Kim Stanley Robinson has argued that fiction writers interested in capturing the world today need to be writing science fiction, otherwise they are producing “inadvertent nostalgia.” Why is sci-fi in general, and Robinson’s work in particular, so important at this moment?
Robinson is the latest in a long line of sci-fi writers, going back to Judith Merril and Robert Heinlein in the 1960s, who argue that science fiction is the only genre that, one, treats seriously the complex effects of technological change on humanity, and two, confronts the ecological devastation of Earth by industrial capitalism. Particularly in 2020, few would dispute Robinson’s claim that we’re all living in, and coauthoring, a giant science-fiction novel.
What we call “realistic fiction” or “literary fiction” focuses on the traditional ideas of the individual subject. The real action in the great Victorian novels and much post–World War II fiction takes place in characters’ minds. We are supposed to experience their hopes, fears, dreams, strivings to connect to others, and so forth. Contemporary novels may be grubbier, queerer, more attuned to the consequences of racism and sexism than the realistic fiction of the 1950s, but they still often treat characters as though they were wandering around the estate in a Jane Austen novel.
Science fiction at its best, particularly in Robinson’s work, gives voice to collective hopes, fears, and dreams. His novels envision a future that allows us to ask fundamental questions about what existence is like here and now. They describe a new realism for a technologically dynamic, politically adrift, and environmentally semi-devastated world.
While much of Robinson’s work concerns subjects that are traditionally associated with sci-fi, like space travel, he has also written stories that depart from the genre’s tropes. The novel Shaman, for example, is arguably historical fiction set in the Ice Age. Is it Robinson’s approach to writing, specifically his use of hard science as the basis for his work, that makes him a sci-fi writer, rather than the subjects he chooses to explore?
I call Robinson a science fiction writer because he views science as the model for a utopian politics. In most sci-fi, going back to Frankenstein, science is treated as a kind of forbidden knowledge, and the scientist frequently becomes a victim of his — almost always “his” — hubris. What we might think of as left progressive science fiction, like Judith Merril and Cyril Kornbluth’s Outpost Mars, takes a stand against the anti-democratic corporatization of science and technology.
Even in Robinson’s novels that don’t seem to be sci-fi, like Shaman, the inductive method, the collective search for greater knowledge about the world that can be put to use for the good for all, is front and center. Run-of-the-mill sci-fi writers describe gadgets. Robinson asks us to think about the assembly, consequences, and collective labor that give technology its transformative power, then gives us ways to imagine what these changes will mean for individuals and future potential societies.
You describe both sci-fi and science as being “collective” in nature. Is this why Robinson is able to so effectively marry the two with socialism in his work?
The best way to answer this question would be to suggest that what is at stake in Robinson’s fiction is precisely the nature of what we mean by “collective” and “collective action.” Robinson uses what he recognizes as an ideal of scientific inquiry and sharing of information as a way to allow us to rethink nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions of socialism. He asks us to consider ways to reframe an economic understanding of sociopolitical inequities built on labor theories of value. Again, I think it’s Robinson’s reformulating ideas of “collective” action in the Mars trilogy and New York 2140, for example, that have appealed to so many readers.
Robinson identifies as a democratic socialist and produces admittedly political work. How do you see his politics manifesting in his fiction? In terms of craft, how does Robinson keep his stories from becoming too didactic or dogmatic?
Democratic socialism is a convenient term for Robinson, but I’d call him an eco-cultural materialist. He’s a utopian writer — if we understand that utopia is not an endgame but an ongoing struggle for a more just and sustainable society.
Robinson’s novels, like the new Ministry for the Future, are about the process of putting together a collective vision that, over time, gives progressives a new understanding of technological innovation, collective political action, and ecological transformation and renewal. He avoids dogmatism and didacticism because he’s so damn smart. Robinson makes the point in a number of his novels that to be dogmatic, to preach instead of to explore, is to surrender to the very constraints that we need to challenge.
There are passages in the Mars trilogy, to take one example, where he lays out a working theory of the relationship between ecology and economics, what he calls eco-economics. Having wide swaths of people read these passages would do more good for left politics than a boatload of white papers on the Green New Deal.
Instead of looking back in history almost ninety years for a model of environmental renewal and social justice, Robinson rethinks the premises of labor-based understandings of the economy. You need the creative energy of science fiction to take us outside the box of socialism as just anti-capitalism — and to let us see how we need to take that box apart.
You identify Marxism, ecology, and Buddhism as the threads that come together to produce Robinson’s philosophical perspective, which reminds me of the politics of Murray Bookchin. Do you see any influence of Bookchin in Robinson’s work?
Bookchin is one of many figures who Robinson has read and draws on. But he reads so widely and so well that it is often difficult to draw one-to-one connections between thinkers he’s read and the fiction he produces.
For decades, Robinson’s been fascinated by alternatives to capitalist models of growth at all costs, including Bookchin. In the 1990s, he used steady-state economics, theorized by Herman Daly and Lester Brown, among others. In his more recent fiction, real-life examples like Mondragon in Spain and Kerala in India figure prominently. Robinson allows us to think through the ways that we might scale up such local cooperatives into planetary alternatives to late capitalism.
Marxism, ecological thinking, and Buddhism don’t define a single philosophical perspective in his work as much as they dynamically alter each other so that economic justice, environmental sustainability, and spiritual comprehension are always intersecting, morphing, and defining new possibilities for his characters — and presumably his readers.
You mention Mondragon, the Spanish cooperative, which has faced criticism for reproducing a quasi-capitalist hierarchy between its worker-owners, who own a stake in the co-op, and employees, who do not. In his work, does Robinson use Mondragon as a metaphor for what could be? Does even the literal case support his conception of utopia as a process, rather than an end point?
I think that’s right: Utopia is not an ideal steady-state society that we can conjure into being. At the end of Galileo’s Dream, one of the characters describes the arc of Galileo’s career as “crabbing sidewise toward the good.” That’s a great phrase and describes why, even in examples like the Mondragon, there are still, and always going to be, inequities that require further struggle.
If you go off into the woods and start a successful multiracial, LBGTQ commune with great dental care and shared workloads, you’re still going to be, at best, only semi-self-sufficient. You’re going to have to rely on other, external entities to make the dental instruments you need to care for your members’ health, the roads you drive on to get there, the Wi-Fi capabilities you need to remain connected to twenty-first-century society. Right now, any “pocket utopia” — a term Robinson used in his Three Californias trilogy — is going to look like Mondragon, marked by both progressive forces and internal divisions and struggles as we try to scale up the practices that lead to socioeconomic justice.
A collective entity is always aspirational — so in that sense, as you suggest, “metaphoric” — because its utopian ideals define what we might think of as a cell within a larger social organism. The membrane walls may define the utopian collective as an entity, but they’re always permeable, always reacting to the environment, always redefining what is inside and outside the collective.
Now that we all seem to be living through a dystopian sci-fi novel, is there an especially relevant insight that you think we should take from Robinson’s work?
In a nutshell? Stop sulking, think collectively, get to work. Dystopianism these days is cheap — just play most video games. Robinson is clear-eyed about the challenges facing us, and almost all his novels envision humanity in the coming century struggling through an environmental and sociopolitical apocalypse. His novels are concerned with what we can build after that.
Given the future-oriented focus of his science fiction, Robinson lets us imagine horizons that extend beyond our lifetimes. Talk to most high school and college students, and their vision of the future has surrendered to either brain-eating zombies or a capitalist dream world of endlessly selfish consumption without consequences. Robinson seizes the future back from these dead-end alternatives. He’s our greatest novelist — in any genre — of hard-won hope.