Sebastian Cooke Talks to
Kim Stanley Robinson

An Earth-Man with a Mission

Over the past half a decade Global Warming, depleting ozone and rising sea-levels - to name but three impending catastrophes - have crept their way into public awareness. Around the world individuals respond in their various ways. Some predict the Apocalypse, some boycott aerosols, some make fortunes selling sun-block! But in the world of Science-fiction and Fantasy a seed has been sown for a new sub-genre: Eco-Fiction!

And at the forefront of this Green and growing movement is American SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson. His novels to date have dealt with the widest range of environmental issues, from local conservation politics and extinction-threatened species to complete ecological reconstruction. On his recent promotional tour of the UK, 'Stan' spoke of some of his personal motivations . . .

The first question is obvious - where did his interest in this movement come from?

"I spend as much time as I can in the wilderness," he explained. "And it seems to me this is a bad way to split up one's life - between pure wilderness and pure urban, modern reality - that it would be better to construct a life that's both, so that we had more of the natural world injected into our daily existence.

"It's got me thinking about the environmental catastrophe we're sitting on the edge of and solutions to that. It doesn't make any sense just to throw up your hands and despair and say 'The world is doomed!' And so I've gotten interested in these movements - the Green Movement or the Ecological Restoration - with the notion that you could actually reintroduce the natural biospheres that were here before us."

Nobody of course would doubt the integrity of this philosophy but what place does it have in science-fiction?

"It seems to me that if there are people outside the world of SF who are seriously exploring these avenues, that it would actually be remiss of science-fiction if it weren't showing some of these projected futures and simulating events and trying to stimulate people to think more about it.

"The whole notion of the standard science-fiction models of the future which are, say Asimov's Trantor, where an entire planet is a city - and all these models are intensively urban or space-ship or completely metallic - it's beginning to look like none of these ultra-techno futures are physically possible to sustain."

But can a Green literary movement hope to make any difference?

"I think so. Yes. I believe in Shelley's great statement: that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And I believe that science-fiction is one of the most powerful modes of poetry of all time. Science-fiction is just a metaphor for the world we live in and metaphor is one of the basic tools of poetry."

But although Robinson has become an activist, he is not an idealist or a Utopian. Pacific Edge is set in a time when environmental awareness has created a seemingly perfect society encompassing the best of both socialism and capitalism. But even here the system is exploited by political corruption.

"I don't believe in the notion of a perfect society that could be set up - that everybody would be happy with it and then it would run forever. There will always be competing interests that will be visciously fought over - personal animosities, micro-politics will never end and to pretend otherwise is what makes people uninterested.

"Joanna Russ talks about changing the term from Utopia to Optopia, meaning 'the optimum possible' - a continuous, dynamic process. Even HG Wells in his Utopian writing would often talk about this kinetic process rather than reaching any kind of stasis."

In 1985 Kim Stanley Robinson gave up his part-time teaching job to write full-time. First he travelled, visiting Egypt, Nepal, Greece and Switzerland.

The book most obviously inspired by his travels is Escape from Kathmandu - four linked novellas set in the Himalayas. Although often whimsical, the book deals with serious themes, most notably that of preservation versus exploitation. The most powerful symbol of this is the Yeti in the title story.

How does the author see that symbol?

"Wildlife that has not yet been corrupted by man! I do feel that it's a great image. What it really is, is an image of the part of the world that we don't yet know. Essentially, the Yeti is much more valuable to us as a mystery that might be there but probably isn't, and if anyone ever did make a confirmed sighting or capture a Yeti it would be a disaster for us. Because we much more need this mystery than we need yet another species identified on the surface of the Earth."

As our legends often attract greater respect than reality the threat of extinction becomes all the more poignant. But the Yeti's existence is taken for granted by most of the characters in the book. Does Stan share that view?

"Oh, I'm not quite so sure about that! I'm a believer in the fact that it might be possible, simply because there are enormous watersheds up there in the high-county that human beings never go into: there's no point, there's nothing for them to do up there. There's literally hundreds and probably thousands of square miles of forest that are relatively unvisited by people. Now, if there were an intelligent primate up there, even at the level of intelligence that we know about, they may be wary enough of humans to live a life where they hide themselves. If they were just a touch higher in intelligence - where they buried their dead or had some primitive religious sense, where they had a conscious desire to want not to be found - then I think they could do it. That's a real stretch, and SF postulation! I just think it's a possibility that can't be ruled out."

His time in Nepal also helped shape his contempt for traditional SF futurism.

"One thing that struck me as fascinating was that when you got off trekking in the back-country, a lot of modern civilisation has gone. It was time-travel in a way. The locals out there were living lives that were extremely similar to what they would have been living in say 1600. It gave me a sense of other cultures; the sort of alienness you could still run into.

"Usually in SF, they tend to portray futures where everything is at the same level of development planet-wide, or galaxy-wide. It's obvious it isn't going to be that way and it's a good lesson to learn."

September 1992 saw the publication of Red Mars - the first volume of an epic trilogy which perhaps will be Robinson's master-work. It deals with the terraforming of the planet Mars. Although by no means the first book to seize on the extra-T colonisation theme, it is certainly the most serious. Far from being a flight of fantasy, Red Mars is a practical projection, created in consultation with NASA scientists already researching just such a project.

"It's almost all based on fact. The only thing about my book that is probably a stretch is the speed with which it is accomplished. Most proposals will put the terraforming of Mars on a scale of thousands, or at least many hundreds of years. I have things shifting pretty rapidly. But we're making awfully big advances in biotechnology. Every decade shows enormous leaps in our ability to manipulate biological matter and that might be a tool much stronger in terraforming than currently predicted."

If the creation of a balanced natural environment were to become possible on Mars, would that help us to save our own planet - re-terraforming it perhaps?

"Yeah, exactly! Mars functions as a giant control experiment. If you terraformed Mars, the amount you could learn would just be enormous and would be directly applicable back to terraforming the Earth."

But of course science is not the only issue. The characters in Red Mars also raise a moral issue. Does man have the right to inflict such radical manipulation on any part of the universe?

"My own views on that are almost perfectly split down the middle, which I think is one of the driving emotional forces in me for writing this very long book.

"There's a part of me that thinks that terraforming is a beautiful spiritual, almost religious project and that to be able to walk around on Mars in the open air and breath the air is absolutely one of the great human projects and ought to be done.

"In immediate response to this, another part of me says that this is a desecration of a landscape what is already itself, and has its own standing, its own dignity and is already fantastically beautiful, alive and awesome! Making it into Earth would somehow domesticate it and destroy exactly what is attractive about it.

"I can only sign out the views to characters and I think it gives a certain energy to the characters and to the argument."

Red Mars also deals with more intricate details, such as the interaction of individuals, of races and diverse cultures. These are interests that Stan has shown to a lesser extent in previous novels. But why go all the way to Mars to examine problems so immediate to us on Earth?

"It's a microcosm of the world we live in now! I do believe in this image of the global village. We're all neighbours and what we do impacts on people far away. Mars is a way to portray that in miniature, since there the global village is in fact a village and you've got all these nationalities living in the same habitat."

Is the global village really achievable?

"I don't know! One thing about Mars that makes it different from Earth is that I think the people on Mars will begin to develop loyalty to their local situation. America is an early model for this situation. You get to America and you develop loyalties towards America, but you also have really strong cultural roots to wherever you came from before. But over a matter of generations, it becomes less of an emotional part of your life. And it seems to me, on Mars, that this radical distance and difference of the planet would make that happen even faster."

While to many people the theory is still dubious, Kim Stanley Robinson sees a Martian colony as certainty. Does he then consider Red Mars to be a prophetic novel?

Originally appeared pp. 83-86, Eidolon 13, July 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Sebastian Cooke.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.