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This Is The Year One
Kim Stanley Robinson
interviewed by
Duncan Lawie
"Science fiction is one of the most powerful tools of human thought we have"

"..the story of terraforming Mars, which is a giant
template for doing these utopian things,
simply has to be a long story."

"I'm not very firm in my feelings about what is true.
I think it's an advantage for a novelist."
Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson turned 50 in March of this year. He began reading science fiction at the start of the 1970s, as the New Wave was breaking over the genre, and started writing it not long after. He established a reputation for literate science fiction, confirmed by the Orange County trilogy (aka: Three Californias) written during the 1980s. Nevertheless, he is best known for the epic Mars trilogy published over the period from the 1990s. His next two projects nestle in the shadow of that massive work - Antarctica is sometimes known as 'White Mars' and in 1999 he published The Martians, an anthology of 'out-takes' and other background material. His new release is well clear of this territory. The Years Of Rice And Salt is an alternative history set in a world where the Plague wipes out virtually the whole population of Europe.
   We discussed his new book - and other matters - when he was in London recently.

The Years Of Rice And Salt is published as a HarperCollins book rather than a Voyager book; the marketing literature doesn't seem to be pushing it to a science fiction audience. Do you feel that it's not a science fiction book?

No - it's a science fiction book. The alternative history has a long and honourable part in science fiction and that's the way I conceptualised it when the idea first occurred to me 20 or 25 years ago. On the other hand I can see the logic of their thinking. The science fiction audience is fully aware of me and if they're interested, knowing me as they know me at this point, they'll buy the book - and if not, not - but there's no further work to be done there. The notion, I think, is that people who may not think of themselves as science fiction readers could read this book with pleasure and perhaps haven't tried me before. You can't help but like the strategy involved and that a publisher has a strategy.

It's a common discussion; people thrashing around as to whether they are science fiction authors or not; people who talk like they're 'escaping the ghetto' or they're climbing over the boundaries and don't seem to want to look back.

I'm not one of those. I'm a science fiction writer and always will be. It's my genre and my community and intellectual home. This escape, some of it probably has to do with outdated sociology of the reputation of science fiction. Some of it has to do with a hidden inferiority or ghetto mentality - that it would be better off in the big bad world. At my point in life, I don't see the advantages of the big world. Science fiction is one of the most powerful tools of human thought we have and one of the most powerful ways we have to generate beautiful novels. I don't seem to have suffered in terms of an audience. I have a relatively big and extremely supportive and intelligent audience so what's so bad about that? What would be the gain in going out into a gigantic, anonymous market place where you are one forgettable figure amongst others, which doesn't even have a sense of it's own history like the science fiction field does? I'm a science fiction patriot but that doesn't mean the books have to be published under a Voyager imprint as opposed to a HarperCollins imprint - that's just a marketing decision. What I would like to do is somewhat like what Asimov did, which is always to be resolutely and obviously a science fiction writer but just to expand out to be one of those science fiction writers who everyone understands they can read with pleasure. That's the plan.

It strikes me that The Years Of Rice And Salt is as much part of a body of work of writers such as Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul - writing from an Asian perspective. Were you reading a lot of that kind of material as background for this?

Yes, although for the most part I would be reading Asian history and cultural books - nonfiction - to try to come up to speed and give myself a better grasp of what kind of stories I might tell and what the context was. A lovely thought experiment would be to have this idea written by Rushdie or Naipaul or Vikram Seth or Amitabh Ghosh but since that's impossible I'm the one who has come up with the idea, even though I might not be the right writer to pursue it. On the other hand, California is a very interesting international culture - edge of the Pacific, facing Asia, strong Buddhist component to its culture - so I had ways of approaching the idea. I simply had to go with who I am and what I had. It was interesting to me thinking that Rushdie's Midnight's Children is kind of an alternative version of this idea - a big novel that tries to encompass an entire history and has a fantastic element to it. In a way he's already done this book.

It's also tempting to class it as magic realism, in the way of carrying characters through multiple lives. And yet, of course, magic realism has tended to be thought of as South American, a very different culture from the trans-Asian cultures that dominate your book.

Yes, I think of magical realism as being a way to speak about Latin America. You see more or less successful transferences of it to other cultures. I think Rushdie made a very successful use of it in India. There's been some absolutely dreadful uses of it in North America that make me think it's not appropriate to the United States and the industrial North generally. The equivalent of magical realism's appropriateness to Latin America is science fiction; science fiction is the appropriate genre for the USA. I can't speak for any other country but I suspect for the West generally that the reason that science fiction sells there, is written there, is because it's the one that speaks that reality most accurately, just like magic realism spoke Latin America most accurately in 1968.

Because Western culture tends to be a highly rational, urban kind of culture?

Yes, and you've got the kind of acceleration of history and the heavy dominance of technology in our lives, the fact that technology shifts all our habits every five years or so. At this point, I think of us as all living in an enormous science fiction novel, which we're co-authoring together. You couldn't be better placed as a writer than in science fiction. I feel like the stage people in the Elizabethan era - simply that we are in the right form for the historical moment we're in. The things you can bring to bear to your storytelling from a science fiction perspective are the ones that can best describe our current reality. If you are going to be a realist to 2002 you'd better start writing science fiction.

But then you find mainstream authors who try science fiction and who make a complete hash of it. Because they don't have an understanding of science fiction they come up with a great idea which they think no-one's ever had before.

Embarrassing to re-invent the wheel or to do an old classic in a clumsier, more awkward form - that's their own problem with their own ignorance. There are also craft habits that writing science fiction can give you in terms of getting across a lot of information about background, landscape and technology quickly, which a mainstream writer might not ever have encompassed. Rather than being suggestive they tend to be thoroughly expository and so they look kind of clankish and 1950s. Now, I'm not completely out of sympathy with that because I do think that the old style science fiction where you're allowed to stop and explain tons of stuff is an opportunity as well as an aesthetic problem. If you use it right you can simply get across a lot of stuff - including ideological stuff - that the normal, streamlined, sophisticated, modern science fiction model can't quite give you. For instance, in the Mars books, I was perfectly happy to go back to this older methodology and say - look, if it's interesting it doesn't matter that it's an expository lump. It's very postmodern in that everything is potentially story. Instead of thinking of it as old fashioned clunking around with one character carefully explaining to another how the TV works, you can think of it as a weird postmodernist opportunity to do something which isn't just stage business. What I think happens in a novel where you get sophisticated and strip it all down and never stop to be expository is you get tons and tons of stage business, and it's always the same.

Stage business such as 'people in car chases' or 'exeunt pursued by a bear'.

Exactly - that's perfect because that really exemplifies all that plotting, suspense, which in the end, you think "well, that's plot number 349" - or if there are only ten plots that's plot number eight. Whereas if someone goes off on "well, this is how I think a quantum computer is going to affect our lives - I need to take three pages here to discourse" you might say something new. I think the only rule is to make it interesting.

A lot of what you're writing is about ideas. Increasingly, it seems to be a utopian kind of science fiction. Science fiction is supposed to be a 'literature of ideas', as well as the exciting things you can do when you've got a ray gun.

You know, I would like to stay devoted to the novel as the ultimate form so therefore need to be character based. If your characters are living in this world or future worlds they are going to be involved in ideas. It's not at all a contradiction to say I like novels with characters, but I like my characters to have a lot of ideas and to live in a world of ideas - like we do now, so it's not that unrealistic. As for the utopian aspect, I first tried a utopia with Pacific Edge. Although I like that novel, particularly the standard novelistic aspects of it, it represented an aesthetic problem that left me kind of frustrated. I felt that I hadn't done justice to the global or political aspects, or the historical aspects of that situation and I thought, "I've got to try again, this is interesting" and useful to the world, just on the basic level of positive visions for people to think might come to pass. I should say we can't have enough utopian fictions. If people say "but they're always boring" then this is an aesthetic problem, or a political objection. It's not a reason not to do it. It's a reason that it's hard.

The fact that you felt that Pacific Edge didn't cover enough ground - is that part of the reason that your books have got fatter and fatter over time, because you are trying to cover all the possible ground?

It certainly was with the Mars books. I thought I had to somehow incorporate a historical element and a landscape element - these global things. That being the case, the story of terraforming Mars, which is a giant template for doing these utopian things, simply has to be a long story. If I have an idea and it would take a long novel to accomplish that idea successfully then I'm perfectly - used to be perfectly - happy to undertake that long novel to do it justice. It's like the idea drives it.

Antarctica is a very discursive novel. It seems at times to be description of Antarctica and Antarctic history, which is in search of a plot to keep it going.

Well, I would hope that there would be readers who disagree. I thought of it as being a suspense novel with a really long winding up to the point at which it begins to grab you and you need to know what happens next. There were many forces that needed to be put in place for the crunch to come where I could realistically, in this world, in this Antarctica, have people be in physical danger. The way that everything's configured down there now you can't put people in physical danger without quite a complicated apparatus of accidents and intentional ecotage. I did want to explore all of Antarctica and all of its history but I also wanted all of that to be wound into an adventure novel plot. Once the ecotage happens and things go wrong, I would hope that from there until they're rescued would be a passage that you'd have to read as any other page-turner.

How long before you went to Antarctica did you begin to get interested in it?

About six or seven years before - I started reading about it in order to do research for Red Mars, just because of the analogy of Antarctica being the most Martian place. I ran across a reference to the US Federal Government's Antarctic Artists and Writers program and I thought gee, I could go down there and that would be glorious, just as a wilderness person or a backpacker. They wanted a novel - or art - specifically about Antarctica out of their artists. So I said, well, sure I'll do an Antarctic novel and eventually got accepted into the program. Then I had to concoct a novel retroactively to justify the trip.

It's an interesting part of the process where you include opposing opinions in the writing, such as, in Antarctica, giving Jack and Jim the opportunity to spin on for three pages and then just marking it off by saying "yes but that's Huntford." The way that's presented means that it's very difficult to argue with the book: you're offering both points of view and almost removing yourself from the picture rather than offering any specific position. There's the same thing in The Years Of Rice And Salt where a historian spends a whole paragraph talking about how pointless counterfactuals are. Is that an attempt to avoid criticism, or to present every perspective?

I should hope the latter. I feel that I'm a novelist and this comes out of a basic character trait of indecisiveness. I'm very happy to contradict myself - or whenever I make a statement, very quickly the opposite occurs to me as being nearly equally true. I'm not a preacher or polemicist by nature because I'm not very firm in my feelings about what is true. I think it's an advantage for a novelist. It's like playing both sides in a chess game; while I'm on one side I really can lose track of what the other position might be. I really can throw myself into that. In the Mars books it was very useful. Then when I pull myself out, a few days pass and I get ready to attack it from another character's point of view. I can get into that other character very fully because I don't have a real strong view on some of these issues. Now, having said all that, you can load the dice as a novelist. Some characters look a little more sensible and in control of the facts than others do, and so I do load the dice, as anyone obviously should but I like this notion, which Mikhail Bakhtin first wrote about, of the novel being multi-vocal. He has a wonderful analysis of the novel being multi-vocal, that it ought to be a whole bunch of voices speaking and worked together into one text. As soon as I read it, I thought oh, yeah. That's what I was doing already so I've got some justification for it.

Is that why so much more of your work now is at novel length rather than short stories?

I've become very fascinated by all the aesthetic problems of the novel. It gives me a very satisfying feeling to be in the midst of writing a novel where I've sort of forgotten when I began and not really thinking of ever ending - it's years away in each direction and I'm just wrestling this problem over and over. I noticed when I did The Martians that there was a matter of gearing up to a short story, doing the preparation, writing it and only three or four days will have passed. When you're done there isn't that same sense of satisfaction, never the same sense of being in deeper, absorbed. Personally, I like writing the novels better. It's gone long enough now that when I came to write The Martians I found I'd kind of forgotten how to do short stories - how they worked, what their justification was. It came to me that the natural lengths for stories we tell each other were either about a page long or full novel length but that any length in between was a strange concoction. I don't think that this is a true perception; it's just that I'd lost my way. I would love to write short stories again because they meant a lot to me at the time I was doing them and I still read them with pleasure.

Do you read a lot of science fiction?

A fair bit, but it's very focused in on writers who I already know so that I'm narrow but deep. There are a few writers of whom I've read most of their work and a vast number of science fiction writers that I've never read - and more and more all the time. It only composes, at a rough guess, maybe 30 percent of my fiction but I'm always reading something so it adds up in the end.

And beyond fiction, background material for whatever you're writing.

Yes - that's sort of day work. By day I can justify digging around, very ruthlessly, in nonfiction sources to find what I need for my purposes. At night, after the kids are in bed and I've got an hour to myself I'll read the novel that I'm working on at that time.

There's a scene in the Mars books of a great plaza on the side of Olympus Mons, which fits in very precisely to a scene from The Memory Of Whiteness of the same place. Was there any specific intent to incorporate this book or Icehenge into a larger history?

No, there isn't, and they don't map at all well. The future history that the Mars trilogy describes is it's own. Icehenge doesn't fit it - the dates are weirdly elongated. The Memory Of Whiteness doesn't fit it. It's some kind of a science fantasy - a scientific romance as I subtitled it; although I did recycle. Like you say, the site on Olympus Mons seemed to me a good site for a festival so I reused that because of it's view. I had a short story call Mercurial that had a detective on Mercury on a city that was on tracks that moved with Mercury's rotation - that was, I thought, so good that I recycled it for Blue Mars. I don't have any compunction about plundering my earlier work. It's the only person you can plunder without guilt.

I'm not very happy with alternative history as a field. I find a lot of bad alternative history where the author says "and then Adolf Hitler walked in" and the reader is supposed to know who this character is and to impute a huge amount by whether Adolf is a painter or a gravedigger. It can be a frustrating, lazily written field whereas, clearly, The Years Of Rice And Salt isn't lazily written. It strikes me that I would perhaps prefer to call it a 'fantasy of history'.

Well, a form can't be judged by the works that aren't doing justice to it. You have to think of The Man In The High Castle [by Philip K. Dick], or Pavane by Keith Roberts. I know what you mean without even having read these works because of reviews and the occasional glance through. Those look to me like crossword puzzles; intellectual game playing which doesn't pay attention to the fact that none of these historical figures would ever have existed in the very premise that they propose, so they're really false on that level. On that point they irritate me no end - you know, Mark Twain guiding a riverboat up the Black Sea because the Ottomans conquered the world in 1500. It's ridiculous because there would be no Mark Twain. I worried a little bit in my book even presenting Akbar, the emperor of the Mogul empire in 1560 because that's 150 years past my change point. I wondered whether there would have been perturbations that would have disallowed him to ever be born at all. I decided I could slip that one by but after that, no more historical characters. I know what you mean, and I do think the form can be reduced to that kind of game playing. I'm not so sure it's a very powerful form compared to the standard science fiction form. As a rhetorical stance, it is far more powerful to say "this is going to happen to all of us" as opposed to "this might have happened if something had happened that we know didn't happen."

Given that, why did you write The Years Of Rice And Salt?

Well, I came to this opinion in the course of writing the book, and in thinking about it afterward. Before, I hadn't done anything but alternative history short stories, and so I wasn't so sure. I should say that alternative histories still have use value, as story engines and as ways to make us think about how history has happened so far. These are useful and entertaining aspects of the form, so I'm not saying it's a total wash. To be less powerful than science fiction proper is not so unusual a thing after all, the same could be said of almost all other genres, because science fiction's stance of 'this is coming' is extremely powerful.

That is discussed directly in The Years Of Rice And Salt, with the idea of progress regardless of what human culture we have on this planet. The book tends to be rather fatalistic - or deterministic - about the nature of human scientific progress.

This is one of those test questions. It underlines the uselessness of counterfactuals because you can argue back and forth about this without ever having any evidence to support your views. My feeling is that the human desire for benefit and the fundamental physical reality that I believe is out there for everybody, no matter what their culture, will lead to the same sorts of solutions to the same sets of problems. They could come in different order, or sooner or later, and that's all cultural and historical, but eventually they would come to most of these things.

Does that mean that you think we're on an upward slope, as a species?

Well, I think we could be. There's sort of a race between utopia and disaster. Unintended downsides to improvements caused this enormous overpopulation and resource problem, which we're living in now. You have vaccines for diseases that have tremendous benefits to mankind in some senses, but suddenly all the rest of the big mammals on the planet are in danger of extinction. Now it becomes a social and political problem in that if we were to get through the next couple of centuries successfully, you could imagine a perma-culture that is dynamic and progressive but is basically the kind of thing that allows us to stay here for the long haul.

So, does technology drive history?

Well, that's one of those questions. No. It's more that it enables history, I think. Then it comes down to politics and human decisions - what to do with it.

It seems to me that the idea of reincarnation with positive will, as presented in The Years Of Rice And Salt, is that each individual can be on an upward slope which can combine into an overall function which has an upward trend. That seems very similar to a scientific mindset that we are improving, that all we have around us is a sign that things are getting better.

The whole notion is that if all the kids were brought up well, that they might be less dysfunctional and aggressive and that their kids might be onward and upward in some asymptotic approach towards good behaviour - because there will always be various problems to drag us down. It seems to me that it's belief in this by policy. Everyone's given a certain historical situation that they're dropped into. They're not responsible for it, but at that point they can act one way or the other, so one might as well say it's all possible. What's the point of saying that it's impossible? I don't see the point of being pessimistic. There's a kind of false realism in it in that it ignores the fact that it's all ideological. Maybe it's ideology that drives history and if you're going to go ahead and be a pessimist then that's bad faith.

Given that we've ended up in the same place as The Years Of Rice And Salt, more or less, does that mean we're living in the best possible world?

Who can say? The 'best possible' world? No. But The Years Of Rice And Salt goes past now, goes about 70 years into the future and during those 70 years those people actually pull themselves together under a UN Environmental Protection Agency. I think that last chapter exists as a challenge to us now: can we actually do as well as they do in this book over our next 70 years? I just arbitrarily picked a lifetime from now. I dated it very carefully that people can work it out - that this is the year one - at least so the book declares.

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Books by Kim Stanley Robinson:
Orange County - The Wild Shore (1984),  The Gold Coast (1988),  Pacific Edge (1990).
Mars books - Red Mars (1992),  Green Mars (1994),  Blue Mars (1996),
The Martians (anthology, 1999).
Antarctica (1997),  Escape From Kathmandu (collection, 1989),  Icehenge (1984),  The Memory Of Whiteness (1985),  The Planet On The Table (collection, 1986),  Remaking History (collection, 1991),  A Short, Sharp Shock (1990),
The Years Of Rice And Salt (2002)
forthcoming - Nebula Awards Showcase 2002 (editor, April 2002)
Vinland The Dream And Other Stories (collection, May 2002)
  Kim Stanley Robinson website     Buy books at:
Related item:
tZ  Journeys to the Red Planet - Mars in Science Fiction... [published in The ZONE #7] includes:
     On Mars As It Is In Heaven: Kim Stanley Robinson's Martian Utopia - by Peter Tennant

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