A science fiction writer returns to Earth: “The real story is the one that faces us”

To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.

Last fall, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson was asked to predict what the world will look like in 2050. He was speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, and the atmosphere at the top – touted as the “last, best hope” to save the planet – was grim.

But Robinson, whose novel, “Ministry for the Future,” charts a course for humanity that narrowly avoids biosphere collapse, sounded a note of cautious optimism. Sometimes overwhelmed by emotion, he evokes the possibility of a near future marked by “human accomplishment and solidarity”.

“This shouldn’t be the lonely dream of a writer sitting in his backyard imagining there could be a better world,” Robinson told the crowd.

It’s hard to be a utopian writer, or any type of utopian. Disaster-filled dystopian stories abound in film, television, and fiction; news headlines border on the apocalypse. Other masters of utopian speculative fiction – giants like Ursula K. Le Guin and Iain M. Banks – are gone, and few are filling the void. At the same time, utopian stories have never been more necessary.

“You could probably name the most important utopian novels on the fingers of your hand,” Robinson said in an interview. “But they remember them and they shape people’s conception of what is possible and what might be good in the future.”

At 70, Robinson – who is widely acclaimed as one of the most influential speculative fiction writers of his generation – is perhaps the last of the great utopians. It can be lonely work, he says. But lately, his writings have had an impact in the real world, as biologists and climatologists, tech entrepreneurs and CEOs of green tech start-ups have looked to his fiction as a possible roadmap for avoiding disasters. worst consequences of climate change.

At the United Nations climate summit last fall, Robinson was treated like a near-celebrity. He met with diplomats, environmentalists and business leaders, and advocated for the implementation of some of the ambitious ideas of his fiction – geoengineering to prevent the melting of glaciers, the replacement of planes by solar-powered airships, revamping the economy with quantitative carbon easing, with a new cryptocurrency that could fund decarbonization.

“These are plausible, deeply researched futures that he writes about,” said Nigel Topping, the UK’s top climate action champion, who invited Robinson to the summit.

Robinson’s ability to weave dense scientific and technical detail, economic and political theories, and outlandish political proposals into his fiction has made him a leading public thinker outside the sphere of science fiction.

“There aren’t many writers who have tried to take a literary approach to technical matters and a technical approach to literary matters,” said novelist Richard Powers.

In some ways, Robinson’s path as a science fiction writer has followed an odd trajectory. He made a name for himself writing about the distant future of humanity, with visionary works on the colonization of Mars (“The Mars Trilogy”), interstellar and intergenerational travel in deep space (“Aurora “) and the expansion of humanity to the ends of the earth. solar system (“2312”). But recently it has come closer to earth and the current catastrophic global warming crisis.

Futuristic stories about space exploration no longer seem relevant to him now, Robinson said. He became skeptical of humanity’s future in the stars and dismissive of the ambitions of tech billionaires to explore space, although he acknowledged: “I’m partly responsible for that fantasy.”

In his most recent novels — works like “New York 2140,” an eerily uplifting novel about climate change set after New York City is partly submerged by rising tides, and “Red Moon,” which is set in a lunar city in 2047 – he traveled back in time, to the present. Two years ago he published “The Ministry of the Future”, which opens in 2025 and takes place over the next few decades as the world reels from floods, heat waves and growing ecological disasters, and that an international ministry is created to save the planet.

“I decided it was time to tackle the topic of climate change directly,” Robinson said. “The real story is the one that awaits us in the next 30 years. It’s the most interesting story, but also the stakes are the highest.

Robinson’s latest book, “The High Sierra: A Love Story,” is unlike any of his previous ones: it’s Robinson’s first major work of nonfiction and the most personal thing he’s ever published.

Over the course of the book’s 560 pages, Robinson weaves a geological, ecological and cultural history of California’s High Sierra Mountains, with his own story of falling in love with the region as a young man in the 1970s and returning over the years. decades. Interspersed with dense chapters on the composition of granite, plate tectonics, the formation of glaciers, and the flora and fauna of the range – it describes marmots, the large, goofy-looking rodents that thrive there, as “people great” – Robinson recounts his backcountry adventures and reveals how they shaped him and his work.

It includes snippets of poetry he wrote while backpacking, describes experiences with psychedelics in his twenties, and reminisces about his relationships with his literary heroes — science fiction writers like Le Guin and Joanna Russ, but also Zen Buddhist poet Gary Snyder, who praised Robinson for bringing “a whole new language” to his book Sierra.

The book also offers insight into how Robinson’s time in the desert instilled a reverence for the natural world that saturates his science fiction. Robinson often rooted his descriptions of Martian landscapes in his observations of the ethereal peaks, valleys, and basins of the Sierra, sometimes reusing notes from his hiking journals directly into his novels. When writing about space exploration, he relied on the sometimes unearthly feeling that being in the mountains gave him – the elation, isolation, and sense of his own insignificance in a short time frame. geological.

His shift to nonfiction and autobiography nearly 40 years into his career surprised many longtime readers — and even Robinson himself. He always considered himself boring, “a white bread suburban husband”.

“My feeling of being a novelist was getting out of the way,” he said. “It’s not about me, ignore the man behind the curtain.”

Robinson spoke to me several times from his home in West Davis, Calif., where he lives in an environmentally sustainable planned community called The Villages with his wife, Lisa Nowell, a chemist. Most of the time, he writes at a small table in their front yard, with a tarp to keep him dry when it rains and a fan to cool him when it’s hot, though lately, he says, he’s only been writing. not as much as I would like. He recently returned from northern India, where he spoke at a climate conference hosted by the Dalai Lama. Later this month, he is due to travel to Davos, Switzerland, where he will lecture on how to tackle climate change at a conference organized by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Being an in-demand and somewhat reluctant public intellectual, Robinson struggles to find the time to begin a new novel. But he was also reassured by the enthusiastic response to his climate fiction and began developing ideas for new work that builds on the story he told in ‘Ministry for the Future’. did he declare.

Robinson discovered his love of science fiction at the University of California, San Diego, where he majored in literature and earned his doctorate. In English. Literary critic Fredric Jameson, who was a professor there, urged him to read Philip K. Dick – and Robinson was hooked.

In the 1980s, he published his first science fiction series, a formally innovative trilogy that charted three different futures for Orange County, California, where he grew up. Each book followed a classic futuristic sci-fi formula – a post-apocalyptic one, following a nuclear attack; a dystopian, set amid the ruins of uncontrolled urban sprawl and environmental degradation, and a utopian, as the region evolved into an ecological paradise. The trilogy, “Three Californias”, has been nominated for major science fiction awards. Robinson was praised in The New York Times for “virtually inventing a new kind of science fiction”.

Since then, Robinson has experimented liberally with science fiction tropes, writing everything from an alternate history of China to an epic about deep space exploration to a speculative historical novel set in the Ice Age. But he has become best known for his deeply researched utopian stories, which use science fiction as a framework to explore alternative social, economic and political systems.

Writing utopian fiction is difficult, Robinson said: It is not easy to write a gripping story about the mechanisms that lead to social progress.

“Novels are really about what happens when things go wrong,” Robinson said. “If you come up with plans for how things will go well, that sounds like good citizenship, it looks like plans. The architectural blueprints of a utopia are, let me show you how the sewage system works so you don’t get cholera. Well, that doesn’t sound exciting.

But things can go wrong on the way to utopia, as they do in “The Ministry of the Future,” which opens as a devastating heat wave in India kills millions.

“As a utopia, it’s a very low bar,” Robinson said. “I mean, if we avoid the mass extinction event, we avoid everything dying, great, that’s a pipe dream, given where we are now.”

When Robinson is asked to predict the future, as he often does, he usually hedges. He argued that “we’re living in a big science fiction novel that we’re all writing together” – but he doesn’t know whether it will be a utopia or a dystopia.

“No one makes a successful prediction of the future,” he said. “Except maybe by accident.”

Sound produced by Tally Abecassis.