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The day after today

Interview with novelist Kim Stanley Robinson

Jennifer Rohn 4 February 2007

Venture capitol: Washington braces for the coming storm in Robinson's latest science novel

What I’ve seen in the last five years is the scientific community going off like a fire alarm in a hotel

Editor’s note: Kim Stanley Robinson is a widely acclaimed author of novels with strong science and scientist characters including the Mars trilogy, Antarctica and The Years of Rice and Salt, and he has won a number of prestigious awards such as the Hugo, the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. The upcoming book Sixty Days and Counting will complete his best-selling climate change trilogy ‘Science in the Capitol’. recently caught up with Robinson to find out more.

When did you first develop an interest in science – were you ever tempted to become a scientist yourself?

I’ve always been a reader, and that included non-fiction that was often historical or scientific, starting with archaeology because of my historical interests, then moving to geology, astronomy, anthropology, etc. It never occurred to me to become a scientist, although after I became a science fiction writer I wished I had studied something like archaeology or anthropology, rather than English as I did, as I think it would have helped me in writing science fiction. But at the time I was in school I was very focused on history and literature.

We understand that your wife is an environmental chemist – does she (and the colleagues she drags home for supper) have any role in inspiring or shaping your fiction?

Oh yes. We’ve been together since 1981, and often in the past my social group consisted mostly of her and her work colleagues. During the time of her post-doc in Switzerland I can say that my social group consisted entirely of scientists, aside from brief visits to the English science fiction crowd. These social experiences, and visits to various labs and work sites, have been really valuable in giving me a sense of science as a human process, with insights into its habits, institutions and norms. I’ve also had lots of exposure to scientific “characters,” most of all my wife of course, and this has been very useful when trying to imagine fictional characters who are scientists.

Who is your favorite scientist in a work of fiction and why?

I like Shevek in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed because of the echoes in his story of the dramatic lives of the great quantum mechanical physicists of the early Twentieth Century. Also Anna in Gwyneth Jones’s Life, a wonderfully vivid portrait of a woman biologist’s career in today’s world. Michael in Geoff Ryman’s Lust, a fantasy about a lab biologist, and the young physicists drawn into weapons work at the Lawrence Livermore lab in Carter Scholz’s Radiance.

I also take Spock from Star Trek to be a comic interpretation of the habit some scientists have of “being rational” as a life strategy, and though I don’t care for Star Trek as a whole, I think Spock as an image of The Scientist is hilarious.

I also have to add that among my favorite scientists in fiction are several of the ones in my Mars books, especially Sax Russell. Maybe it’s just I know them better.

Your doctoral thesis was on the novels of Philip K. Dick – how has his work been an influence on you? Have you enjoyed the various film adaptations of his stories?

Yes, inevitably I have been somewhat influenced by PK Dick’s great work, though we are not very much alike. What I admire in his novels is the consistent and penetrating critique of capitalism and its corrosive effects on human relations, also his foregrounding of ordinary people as heroes of the plot, and his sympathy for all his characters. Then also there is his tremendous boldness and comic sense, which cannot be imitated but only admired.

Of the many Dick movie adaptations, I only really liked Blade Runner, and to an extent Total Recall, but not Minority Report or the others.

Kim Stanley Robinson (photo courtesy of Bantam Books; photo credit Derek Fabel)

How important is the perception of genre – do you ever feel that being labelled as a ‘science fiction’ writer has held you back or restricted your readership?

This is a complicated issue, not easy to characterize. I believe in science fiction as being the genre of novels best able to capture the feel of our times, especially in the developed and industrialized West. So I am comfortable with my basically instinctive choice of what kind of method to take in writing novels.

“Perception of genre” is a different thing however, and it speaks to assumptions and attitudes that are outside of my control and also hard to be really accurate about. I can see that there is a part of our book culture that still looks down on science fiction, and there are readers out there who won’t read it on principle or by habit, but I feel that this attitude is their problem and not mine, and that they are missing out on some of the greatest novels of our time, and also not understanding our culture as well as they could if they did read science fiction. So, there is little I can do about this but to write novels that are relatively transparent to anyone used to reading novels of any kind, focusing on a kind of “realism of the near future,” which means people used to historical or contemporary novels ought to find mine easy to read. And then also to talk about these matters openly, and with the idea of emphasizing always that we in the West, and maybe everywhere now, are already living in a science fiction novel that we are all writing together; that history is now a science fiction story; so that reading science fiction (and I always include “novels about science” (or lab lit) as a particular kind of science fiction) is a way of orienting oneself and examining questions of meaning in the contemporary world, as well as getting a lot of artistic pleasure as a reader.

The novelist Gregory Benford is quoted on our Forums as saying: “Demanding that realism [in fiction] be contemporary or historical, in our age especially, is like driving fast and hard down a highway and using only your rearview mirror, not the windshield.” How do you feel about what he seems to be implying, that literature that isn’t future-speculative (that is, most literary fiction) isn’t of much use?

No, I think it’s all useful, and I love many historical and contemporary novels, but I agree with Benford’s point that since we are living in a science fiction story, and the future now bulks large in our relationship to the present, it’s a very good thing to have novels that are set in various fictional futures, as thought experiments that include warnings, explanations, utopian visions, and so on.

Why do you think there are so few scientist characters in mainstream or literary fiction?

I would guess it has to do with ignorance of science and scientists on the part of writers; also the famous problem that all fiction has in portraying work or people at work (fiction tends to be about what we do when we are not at work); also a certain anti-realism in all fiction that tends to focus on the unusual or out of the norm as what is worthy of report, and this tends to leave out science as an institution, as it seems to be normed to the point of being impervious to story. Fiction is “supposed to be” fast, individualized, dramatic, full of action and dramatic irony and poetic justice, etc.; science is “supposed to be” gradual, collective, accumulative, and full of people hoping to avoid controversy and drama by doing work impervious to criticism. So “science fiction” contains an inherent aesthetic contradiction, in more senses than one, and fiction about scientists has resulting aesthetic problems.

I’ve struggled with these problems many times and have concluded they ought to be regarded also as opportunities, mostly because they force writers to make up new strategies and new stories too. This is where the advantage of writing about science and scientists comes in big; elsewhere the stories have been told and re-told, and we are experiencing “the burden of the past,” “the anxiety of influence,” and “the exhaustion of literature” in non-science fiction because of this focus on past subjects and techniques; they’ve all been done, and done very, very well. But by focusing on science we have new stories to tell (the couple arguing over whether to choose their child’s gender or leave it to chance, the woman walking around on the moon, etc.) and we also have a constantly mutating language to use to tell these new stories with, which returns English to the kind of acquisitive and mutable glory it had during, say, the Elizabethan era. These advantages that the focus on science give to literature are more than worth the very knotty problems that also come with the project.

What sort of scientific research do you do for your novels? Are you a chat-with-scientists-in-the-pub type or a plow-through-a-big-stack-of-scientific papers type?

I do both. I read Science News week in and week out, and feel I’m abreast of current developments because of that wonderfully concise and readable magazine; then I research my individual projects heavily, more online than ever before, though I like books too; and I’m comfortable now with calling scientists at their offices and asking questions, and I meet a lot of them in my talks and such. Calling them up has been very educational, because I’ve found that I learn things I hadn’t thought to ask, and I’ve found an almost universal helpfulness from scientists, such that I sense they regard this kind of public explanation as integral to their work.

In your novels, what are your favorite strategies to transmit any necessary science without losing or boring the reader?

Well, I will do anything, including the person who needs things explained, which after all can be anyone, for instance an expert in a slightly different field; and I kind of like lectures too. This is an issue in the aesthetics of science fiction, because it became the fashion for a while to disparage exposition as a kind of literary faux pas, with writing workshops calling them “infodumps”. But I feel this can be taken too far, and often results in an end product that says nothing new and has no way of really speaking about science, because of the perceived need for unrelenting action at all times. But life is not like that, so this is not a realism. When I started my Mars books I decided consciously to take the time to write about anything I wanted, including all scientific topics necessary, with the idea that anything is interesting if you make it interesting, and that the surface of Mars was at least as interesting as yet another car chase across same. It resulted in a strange-reading text, compared to much of the science fiction out there at that time, and it scared me quite a bit, but the response to those books encouraged me to think that I had judged correctly, and that readers of novels were open to all kinds of different modes, including exposition.

Indeed many of the great novels in the English tradition are full of small essays and other excursions away from what we think of when we think of fiction, so that it becomes clear that one thing readers of novels like is a sense of immersion, even a sense that the narrator of the text is some kind of obsessive. You only have to love Melville and Proust and Garcia-Marquez to realize that the novel form is spectacularly versatile and capacious and is indeed there to convey into the mind of the reader entire worlds, not just plots like movies. At that point a certain freedom of expression enters the equation, and anything can be attempted. Of course there is still the requirement to make it interesting, but the definition of what can be interesting has changed. Reality is interesting, the non-human is interesting, and science is interesting; this is what science fiction can assert and attempt.

There’s a lot of talk recently of a manned expedition to Mars – would you volunteer?

No, not for the trips as now planned, with three years away at the least. That’s too long for me. I spent a week mostly indoors at the South Pole and that was too long. I like to be outdoors. Quick trips are theoretically possible with some much-faster propulsion systems, however; in other words, if I could do it in two months – I’d love that. I’d really like to walk around several different places there.

Do you think we could learn anything about saving our own planet by making Mars more hospitable, or are the differences too great?

I think we would learn an enormous amount that would be very useful. Comparative planetology has already proved its usefulness, investigations of Venus being crucial in the discovery of our own ozone hole. And as planets go Mars is actually very like Earth, or at least, more like it than any other planetary body at hand. And now we find ourselves having to manage or steward Earth’s biosphere because of our ability to wreck it, and this is a very big project that will never go away while humans exist, so the more we know the better, and in that cause, trying to make Mars habitable would teach us a lot.

How did you react when you first heard the news that the Beagle 2 had gone astray?

I felt bad for the scientists whose work would be unable to go forward because of the loss. I was in the room at the Pasadena Convention Center when the people at JPL were expecting signals from the Mars Polar lander that did not arrive, and that was a sad scene. For a while there the Mars landers were so few and far between that if one failed, an entire mini-generation of planetologists would be without new data to work on. Now I think the situation is marginally better, in that a lot of missions are in the pipe. Important, since historically success for these things has been about fifty percent.

The third and final book in your ‘Science in the Capitol’ series, Sixty Days and Counting, is about to come out. Do you believe that abrupt climate change is as big of a threat as it’s portrayed in the trilogy?

Oh yes. “The world has just ten years to reverse surging greenhouse gas emissions or risk runaway climate change that could make many parts of the planet uninhabitable.” That sentence comes from a description of the IPCC report about to come out this week. It’s actually gotten a lot scarier than when I started this novel in three volumes, back in 2001, although the potential for major change was clearly there. I started my book when the Greenland ice core date confirmed that the Younger Dryas had dropped the world into a little ice age in about three years. That to me was an obvious science fiction scenario to explore; very possible, very huge in its ramifications, and a story that did not span centuries, which was something I wanted to avoid in that story.

Has anyone criticized you for scaremongering? Any hate-mail from Republicans?

No, I think as a science fiction writer I am given a pass there, as dramatizing dire consequences is part of what science fiction has always done.

And speaking of which, in some ways you are the mirror image of the writer Michael Crichton on these issues. How did you feel about his testimony in Congress on the climate-change-skeptic side?

His testimony betrayed an ignorance of how science works. Perhaps because of his training as a medical doctor, he asserted that valid science consists only of controlled double-blind trials. This definition would remove geology or astronomy from the realm of science. He simply didn’t include the whole of the scientific method in his critique, and so it ended up being a useless statement. It was far more cautious, however, than his novel State of Fear, which was a ridiculous work of fantasy. I don’t understand his motivation there, but I note he wrote an earlier novel deriding the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace by portraying the case of a woman sexually harassing a man, so perhaps this indicates a certain contrarian habit of mind.

Sometimes while reading the trilogy, we would almost forget that the earth’s situation wasn’t as dire as portrayed. Did you get similarly caught up while you were writing it?

No, I was aware I was depicting a particular form of abrupt climate change, following on the stalling of the Gulf Stream, and I was aware while writing that at this point the Gulf Stream, while perhaps weakening (results are ambiguous there) was still running strong (the report it was thirty percent less strong than when first measured turned out to be wrong). Now we read that Greenland’s ice is melting faster than expected and contributing more fresh water to the ocean than Antarctica currently is, and so this is suggestive that problems may come up, and this stall scenario might come true; but it remains only a possibility and I was aware of it as such. I wanted to tell the story of an abrupt climate change, as opposed to the story of global warming; they are not the same, although it’s becoming clear that global warming is happening faster than we thought, and that there are some very powerful positive feedback loops (lack of ice in Arctic Ocean, release of Siberian methane, etc.) that could push climate over a tipping point. It was always that scenario that I wanted to portray.

I should add, while writing the book we have seen some pretty strange weather; and all the examples of strange weather listed in the beginning of Chapter Seven in Fifty Degrees Below were taken from historical examples in the past.

Frank, the rock-climbing, tree-house living NSF scientist is a fascinating character – anything of yourself in him? Have you every longed to go feral (or actually done so)?

Well, a lot of my characters have aspects of me in them, inevitably, and it’s true that when young I lived out of my office on campus for a few months, and so I have a little experience of that part of it. But Frank’s story was mostly a thought experiment. Frank is one of my scientist characters who is perhaps over-committed to living by scientific principles, which, given his interest in socio-biology, makes for some funny choices on his part.

I was told recently that someone pretty high up at NSF has taken to living out of his recreational vehicle, so maybe life is imitating art. Or maybe it is just “the logical thing to do” as Spock would say.

How did you gain such an intimate insight into the workings of the National Science Foundation? The fly-on-the-wall view of a grant study section in action was impeccable.

Thanks. I served on NSF panels deciding on the applications to their Antarctic Artists and Writers’ Program; I was included as an alumnus of the program, along with some other alumni, and outside experts in art, or Antarctica, or both. They model those panels on the more scientific grant panels elsewhere in NSF, so I was a participant in the method, and saw how it might be manipulated if one wanted to do that; like a lot of science, including peer review for sure, it depends on an honor system and on virtuous conduct that can’t really be policed.

Along with that very interesting experience, I’ve visited NSF in Arlington Virginia to give talks and chat with various friends and acquaintances, and two good friends have been NSF visiting scientists for a year. So I know the place pretty well for an outsider, and I felt this was knowledge that should be put to use in a novel. That was a motivation as strong as any other in the writing of the 40-50-60 novel. I admire NSF, and wanted to portray it as the utopian hero of a science fiction hero, thinking that the way science is structured it made sense to have an institution as protagonist, as a kind of narrative experiment. And I wish they could and would do more to influence national policy in the US.

In the trilogy, we were struck by the can-do attitude of the scientists faced with global catastrophe, as epitomized by the Army Corps of Engineers (thermohaline circulation stalled? – just pour in zillions of tons of salt). How far away are we from science being a political force that will be given the respect, money and free reign it needs to terraform the earth?

That’s a good question and I’m not sure. What I’ve seen in the last five years is the scientific community going off like a fire alarm in a hotel. I don’t think there has ever been a moment in history when scientists as a group have spoken up so loudly and urgently, not just as individuals but as organizations and institutions, warning everyone of the dangers of global warming to the Earth and all its creatures. Now this message has been received very ambivalently by the business powers in this world, which often dominate our governments, and their reply so far has been first to say, we won’t do anything if we can’t make money at it; won’t sacrifice, won’t change; if it comes down to a choice between life on earth and profits in the next quarterly statement, we choose profits. There is a Gotterdamerung attitude abroad in the world that says, we’d rather destroy reality than admit we were ever wrong about anything.

That’s rather startling and awful, but we live in a capitalist system and by and large capitalism calls the shots – literally in that it controls the armies and police forces. So it will become a very serious question for us, now and in the immediate future, and really for good: how real is democracy? And, if science as a cultural force needs to stand up for the creatures of the Earth against capitalism as a cultural dominant – who wins? This is a big question. I have hopes that despite the immense power of capitalism (which is not “creation of capital” but rather “feudal control of capital”), the real productive capacities of science, and the way science has to an extent “scientized” the workings of society in the last century, will mean that science will prevail in the end; meaning the scientizing of capitalism into some post-capitalist order that is more just than the current one.

We use “global warming” after all as code to speak of a much larger environmental crisis, and that crisis is in part the result of too many humans on the planet using a destructive technology to live by, and so human population is a crucial issue, not always linked to the other problems, when actually it is central. And human population drops to replacement rates or below when social justice prevails, especially when women have full legal rights to their lives, along with a minimally acceptable standard of living. So social justice, impossible in capitalism because of capitalism’s basic hierarchical power structure, is necessary to environmental health and human survival. So these forces, democracy and social justice, align with science in a larger project of survivability of the species. But it is an anti-capitalist project in the end.

We have to ask – who’s your money on for the US elections in 2008? Will the Democrats win and will climate change be an important platform? More importantly, if elected will they really be able to bash through the system and do anything about it (even if it’s Al Gore)?

I don’t who the final candidates will be, nor who will win. I see many signs that the tide has turned, and that global warming is a major issue that many social forces in America are joining to deal with, so whoever is elected in 2008, climate will be part of the discussion. Polls still show the environment to be low on voters’ list of priorities, but this is part of the PR battle, and the cultural revolution that we may be in the beginning of. If the questions are framed right, people are all in favor of environmental protection, so it’s partly a matter of framing the issues correctly, something neither major party has done here yet. In any case, I see signs of major change coming, and I hope that process continues.

Some critics have mused that the president in the series must be George W., but I think he’s too charming. What’s the truth?

Not George W. Bush at all, as is obvious from my descriptions, I hope. I wanted those books to be comedies, and Bush is too poisonous for comedy. My fictional president is a kind of Reaganesque kindly old duffer who is charming while promoting terrible policies – just like Reagan did.

How do you feel about George W.’s continuing fall from grace?

Faster the better. I would like to see impeachment and a direct flight to the World Court to be tried as a war criminal, along with Cheney and his whole gang.

Are we doomed?

No, not at all. Also this is not the right question to ask, as it is a form of the question “Is it too late?” If you reply “No it’s not too late,” then there’s an implied response, “Then I don’t have to do anything.” But if you say “Yes it’s too late,” then the response is, “Then I don’t have to do anything.” Both answers promote a quietist response. Same with “Are we doomed?” because if yes, oh well; and if not, then oh good; but either way, not a spur to action.

It’s better to ask, Will we lose more or will we lose less? Meaning species, the biosphere, Earth’s beauty and human usefulness. We are going to lose some; the population surge and the path-dependent technologies already in place make that certain, and the stubborn pseudo-science we call economics makes it certain too. So we are going to lose some species (already in the thousands lost) and crucial habitat; but the question is, how much lost, and can we contain the damage enough to avoid a crash of civilization (maybe that’s what you mean in shorthand when asking ‘Are we doomed’)?

We are faced, in other words, with a tremendously serious global emergency, a clear and present danger, right now, and we have to respond well. Some people conclude immediately, “we are therefore doomed,” but this is an easy cynicism that we can no longer afford. That attitude contributes to the danger. And it isn’t necessary. We have the technological ability to build a clean and sustainable civilization, what some people call a permaculture, and there are signs everywhere that people are aware of that and trying to enact it, against some very powerful reactionary forces. But who will man these reactionary forces if the danger gets big enough? You can’t build an island fortress mansion strong enough to escape some of the damage coming, and so even those most invested in the current malignant order are going to see that their children’s welfare is tied up in us solving this problem, no matter how rich they are. And the general mass of people always work for their children’s good. And we have science as an immensely powerful tool of analysis and action. So, we do have a kind of a stark choice now, between a mass extinction event and permaculture; and given such a choice, I think all but a small Gotterdamerung crowd will choose permaculture and work for it. You could say that science is one name for that work.