Living in a Sci-Fi World with Author Kim Stanley Robinson

Note: This show was originally posted on January 20, 2013.


Kim Stanley Robinson, Sci-Fi Author Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:47 How do you choose date and time?

5:14 We live in a science fiction world

9:25 Who's creating the future, the scientists and engineers, or the sci-fi writers?

11:22 The philosophical battle between science and capitalism

16:07 How does one go about creating the future on paper?

25:10 Is science becoming too much like a religion?

29:24 Fiction is the steady instrument, science is what evolves

33:00 Audience Question: On which planet or astroid or community from your novels would you most want to live?

35:55 KSR reads from 2312

Interviewing scientists and those who are in the field has led me to the question, are scientists and engineers the new world leaders? Are they setting our direction more than any other group? Are they creating the future? And these questions have led often to the answer, “We got it from the sci-fi writers.”

You’ll no doubt understand my pleasure, therefore, in interviewing the award winning sci-fi author of the Mars Trilogy, Stan Robinson. The Mars Trilogy is Robinson’s most popular work, a series of novels about the settling and terraforming of Mars over nearly two centuries. And it is this series which has been most oft cited by our guests as the source of their crazy ideas about settling Mars.


I’ve been reading the first of the novels, Red Mars. The opening shows off Robinson’s more poetic, lyrical side.

"Mars was empty before we came. That’s not to say that nothing had ever happened. The planet had accreted, melted, roiled and cooled, leaving a surface scarred by enormous geological features: craters, canyons, volcanoes. But all of the happened in mineral unconsciousness, and unobserved. There were no witnesses--except for us, looking from the planet next door, and that only in the last moment of its long history. We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had." (Red Mars)

Red Mars tells of the initial colonization of Mars and delves deeply into the relationships and politics of the first 100 settlers. It provides Robinson another platform (he wrote a similar series about the future of California) to pit science (the expedition to virgin territory, a planet untouched as yet by man, is made up almost entirely of scientists) against capitalism (the earth is taken over by transnational corporations as resources become scarce and war breaks out).

For Stan, science and capitalism--born around the same time, he says-- are engaged in an epic battle for man’s future. Science is the greatest hope for mankind, he quips matter of factly in today's show. For Stan, capitalism is the greatest threat to this hope. It’s a provocative idea. One I must admit that plays out before me each day as I make my way through the news.

Stan has an inspiring notion of science. And midway through the interview, as I listen to him, I begin to sense his definition and wonder to myself how I would define science. Try it. It’s not easy. Feeling it his duty as a writer to probe the difficult questions, Stan is comfortable talking on the philosophical plane. He acknowledges and expands upon the “loop” between scientist and science fiction writer in creating the future. He’s willing, if not anxious, to theorize about politics in his utopian fashion. “Science is egalitarian. . . and it’s always for human good. . . . In capital[ism], there is no sense of sufficiency, or adequacy, or of what’s it all about. It’s just, more is better. And more is not always better," he says.

(There is fertile ground for a series on the subject of science vs. capitalism where we could have Stan back to the program to argue his point with a venture capitalist who might argue that there is an important symbiosis here between the two forces.)

This series is named Creating the Future, so I push Stan to tell us about the actual writing process. How does one go about creating the future on paper? Is it the futurist writers who do the heavy lifting for the rest of us? Extrapolation is the main tool at work, but what gives Stan his confidence to go out so far and say, "hey, this is how it’s going to be?"

I haven’t read or met many sci-fi writers with whom to compare Robinson, but he, and his writing, strike me as very grounded. He doesn’t write about technology which is not feasible now. He admits that he is evolving in the direction of going further and further out there. His latest novel 2312 is set in that year, a time when interplanetary travel between Mercury and Neptune takes just 16 days. This is the furthest he’s gone.


KSR at his writing table in Davis, CA

Stan lives in a quiet community in Davis, CA surrounded by the fields of industrial agriculture. He was eager to show us his writing station located outside his front door, where he writes, rain or shine, warm or cold. It was unusually cold last week, yet he persists, writing in a ski coat and gloves. His home and place in what he calls a “village” community with common garden space bears no resemblance to any place in his novels. Except perhaps the odd rock collection he keeps on his writing table.


KSR and Host, Theral Timpson in the garden

As he proudly points out which winter greens he attends to in the garden each morning, he tries to explain to me that a 16 day trip from Mercury to Neptune would only require that we go at 1 g. Standing between a patch of lettuce and some healthy looking carrots, watching children play in the distance, I’m entirely convinced that such a trip is possible.

“I’m as 'here' as anybody,” he says in the interview. “This science fiction thing is a way of thinking about now and a way of understanding now more fully. . . It’s a very boring and stable life, which for a novelist is a great thing.”

Be sure to get to the end of the interview, where Stan reads from the opening chapter of 2312.


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