Where's the great novel about climate change? I'd argue that to find it, you're better off leaving the world of "straight fiction" for science fiction, specifically for Kim Stanley Robinson.
Over the weekend, Robinson's latest novel, 2312, was nominated for a Hugo award, one of the most prestigious prizes in science fiction (it's also in the running for sci-fi's other big accolade, the Nebula award). But Robinson's name is already familiar to devotees of the genre. He came onto the scene in 1984 with his enigmatic novel Icehenge, and continued to write at a prolific pace, winning eleven major sci-fi awards and being nominated for more than twice that. And though he's written about everything from the plague to Yeti, his most well-known books are those that compose the Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars). The trilogy deals with the all the various implications of terraforming the red planet, from the science of the transformation to the political and social ramifications of the project. 2312 is a thrilling mystery that includes his usual themes of scientific development, political intrigue, and social experimentation. These books are the gold-standard of realistic, and highly literary, science-fiction writing.
What makes Robinson's work vital, rather than just entertaining, is his depth of the research. Many of the futures and worlds he writes about resemble a world that might find ourselves living in. Ahead of the Hugo nomination announcement, Robinson took the time to discuss with me via email some of the ideas and concerns that animate his work, including artificial intelligence, Buddhism, climate change, and the future of capitalism.
Many of your books, 2312 included, are known for describing realistic, possible, and complex worlds. You address issues as diverse as science, art, psychology, and economics. One of the ways that you add detail in 2312 is by separating chapters of plot with manufactured lists or fragments of primary documents. How do you prepare for writing a novel like 2312? What is your research process like?
Because I have been working in a story space that could be described as "the solar system in the next few centuries" from the beginning of my career, now about 35 years ago, I've amassed a good library of books I can turn to when I need to research things. The planetary and scientific texts are just a part of it, the rest being books about various social sciences, political and utopian thinking, design and the like. These days I also sometimes rely on my own previous novels, both for ideas to re-examine, and for leads back into my research materials.
All this has been greatly augmented by the appearance of the Internet and its ever-expanding store of information. I still like a good book for getting a solid sense of a subject, but the internet is becoming invaluable for quickly looking things up, exploring topics, and so on.
It's also true that I have been reading the periodical Science News all along, and it has an uncanny way of publishing articles that pertain to my current project, such that by the end of any novel I have piled up a stack of issues, opened to the articles I am using.
In the case of 2312, deciding to use John Dos Passos's format from his great U.S.A. trilogy gave me a structure that required me to range widely, and think about as many elements of society 300 years from now as I could, and include something in my lists or extracts about how they might help create the lived feeling of the time.
Science News has an uncanny way of publishing articles that pertain to my current project, such that by the end of any novel I have piled up a stack of issues, opened to the articles I am using.
How did you decide which fictitious lists to make? Which documents or extracts do you think would be helpful in describing our present world?
I started keeping lists of lists, in effect, so that I could judge which kinds of topics should be included. Most of them provide some kind of expansion or context or explanation of the science fictional new things the story was introducing in its plots. For instance in the book the characters who live in space have to return to Earth about one year in any seven or so, to stay healthy; this is a statistical observation without a clear cause yet identified, so rather than slow the story to have characters or narrator discuss this, in one of the extract passages the whole thing could be laid out as essential information gathered in small pieces of crucial information from different sources (like reading online can sometimes be) and this turned into a kind of prose poem.
As for which would be helpful in describing our world, I guess the ones about economics and climate change on Earth. The entire situation in 2312 is basically a projection of our current situation into the solar system 300 years from now, so it functions as a kind of surrealism or symbolist metaphor or heroic simile. But some elements are more direct representations than others.
How we think about climate change, and how we respond to it, has been a major theme of a lot of your work. In your Science in the Capitol series you explore climate change explicitly, and in 2312 the problems that arise from sharing finite resources are discussed. What role does science fiction play in helping us address these issues? What advantages does it have over nonfiction in doing so?
Science fiction can be regarded as a kind of future-scenarios modeling, in which some course of history is pursued as a thought experiment, starting from now and moving some distance off into the future. The closer to the present the work of science fiction stays, the more obvious it is that it is a way of thinking about what we're doing now, also where we may be going, and, crucially, where we should try to go, or try to avoid going. Thus the famous utopian or dystopian aspects of science fiction.
The advantage science fiction has is precisely that it is fiction; it does not pretend to predict what is really going to happen in the future, which is more in the bad realm of futurology, but rather presents possibilities, which together make a range of potentiality. When we see the full range of potentials by reading a lot of science fiction, we can figure out better what we should be trying for as a society now. Thus I think all science fiction has a utopian underpinning, in that it's a tool of human thought for deciding on current actions to make a better world for our descendants. Even the dystopias are part of that, by way of their warnings.
The other great advantage of fiction is that the reader gets immersed in the story, in the characters; it resembles a kind of telepathy in which we finally get to experience how others think, by reading their thoughts. The emotional investment in these fictional lives is immense, and a big part of why people love fiction so much. So science fiction can explore not just what might happen, but how it might feel, and what it might mean. This means that science fiction has to work as fiction to work at all, which means it must have characters the reader can move inside; the old notion that science fiction was only "about ideas" was not correct. It's best when the fiction part of it is best.