A Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson 1994

I first interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson in 1994 around the publication of his landmark work Red Mars. This reprint may be of interest.

Ten years ago, when Terry Carr’s Ace Specials series of first novels was launched the authors chosen to head the list were all newcomers with just a handful of stories behind them. Each had already demonstrated considerable ability and originality in that time, and Terry Carr expected great things of all of them. The second and third authors on that list were Lucius Shepard and William Gibson, both of whom have more than fulfilled early promise. Ahead of them was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore, a novel as different from Green Eyes or Neuromancer as they were from each other, but equally full of potential and achievement. Since then Kim Stanley Robinson has published another five novels, each one distinct and original, and over thirty short stories collected in three anthologies. Now his latest project is attracting attention from everybody and anybody remotely interested in Science Fiction.

Kevin McVeigh: It begins with Red Mars, an epic, widescreen account of early terraforming attempts on Mars, and continues through Green Mars and finally, Blue Mars. The whole project will be complete sometime in 1995, but Robinson has been thinking about Mars for over a decade already.

Kim Stanley Robinson “I started to do a bit of reading about Mars for short story ideas, standard short story research. I liked the look of the landscape that was in the books of photographs that were coming out after the Viking landers. The US Government puts out coffee-table size books for about $5. I got lost in them immediately, imagining walking around them. So that was the first part of it. I had written the first and third parts of Icehenge, and had gotten an offer to turn in the novel, and I knew the middle story would take place on Mars. So at that point, I had the books, I had the interest and suddenly I had a story that had to be on Mars. This must have been about ’83 or so, and it’s been with me ever since.

Red Mars took about two-and-a-half years to write, during which time I was taking care of my toddler son full-time so I was only going at about 50% speed. It was a scattered process, especially the first year-and-a-half. Actually all the way up to the last 90 days or so. It was hard to get any regular writing schedule, but two-and-a-half years was fairly rapid given the circumstances”

We meet in the bar of a London hotel immediately after an interview for The Daily Mail. Serious, quality SF in the tabloids? Amongst the reasons why Red Mars is receiving so much attention is the curious coincidence of several other high-profile Mars novels appearing around the same time. Another newspaper, The Guardian, reminds us today of George Bush’s pledge to put a man on Mars by the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landings in 2019. Robinson is sceptical, and doesn’t see this as a factor in his book or anybody else’s.

“It would be much too quick a response, and that was all hot air anyway. There is no monetary backup in any sense to that statement. That was just PR, and he forgot it as soon as he said it, and so did everybody else. I think that what this is, is a response, somewhat delayed but that’s the way these things work, in the way people have to assimilate information, to the Viking and Mariner missions. We’re finally beginning to come to grips with the incredible landscape that we just learned about.

When you think about a whole world being clarified for us only 15-20 years ago, well that’s not very much time. You need that much lead time to collect your thoughts, to get intrigued, to write the books. It may be any odd coincidence but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these other Mars novelists had gone through a similar variation on the experience I had. And now here they all are in a row, there must be at least half a dozen, maybe ten, in this short period of time. Generally it is good for all of us, it creates a mass interest that hopefully will set readers off to go into all of them, maybe do a comparative thing, get a deeper insight into Mars. I think it’s a good thing.”

Writing about Mars may indeed be a good thing, but should we be considering a mission there? And if we should, can we do it? Red Mars is filled with the ethical debates on terraforming, and tremendous technical detail on how it might be achieved.

“It is a luxury project, isn’t it? I think it could go either way. There isn’t an absolute economic necessity for doing it, but we do have both the Russians and the Americans with massive aerospace industries from the Cold War that no longer have any reason to be, but can’t be just left to crash and burn, because we will have a major depression, they earned about $300 billion a year for the US, you can’t just cut off industries that are earning that much. So I could conceive of a manned Mars mission as being the glamour project that the very best aerospace industries get in on, and the rest get set on other tasks like Rapid Transit, public transport, replacement for the automobile-type projects. I can see a scenario where it might happen without there being any necessity for it.”

Robinson sees the practical side of these things with a clear vision. The early scenes of Red Mars which cover the voyage to Mars convey the nature of life in a confined artificial environment in terms of almost Soap Opera-style relationships.

“The Russians have done a lot more with this than we have. NASA likes to pretend that none of the Russian space data is worth a thing, they don’t learn from it. That’s one of the reasons why NASA is a crippled and incompetent agency right now. The Russians have really put a lot of study into this. They’ve put men and women up there for very long periods of time in these orbiting canisters and surely if anyone were going to crack they would. In fact, interpersonal relationships between cosmonauts have often been really strained. They’ve had fights, tantrums, refusal to talk to the ground crew for weeks on end—there’s been some radical stuff out there amongst the cosmonauts and the Russians have faithfully kept records that are available to all, they haven’t tried to make secrets out of it.

Some of the cosmonauts have even written books saying “It’s amazing how much I hated him; I wanted to murder him up there.”

What the Russians have said is that you need to create an environment that will have seasonal changes, daily biological rhythms and that you have to create an environment that will give the body a fair bit of gravity. This is why I think they are going to have to spin their ship or tether two ships, or something to get gravity. I don’t think it can work weightless because the Russians have found that if you spend a long time weightless, you’re useless for a good long time at the end of it, possibly even permanently. So I think if you create a little gravity, and diurnal rhythms, a little wind, a park, some greenery and if the ship is big enough then I think they could hold it together. People are so adaptable. And if they’re goal directed they can make it. You know, 148 days and we’re there . . . 147 days and we’re there . . . You can bear strange conditions.

Take the British in Antarctica, those were truly bizarre attenuated sensory-deprivation conditions on those expeditions, the classic one is Scott, and those guys were running Gilbert & Sullivan plays and getting along famously, they might have been bizarre British public school GA Henty types. I mean obviously these guys were crazy on some level but they were cordial to each other, they had great esprit de corps. With models like that and even sailing ship crews, I think they’ve proved that it can be done.

One of the many ironies in Red Mars comes when the psychiatrist, Michel, points out that crew for this mission need to be sufficiently eccentric to do the job without being too eccentric for others to live with. Then he is selected himself. That was a little frivolousness which points up the fact that he is going to get much stranger as things go on. I do think that the requirements for the people in this are in many ways a set of double-binds, essentially they’re asked to be absolutely extraordinary people but at the same time, as social creatures completely ordinary and unabrasive and really congenial.

So you’ve got a whole list of things you can separate out—they have got to be very physically fit, and yet they need to have 35 years’ experience in their field so they’re going to be a bit older, so maybe they’re not so physically fit. All down the line if you array the demands for selection for this trip they tend to fall out into double-binds, mutually contradictory requirements, and I don’t think they’ll solve that. I think they’ll send people who are pretty good at making certain parts of their nature. This was my working principle. So all of them lied to the selectors, and I think some of that will happen.

NASA in particular has been completely unrealistic about human relationships in space. They’ve got this married couple that went up in the Space Shuttle last week, the first time that’s happened, and they say “We’ve got them sleeping on opposite shifts, there’s no way we want to talk about sexuality.” This is so ridiculous, we finally have a married couple in space, why not finally break the record. I think the cosmonauts probably have done it, I think there has been sex in space, but the Americans are like “Oh God!” They have to make it clear in Press Conferences that it’s the last thing they would consider. It’s this ridiculous, really stupid puritan ethic in America. If the Americans try to set up this project there’s just going to be this artificial, pure, false scene that’s just going to fall apart real badly when real people get up there alone.”

In the book, when segregation is broken it does come from the Russian side.

“Well that seemed realistic to me. Americans are extremely provincial and in their sense of being the imperial power of the world, their lack of other languages, they resemble the Brits of the 19th century.”

There is a great deal of ideology espoused in Red Mars as in all Robinson’s novels. He has a reputation as a ‘leftist’ writer, something he describes as ‘fair,’ but his characters cover a wider range of viewpoints.

“One of the things that got me into writing novels is a really intense ambivalence and a tendency to be Devil’s Advocate. Any time I make any kind of categorical statement part of my mind will instantly object and ask ‘isn’t the opposite pretty much true or at least defensible?’ In my own mind arguments are raging all of the time. If I can get then down on paper, I can do a plausible job of representing these different points of view that people hold. I have some beliefs that are fundamentally deeply held and consistent and I suppose I am trying to push them in the novel as a whole, but I am also deeply committed to the notion as letting my characters have their say and become as real as I can. They have to be allowed their own viewpoints.

My politics are fairly solid in the book, it’s a statement which is relatively unambiguous, but I myself am really ambivalent about this notion of terraforming. In a way it’s a desecration of a landscape that’s already there, that’s already fantastically beautiful. So I am completely in sympathy with the ‘Reds’ in the book who are opposed to terraforming as an act of desecration. On the other hand there is a part of me that thinks that the terraforming project is just a spectacular and wonderful religious act, a kind of life-giving to another world.

A Mars that will still be Mars and yet have this biosphere on it. And there will be the high altitude areas like all of the landscapes on Earth that I love super-represented by this product of terraforming. So I really like both viewpoints and feel very strongly about them. This may be one of the driving impulses for writing this monster long thing. That I cannot plump down on one side or the other, that I feel all these things so strongly that I try to separate these views out into individual characters and let the battle commence.”

Pacific Edge, Robinson’s previous novel, contains many scenes set inside the meetings of a Neighbourhood Association. Since then the author says he has become involved in that localised, micro-political activity in his own neighbourhood. Nevertheless, despite falling into what he describes as ‘the most tedious scenes’ from his own book, most of his political work and expressions is through his books. I ask him if he feels subversive.

“I would like to fancy myself so. I would like to advocate and influence people towards certain underlying standards. I make my best effort but we live in a historical moment where subversion is very difficult. Post-modern culture is essentially omnivorous and can digest any supposedly subversive and revolutionary act and turn it into just one more event, one more entertainment. To be truly subversive is now a challenge to bring pertinence to any one cultural act.

I could stand on the parapets and scream bloody murder about how we have to bring down this ridiculous, unecological capitalist monster that we live within and you’d get ‘Film at 11. Look at this there’s a loony on the parapets, how interesting.’ And then the next commercial would be for deodorant, and there I’ll be, part of the entertainment machine. Has anybody changed one iota? Probably not. So I would want to be subversive. I do believe we live in a global, capitalist economy that is profoundly destructive to many parts of society, and I think we’re in severe trouble so I want to try to subvert the dominant order right now. But I must say that it is no longer obvious how to do that.”

One way is to confront people’s preconceptions, as Robinson does by reversing the conventional roles and usual symbology of Greens and Reds in Red Mars. In particular, the use of Reds as sympathetic characters from an American viewpoint is subversive.

“I really do what I can in an attempt to salvage what is left of the socialist project. I constantly reiterate in my public talks and whenever I get the chance, that to throw out baby socialism with the poisoned bathwater of Stalinism is a big mistake. There are some obvious principles of fair play and justice that are expressed in the socialist utopian dream that are being trampled badly by the looting and pillage of capitalism. So I am a Red. At this moment in history it feels like a dangerously stubborn refusal to accept certain facts of history, but I’d just like to say that those stalinist territories, those totalitarian parts of the world which tried to impose parts of socialism—and not very many of those—were a disaster for socialism. Now any opponent of collective just distribution of the world’s resources, and of human work, can easily say, well, remember Stalin. Remember the disaster of the Soviet Union, it’s all going to happen again, if you try to be fair, so let me continue to rape and pillage and abuse the human workers of the world. So we’re living in the shambles of a bad century here, and you just have to keep making those little attempts to reconnect. This is why I think working at the Neighbourhood level is useful. It’s all you can do and I don’t want to give up and do nothing.”

Robinson’s novels also contain little subversions of SF tropes and icons. Pacific Edge (and the whole Orange County trilogy [now renamed Three Californias]) creates a Heinleinian Wise Old Man figure in Tom, but then he is killed off.

“Tom had been in all those three books and it seemed like he needed to have a good send off. he was very old and I felt that at that age a drowning was a happy way to go compared to many of the alternatives, so I thought I was doing him a favour at that point.

One of the ways that people attack utopia is to say that it would be boring, life will no longer be interesting because everything will be bland. From Huxley onward this has been one of the standard attacks on utopia, but my feeling is that there are still two things that can go wrong in an Oresteian sense. A can love B, B love C, C can love D, D can love A and this can be extremely painful for all four characters, and that this will happen even if social justice is achieved everywhere. And secondly, people are going to die, and then their loved ones are going to be left behind. So both for the person who dies, at least in their dying moments I imagine they’re going to be pretty upset about it, no matter how much social justice there is, and their loved ones are going to be left behind are going to grieve their loss and this is about as much tragedy as human beings need.

You don’t need five year olds dying of hunger to make human life dramatic and interesting. That’s a degradation of life. I’m a utopian and I believe that utopia can still be utterly dramatic and having Tom drown was one of many ways of making this ideological point. It is scary how much of the novel becomes political when you begin to analyse it at this level rather than just pure story.”

This also fits in with the way Robinson’s stories rarely have an absolute resolution which maybe the Wise Old Man could have offered. They are complete in themselves, but rather than end they tend to shift into a new phase. The author sees a structure in his work, but admits that others have reported differently. he has no interest in the sort of resolution where all things are neatly tied up and chopped off, seeing them as “less true to the way we really live.”

“I did add that sentence at the end of A Memory of Whiteness ‘Back To Mars’ which I now find is a very prescient thing for me to have finished that novel on. I wanted to imply that that story was also going to have its consequences after the death of Johannes. That he might turn into some kind of religious figure. And ‘Back to Mars’ has proved to be a very useful instruction to myself.”

Indeed. And whilst Kim Stanley Robinson is not attempting to write any kind of cohesive Future History, there are connections between his works. Some are direct, the novella ‘Green Mars’ and short story ‘Exploring Fossil Canyon’ may be related to the Red Mars sequence through the character of Roger Claybourne (a descendant of Ann Claybourne of Red Mars First Hundred?); others contain parallel scenes revealing recurrent interests of the author. I asked him about a few of these.

Green Mars’:

“The novella will not be in the novel. I might eventually include it in a volume of sidebar material. I think that would be a nice addition without being to much of an obvious commercial rip-off. Other than that it won’t have much relation, and in fact some of the historical details in that novella are going to turn out to be really wrong, but that’s life. I have no desire to achieve a consistent future history.”

Mountains:

“If you’re someone who does climb, what I do is not quite climbing. I scramble, I walk, I backpack. I rarely, if ever, have been roped up. But I do love mountains. I have an irrational passion for being up amongst them, so I feel that it is important to try to get that in because it is so important to me. It’s hard to figure out how. That’s one of the attractions of this Mars scenario—it’s one gigantic, above tree-line mountainous place. there aren’t mountain ranges per se on Mars. There wasn’t any tectonic action to speak of, but it a wild and mountainous place.

Sport:

” It’s important in my life, I do a lot of it. I just think that all of these activities of the body—climbing, swimming, sex.—all ought to written about more because we’re not just our minds, our intellects. It’s interesting to write about it, and I think it’s interesting to read about it. So I stick it in. Individual sports tend to be known only to one country so it’s a little bit dangerous to write about specifics too much but I’ve thought it’s been worth a try a couples of times because you can always understand the general emotions of the sporting activity even if you don’t understand the particular rules of that sport. These things ought to be written about, especially in SF which started out as such over-rationalised intellectual exercises of the genre. it needs to be physicalised, and a lot of other writers are doing it and I think that it is a great addition to the genre.”

To hear Kim Stanley Robinson talk, as to read his stories and his novels, is an experience which challenges and enthrals at the same time. One is left full of wonder and made restless by the questions arising from that wonder. Already he is one of the most interesting writers that SF has ever seen, and speaking to him there is a strong sense that he has a lot left to say, that he relishes the prospect as much as we might, and that is going to be a great addition to the genre.

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About Kev McVeigh

Review of literary matters, mostly but not all SFF , and digressions into music and other arts. Engagement welcomed.
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