Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson is a best-selling novelist. He was born in 1952, brought up in southern California. He earned a BA at UC San Diego in English and American Literature in 1974. He earned a Ph.D. from UCSD in literature in 1982. He is married to Lisa Nowell, an environmental chemist for the US Geological Survey. Mr. Robinson’s first novel was published in 1984; he has since published nine novels and five story collections. He is currently living with his wife and two boys, 10 and 3, in Davis, California.
This interview took place between February and June 1999.
Resonance: Your Martian Trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, was an exceptional vision of a possible future for humanity in Space. I found it to be composed of a compelling weave of individual stories as well as a realistic portrayal of the best of current thinking about how we will explore and settle the Solar System. Are you a supporter of the vision you gave life to in your Trilogy? And do you support an expanded space program and space effort?
Robinson: Yes, I think it would be a good idea to go to Mars, determine whether life is or is not there, and if we find that it is not there, begin to inhabit the planet and make it a human place. This necessarily implies expanding our space program, but I don’t think there is any great hurry about this expansion. The effort to determine whether or not there is life on Mars is likely to take a fairly long time, and much of the first part of the effort can be done robotically. Later people will go, because we’ll never be completely sure about the life on Mars question until after people go there and make the kind of versatile and detailed investigations that humans can make, and robots can’t. So there is a fairly long, multiple-phased process entailed by my ideas about what needs to be done.
Resonance: Could you expand on your ideas about what needs to be done? Which philosophical approach, of the number you portray in your Trilogy, do you agree with?
Robinson: I think we need to set up a long-term mission architecture that ensures that each individual Mars missions contributes substantially to the project of creating scientific stations there for humans to inhabit on a rotating basis, much like Antarctic stations are inhabited now. There are several good reasons to do this, foremost of which I would suggest is the comparative planetology we could do which would then teach us more about Earth, how it works ecologically on the global scale, and what we might do to maintain that ecology in a healthy balance for the long haul. In other words, space science has to be seen as one arm of Earth science.
Characters in my Mars novels hold a variety of attitudes toward the inhabitation of Mars, and I found that I could agree with most of them while writing from that character’s point of view; this ability is what makes me a novelist rather than a polemicist. The specific question of terraforming Mars –to do it or not– rests first on determining whether there is any indigenous life on Mars, a possibility that is now considered much stronger than it was when I wrote my trilogy. If we find life on Mars, I will side with the Reds, who want it left unchanged. If the planet is confirmed to be entirely dead rock, then I would probably agree with those greens who advocate a light terraforming, which would leave the considerable areas of higher altitude much as they were before.
Resonance: How would you answer the statement by some that there are enough problems left for us to solve on Earth before we go out into Space and expend precious resources?
Robinson: I would say they are right. But space science has to be understood as an arm of earth science, and earth science is one of the ways we are solving the problems our presence creates on Earth. I think the space program has to be configured and understood to be an environmentalist program. Both space observation of Earth, and comparative planetology, are powerful tools for understanding better the issues of global environmental management that we must get much better at to survive comfortably. I would also add that the precious resources referred to in the question are being squandered by our vast military programs, infinitely more than any space exploration. Much more is being spent on the unworkable “Star Wars” anti-missile defense system, for instance, than is being spent on going to Mars, and going to Mars is useful whereas the anti-missile system is a boondoggle, in that it doesn’t work, can’t work, and even if it did work, wouldn’t defend us from sneak attacks on the ground. It’s a scam. These post Cold War military expenditures are the true wastes of our precious resources.
Resonance: What feelings do you have when you view the films of the Apollo astronauts walking on the Moon; we are now 30 years past the Armstrong-Aldrin moonwalks of 1969.
Robinson: I enjoy seeing film of the Apollo astronauts, and I don’t think we need to feel too badly about the lack of Moon exploration in the thirty years since. In a way that first set of Moon landings was far ahead of its time, a fluke of the Cold War; only now are we coming into a time when we can actually do very many useful things on the Moon, such as set up a truly powerful telescope on the far side, or mine for rare elements and the like. So now we can begin to think about returning there with some real scientific purpose. The thing to remember is that civilization is here for the long haul; the space program is one tool among many to teach us how to live sustainably on the Earth; and so there is no need for hurry just for the sake of doing things fast. In a properly prioritized system of values and goals, inhabiting the Moon is not something we need to flog ourselves for not having done yet.
Resonance: Can you understand why some of the men who walked on the Moon chose very different occupations after their return to Earth? The most famous of these is Alan Bean who is now an accomplished painter.
Robinson: I can see the logic of moving on to different pursuits after walking on the Moon, especially if it represented the ultimate goal of your work as an astronaut. In a much smaller way, I wanted my trip to Antarctica to have an impact on my subsequent life, so that it was not just something like a vivid dream I had; and this feeling must be even more powerful after having visited the Moon. How to act on this feeling must be different for every person.
Resonance: Your novels are thoroughly researched to be congruent with current scientific and engineering understanding. Do you think that science fiction epics such as yours serve a purpose beyond entertainment? Can such writing serve as a catalyst for a variety of human endeavors, especially those that appear initially insurmountable?
Robinson: Science fiction, like all art, is more than entertainment. Art helps us to formulate the meanings of our existence, and because there is a lot of joy in having secured a sense of meaning in events, art can be very joyous (or entertaining) while also being fundamentally important to our humanity. Science fiction in particular is oriented towards formulating a sense of our feeling for the future; it can give us scenarios to chill us and make us work to avoid them, or scenarios that inspire us and make us work to get to some world like the ones described. As such it can definitely be a catalyst, and can inspire us to try for large things that might seem impossible in the current culture.
Resonance: How long did it take you to conceive, research and write the trilogy?
Robinson: The idea for the trilogy came to me gradually in the late 70s and early 80s, when I began to gather research materials, and wrote two stories, “Exploring Fossil Canyon” and “Green Mars,” the latter to secure the moral right to that title, which seemed to me obvious. I began to write RED MARS in 1989, and finished BLUE MARS in 1995.
Resonance: Can you tell us what project(s) you are currently working on?
Robinson: I’ve just finished a collection of Mars stories, and am beginning to write a new novel.
Resonance: Can you describe the themes and venue in this novel?
Robinson: I don’t like to talk very much about projects I’m working on, but I will say that this one is an alternative history, and I’m very happy to be working on it.
Resonance: When did you start believing that your career would center about writing, and science fiction in particular? Did your family support you in your decision to become a writer?
Robinson: When I was an undergraduate in college, in the early 1970s, I began writing poetry and short stories with great pleasure, and at that point conceived the desire to be a published writer. At the same time I was discovering science fiction, and my story ideas always had an aspect of strangeness or futurity to them. I went to graduate school and became a lecturer in composition and literature, always leaving room in my schedule to write some fiction. In 1986 my wife began a post-doc in Switzerland, and I used that move as the break to full-time writing, and have written full-time ever since. My family has been stalwart in their support.
Resonance: Did you read science fiction as a youngster? And who were your favorite writers, of science fiction as well as of other genres?
Robinson: When I was young I read mostly mysteries and general fiction, a great deal of both, and as I said, discovered science fiction with a sense of recognition when I was in college. At that time science fiction’s “New Wave” was in full break and I enjoyed the work of the New Wave writers very much, especially Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ, and so on. In other fields I enjoyed Cecelia Holland’s historical novels, and the fiction of Joyce Cary, Italo Calvino, John Fowles, Patrick O’Brian, Peter Matthiessen, Thomas Pynchon, and Virginia Woolf, among many others.
Resonance: What are some of your skills that permitted you to succeed as a writer?
Robinson: I like to read. I have a good memory, both for what I have read and for the details of my own life. I like to tell stories. I have fairly good work habits, or can build up to them when I need to (it’s like building muscles). And I have a certain pigheadedness that allows me to forge ahead even when I don’t know enough to forge ahead. Novelists need this, and so do many other professions.
Resonance: Following up on the previous question, it is always interesting to learn about how a particular author goes about his writing. Is a computer used? What are the working habits? For example, is an outline first written? The general question is, what are the mechanics of the process?
Robinson: I start my novels knowing certain key scenes that I want to write, but by no means the entire thing. I usually have a sense of the ending to lead me on. I don’t outline, but I do take notes ahead of time to record everything I know before starting; this is usually just a few pages of scattered thoughts. I write my first drafts by hand in a notebook, often outdoors, in cafes, or my backyard, etc. Then second draft is entered into a computer, and after that I revise many times, appreciating very much the labor-saving aspect of computer word processing, as I am old enough to remember doing it all on typewriters. I write every weekday, usually in the mornings after the rest of my family has gone off to work and school. When doing first draft I can only write two to four hours a day, but while revising I work much longer hours, until near the end I work as much as I possibly can, as that is the point when I have the whole thing in my head and can see the shape of it entirely.
Resonance: What are the roles of art in society? Does art do something for society that cannot be done by anything else? How are art and science intertwined? Does science have a role in art? And what about the role of art in science?
Robinson: As I said before, art is (for me) the principle creator of meaning in our lives. Nothing else in society combines art’s elements of meaning-creation and sheer pleasure, pleasure in beauty, the natural world, gossip, etc. Art and science are intertwined, certainly, as they both create meaning, and reinforce each other’s aspirations and accuracies. Science has a role in art, yes, because precision to reality is a very important artistic value, and science can help to create that precision. As for art’s role in science, it is a fact that science is deeply imbued with aesthetic values, and these are shaped by the art that scientists learn and love. So the interaction between the two is a kind of feedback loop, tight in some ways, loose in others.
Resonance: Speaking to a young person of about 13-14 years old, just entering High School, what advice would you offer?
Robinson: To those just entering high school, I would say: Learn to read for your own pleasure. It doesn’t matter what you read; whatever it is, it will have a much higher information density than any visual medium can have. If you enjoy reading for its own sake you will be a better-informed person and many jobs will become open to you and easy to you. I’d suggest subscribing to Science News, a weekly newsletter that will keep you up-to-date on the latest in all the sciences; it’s short, it’s easy to read, it’s an education all by itself. I’d say stick with your math classes for as long as you can. Take as many science classes as you can. Don’t worry about peer pressure. Stay away from alcohol and drugs. Enjoy your friends. Work hard and play hard (they go together). Relax.Resonance: If you were having a discussion with any living person, who would it be and what might some of your questions be?
Robinson: I would like to ask Al Gore about his commitment to environmentalism. I’d like to talk books with the novelist Patrick O’Brian, or ask Reinhold Messner about some of his mountaineering experiences, or ask the Dalai Lama some questions I have about Buddhism. But I must say that I am like everybody else in this world, in that I am surrounded by very wise people in my daily life who will give me their thoughts as soon as I think to ask for them. In other words you don’t need the Dalai Lama or any other world-famous person to find wisdom or entertaining stories. Your own friends and families are great sources of these things.
Resonance: What do you do in your free time? Do you have a few favorite web sites?
Robinson: I spend so much time at the computer writing that I don’t like to do anything recreational on it; I don’t play computer games, and am rarely on the web. I like the Mars Global Surveyor web site. In my free time I backpack in the Sierra Nevada, do sports (run, swim, softball, Frisbee golf), garden, and play with my wife and boys, who are 10 and 3 years old. I try to spend as much time as possible outdoors; this is really important to me.
Resonance: (My son Adam, age 11, suggested the following question.) What is your favorite food, and does that have anything to do with your writing?
Robinson: I like almost all kinds of food, but the one that’s important to my writing is coffee. I drink a cup of thick espresso over the course of a working morning, so it’s kind of the Taste of Work to me.
Resonance: If you could solve just one of this nation’s problems, which one would it be?
Robinson: I suppose the problem I’d like to solve is our gross over-consumption of resources. Americans occupy five percent of the world’s land and yet use 50 percent of the world’s annual resource expenditures, and this wasteful lifestyle is completely useless, as it does not make us happy or give us any security or joy, individually or collectively. Learning the whole collection of practices that would make our environmental impact on the land (and the people who will live here in the future) less harsh, would be a great thing. If I could teach that to this country I would be very happy, and I hope my fiction does a little bit towards that end.