A sci-fi writer returns to Earth: ‘The real story is the one facing us.’
By Alexandra Alter
Last fall, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson was asked to predict what the world will look like in 2050. He was speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and the atmosphere at the summit — billed as the “last, best hope” to save the planet — was bleak.
But Robinson, whose novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” lays out a path for humanity that narrowly averts a biosphere collapse, sounded a note of cautious optimism. Overcome with emotion at times, he raised the possibility of a near future marked by “human accomplishment and solidarity.”
“It should not be a solitary daydream of a writer sitting in his garden, imagining there could be a better world,” Robinson told the crowd.
It’s a hard time to be a utopian writer, or any sort of utopian. Disaster-filled dystopian stories abound in movies, television and fiction; news headlines verge on apocalyptic. Other masters of utopian speculative fiction — giants like Ursula K. Le Guin and Iain M. Banks — are gone, and few are filling 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 get remembered, and they shape people’s conception of what’s possible that could be good in the future.”
At 70, Robinson — who is widely acclaimed 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 been having an impact in the real world, as biologists and climate scientists, tech entrepreneurs and CEOs of green technology startups have looked to his fiction as a possible road map for avoiding the worst outcomes of climate change.
“There aren’t a lot of writers who have tried to take a literary approach to technical questions, and a technical approach to literary questions,” novelist Richard Powers said.
In some ways, Robinson’s path as a science fiction writer has followed a strange trajectory. He made his name writing about humanity’s far-flung future, with visionary works about the colonization of Mars (“The Mars Trilogy”), interstellar, intergenerational voyages into deep space (“Aurora”), and humanity’s expansion into the far reaches of the solar system (“2312”). But recently, he’s been circling closer to Earth, and to the current crisis of catastrophic warming.
Futuristic stories about space exploration feel irrelevant to him now, Robinson said. He’s grown skeptical that humanity’s future lies in the stars, and dismissive of tech billionaires’ ambitions to explore space, even as he acknowledged, “I’m partially responsible for that fantasy.”
In his more recent novels — works like “New York 2140,” an oddly uplifting climate change novel that takes place after New York City is partly submerged by rising tides, and “Red Moon,” set in a lunar city in 2047 — he has traveled back in time, toward 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 reels from floods, heat waves, and mounting ecological disasters, and an international ministry is created to save the planet.
“I decided that it was time to go directly at the topic of climate change,” Robinson said. “The real story is the one facing us in the next 30 years. It’s the most interesting story, but also the stakes are highest.”
Robinson’s latest book, “The High Sierra: A Love Story,” is unlike any of his previous ones: It’s Robinson’s first major work of nonfiction, and the most personal thing he’s ever published.
Over the book’s 560 pages, Robinson weaves together a geological, ecological and cultural history of California’s High Sierra mountains, with his own story of falling in love with the region as a young man in the 1970s and returning over the decades. Interspersed with dense chapters about granite composition, plate tectonics, glacier formation and the range’s flora and fauna — he describes marmots, the large, goofy-looking rodents that thrive there, as “great people” — Robinson recounts his adventures in the back country and reveals how they shaped him and his work.
He includes snippets of poetry that he wrote while backpacking, describes experimenting with psychedelics in his 20s and recalls his relationships 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 offers a glimpse of how Robinson’s time in the wilderness instilled a reverence for the natural world that saturates his science fiction. Robinson often rooted his descriptions of Martian landscapes in his observations of the Sierra’s ethereal peaks, valleys and basins, sometimes repurposing notes from his hiking journals directly into his novels. When writing about space exploration, he drew on the sometimes otherworldly feeling that being in the mountains gave him — the exhilaration, isolation and sense of his own insignificance in a geological time frame.
Being an in-demand, and somewhat reluctant, public intellectual has left Robinson struggling to find time to start a new novel. But he’s also been reassured by the enthusiastic response to his climate fiction, and has started to map out ideas for new work that builds on the story he told in “The Ministry for the Future,” he said.
Writing utopian fiction is hard, Robinson said: It’s 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 propose plans for how things go right, it sounds like civics, it sounds like blueprints. A utopia’s architectural blueprints are, let me show you how the sewage system works so you don’t get cholera. Well, that doesn’t sound exciting.”
But things can go horribly wrong on the road to utopia, as they do in “The Ministry for the Future,” which opens as a devastating heat wave in India kills millions of people.
When Robinson is asked to forecast the future, as he often is, he usually hedges. He has argued that “we live in a big science fiction novel we are all writing together” — but he’s not sure if it’s going to be a utopian or dystopian one.
“Nobody makes a successful prediction of the future,” he said. “Except for maybe by accident.”