Interview Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson
conducted by D. Douglas Fratz

© Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson has travelled and worked in different parts of the world (including Washington, DC and in Switzerland) with his wife, Lisa, an environmental chemist. His work has garnered many awards including the Nebula Award ("The Blind Geometer" and Red Mars), the Asimov, John W.Campbell, Locus and World Fantasy Awards ("Black Air") and the Hugo Award (Green Mars).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: 2312
SF Site Review: Galileo's Dream
SF Site Review: Galileo's Dream
SF Site Review: Galileo's Dream
SF Site Review: Sixty Days and Counting
SF Site Review: Fifty Degrees Below
SF Site Review: Forty Signs of Rain
SF Site Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2002
SF Site Review: The Years of Rice and Salt
SF Site Review: Antarctica
SF Site: Kim Stanley Robinson Reading List

2312
Galileo's Dream
Sixty Days and Counting
Fifty Degrees Below
Forty Signs of Rain
The Years of Rice and Salt
Antarctica
Advertisement
Thank you very much to agreeing to this interview. I just completed reading your new novel, 2312, and I think it will be very well received in the SF field. What can you tell us about the genesis of the novel?
I wanted to write a novel about a relationship between a mercurial character and a saturnine character, and I wanted them to be from Mercury and Saturn respectively. That meant I had to describe a civilization that was inhabiting Mercury and the Saturn system, so this meant going pretty far out there in time, for me, and postulating a robust space-faring civilization, but within my own notions of realism (thus no interstellar travel). Once I got going, the project of describing where humanity might be three hundred years from now took on equal interest for me, and became at least as important to the book as the original idea. The context of the culture was crucial to making the story of the couple strong.

It's interesting that the characters came first -- not setting and ideas, which seem the primary drivers of the novel. Did you decide at the outset to include so many original and unique ideas and themes, or did they develop as the novel progressed?
They developed in a process of accretion, over the time I was writing the novel. One thing led to another. I wanted to update the kind of science fiction novel that describes humanity in the solar system, and also to provide some surprises and even shocks to give the story the feel of being actually set three hundred years in the future. Some of the ideas I came up with seemed to interact with other ideas from different realms, in good ways, as, for instance, the sabbatical, the idea that people living in space have to return to Earth for a year every six or seven years, to strengthen their immune systems etc. This struck me as not only plausible in itself, but a good political complication in the novel, and a real statement about humanity too: we'll always be coming back to Earth, it will always be central. In a novel that is so spacy, it was a point worth repeating, just to stay grounded so to speak. Other ideas, as for instance the gender modifications, and the new social structures in space, also followed from small original ideas.

I heard you have a three-book contract with Orbit -- will the next two novels be sequels? Is 2312 the first of a trilogy?
No, 2312 is a stand-alone novel. I do have a three-book contract with Orbit, and I am at work on the second book, but the three books will all be different. Possibly they will form a kind of intellectual trio, coming at the same ideas from three different angles. But it's hard to say at this point.

You appear to have had fun with the Dos Passos multimedia approach. After reading John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar more than forty years ago, I thought it would become common in SF, but it has not. What led you to use this structure?
I realized that the book would work best with a very high information load describing to the future civilization depicted in the novel, and yet I didn't want to make the book too massive, and certainly not multi-volumed. I was looking for a method that would give me some compression and speed, and maybe even sprinkle some fairy dust on the dreaded so-called expository lump, of which I am so notoriously fond. So, just before beginning this project I had written introductions to new editions of John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up (from Centipede Press), and in writing those introductions I decided to finally read John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy, which I knew had been the origin for Brunner's structure in these books, though I had never actually read the Dos Passos titles. The big black Modern Library edition of U.S.A. had been on my bookshelf for over thirty years, and on finally reading it, I was amazed. It is truly one of the great American novels, and the collage form it invents and deploys is very bold, powerful and beautiful. As I thought about 2312, I decided I would do like Brunner, for similar reasons, and adapt Dos Passos' format for my own purposes; mainly, to convey an entire culture in more detail than any ordinary plot can provide. It took a real commitment, it's not something you can do halfway, but as soon as I started using it, I knew it was the right way to go.

2312 appears in some ways closely related to both your Mars trilogy and Science in the Capital trilogy, but I am assuming that it is not exactly part of the same future history. True?
That's right, I don't like linking up my various projects into one larger future history. I've never done it, and so of course now it's too late, and I don't regret it. I don't see that the advantages of some larger macro-history are very large, compared to the flexibility that I've gained by making each novel have its own future history. Even within my Mars stories there are a couple alternative historical lines to the main one described in the trilogy. I think it's best to keep on updating one's views on what is "most likely to happen," and write accordingly. And doing it this way means each time I have a chance to invent a whole new history, and even if they are somewhat similar, there's still a lot of pleasure to be had there in the details.

You seem to be striving in the novel to develop a future where humanity thrives without requiring currently dysfunctional Earth politics to magically become functional. Is there hope for Earth, or is space necessary for humanity to reach its true potential?
There is hope for Earth, I think, but it is an open question whether the space project could be a significant help to humanity in trying to get into balance with the biophysical realities on Earth. I don't think we know the answer to this question, and it won't be easy to answer it without continuing to try to go into space usefully, and see what happens. One thing postulated in 2312 is that space elevators will be needed to make space really accessible from Earth. Already that's a tall order, ha ha. But no matter what we do in space, Earth will remain at the center of the human story. That's one of the things 2312 tries to say. But mostly the book is asking questions. It's not really saying "this could be," but rather, "could this be?" I think it may be that human civilization is so big and various that different things might happen in different parts of it, and advances in some areas occur despite massive problems elsewhere. But this is mainly a question to be asked; is that possible? Could we bootstrap our way out of some of our problems while they are still vexing us?

That is indeed a question we all should ponder. Have you envisioned a scenario for human civilization on Earth becoming truly sustainable that could become the basis for future works of fiction?
Not really, but I have nibbled at the edges of such a scenario, in the last chapter of The Years of Rice and Salt, and in Pacific Edge, and even the end of Blue Mars. But really it seems like it should be the focus of an entire novel, and I have got some ideas about some such project, clustering around a title I took from one of the chapter titles in Blue Mars, which is Green Earth. But that one is still a ways off for me. I need to find the story that would be at the heart of it.

Your characters in 2312 are engaging as usual -- especially to those of us who are scientists. I was puzzled, however, that early in the book Swan seemed to me like an impetuous, slightly spoiled 20-something, and it was a bit surprising when it became clear she was over a century old. Was this intentional, or a misperception on my part?
No, I think your perception was mainly correct, while at the same time I wanted her age to be a little surprising. But Swan is just one of those people whose character is persistent and keeps on being the way it is, even in the face of a lot of experiences. I don't think she's very unusual in that regard, but maybe an extreme of the type. In the course of this novel she begins to change a little, but not hugely. Our personalities are extremely persistent, I find.

The pacing of the novel requires that characters travel throughout the Solar System -- from Mercury to Saturn -- rather rapidly, using a fascinating mass-transit system of orbiting hollowed-asteroid. Did you actually work out the orbital mechanics in a hard-SF manner, or did you just wing it?
Well, I got some help here from people who actually know about orbital mechanics and rocket speeds. It goes back to Charles Sheffield teaching me the basics back in the late 1980s, and then Chris McKay and his colleagues at NASA/Ames, and now I get some help from my older son. But mainly, having had the basic possibilities and parameters sketched out for me, I have figured out the time-scales myself, and so I have also artfully tried not to be too specific about details, so that my shaky work can't really be fact-checked. So -- all the errors are mine, and I am sure they exist, but I have also tried to hide them, and to be accurate within the limits of my understanding. Also, to make the basic action of the novel possible within the parameters set by physics and the postulated technologies, which don't include any magic ones. The main thing to know is that if you are accelerating at a pace that creates one g inside the spaceship, you are accelerating really fast, and soon going so fast that it is imperative to turn around and slow down at the same rate of speed, and given those speeds, the solar system becomes a kind of "ocean liners on the Atlantic" time-space, with voyages in the weeks and months rather than years and decades.

The idea of massive space liners has always seemed to me to be inefficient and unlikely. I think it could be argued that cost-effective mass-transit systems are essential for space to ever be more than the playground of the rich and powerful (whether individuals, corporations or governments). So I was fascinated by your concept of terraria in various solar orbits that can be used for travel with passengers boarding from rockets that match speed. (It's like a railroad system where the trains never change speed, and passengers and materials are boarded from automobiles that temporarily catch up.) It seems a totally new idea for traveling throughout the solar system. How did you come up with this concept?
It's another idea that I've recycled from my earliest science fiction, meaning The Memory of Whiteness and Icehenge. That means the idea came to me some time in the late 1970s, so I don't have a strong memory of how it came to me, but I do recall describing the method to Charles Sheffield and having him tell me that he thought it was workable, or at least not fatally flawed in a physical sense. That was great news to me, as I thought it made sense, but wasn't sure. Certainly my original thinking about it comes from the time when people were actively discussing O'Neill habitats in Earth orbit or at the L-5 point, etc., so there was a context for my thoughts about all that material.

Your AIs in 2312 differ somewhat from most science fictional AIs -- they seem innocently naïve at times. Were you intentionally seeking to reinvent the AI concept?
Yes I was. I have never believed in artificial intelligence as usually described in sf or in the MIT-style hyped-up futurology, so I thought I could have fun making a little addition to that tradition. But this became quickly complicated, because I also wanted to explore also the possibilities of quantum computers, which are mind-boggling in the usual way of anything quantum. That quickly confused the issue of human vs. machine intelligence, in this sense: If the distinction I was holding on to (following Penrose) was that computers were digital and binary while the human brain was quantum and superposed and entangled, then adding quantum computers quickly confused all that by meaning computers too would be superposed and entangled. So, I set out to explore by thinking hard about my qubes and what they then were saying and doing, and how it might reflect a process of search engines and algorithms. It was a lot of fun.

This is your first work, I think, to address sex and gender issues -- indeed getting quite "clinical" at times. Your postulation of biological gender proliferation beyond male and female is certainly interesting. What led you to explore in this direction?
It seemed to me that in 300 years we might have gotten quite powerful in terms of genetic engineering, and that in training this power on ourselves, we would focus first on longevity, then on expanding our human potential in other ways. I also wanted to suggest that there will be surprises in our future scientific understanding of things, so I needed some surprises to illustrate the point. So, some of what I postulated was specifically designed to surprise by going against the grain of what we believe now. The body modifications described in the book have mostly to do with gender because I thought it was interesting in itself, and also a good way to model or image what is already happening in our world now. The modifications in the sheer size of people came from thinking about how dogs have been bred to their various breeds from a common genetic stock, which is startling when you think about it. Combining all these various modifications is another mind-bender, but also, the way things will really play out; the future will not be a single-issue thing like so many science fiction novels seem to be. The future itself calls out a kind of kitchen-sink principle. So I went at it with this principle: everything that can change will change. This may or may not be true, but it makes a good stimulus for a novel.

The economics of 2312 appears to be -- for lack of a better term -- "post-capitalist." There is no sense that anything in the space society is either driven or limited by money per se. Will you further -- or more explicitly -- explore possible economic futures in later novels?
Yes. There are mixed and competing economies in 2312, but that situation is in itself post-capitalist, because capitalism strives to be a total system. So, yes, I will indeed explore possible economic futures in later novels, that's a good call. I'll be doing it not in any stories directly linked to 2312, but in other novels that will continue the various trains of thought being explored there. And ideas of various post-capitalist systems strike me as interesting, useful, and even funny.

I look forward to seeing that. Economics as a "science" is not only poorly understood by most people, but also seldom effectively addressed in science fiction. Are there any SF authors that you think are incorporating economics speculation in their work?
I'm a little bit at a loss here, because I haven't read most of the science fiction written in the last twenty years. I hear some sf writers are working this vein, but I haven't read them, and I almost don't want to know; I want to be free to think up my own ways of going at it. One thing I can say is that I am coming to understand that economics is many things, sometimes a social science, but often mostly a name for explication and analysis of a legal system, often pseudo-mathematical or quantitative, which never challenges our current system's basic rules and assumptions. So "economics" is by definition an explication of capitalism, and as such it can be clarifying or obfuscatory, but it is never speculative or projective, in that it does not often propose really new systems. There are almost no worked-out alternative economic systems, although I've seen some good preliminary work in Albert and Hahn and elsewhere; but still, the best current critiques of economics are coming out of sociology or anthropology or political science or law, not out of the field of economics itself. So I am looking around in all these fields and finding lots of interesting things, and I hope it will turn into something I can use. Seems to me science fiction ought to have a substantial dose of post-capitalist futures included in it, just to keep sf's edge, and keep people thinking in new ways about the future. Capitalism as currently practiced will wreck the Earth; people don't want to wreck the Earth; therefore a better economic system is called for. So, this is the kind of call that science fiction is supposed to answer.

Thank you, Stan. I suspect I speak for many thousands of SF readers when I say that I look forward to your next novel.

Copyright © 2012 D. Douglas Fratz

D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.


SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to editor@sfsite.com.
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide