In 300 Years, Kim Stanley Robinson's Science Fiction May Not Be Fiction

The author talks about climate change, capitalism, and the other circa-2013 concerns that underpin his award-winning novels about "the solar system in the next few centuries."


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.

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.

In your Science in the Capitol series, the reaction to climate change of ambassadors from the fictional Buddhist state of Khembalung are compared to the reaction of American characters. Does Buddhism inform your writing? Does Buddhism have something to teach us about environmental issues?

Some of my novels are about various aspects of Buddhism, while others are not. Certainly Science in the Capital (which consists of Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting), The Years of Rice and Salt and Escape From Kathmandu are informed by Buddhism and are in part about Buddhism, in very different ways.

Yes, I do think Buddhism does have something to teach us about environmental issues; and so do all the world's religions, one way or another. Our relationship to the Earth is a religious relationship, which does not necessarily always mean a good relationship. But the connectedness of all things, and the miraculous or sacred nature of all things, is often a matter of emphasis in many religions.

What I found interesting to explore in Science in the Capital was how Buddhism and science seem to share certain qualities, or cast an interesting light on each other, and that's something that that trilogy explores. I threw the two together and tried to follow what would happen.

Did the results surprise you?

Yes, to a certain extent, in that I did not know in advance how far my scientist protagonist would go in his relationship with the Buddhist community he comes into contact with in Washington, D.C. Ultimately he moves in with them and becomes part of their extended family. This, however, was a nice expression in the plot itself of my feeling that the two ways of seeing can be usefully brought together, and help us see our way forward more clearly.

In 2312, capitalism as we understand it really only exists on Earth. Much of the rest of the solar system operates under something called the Mondragon Accord. You also mention in the novel that economic systems contain characteristics of both the systems they evolved from as well as what they will inevitably evolve into. What is the Mondragon Accord? Where did the idea come from?

There is a city in the Basque part of Spain called Mondragon, which works economically as a system of nested co-ops, including its banks, so that the community is structured as something not capitalist in the usual sense. It's worth studying Mondragon's system to see if there are positive aspects of life there that can be scaled to larger communities, and indeed the world; worth it because capitalism as practiced now is not only strip-mining the biosphere and wrecking it, but it also distributes the useful effects of human labor and natural resources and life-support systems in a grotesque way, very far from justice or sustainability. So we should be on the hunt for how to structure a post-capitalist world, and there are not that many real-world clues. It's been my habit for many books now, starting back in the 1980s, to explore various post-capitalist scenarios to see what they might reveal.

The idea that economic systems contain elements of their precursors and their successors is a version of Raymond Williams's idea of the residual and emergent, in which aspects of the present have their deepest roots in the past and future. Naturally science fiction takes an interest in this, by projecting a future history, thus portraying both what is emerging now, and also what persists and will be in the future a residual. It has to be said immediately that residual and emergent do not equate to bad and good, that it is more complex than that, and really the idea is more a tool of historical or sociological analysis, a way of seeing.

With capitalism, we can say that it has very strong residual elements of feudalism. It's as if feudalism liquefied and the basis of power moved from land to money, but with the injustice of the huge hierarchical feudal differences between rich and poor still intact. What is emergent in capitalism is harder to identify, but there may be something to the idea of the global village, also the education of the entire world population, so that everyone knows the world situation and wants justice, that may be leading the way to a more just global society. Seeing and exaggerating these emergent elements is something utopian science fiction tries to do. So the dichotomy is a sort of x/y graph in a thought experiment.

In 2312, you refer to our present era as "The Dithering," citing our refusal to accept and deal with climate change. Is there a relationship between entrenchment in our current economic system and how we address climate change?

There certainly is, and this is a very important question. Capitalism is a system of power and ownership that privileges a few in a hierarchical way, and it has in it no good controls or regulation concerning its damage to the biosphere, so to deal with the environmental catastrophes bearing down on us, we have to impose our will as a civilization on capitalism and make it do what we want civilization to do now, which is to create a just and sustainable human interaction with the biosphere and each other.

So this suggests legal changes imposed by democratic government, which are more and more urgently needed. The free market can't do it because it isn't free, but in fact a particular legal system completely inadequate to the situation, and the prices we concoct for things are completely unresponsive to physical realities.

So we are in quite a bit of trouble here, because capitalism is a cultural dominant and the current global way of conducting things, world law, and yet completely inadequate to the situation we face.

Speaking specifically of climate change, we can say very roughly that we can burn about 500 gigatons more carbon before we push the climate over several tipping points into truly catastrophic change, essentially the sixth mass-extinction event in Earth's history, and the first caused by humans of course. This mass extinction event will be a huge danger to humanity and even our own existence as a species may be challenged, and even if we survive as a species, it will be in a devastated new jungle ecology. Things will be all right for life on Earth and in a few million years all will be well, but for us, not.

So in this situation we also have identified about 2500 gigatons of carbon that we can access and burn. And there are people out there who own this carbon, and in the capitalist system there is nothing that keeps them from mining and burning these 2500 gigatons, and there are people who will be making their best efforts to do just that. They think it will be profitable and they will be individually rich enough to dodge any bad consequences, and science will find a way, etc. These people are wrong but they will persist past the point where the damage they are doing will be easily undone.

The sooner this is generally recognized the better. I think it is better recognized now than it was before the crash of 2008, which exposed so many capitalist presumptions as badly wrong, really just stories some people have told to protect their privileges. Now that the emperor is revealed to have no clothes, it gets easier to work on a new system. But although the emperor has no clothes, he does have a gun in his hand pointed at us.

So it is tricky work. But I am saying that democracy and science are stronger than capitalism. It is an assertion we are going to have to test to see if it is true or not. It will be a fight. It is the fight of the 21st century like the fight against totalitarianism was the fight of the 20th century. Indeed we did not definitively win that fight, because capitalism is a new kind of totalitarian system, fully capable of buying up democracy and science, and trying now to do so. So it is a tricky fight, but necessary work for us all.

In 2312, the character Swan has an artificial-intelligence device called a qube implanted in her brain. This becomes a problem when she learns that some quantum devices have started to develop sentience. People often complain about our intimacy and reliance on personal technological devices. They want the technology, but they fear needing it. Did this inform your portrayal of AI? Does it factor into your own feelings about AI?

We all need our technologies to survive. Humanity has been a technological species from its very beginnings. So, now the technologies are extremely complex and powerful, but we would still hope that we get to put them to use to make ourselves safer and more healthy and comfortable, and more self-actualized, however you interpret that.

So I'm fine with AI, because I don't believe in it in the usual way it is interpreted, as machine consciousness. I don't think that will happen, because brains and machines are very different things, and will end up always doing different things. The tendency to regard the brain as a machine should be easy to dodge by considering how we have successively considered it as a clock, a steam engine, a hologram, and now a computer; none of them are good analogies, not even our current favorites.

So "artificial intelligence" really will come down to machine algorithms designed for human uses, and when we understand AI as that, we can begin to think about the algorithms and the uses, without getting into anything more metaphysical or fantastical. We will certain project personalities onto machines, we already do that, but it is a projection and we have to keep that in mind.

In the past you've mentioned that you have your doubts concerning the Singularity. Can you elaborate on that?

Yes, this follows from what I was saying above. The Singularity is an idea from science fiction, that a point will come when machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence and machines will take on wills of their own, and in essence take off and create their own history, leaving us behind. This has been aptly called "the rapture of the nerds," and is a deep misunderstanding of our brains, of computers, of consciousness and will, of history. I'm a great patriot of science fiction and believe in it as an artistic method, but that doesn't make every science-fiction idea right—far from it!

You've mentioned that your most intentionally predictive writing was "Prometheus Unbound, At Last." What was that?

This was a short story I wrote on an invitation from the editors of Nature magazine, when they were doing a series that filled the last page of every issue for a year or two, called "Nature Futures" or something like that. There was a word limit of 800 words or so, which as a novelist I found fairly daunting, and I solved the problem of doing something interesting in that word-length by writing a "reader's report" on a fictional science fiction novel that told the story of the 21st century going well, by way of a particular kind of "scientific revolution." It can still be found online, and I would offer it as a brief bit of sport that is a kind of skeleton key to the futures in many of my stories, one way or another.

What's next for you?

I just recently finished a novel set in the ice age, called Shaman, which describes the people who painted the Chauvet cave in France, 32,000 years ago.

This is not as much of a change of pace as it might seem at first glance. I've always been interested in exploring "what we really are as a species," which is an impossible question in many ways, but still worth pondering, and certainly our long evolutionary history has to be part of the answer. Also, we would not know what we were like in the Paleolithic if it were not for the work of archeology, biology, and other sciences, so in a sense writing about this prehistorical period is a kind of science fiction. So it was a natural progression for me, and really an interesting book to write, a beautiful experience.