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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 spoke at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, and the atmosphere at the summit – considered the “last, best hope of saving the planet” was gloomy.
But Robinson, whose novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” paves the way for humanity, narrowly averting the collapse of a biosphere, sounded a tone of cautious optimism. At times overwhelmed with emotion, he raised the possibility of a near future marked by “human achievement and solidarity.”
“It should not be a lonely daydream of a writer sitting in his garden imagining that there could be a better world,” Robinson told the audience.
It’s a tough time being a utopian writer, or any kind of utopian. Disaster-filled dystopian stories abound in film, television, and fiction; news headlines are on the verge of apocalyptic. Other masters of utopian speculative fiction – giants like Ursula K. Le Guin and Iain M. Banks – are gone, and few fill 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 perceptions of what is possible that could be good in the future.”
At 70 years old, Robinson – widely recognized as one of the most influential speculative fiction writers of his generation – stands as perhaps the last of the great utopians. It can be lonely work, he said. But lately, his writing has had an impact in the real world, as biologists and climate scientists, tech entrepreneurs and CEOs of green technology start-ups have viewed his fiction as a possible roadmap to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change.
At the UN climate summit last autumn, Robinson was treated as a quasi-celebrity. He met with diplomats, ecologists and business leaders and argued for implementing some of the ambitious ideas in his fiction – geoengineering to prevent glaciers from melting, replacing aircraft with solar-powered airships, reorganizing the economy with CO2 quantitative easing, with a new cryptocurrency , which could finance decarbonisation.
“These are deeply explored, plausible futures he writes about,” said Nigel Topping, the UK’s high – level climate activist, who invited Robinson to the summit.
Robinson’s ability to gather close scientific and technical details, economic and political theory, and skewed political proposals into his fiction has made him a prominent public thinker outside the sci-fi sphere.
“There are not many writers who have tried to take a literary approach to technical issues and a technical approach to literary issues,” said author Richard Powers.
In some ways, Robinson’s path as a science fiction writer has followed a strange path. He wrote his name on the vast future of humanity with visionary works on the colonization of Mars (the “Mars trilogy”), interstellar, intergenerational journeys into deep space (“Aurora”) and humanity’s expansion into the distant solar system (“2312”). ). But recently, he has circled closer to the ground and to the current crisis of catastrophic warming.
Futuristic stories of space exploration feel irrelevant to him now, Robinson said. He has become skeptical that the future of humanity lies in the stars, and rejects tech billionaires’ ambitions to explore space, even though he acknowledged: “I am partly responsible for that fantasy.”
In his more recent novels – works such as “New York 2140”, a strangely uplifting climate change novel that takes place after New York City is partially immersed in rising tides, and “Red Moon”, which takes place in a lunar city in 2047 – he has traveled back in time, towards the present. Two years ago, he published “The Ministry for the Future”, which opens in 2025 and unfolds over the next few decades, as the world rages from floods, heat waves and growing ecological disasters, and an international ministry is set up to save planet.
“I decided it was time to go straight into the topic of climate change,” Robinson said. “The real story is the one we face for the next 30 years. It’s the most interesting story, but there is also the greatest effort.”
Robinson’s latest book, “The High Sierra: A Love Story,” is unlike any of his earlier ones: It is Robinson’s first major non-fiction and the most personal thing he has ever published.
Over the book’s 560 pages, Robinson weaves a geological, ecological and cultural history of California’s High Sierra Mountains along with his own story of falling in love with the region as a young man in the 1970s and returning through the decades. Composed of dense chapters on granite composition, plate tectonics, glacier formation and the area’s flora and fauna – he describes marmots, the large, silly-looking rodents that thrive there as “great humans” – Robinson recounts his adventures in the hinterland and reveals how they formed him and his work.
He includes excerpts from poetry he wrote while on a backpack, describes experiments with psychedelics in his 20s, and recalls his relationship with his literary heroes – sci-fi 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 his Sierra book.
The book also provides a glimpse of how Robinson’s time in the desert instilled an awe of the natural world that saturates his science fiction. Robinson often rooted his descriptions of Martian landscapes in his observations of Sierra’s ethereal peaks, valleys, and basins, sometimes reusing notes from his hiking journals directly in his novels. When he wrote about space exploration, he drew on the sometimes supernatural feeling that being in the mountains gave him – the exhilaration, the isolation and the feeling of his own insignificance in a geological time frame.
His turn towards non-fiction and autobiography almost 40 years into his career has surprised many longtime readers – and even Robinson himself. He has always thought of himself as boring, “a white bread farmer.”
“My feeling of being a novelist was, going out of my way,” he said. “It’s not about me, do not 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 community called The Villages with his wife, Lisa Nowell, a chemist. Most days he writes at a small table in their front yard with a tarp to keep him dry when it rains and a fan to cool him when it’s hot, even though lately, he said, he has not written so much as he likes. He recently returned from northern India where he spoke at a climate conference hosted by the Dalai Lama. Later this month, he plans to travel to Davos, Switzerland, where he will give a talk on how to combat climate change at a conference hosted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
As a sought-after and somewhat reluctant public intellectual, Robinson has struggled to find time to start a new novel. But he has also been reassured by the enthusiastic response to his climate fiction and has begun mapping ideas for new work based on the story he told in “The Ministry of the Future,” he said.
Robinson discovered his love of science fiction at the University of California, San Diego, where he studied literature and received his Ph.D. English. Literary critic Fredric Jameson, who was a professor there, encouraged him to read Philip K. Dick – and Robinson was hooked.
In the 1980s, he released his first sci-fi series, a formally innovative trilogy that traced three different futures for Orange County, California, where he grew up. Each book followed a classic futuristic sci-fi formula – a post-apocalyptic one, in the wake of a nuclear attack; a dystopian, amid the ruins of uncontrolled suburban sprawl and environmental degradation, and a utopian as the region evolved into an ecological paradise. The trilogy, “Three Californias,” was nominated for major science fiction awards. Robinson was praised in The New York Times for “largely inventing a new kind of science fiction.”
Since then, Robinson has experimented liberally with sci-fi tropes, writing everything from an alternative Chinese history to an epic exploring deep space to a speculative historical novel set in the Ice Age. But he has become best known for his deeply researched utopian stories that use science fiction as a framework to explore alternative social, economic, and political systems.
Writing utopian fiction is difficult, Robinson said: “It is not easy to write a gripping story about the mechanisms that drive social progress.
“Novels are really about what happens when things go wrong,” Robinson said. “If you suggest plans for how things go right, it sounds like citizenship, it sounds like drawings. An utopia’s architectural drawings are, let me show you how the sewer system works so you do not get cholera. Well, that does not sound exciting. ”
But things can go horribly wrong on the road to utopia, as they do in “The Ministry for the Future,” which opens 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 avoid mass extinction, we avoid everything dying, amazing, it’s utopia, given where we are now.”
When Robinson is asked to predict the future, as he often is, he tends to nest. He has claimed that “we live in a great science fiction novel, we all write together” – but he is not sure if it will be a utopian or dystopian one.
“No one comes up with a successful prediction of the future,” he said. “Except maybe by accident.”
Sound produced by Tally Abecassis.