KIM STANLEY ROBINSON is one of the most highly awarded science fiction (SF) writers, winning the Nebula and Hugo awards for his Mars series (Green Mars, Red Mars, Blue Mars and The Martians), among a dozen other novels and short story collections. PAUL BUHLE interviewed Robinson for the US socialist magazine, Monthly Review.
Robinson is especially treasured by science fiction readers for his knowledge of hard science. He is often regarded by left-leaning readers as the successor to Ursula Le Guin, the peace- and ecology-minded writer famed since the early 1970s. Robinson holds a PhD in English and wrote a scholarly volume on Californian SF writer Philip K Dick (another favourite of left-wing readers) before launching a literary career of his own.
Robinson's latest volume, The Years of Rice and Salt, is a what if counter-history that begins from the premise that the Black Plague wiped out nearly all the medieval European population, leaving others in charge of the future.
The first generations of the organised socialist movement regarded their understanding as science, that is scientific socialism rather than the utopianism of Fourier, Saint Simon and so on. Yet, there was more than a hint of utopianism in their understanding.
As was often popularly expressed at the time, an egalitarian pre-class society in the distant past had necessarily been succeeded by class society. However, its collective and cooperative spirit would be recuperated by socialism, at an infinitely higher level. In the US, Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward was the second-best selling of the 19th century, introducing thousands to the idea of socialism. Ursula Le Guin's utopian-flavoured novels were likewise great radical and feminist favourites of the 1970s and 1980s, but definitely not a trend. Is utopianism in the good sense of the term dead or can it be revived?
Utopianism in SF has suffered from several causes, most significantly the feeling that the future is already bought and mortgaged and can't be changed, so that utopias are mere fantasies. This is crucial: the impression that the future is locked down (a feeling that those in power would like to be very general). And it is very cruel.
Imagine telling the half of humanity that lives on less than $2 a day that a society in which everyone had adequate food, water, shelter, and clothing, health care and education (which is, by today's standards, utopia) would be boring that we who are prosperous enough to think about SF somehow need to make their lives exciting. What incredible crap!
But you hear it all the time. My Mars books are an attempt to take back the territory to show that the future is malleable and up to us. Le Guin has been trying to point out the same thing all along. She is, incidentally, not only a great writer but a heroic figure, and her work proves that literature is at its best when it is engaged with social reality.
Do the 19th century socialist claims on utopia and on science still have some important, unrealised value?
All the 19th century predictions of what will come are forms of (utopian) science fiction, interesting to us now to show what people thought was possible just a few generations ago. What's instructive is to ask ourselves what feels possible, still. Can any of the utopian goals be accomplished?
Well, nothing is stopping us from constructing any kind of society nothing except the current power structure. Centuries of effort have also given people certain powers that are still available. Every time great numbers of people go out into the streets and demand change (most lately, in Argentina), the power of guns suddenly seems reduced and governments tend to fall and reorganise. You can't dismiss the people and elect another one, as Brecht put it.
So, it's a matter of how many people are engaged enough and determined enough on specific changes, to get out into the streets. Fill the Washington Mall a few times and see what happens! There should also be a science fiction that tells these kinds of stories over and over again. That they need to be entertaining and compete in a market of other entertainments is true, but merely part of the challenge of all art.
Your Mars series suggests that even if the current global movement for egalitarianism fails for ecological and other reasons, the future still holds possibilities (perhaps certainties) for continuing the age-old struggle against privilege and for a decent society.
It will be tough if the egalitarian movement fails in the next 30 years to control the runaway train of global capitalism. It has to be made clear that capitalism is not just the creation of capital, which happens in any system, but a particular hierarchy in which a small percentage of the people on Earth benefit enormously more than they need to benefit from the work of all and that the majority of those living today, as well as the biosphere itself, is suffering as a result.
Thus, we are not anti-capital but against the ridiculous hierarchy that rules us now, and the institutionalisation of greed, hatred and delusion the three sources of suffering as identified in Buddhism in all our governments, in the form of consumerism and business practice, in the military and in the mass media. My feeling is that growing awareness of these huge problems will result in a mutation of values and radical reform.
If that doesn't happen soon, catastrophes will mount and then it will happen later, but in a kind of desperate rescue mode with much more suffering and damage rendered than if we manage it now. The stakes are very high!
Let's come back to three related issues: to the writer who interested you so much at the start of your fiction writing was Philip K Dick remembered best in some quarters for his counter-reality novels; to your current counter-reality novel; and to what you intend to do next.
I like Philip Dick's persistent support for working people, his leftism and his sense of humour; also the technical aspects of his novels, which at their best are beautifully constructed, and use a roving point of view in a way that I find very attractive.
Alternative history is a part of SF, so my latest book The Years of Rice and Salt is not a departure but a venture into a particular sub-genre. This sub-genre has a logical relationship to regular SF (unlike fantasy) in that it is historical speculation beginning from some moment of the past, rather than the future, and then exploring a particular history track, fictional but worked out logically in the manner of a thought experiment. Theories of history underpin all these experiments by necessity.
My next project will be a small suite of short novels set in the day after tomorrow, which is another sub-genre of science fiction that is very useful and entertaining. I will always remain a science fiction writer because we live in a giant collaborative science fiction novel that we are all writing together. It is the realism of our time, especially in the industrial West, but more and more everywhere.
[Reprinted with permission from the July August 2002 issue of the US
socialist magazine From Green Left Weekly, September 18, 2002.
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From Green Left Weekly, September 18, 2002.