Kim Stanley Robinson on science fiction and socialism

Issue 

PictureKIM 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 Monthly Review. Visit <http://www.monthlyreview.org>.]<|>n

From Green Left Weekly, September 18, 2002.

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