Digging in the Dirt: A Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson
The first Kim Stanley Robinson novel I read was Icehenge (1984), back in the pre-Google days of 1997, when I had yet to graduate high school. The novel consists of three distinct first-person narrations, each structured as a diary or memoir, which must have seemed to my then self a far cry from the more dramatic, action-packed stories I was consuming. Though not immediately appealing, Icehenge challenged me to reconsider what I thought I knew about science fiction novels and thus made a much deeper mark on me than some of its more lithesome brethren. Later that same year I gobbled up Robinson’s wonderful The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge, and the next year Red Mars, and the year after that—
You get the idea.
Sixteen years after reading Icehenge, I bumped into Stan at the bar of the 2013 WorldCon, in San Antonio, Texas, and a seemingly innocent remark I made about a panel led to one of those wonderful group conversations that rage on until three in the morning. Stan’s knowledge of literature, history, and science is staggering, but he wears his learning lightly. Stan’s anecdotes and reminiscences were informed by the same deep compassion and warmth of spirit that can be found in his many works of scientifically rigorous imaginative extrapolation.
Kim Stanley Robinson grew up in Southern California, was educated at UC San Diego and attended Clarion in 1975. He made his first sale to Damon Knight for his Orbit anthology, lived in Boston, Zurich, and Washington DC, then returned to Davis, California. He is married to Lisa Nowell and has two sons. He traveled to Antarctica in 1995 with the NSF. His work has been translated into twenty-four languages; 2312 was a New York Times bestseller; he has won two Hugos and three Nebulas, as well as the Locus, World Fantasy, and John W. Campbell awards.
Aurora, your latest novel, features a generation starship known simply as the Ship. Generation starships have been around in science fiction since at least Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” (1940). Did you envision your novel in this tradition, or as something separate?
It sits in that tradition, which I quite enjoy. My first awareness of generation ships was through Robert Heinlein’s story “Universe” and Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop, a classic of the genre. And then there was Gene Wolfe’s four-volume The Book of the Long Sun, my favorite Gene Wolfe novel sequence; it spills over into The Book of the Short Sun, which is three more novels, so it’s really a seven-book sequence, and I think it’s Wolfe’s greatest achievement, which is saying a lot, because he’s quite a power.
I was aware of all these but I also began to think that there was new scientific information, at levels biological, ecological, sociological, and psychological. I felt like you could tell a new story based on this new information, which is what science fiction is doing all the time. So I was looking to tell a new story and maybe even stick “a pin through a castle wall,” as Shakespeare puts it. Maybe pop the balloon, because the harder you press the idea, the more unlikely it looks that it can succeed.
Tau Ceti is nearby, and though it is not quite like our Sun, we know now that it has four large planets that you could call large Earths or small Neptunes. They’re too big to stand on without feeling five Earth gravities, but two of them are in the Goldilocks zone, where water would be liquid. I asked some people at NASA, “Could some of these big planets that we’ve found have moons that are almost the size of Earth?”
My NASA helpers told me that yes, but there’d be no way for us to distinguish two objects, from our distance and with our current methodology: a planet and its moon would look like one thing to us. So I invented Earth-sized moons for two of the planets we know are really there, planets E and F. That created all sorts of interesting problems, because moons that big orbiting planets that big will create a kind of tidal locking similar to our Moon’s. It gets really complicated and interesting in terms of how much light you get, how often you get eclipses, and so on. An entire planetary ecology and astronomy was suggested just by that one little invention on my part.
That was all a lot of fun, and it turned out, when I read the Wikipedia article on Tau Ceti, that Asimov’s planet Aurora orbited Tau Ceti in The Naked Sun (1956), which I had not remembered, having read The Naked Sun forty years ago. I was really pleased by that, and it’s the reason my planet is called Aurora and my novel too; a little tip of the hat to Asimov. Also Ursula K. Le Guin, as in her The Dispossessed (1974), Anarres and Urras are also orbiting Tau Ceti.
What kind of conversation do you see your work having with science fiction classics such as the two you just mentioned?
I love to think of myself as working fully in the tradition. I’m a science fiction “patriot”; the field’s history is full of masterpieces and interesting works by brilliant writers, and people still read these works today. It’s a live canon, which people read for fun. It’s not just something that’s being taught in University courses. People read the science fiction canon on their own. I love that. I love being part of it.
My contribution is probably to bring the latest scientific information to old science fiction ideas and see what happens to the ideas when they’re tweaked with this new information. And then also just to do the English major thing—to think about form and characters, try to make good novels and add to the tradition.
How did you go about creating the protagonists of Aurora?
Practical questions of how to convey information often lead me to which characters I want to focus on. In the case of Aurora, I was doing a story of a starship voyage to Tau Ceti that was slower than light-speed, and never got faster than one-tenth of light-speed, and I wanted to start the story when they were approaching the Tau Ceti planetary system. I needed somebody who was young and had grown up entirely on the ship. It developed from there in a natural way that it could be the child of two people heavily involved in the running of the ship—the equivalent of a chief engineer and one of the lead medical people. So this child gets educated, and so does the reader, in a fairly rapid manner.
It also became quickly clear to me that it would be interesting if at a certain point the starship’s artificial intelligence—which would have to be really highly developed and powerful to help run a starship—became the narrator, and then had to learn to write a novel.
Your creative process for some novels, like The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), lasted years and involved reading dozens of books of research. When did you have the first inkling you wanted to tell the story of Aurora?
As far as I can remember, it was sometime during the last ten years. But going all the way back to Icehenge, I’ve been writing about saying good-bye to some small starship leaving the Solar System and headed for the stars. It happened in Icehenge, and Blue Mars (1996), and 2312 (2012) just a few years ago. It finally occurred to me that it was a story I doubted was possible. I wanted to think about that impression and tell a story and see what happened. About five years ago I started to put it in the pipeline as something I might do.
My editor, Tim Holman, was very encouraging. A lot of the research came down to the usual things: the Internet and books. But also, my friend Chris McKay at NASA Ames convened a crew of experts who helped me by answering a lot of questions.
We meet for lunch, I open my laptop, I ask questions, and they answer them and bounce ideas around. Sometimes that involves literal back-of-the-envelope calculations, and they suggest tweaks that are canny, sophisticated tweaks.
In the case of Aurora I had a new idea, possibly a new idea in all of science fiction—at least I don’t know of it ever being described before. So this is the climax of the novel, and has been cleared by people at NASA Ames. I think it was Chris who said, “Just make sure that in every equation you leave one crucial number out, and then no one can challenge you.”
While we’re on the subject of reading: Can you talk about your fascination with Virginia Woolf, and how it intersects—or doesn’t—with your interest in science fiction?
That’s a very good question. I came to Virginia Woolf late, because when I read her as an undergraduate I thought her work was boring and it made no sense to me. When I tried her most experimental novel, The Waves, as an adult, a middle-aged person, I realized this was fine literature concerning middle-aged people. I just hadn’t been prepared for it when I was young, when I wanted more excitement or drama or whatnot.
I started to read her and she turned out to be a very experimental novelist. Each novel is different; each novel is right at the edge of her ability to control it. It’s an experiment that she’s trying, and sometimes fails with, but most of the time she comes up with something extremely interesting.
Reading on, her non-fiction is exceptionally clear and well-judged. She’s a super clear writer, and she loves books so much she makes you want to read everything she writes about. She never has much of a negative word to say about anything. She’s taught me a lot.
Her biography was getting greatly expanded right during the years that I was getting interested in her work. She was the victim of some childhood sexual abuse by relatives, and had gone through some periods of mental illness as an adult, and had tempestuous relationships on all sides. It was a dramatic, high modernist life that was being unpacked by a succession of different biographers coming from different angles.
The best commentary of all was her own writing, in her diaries and letters. Hers is an incredibly documented life. There’s a book of people writing down memories of her, another of letters of condolence written to Leonard Woolf after she committed suicide, with all of his replies. So if you’re interested in a literary figure you could hardly pick a better one, because the documentation is huge, and she herself is such an interesting, vibrant, and lovely character. With very powerful literary judgment. She was a kind of literary genius.
I still have two books to read: her second novel, Night and Day, and a book called Flush, which is her fictional biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, a kind of side-project for her. I want to read those two books, and then I will have read everything by her, and most of the biographies of her. It’s an integrated project, and I think those are valuable, but you can only take on a few of them because they take up so much time.
It’s interesting to watch Virginia Woolf encounter science fiction in the figure of Olaf Stapledon. When I talk publicly about Woolf it’s usually in this context. She read Star Maker, and Last and First Men also, and she admired them tremendously. She had no prejudices in literature, thus not against science fiction, which hadn’t even been named as far as she was concerned. She took Stapledon as just another experimental writer, doing stuff that she herself wanted to do, which was to write about deep time. It was lovely to watch her try to incorporate deep time in her last two novels, The Years and Between the Acts.
I think I’m seeing this science fiction thread in Virginia Woolf’s literary biography, which has not been noticed by the huge mass of Woolf criticism that exists. Her letters to Stapledon are not in her collected letters, so it’s been overlooked. I feel like I ought to write a short note to the Virginia Woolf journals and tip them to this, so that real scholars can go in deeper. But I’m in no rush.
Another massive reading endeavor of yours was the complete Journals of Henry David Thoreau. What was that experience like?
That’s been beautiful. Like Woolf, Thoreau was a tremendously good prose writer. That’s what the two of them have in common. They both wrote diaries that were extensive accounts of their own lives and thinking, far beyond what most people do. So they’re the two greatest diarists. Beyond that, there are not too many similarities between the two.
He was a small-town guy in 19th century Massachusetts. It wasn’t exactly provincial because the intellectual leaders of the transcendentalist movement were there in the same town with him, so it was a very high-powered intellectual atmosphere. Thoreau was also an early citizen scientist. He was interested in botany and in landscape, obsessively so. He had social anxieties and he was a very odd guy, but what he found was writing, daily writing as a practice, like a religion.
The Journals are simply superb. I read them slowly, a couple of days per reading session. I read them almost at the same speed at which Thoreau wrote them. I have no desires here except to enjoy this window into another mind, into a landscape writer of tremendous power.
I do hope someday to do my “best of” the Journals. There are now at least a dozen, maybe twenty extracts from his journals. They’re seven thousand pages long, maybe four million words. Naturally people have tried to give you different aspects of it: Thoreau on birds, Thoreau on his neighbors, Thoreau on writing, on botany, on one thing or another, including several “best-of’s.” It’s probably a mistake, but I’m making it too: I want to do Stan’s favorite passages from Thoreau’s Journals. But I only got the idea when I was halfway through, so having finished it I had to go back to the beginning and start over again, marking passages in the first half.
This is one of my retirement projects. It has to do with my mountain interests and nature writing more generally. That creeps over into my science fiction, and the two inform each other, but they’re not quite the same thing.
Speaking of your mountain interests: Given your passion about the Sierra Nevada, do you think you might write a book about it?
I sure hope so. It’s high on my list of things to do.
I’ve just signed a contract for three new novels, and I’m happy with that, because I have the ideas and I know what I’m up to, though I don’t want to talk about them right now. What I’m thinking is that when those books are done, I’m going to take pause and write my Sierra Nevada book, or try to. I’m going to put a solid effort into it. I’ll write about John Muir, who was a disciple of Thoreau’s, among other things. And I’ll write about what it’s like to be in the Sierra, with some route advice: “Go here, or go there, and you’ll like it.” A little bit about backpacking and how do it.
I’ve been paying attention to Thoreau very closely with the idea he’ll teach me some things. I think I’ll be lost at sea—or lost in the mountains—because I won’t know how to write non-fiction. It makes me feel a little trepidation, but in a good way. I’m excited. I really want to do it. It’ll happen sometime.
When you were a teenager, you read historical novels and mysteries rather than science fiction. Have you considered writing in these genres?
No. I really feel devoted to science fiction. I think it’s got something special that the other genres don’t have for me. My love of the historical novel gets expressed in things like Years of Rice and Salt (2002) and Galileo’s Dream (2009), or in treating the future as though it’s a historical novel, like in the Mars books.
I also feel like very often that the detective novel provides a plot that is congenial to me. Quite a few of my plots are similar to detective story plots. Not all of them, but often enough that I find it fun and comforting. I still read mysteries and historical novels. I have favorite writers in both of those genres.
I do have one thing to add. I used to tell people that I ran into science fiction when I went off to college, and that it was Asimov and Clifford Simak that turned me on to it. But what I’ve been forgetting is how blown away I was by Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time when I was twelve. It blew my mind, but it seemed to me to be a freak of nature. I didn’t comprehend that it came from a genre. I thought that this one woman was just so spectacularly imaginative that she told this unique story. I loved it but I didn’t know its context at all. I didn’t go seeking out science fiction, because I didn’t know it existed, and it was segregated in my library, and I was almost entirely a library reader. But when I was eighteen and found science fiction, I think A Wrinkle in Time had set me up for it.
Referring to writer Peter Dickinson, you and your wife coined the term “Dickinson moment,” to describe that point in a novel where you’re not going to stop reading until you’ve finished the book. Do you ever strive to build Dickinson moments into your own novels?
I wish. That would be a good thing. I have never set out specifically to do it, so I can’t be sure if I have or not.
Thinking about it and rapidly passing through my books, I’m not coming up with one that has a clear Dickinson moment. What I will say is that I wanted the last chapter of Years of Rice and Salt to move really quickly compared to any of the previous ones, so you could feel you were sliding down the last pages and towards the end. It was such a long book.
But that’s not really what my wife and I mean. I think of it in terms of suspense. There’s a point where you’re too excited to know the end, where there’s too much danger involved and you simply have to go on. When people read Red Mars, they think they know the end of the novel because the first chapter is an in media res and John Boone gets killed. After that it goes back in time and the reader gets extremely comfortable thinking that the murder of John Boone will always be in the future. At the end of chapter five you cross that point again, and chapters six, seven, and eight are very action-packed and full of incident. Many a reader has said to me that they were so startled to break into the area of the unknown, where they didn’t have any future for the story and were back in that ordinary sensation of not knowing what comes next, that they read through to the end. So that’s a Dickinson moment, maybe. But it’s a couple of hundred pages!
Around the time that Shaman (2013) was published, you commented on the fundamental continuity between modern humans and Paleolithic humans: “Every day we’re doing the basic Paleolithic activities of talking to each other, making our food, dancing, having sex . . . ” Do you foresee a time when we will completely abandon these deep behavioral roots and tilt wholly into the technological sublime?
I don’t think it’s possible, because we still have the same genome and biological needs. The evolutionary forces that pushed around our brains as social primates are still the same. There will be fundamental pleasures that can’t be replaced by their technologically sublime substitutes. They can’t be augmented or virtualized in any meaningful way without taking away what was essential to their pleasure.
Ultimately, you do get food and sex, and beyond that play and physical activity. These are all imperatives I think. This is why I flatly disbelieve that uploading our minds would be meaningful. I don’t believe in the Singularity either. So there are a couple of science fiction stories that I think are fantasy. Why people are intrigued by these fantasies is an interesting question.
I wonder if people are making a very big category error, and it’s sort of common to all addictions: when you’re doing something that you think is going to give you pleasure, and it’s not giving you the pleasure you’ve been told it would, then you double down and do more of it, thinking that more will be better and will finally get you what you were told you’d get out of it.
I’m thinking that in our technologically augmented and virtualized lives of sitting and looking at screens, a lot of people are performing the addictive mistake, doing more of it thinking that it’ll make them happier. At a certain point, if you break the addictive cycle and realize the addictive activity is never going to do it for you, you can try something more basic. There are a lot of roads to recovery, that could be viewed as psychological or religious, or simply common sense or whatever. You can start living a primate’s life and pretty soon you’ll find satisfactions.
I do a lot of weeding in the garden every morning. I have my hands in the dirt, and I’m vigorously and enthusiastically killing plants that I don’t like, or maybe I do like them, but I definitely don’t want them in my garden. So I’m just sitting in the sun on my butt, or I’m standing kneeling over, digging around in the dirt. Well, it’s very satisfying. I don’t think anything I can do on a computer is actually quite as satisfying as that.
Fooling around with stones, running, throwing things at things, those are all on the Paleolithic list, everything we did to evolve into what we are. You do them now and there are parts of the brain that just light up, like a light’s gone on in a room. Even looking at fire, which is a very basic thing. You look at a fire and a part of your brain is just going, “Right on,” and loving it. Terry Bisson says that sitting in the dark looking at a movie with other people is just looking at a fire, which is why it doesn’t matter if a movie is good or bad, you’re still enjoying it—it’s an artificial fire. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it makes me laugh. It might be true.
On the subject of your garden: About ten years ago you relocated your writing spot there, and you write there every day regardless of the weather. What effects has this had on your writing, besides reinvigorating you?
I write in my front courtyard, near my garden, and under a tree. I’m not sure about the effects of that. It’s a good question. I would say that because I love it so much, it has allowed me to reconnect with novel writing as something that is very joyful. I don’t have to tie myself to a desk and make myself do it, being very antsy and wishing I was somewhere else doing something more physical. Being outdoors seems to be enough physicality to allow me to just sit there and write, and I’m happy to put in however many hours a day it is, without feeling like I’d be happier if I was running or playing frisbee golf or if I’d gone to the mountains. Moving outdoors simply made me happier. I think this is showing in the books.
It’s very weird, I’m sitting in the same chair in the same spot every day, so I know where the sun is at its winter solstice and summer solstice. I’ve seen the birds come and go in their migrations, and I’ve seen the trees leaf out and lose their leaves in the annual cycle. I’ve been out with the rain falling around me like a bead curtain, because my tarp is only eight feet by twelve feet overhead, so I get a little damp but not too damp. The worst part by far is the heat of summer here in Davis, which slow roasts me. It’s important to work in the early morning when it’s still cool.
I’ve become very stubborn about it, even superstitious. If I’m writing a novel, I’m writing it outdoors in my front courtyard. It’s a sign to me that it’s time to work, and that the work is fun.
Has your approach to novel-writing changed in any fundamental way over the last quarter century?
Sure. There’s a big break between Pacific Edge (1990) and Red Mars, where I decided to shift styles and forget about the 1980s magazine style, or Heinlein style, of hiding exposition and slipping it in in half-phrases here and there so that you read as if you’re reading contemporary literature in the time the book is written. I decided that was actually bad for several different reasons I won’t go into now. But when I wrote Red Mars I decided to shift styles, and that sustained me for a while.
When I finished the Science and the Capital books I became very intent to make my narrators characters that were different from me and had narrative styles that were particular to them. I started doing characterization by way of narrator much more intensely than I ever had before. It makes those novels peculiar kinds of first person narration. Galileo’s Dream is told by Cartophilus, a minor character in the story. Shaman is told by “the third wind,” a kind of spirit that knows everything about the Paleolithic, and Aurora is told by the ship’s computer. 2312 is a kind of Wikipedia—hard to know how to characterize that! Anyway I’ve gotten more interested in questions of who the narrator is, and how they’re different from me, and how can I show that.
Essentially with each novel I’ve tried to think, “How would the form best fit the function that I want?” I’ve tried to do something different and interesting each time, in formal terms. I hope to continue with that. My new novel is turning out to be lots of fun. The work is coming right along. Many hours in the courtyard. This seems like a good phase.