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Last fall, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson was asked to predict what the world will look like in 2050. He was speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, and the atmosphere at the summit, billed as the ” last and best hope ”to save the planet” was bleak.
But Robinson, whose novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” charts a path for humanity that narrowly avoids the collapse of the biosphere, struck a note of cautious optimism. Emotional at times, he raised the possibility of a near future marked by “human fulfillment and solidarity.”
“It shouldn’t be a lonely dream of a writer sitting in his garden, imagining there could be a better world,” Robinson told the crowd.
It’s hard to be a utopian writer, or any kind of utopian. Disaster-filled dystopian stories abound in movies, television, and fiction; the news headlines border on the apocalyptic. Other masters of utopian speculative fiction, giants like Ursula K. Le Guin and Iain M. Banks, are gone, and few are filling the void. At the same time, utopian stories have never felt so necessary.
“You could probably name the most important utopian novels on the fingers of your hand,” Robinson said in an interview. “But they are remembered and they shape people’s conception of what is possible that could be good in the future.”
At 70, Robinson, who is widely hailed as one of the most influential speculative fiction writers of his generation, is perhaps the last of the great utopians. It can be a lonely job, he said. But lately, his writing has had a real-world impact, as biologists and climate scientists, tech entrepreneurs, and CEOs of green-tech start-ups have looked to his fiction as a potential roadmap to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change.
At the United Nations climate summit last fall, Robinson was treated like a near-celebrity. He met with diplomats, environmentalists, and business leaders, and championed the implementation of some of his fiction’s ambitious ideas: geoengineering to prevent glaciers from melting, replacing airplanes with solar-powered aircraft, reordering the economy with quantitative reduction of carbon, with a new cryptocurrency that could finance decarbonization.
“These are plausible, deeply researched futures that you are writing about,” said Nigel Topping, the UK’s senior climate action champion, who invited Robinson to the summit.
Robinson’s ability to pack dense scientific and technical detail, economic and political theory, and bizarre policy proposals into his fiction has made him a leading public thinker outside the sphere of science fiction.
“There aren’t many writers who have tried to take a literary approach to technical issues and a technical approach to literary issues,” said novelist Richard Powers.
Somehow, Robinson’s path as a science fiction writer has followed a strange trajectory. He made a name for himself writing about humanity’s distant future, with visionary works on the colonization of Mars (“The Mars Trilogy”), interstellar and intergenerational voyages into deep space (“Aurora”), and humanity’s expansion into the outer reaches of the solar system (“2312”). But recently, he has been circling closer to Earth and the current crisis of catastrophic warming.
Futuristic stories about space exploration now seem irrelevant to him, Robinson said. He has become skeptical that humanity’s future lies in the stars and he despises the ambitions of tech billionaires to explore space, although he acknowledged that “I am partially responsible for that fantasy.”
In his more recent novels, such works as “New York 2140,” a strangely uplifting climate change novel that takes place after New York City is partially submerged by rising tides, and “Red Moon,” set in a lunar city in 2047, has traveled back in time, to the present. Two years ago, he published “The Ministry for the Future,” which opens in 2025 and unfolds for decades to come, as the world reels from floods, heat waves, and mounting ecological disasters, and creates a ministry international to save the planet.
“I decided it was time to directly address the issue of climate change,” Robinson said. “The real story is what awaits us in the next 30 years. It’s the most interesting story, but there’s also a lot at stake.”
Robinson’s latest book, “The High Sierra: A Love Story,” is unlike any of his previous ones: It is Robinson’s first major nonfiction work, and the most personal he has published.
Throughout the book’s 560 pages, Robinson weaves together a geological, ecological, and cultural history of California’s High Sierra mountains, with his own story of how he fell in love with the region as a young man in the 1970s and came back. throughout the decades. Interspersed with dense chapters on the composition of granite, plate tectonics, glacial formation, and the range’s flora and fauna; he describes the marmots, the goofy-looking large rodents that thrive there, as “great people.” Robinson recounts his adventures in the interior of the country and reveals how they shaped him and his work.
It includes snippets of poetry he wrote while backpacking, describes how he experimented with psychedelics in his 20s, and reminisces about his relationships with his literary heroes: science fiction writers like Le Guin and Joanna Russ, but also the Zen Buddhist poet Gary Snyder, who praised Robinson. for bringing “a whole new language” to him Sierra’s book.
The book also offers a glimpse of how Robinson’s time in nature instilled a reverence for the natural world that permeates his science fiction. Robinson often based his descriptions of Martian landscapes on his observations of the Sierra’s ethereal peaks, valleys, and basins, sometimes reusing notes from his hiking journals directly into his novels. In writing about space exploration, he drew on the sometimes otherworldly feeling of being in the mountains: the exhilaration, isolation, and sense of his own insignificance in a geological time frame.
His turn to nonfiction and autobiography nearly 40 years into his career has surprised many longtime readers, and even Robinson himself. He always considered himself boring, “a white-bread suburban househusband.”
“My sense of being a novelist was, get out of the way,” he said. “It’s not about me, don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain.”
Robinson spoke to me on several occasions from his home in West Davis, California, where he lives in an ecologically sustainable planned community called The Villages with his wife, Lisa Nowell, a chemist. Most days, he writes at a small table in the front yard, with a tarp to keep him dry when it rains and a fan to cool him down when it’s hot, though lately, he said, he hasn’t been writing as much as he has. I like him. He recently returned from northern India, where he spoke at a climate conference organized by the Dalai Lama. Later this month, he is scheduled to travel to Davos, Switzerland, where he will lecture on combating climate change at a conference organized by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
Being a sought after and somewhat reluctant public intellectual, Robinson has had to struggle to find time to start a new novel. But he, too, was reassured by the enthusiastic response to his climate fiction, and began brainstorming for new work based on the story he told in “The Ministry for the Future,” he said.
Robinson discovered her love of science fiction at the University of California, San Diego, where she majored in literature and received her Ph.D. in English. Literary critic Fredric Jameson, who was a professor there, urged him to read Philip K. Dick, and Robinson was hooked.
In the 1980s, he published his first science fiction series, a formally groundbreaking trilogy that charted three different futures for Orange County, California, where he grew up. Each book followed a classic futuristic sci-fi formula: one post-apocalyptic, after a nuclear attack; a dystopian one, set amidst the ruins of unchecked suburban sprawl and environmental degradation, and a utopian one, as the region became an ecological paradise. The trilogy, “Three Californias,” was nominated for major science fiction awards. Robinson was praised in The New York Times for having “virtually invented a new kind of science fiction”.
Since then, Robinson has experimented liberally with sci-fi tropes, writing everything from an alternate history of China to an epic about deep space exploration to a speculative historical novel set in the Ice Age. But he becomes best known for his deeply researched utopian stories, which use science fiction as a framework to explore alternative social, economic, and political systems.
Writing utopian fiction is hard, Robinson said: It’s not easy to write a compelling story about the mechanisms that drive social progress.
“The novels are really about what happens when things go wrong,” Robinson said. “If you propose plans so that things go well, it sounds like civic education, it sounds like blueprints. The architectural plans of a utopia are, let me show you how the sewage system works so you don’t get angry. Well, that doesn’t sound exciting.”
But things can go terribly wrong on the road to utopia, as in “The Ministry for the Future,” which begins when a devastating heat wave in India kills millions of people.
“As a utopia, it’s a very low bar,” Robinson said. “I mean, if we prevent the mass extinction event, we prevent everything from dying, great, that’s a pipe dream, given where we are right now.”
When Robinson is asked to predict the future, as he often does, he tends to evade. He has argued that “we live in a great science fiction novel that we are all writing together”, but he is not sure if it will be utopian or dystopian.
“No one makes a successful prediction of the future,” he said. “Except maybe by accident.”
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