot tell what is the latest state-of-the-art scientific development that's being described, and what the author has just "pushed" by 10 years or 20 years in development. After a while, you give up even trying to tell, and think, "Well, this is just the way the world is." In a curious way-given the way history is accelerating and the way science is advancing so fast-you're right to think that. The world of a good science fiction novel is almost more accurate to reality than a mainstream realist novel that tries to give you 1998 and is inevitably outdated by the time of publication by current events.Another striking thing about Antarctica is the intense focus on the political struggles in the near future. Do you see writing as a political weapon?I think writing always has a political aspect to it. It's particularly true in science fiction where you are portraying various futures. Each future that you portray reveals a political bias or your own political values-what you think is important, what you think is going on. There's an ideological basis to all fiction, but I think this is only more obvious in science fiction. I think it's true of all literature that there are various political values being expressed by every fictional text. And it's fun to think about these, and not just let them take you where they will without analyses by the reader. In Antarctica specifically, the political situation is unique, because that whole continent is held in common. It's territory that all of humanity owns together and nobody claims sovereignty over anymore. So how we deal with Antarctica in the future is an indication of how we are going to deal with the oceans, how we're going to deal with the atmosphere, how we're going to deal with space and how we're going to deal with the environment as a human commons. One group cannot say, "Well, we're going to destroy our part of it and nobody else can tell us not to." That's no longer valid in a world where the environmental impacts are global. That makes Antarctica a very interesting case politically.Do you try to bring your readers to a specific viewpoint, or do you just lay out the political landscape and let them decide?In a way, I have to try to balance on a kind of tightrope act in that I would like to do both. As a novelist, I want to be fair to all my characters. My characters have their own realities. They have their own points of view. And from their point of views their beliefs are valid. And I have to present them as such or else I'm just manipulating puppets around and that's not a good feeling in a novel. On the other hand, my writing is my political activism and naturally, I load the dice like any other writer, either consciously or unconsciously, so that the reader comes up cheering for one [set of] characters and booing for other characters. And this is all politically loaded in a way. So I really have to try to balance these out and do both at once. I feel that I have more of me that is a novelist than a polemicist, in that whenever I am writing from one character's point of view, I can really talk myself into believing that character's point of view. In the Antarctic novel for instance, I have oil drillers. I have commercial fishermen. I have tour operators. I also have Greenpeace and even more radical environmentalists than that. And scientists doing their work. All of these people I feel like I can sympathize with from their points of view, because Antarctica has so many different aspects to it. I feel like I've given them all a fair say in the novel. I think I did that in the Mars books as well. This ability to kind of talk oneself into believing the character's point of view when writing from that character's point of view is what I think makes you a novelist, as opposed to some sort of preacher or essayist or whatnot.One book outside of your regular stream of short stories and novels is Future Primitive, in which you lay out your view of a combination of a return to nature with high-tech as a way to get past the problems of the industrial age. How do you see the struggle to preserve wilderness shaping up in reality today?I feel like at this point, the combination of the number of humans on the planet and our technological power means that wilderness is a choice that we make now. We could de-wildernize the entire planet. So wilderness is kind of an ethical position at this point, as well as a material reality out in the world. In other words, it will exist as a kind of giant, untended park in the future, where humans allow it to remain. It's a choice now, not just an inevitability. So I think that we ought to choose it, because it is the biological infrastructure on which we all depend for biodiversity and for everything else. But also for our own psychic health. I'll ask, "What is all this tremendous technological power that we have devoted toward? What kind of life do we want to live when we can live almost any lifestyle we can imagine?" And I think this comes back to a kind of sociobiology in a way. We're primates. What makes our brains happiest are the activities that formed those brains in the first place, which are outdoor activities, very simple ones: walking, talking, chasing things, farming, dancing, making fire. There's a lot of utterly basic human activities that I think are what actually pleases our brain. When we get too far away from those, we become neurotic and dissastified no matter how much we shower commodities on ourselves, or how many things we buy. So it seems to me that it's time for science fiction, being the literature of the future, to start imagining futures that are not just a world-city, but are more re-integrated into the natural world in one way or another. And that's the most interesting science fiction going right now.Why do you say it's the most interesting science fiction going?The "world-as-city" science fiction has become a kind of outmoded anachronism in a way. We no longer can believe in the world-city, because ecologically it won't work. The biggest cities on earth are not success stories. They're all ecological disasters and things to avoid. We can't sustain a population on this planet of many more people than we have right now. So this science fiction that actually attempts to absorb this new knowledge of the 1990s and deal with it by imagining different futures is automatically the most interesting because it's the one that is the most responsive to the reality that we're in right now. And then it gives you all kinds of possibilities that haven't yet been imagined. Try to imagine a kind of savannah existence where you actually have e-mail contact with people all around the world, and have translation machines so that you can actually talk with people who don't speak your language. These combinations have not yet been made and so there is a special excitement for this kind of science fiction because it's new.You see us as being capable of creating a new high-tech society that embraces wilderness while leaving the destructive effects of industrialism behind?Theoretically, it's possible. There's some difficulties to be overcome there. The kind of future that I am suggesting here still involves things like mining and production. So there would be the necessity of clean industry, cleaner industry, where you could actually do these things. It would also de-emphasize the mindless accumulation of commodities that don't really add to our quality of life but just get us through another Christmas season of sales. It gets away from that. Less in the way of possessions, more in the way of experiences. The more you're exposed to the outdoors, to the real world, the more interesting life becomes. The more you're stuck indoors, inside boxes either working or playing, and the more you're stuck in a life of observing things rather than doing things, the crazier your body gets and the crazier your mind gets as a result. So there are some difficult problems with this model I am suggesting, but it has to do with the combination of voluntary simplicity and inventiveness, or paying attention to what really pleases us in life. If you realize that sitting around and talking with three friends is more interesting than any commodity or exercise that you could pay for and buy and go through, then suddenly there's a lot of pressure taken off of you to work to make the money to buy things that don't really please you anyway.Both in Antarctica and the Mars Trilogy, there's a struggle with multinational corporations. Do you see the kind of transition being able to be made without confrontation with those power structures? Or do you see it more as a struggle to convince said power structures that it is in their own best interests to move in this kind of direction?Well, more of the latter, definitely. The confrontation with powers that great is bound to fail. We live right now in a historical moment where the hierarchy is in place with the backing of armies and police forces that can't be physically resisted. That's just a nostalgic fantasy on the part of people who think that way. And if you think that way too heavily, you get busted by the FBI and spend your life in jail. What I think it needs is a change in consciousness, a shift in values, what the Germans call "vertelstungle," a mutation in values. This can work from the inside on these multinational corporations that, in effect, are feudal hierarchies that we are all living in: most of us at the serf level, then some people at the squire level, but very few of us at the prince or royalty level. The thing is that these are all amenable to change from within. Then there's the example of all the co-ops that exist in the world today as legal alternatives to this hierarchy, cooperatives where there's an economic equality and democracy as an alternative to the political pseudo-equality that we have now. And so I think it's important to push the values issue and point out legal alternatives to living in that hierarchy, and try to hit it from that angle.Many people wonder, "Does Kim Stanley Robinson favor the colonization and expansion to Mars?"The books themselves, just by their existence, sketch out a scenario that then leaves an impression on the imagination. I think it would be a totally bad faith gesture for me to say, "I don't even believe in going to Mars and whatever." I think going to Mars would be a good idea. It would be a very inspiring human project and a beautiful work of collaborative human achievement. Almost unique in human history, with analogies to things like the cathedrals of the Europeans in the Middle Ages. Terraforming Mars [making it inhabitable by humans] is a different question, and I think it depends on a couple of different factors. First of all, we have to find out if there is life on Mars or not. If there is, I think the whole project of terraforming needs to be called off ahead of time. Because the life that's on Mars will be one of the greatest discoveries of all time and will need to be studied with no disruptions. But, say we find that Mars is dead now and maybe has been dead its entire existence; it's a rock in space. Then bringing life to it and turning it into another biosphere that would be different from Earth but based on terran life-forms and species-another ecology that sort of models ours or starts from ours and goes off in its own direction-I think that would be very interesting. But, then the question becomes, "How much does it destroy the original Martian surface?" How much can you give up of Mars' "intrinsic value" as environmentalists say before it becomes too much to be worth it? I teeter-totter back and forth on this question. One of the energy sources that allowed me to write a 2,000-page novel was that in my own mind I'm ambivalent.Is terraforming an actual project under study by NASA scientists?Terraforming has got a small, but active, group of scientists working out the physical parameters involved and methodology.Along what timeline is this projected to take place?The timescales are all over the map, even among the scientists. And they are obviously partly wish-fulfillments or ideological. I've seen serious estimates published in the literature for the time it would take to terraform Mars ranging from 50 years to 100,000 years. And when you see that kind of spread, you know that it's a problem that's very poorly constrained. The bulk of the estimates I have say it will run from a couple thousand years, to say 5,000 years. You call that the best-guess kind of estimate, with some people saying if we really went at it, it might even be faster than that. Essentially Mars' atmosphere is lying there frozen on the surface. It's a fairly simple physical problem of the application of heat. If you can apply enough heat to Mars, that atmosphere kind of rehydrates, or re-aerates into the sky, and very quickly you set up the situation where bacteria are just going to love it. They'll have an empty ecological niche where their possibilities of growth reach their mathematical limits extremely fast. [This would] never happen on Earth because there aren't any empty ecological niches like that. In theory, Mars could be terraformed in 500 years. I think that's a very realistic projection.Will some people see the Mars project as simply one more outlet for "exporting our contradictions"?Very much so. The whole Mars project in all of its aspects is very prone to charges of escapism from the real problems that we have on Earth. Unless you address that immediately and continuously throughout a discussion of the Mars project, I don't think you can make it clear what you're trying to get at. The Mars project is a fascinating and very useful sort of laboratory for discussing problems on Earth and seeing them in a new way, from a certain a distance you might say, by which we might understand them better when we come back. If you studied the Mars project long enough, you'd come back to Earth and you'd look around and you'd go, "My God! This is an incredibly lucky situation Earth is in, to be just this close to the sun, to have just this thick of a sky, to have all of the life-forms that we have on this Earth interacting as they are is a miracle." The more you study Mars, the more miraculous and precious Earth becomes. And then in the practical sense, everything that we do on Mars, everything that we study on Mars, can then be turned back into our understanding of Earth during an environmental crisis, because we are in about a century-long environmental crisis that could turn out very badly. Or we could manage to restrain the human impact on Earth and get into a perma-culture, a kind of long-term sustainable culture, which is not the same as "sustainable development," which is just a capitalist code-word for doing the same thing we've always been doing and getting away with it. The sustainable culture means what it says-that you don't need growth, you just need permanence and sustainability. That culture has not been invented yet. So, we are still in the process of inventing a livable culture for the long term for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Mars is just one very little laboratory experiment that is very strategically placed to teach us quite a lot. And that's all it is.Earlier in your writing, you experimented with a wide variety of genres, from realism to fantasy, etc. How do you make a decision about what genre to use and how do you envision the genres you will use in the future?I try to let the story idea that comes to me determine what genre it fits in, more or less organically, and not have any preconceived notions about things, to try a bunch of different things depending on their ideas. Most of the ideas that come to me are strange. So they have in one form or another to do with the literature of the fantastic, but mostly science fiction, because of a habit of mine of looking at the latest scientific news and thinking, "Well, what's that going to lead to if it progresses in certain directions?" So I just let the stories take the lead. I don't really know what will come next. I'm devoted to science fiction as the best way to talk about contemporary America. It's a habit of mine that I think the culture itself is now in, and is used to. I feel like it's a particularly powerful genre that I'm an advocate of. I don't feel defensive about being a science fiction writer. On the contrary, I feel like I've stumbled onto the real thing in terms of contemporary American literature, the happening place. So, I suspect I'll do more of it.A final question that may seem silly, but that people who recognize your dedication to scientific description ask: Has their actually been space sex as you depict in your Mars books?They deny all knowledge of this. It's the Russians that know about all this. The first woman cosmonaut that they sent up, she screwed up. So they didn't send up women up for another 25 years. I forget her name, but it was a famous disaster. Unfortunately, it alienated the big guys at Glascosmos (sp?). But, then when they finally got back into it again, they had women cosmonauts up in space for long periods of time along with men cosmonauts. And they were very cavalier in their attitudes toward ground control. They would develop an adversarial relationship with ground control. They would sometimes cut the radio with ground control for three, four days at a time. I'll bet you anything the Russians have had sex in space and I'm sure it's fun. But, nobody knows. NASA's prudish. NASA's scared of Congress. So they can't do anything that the right-wingers in Congress might freak about. For them, definitely it's a taboo topic. There's 1,200 pages of books about life in space by NASA that will have half a paragraph devoted to sex. And it basically says, "Don't ask. Don't tell. We don't know anything and we don't want to be asked anything." The Russians are saying, "Listen, it's none of your damn business and if you want to find out, go up and do it yourselves." So they've been very cool about it, in that they have not done this expos thing. What's interesting is that in this media culture, this sort of tabloid culture, there's still one place you can go, which is out in space, and get some privacy. Nobody can really interrogate you there.