#62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994
A Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson
During last June’s SFRA Convention in Reno, Stan and I sat down for an hour
for a wide-ranging conversation about his work and his ideas. It was June 19,
1993, the day after he and I had appeared in the same session, he to present his
ideas on postmodernism in the genre, and I to discuss his novel
in the context of his other work. (Red Mars is, of course, the first of a
trilogy; Green Mars should appear early in 1994, Blue Mars in
1996.) I transcribed the whole conversation and edited it down to manageable
form; Stan made a few emendments before I produced this final version. Nothing
substantial has been added, but peripheral matters we judged interesting only to
the two of us have been largely eliminated, or at least I hope so.
Bud Foote: Stan, I note that Red Mars is set in the same future
history as the novella "Green Mars" and the novel Icehenge.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Very roughly. In the earlier works I didn’t
have the complete conception of what I wanted to do in mind, and I don’t think
of myself as building a future history. Each of those works attempts to be a
complete thing. It is true that in Icehenge people are excavating the
evidence of a failed Martian revolution, and that revolution bears some
resemblance to the one in the final chapters of Red Mars, but the details
are generally different. I think of these things as different takes that don’t
add up to a coherent future history.
BF: But wouldn’t you say that the discrepancies in this future
history echo the discrepancies in Icehenge, which gives us three
different takes on a given set of events?
KSR: No. In Icehenge the discrepancies are part of a
deliberately planned structure, and part of a point that I wanted to make. The
discrepancies between Icehenge and "Green Mars" and Red Mars
are simply me at different points in my life, wanting to make the most coherent
individual work that I could, and not caring about the relationships with the
other ones. So the discrepancies are accidents; I’m not making anything out of
those contradictions that I think people can decode or find anything in. For
instance, the lengths of time in Icehenge are enormously long compared to
what I now think makes sense, and so I’ve just abandoned them.
However, The Memory of Whiteness has a chapter set on Mars, and by
chance that does fit in more or less, because it’s so far off in the
future that you can imagine it following the Mars books.
BF: What you’re describing is a little bit like what happened to
William Faulkner; although eventually he tried to make a unified history, it
seems as if, early on, he just ignored any contradictions among individual
KSR: Yes. But I think that of the two places I’ve set a lot of tales
in, the one that is the best analog to Yoknapatawpha County is Orange County,
which is my own home ground and my own mythic space. Faulkner did things that
were not common to science fiction but that are very important to most
literature, connected to a very intense attachment to place and an
exploration of what that place meant to the people who lived in it. And science
fiction, being often set in imaginary spaces, just didn’t have that quality.
So I thought that if I set three science fiction novels in the near future in my
home town, this might give it the sort of density and weight of landscape and
place that I value.
BF: You conceived of the Orange County Trilogy as a trilogy, from the
KSR: Yes. It came to me as a trio, a trilogy with a new structure, and
one thing which interested me from the start was the structure itself—a sort
of a tripod arrangement, where the base of the tripod, so to speak, was the
present moment, and then the three legs would head off in three different
directions that were as far apart from each other as I could imagine, each of
them taking a basic science fiction scenario—the after-the-fall, the dystopia,
and the utopia. They would have their relationships not as sequels to each
other, but as a harmonic chord, so to speak.
BF: With many of the same people, and many of the same places, and
many of the same events: for instance, all three books begin with digging up
something, but for different reasons.
KSR: Yes. I wanted to make as many overtones in this chord as
possible. And there is one character who is literally in all three novels, which
is the old man, who is a young man before history makes its split in these three
directions, and who lives different lives in the three different histories. I
think it is an interesting way to talk about how much history impacts our
individual lives, how we don’t have as much control over our individual
histories as we might think.
BF: Of course, in the structure of the three books, you have echoed
another one of the key scenarios of science fiction, which is the alternative
KSR: Yes. I think the alternative history fits into science fiction
because of the historical definition, that science fiction stories have
historical links to our present, either implicit or explicit. It seemed to me
that I could make that manifest with these three books, drawing links back to
our present from three near-futures. Science fiction is the history that we
cannot know, the future history and the alternative history. And that’s why, I
think, we incorporate prehistoric romances into science fiction, that we draw it
instinctively into the genre because it is yet another history that we cannot
know, a history that’s lost to us.
BF: So science fiction—science fiction is a bad name for it, but we’re
stuck with it, I suppose—
KSR: I like the name science fiction partly because of something I’ve
been thinking about recently, the is-ought problem, or what people in the
environmental movement call the fact-value problem; we have a world of facts, of
which science is the exemplar and the discoverer, and then there’s our world
of value, which we take out of religion, or psychology, or literature.
BF: Or science.
KSR: Yes, but a lot of scientists would claim that the values don’t
actually come out of the facts, that they’re disconnected, they’re separate
worlds—although sociobiology tries to talk about values as coming out of
facts, and from the other direction there are culture critics who insist over
and over again that science is imbedded with values that it’s not quite aware
of. But that’s something that a lot of scientists would disagree with; they
would say that the scientific method is not a value system, but just an
investigative method, an epistemological system.
BF: I suppose that here would be the place to put in a plug for
Georgia Tech’s two new degrees, one in literature and science and one in
history and science.
KSR: Yes, I think that the programs you’ve got are an attempt to
investigate the links between facts and values, which is important work. The
very name science fiction includes science, which is the world of
facts, and fiction, which is for me the main repository of our values. So
you could say that our genre is called fact-values. Now for a genre to
proclaim that we can yoke these two disparate worlds together, is a very
powerful statement; and I think that people come to science fiction
instinctively thinking that they’re going to learn about how facts and values
are connected, and then they read a dumb space-opera and they’re disappointed
in science fiction, because the name itself proclaims that it can do more than
the actual texts usually do. But when it works right, science fiction is an
enjambment of facts and values in a way that our culture desperately needs right
now. The fact-value problem is specifically relevant to today’s world, because
we have a culture that is making developments and cultural changes without much
regard for the underlying values that are going to be thereby expressed.
BF: Then shouldn’t we call it technology fiction instead of science
KSR: Yes, but science is the larger term within which technology
exists as kind of the activist arm, so I think it’s more powerful to call it
science fiction than technology fiction.
BF: But it’s all mostly about history.
KSR: And that takes it into an even larger sphere than science itself,
history being at this point humanity’s attempt to take charge of its own fate.
If technology exists within science, then science exists within history, and
science fiction is capable of taking on historical questions.
BF: The image in "Festival Night" [the introductory passage
of Red Mars] that struck me most strongly occurs when Frank pokes his
finger into the plastic material of the dome which covers the city and reflects
that his anger is transferred into energy to fuel the city. That, I suspect, on
your part was a quite conscious metaphor integrating the things that we’ve
been talking about, the emotional, the human, the individual, with the larger
context of science and technology.
KSR: Yes. In graduate school I wrote a bit about Proust, concentrating
on his metaphors. Proust was quite aware of the science of his time, and of the
thousands of metaphors that he uses, many of them are directly out of the
sciences. It’s one of the many aspects of Proust I admire. And it seemed to me
in science fiction, there was room for integrating more of contemporary science
into the metaphor system. I make an effort to make as many scientific metaphors
as I can possibly think of. And once you set yourself that as a task, they begin
to pop up everywhere. The mind is intensely metaphoric anyway, but these
metaphors for our human lives out of the scientific world, it’s not as if you
have to hunt for them very hard, after you set yourself the task: they just
begin to jump out at you.
BF: The use of softball, as metaphor and otherwise, in Pacific Edge
really impresses me. Did you yourself play softball and baseball?
KSR: I played both, yes, and I still play softball. And when I was
writing a utopian novel I was wondering why Utopias seem a bit dry, why people
will make the common complaint that they wouldn’t want to live in a
Utopia, that there’s something life-dampening about them. I wanted to write a
Utopia that people might want to live in. I knew I couldn’t please everybody,
but I could suggest that Utopia is a world in which most pleasures will be
pursuable. But in order to make a really concrete example of that, I had to
choose something that I myself love. And there’s an inherent drama and beauty
in softball and baseball; so I thought, I will make it part of this world, and
then people who like softball will say, "Oh, that would be fun," and
as for the many readers who I suppose are not into it, they can say, "Okay,
that’s Stan’s obsession, but he seems to be suggesting that this world will
also include my obsession as something that I could do."
BF: Soccer fields, chess tournaments—
KSR: Heroin dens—I tried to suggest a little bit of all that with
the professional wrestling and the drag racing, which are both things that I
myself find ludicrous, but are flourishing in this world; and they’re
particularly American, they’re Great American Stupid Sports.
BF: One of the questions people ask is: you’re a Ph.D. in English, and
you’ve taught English. You’re one of us academicians. There aren’t too
many Ph.Ds in English who write very well. Somebody asked me today, does Stan
think that being a Ph.D. in English has hurt his writing?
KSR: Ah! Well, no no no. For a while I was scared of the university; you
know that split in American literature between the palefaces and the red Indians—I
believed in that split, and I would identify myself with the red Indians of
American literature—Faulkner, Hemingway, Twain, Snyder— rather than
palefaces like Eliot and Henry James and their need to go back to Europe, to
look backward. And so as a red Indian I was nervous about being in the
university. But I had a very sympathetic group of advisors, mentors, professors
at UC San Diego, particularly Donald Wesling and Fredric Jameson. And I also
thought: the more you know, the better off you’re going to be when it comes
time to write that next sentence. And so, I think it helped.
BF: When did you know that you were going to become a writer?
KSR: I discovered SF in 1971, and I was excited about it, because it
spoke to my experience in Orange County, as someone who was brought up in an
agricultural community that got ripped out and replaced by the
apartment-and-freeway nightmare that’s there now. When I ran into science
fiction, it was explaining myself to myself. So, in college I started writing SF
short stories, and I liked the work.
BF: This is a standard question that people always ask; but I think it’s
an essential question. Of the writers in the field, both twentieth-century and
nineteenth-century, whom do you see as the largest influences on your own craft?
KSR: It’s hard to talk about influence. This is the standard answer
to this standard question. I read a lot of writers, and I like a lot of them,
and then when I write my works I very seldom feel that I’m doing a pastiche. I’ve
only done a couple of pastiches in my entire career, and those not of the
writers I like most to read. But of the pre-sixties science fiction, I enjoy
particularly Clifford Simak and Walter Miller, Edgar Pangborn and Cordwainer
Smith, and in England Olaf Stapledon and H.G. Wells. The thing that really
excited me when I first discovered science fiction was the the writing of the
sixties, the New Wave. Delany was very important for me. And Le Guin. Disch.
Lem. Gene Wolfe, very much so. The Strugatsky brothers. Joanna Russ. I had very
important teachers in Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm. I admire Phil Dick,
especially his protagonists, ordinary people who are struggling in difficult
situations, trying to prevail. I like that even more than his more celebrated
reality breakdowns and his hallucinogenic quality and his amazing insight into
American culture, especially in its dysfunctional Reno-Nevada aspects.
BF: It strikes me that that little guy somehow struggling to maintain a
dignity harks back to a lot of the early H.G. Wells.
KSR: Yes. Wells still towers over science fiction, not only for the
famous short scientific romances, but for the Utopias. He was a man with a dark
streak in him, but he made his attacks on the problem time after time, with an
inherent optimism, saying let’s get our priorities straight: first let’s
talk about social justice and equal rights, and then after that we’ll talk
about transcendence and metaphysical and ontological problems. H.G. Wells
fits in very well with Fredric Jameson, who in his criticism is also constantly
emphasizing social issues. I love this part of the literature: the
thought-experiment which attacks social problems and suggests solutions, utopian
goals, or envisions societies that we might then work towards. It seems to me
that that’s one of the most important things that it does, and it doesn’t
necessarily have to be like taking castor oil. It can be playful, and it can be
fun to read, and yet still be a way of increasing the meaning of our lives and
sharpening our political will.
BF: A lot of the canonized literature of
the twentieth century doesn’t do that.
KSR: But Wells does.
BF: Yes. But we’ve canonized him. The mainstream hasn’t.
KSR: That’s right; in fact, they’ve marginalized him.
BF: The part of Wells that the mainstream likes is the early, black,
despairing Doctor Moreau Wells. The later stuff, people ignore. And both utopian
and idealistic have become dirty words.
KSR: Yes, but that in itself is a political stance. The people who put
down Utopia as "pie in the sky," impractical, and totalitarian—all
that is a political stance aiding the status quo, which itself is clearly unjust
and insupportable. Utopia has to be rescued as a word, to mean "working
towards a more egalitarian society, a global society." Which means at every
point defending it, going to the mat for the term and for the concept of Utopia.
In a way, it’s an antidote or a response to post-modernism, to post-modernism’s
fragmentation, anomie, apoliticism, stupidity, quietism, and capitulationism.
BF: The present order, you say, is indefensible. What, in the present
order, would you retain, outside of softball?
KSR: I would retain science, as a method. The pure play of science, I
think, is one of the best expressions of human values. Also the insistence on
individual rights as being the basis for the state; I think it needs to be
insisted on when you look back at the history of the twentieth century. What I
would want to get rid of, however, is capitalism, an economic system that (1)
insists on perpetual growth in an ecology that is limited, and (2) sanctions
people ripping off other people’s labor with police protection. I say of the
notion that somebody’s work can have its value appropriated by someone else,
"Look, this is something that everybody seems to take for granted, people
think it’s part of the natural order, but it’s actually crazily
unjust." So is the notion that somebody could own land, water or
air, and extract a profit from it from other human beings.
BF: Let me be devil’s advocate. Obviously, the kind of capitalism I
grew up with is a long haul from the mass capitalism of today. Still, I grew up
with the idea that your house is your castle, that owning a piece of land was an
investment in the community to be handed down to your children, that you could
put together a business, whether you were fixing plumbing, repairing TVs, or
running a general store, and that if it was a valid service to the community, it
entitled you to make a buck.
KSR: And you would benefit from it.
BF: And the community would benefit.
KSR: Yes, I see your point, and I think that taking the position that
people do not have self-interest is wrong, in that it’s a statement that doesn’t
match, in fact, with what we observe in other animals. And here this gets into
sociobiology, but I think you can construct a sort of a leftist sociobiology
which says that self-interest obviously exists, that we’re animals, and that
we’re strongly motivated genetically to protect our offspring.
to hang on to what our parents gave us.
KSR: Yes, but what I would say is that you ought to be able to allow
for self-interest up to a certain point, and then set a limit. There are a lot
of things that are good up to a certain point, but beyond that point become
BF: Like beer.
KSR: [Laughs.] And another of them is self-interest, and the ability
to make a profit from your work! If it was just your work, as an electrician,
say, and you did your work and you made your profit from it, then that’s
legitimate, almost biological self-interest. But if it goes beyond that, and you
begin to be able to take the value of other people’s work, and accumulate
capital, what you get back into is feudalism. Capitalism now is simply feudalism
in disguise, with an aristocracy that gets to rip off and live on the efforts of
BF: Now wait a minute: are you telling me that if I’m a master
plumber, I can’t take an apprentice and teach him the trade, and get him to
where he can be a master plumber? That I can’t have a journeyman?
KSR: No—it’s an interesting question because it says where are
the limits? and I think they have to be human scale. You’re a teacher to
your apprentice, and you’re making an exchange. He’s doing some work for
you, you’re doing some work for him, and this is a human exchange that goes
back into a human past that must have happened for more generations than we know
about, by a long shot. But, if there’s a class of people who are going off to
their offices, and making decisions, and ordering around a group of perhaps ten
thousand people, none of whom they know, and all of whose work they’re taking
a cut from, and they are living on a salary of two million dollars a year,
whereas the people who are at the bottom end of this pyramid system are making
twenty thousand a year, and hurting day in and day out to keep their kids
healthy, then that’s where—it’s gone too far. It clearly has gone too far.
BF: One of the major problems that I see in the sort of Utopia that
you’re talking about is that there are too many people in the world.
KSR: Yes, one big part of our political-environmental crisis is
overpopulation. We have to look to those countries with severe population
problems that have managed to ameliorate them very quickly, by methods that are
not over-controlling or violent—I’m talking about China, Indonesia, and
Thailand, three countries that have made concerted efforts to cut their
population growth and have had success. In each one of these countries there
have been occasional abuses, but in the main, what they have used is social
pressure, tax laws and the like, and they’ve had success in convincing their
populace to cut down on the number of children they have. I’d like to see
science fiction begin to address this, by portraying futures that are less
populated or futures that are working to reduce population, and the kind of
dramas that would result from that. Because you get good narratives, right off
the bat. I mean, if the governments of the world would say, "OK, everybody
has the legal right to three-quarters of a child, and so you and your partner
have the right to a child and a half when you add ‘em up, and so after you’ve
had one child you’ve got a half-credit left, and then you either have to buy
another half, or you can sell your half," the soap operas that result from
this scenario are fantastic! They’re funny, they’re interesting, they’re
entertaining thought-experiments, and they’re also suggestive—they bring
into the consciousness of the public the overpopulation problem, which is so
severe. Science fiction ought to be playing with these ideas more, bringing them
into our mind more, so that when the Vatican prevents the Rio Earth Summit
meeting from discussing population problems, for instance, the public can say,
"Oh yes, I know about that; I’ve read about it in a novel by David Brin,"
or someone else. David is very good at bringing these questions to a wider
audience, as he does in his novel Earth.
BF: Every society makes a division: here are the things that are your
own business, and here are the things that are the business of the society. And
for several thousand years in western history, the crucial thing on the border
has always been sex, because it’s an intensely personal business, and also it’s
very much the business of the society as a whole, because of the results
KSR: Right. But now, because of technology, we can separate sex from
reproduction, from child-creation—
BF: But we can’t make people separate it.
KSR: No, but Faye Wattleton, who used to be the president of Planned
Parenthood, said that in every country she’s gone to on Earth, there has been
a group of women who have said, "Look, we would love to have birth control
and have control over this aspect of our lives." And this includes the
Moslem countries, and it includes the countries in which women have the
approximate status of cattle. And so it isn’t as if a government’s going to
have to come in and force people to do something they don’t want to do. It’s
giving people, especially women, more control over their own destinies. One of
the greatest methods of slowing population growth is simply empowerment of
women. In every country in which women have gotten more education and more
power over their own lives, the population growth rate has dropped. What’s
nice about this is, we see a problem environmentally, and the best solution to
it is more human power, more human freedom. So we have a win-win situation, in
that the more we can empower human beings who are female, the better off the
environment of the planet’s going to be.
BF: It takes on an almost mythic quality.
KSR: Yes. And I’m sure that there are going to be feminists who
would want to divide this mythic Gordian knot and say "It’s just a
coincidence, it’s not an archetypal thing," but whether it’s a
coincidence or some Mother-Goddess-of-the-Earth thing, it’s still true. One of
the best ways to help our grandchildren live in a better world is to increase
the rights of women right now.
BF: "Help our grandchildren live in a better world" is an
echo of Vonnegut, who says science fiction people are really the only people who
give a damn about what’s going to happen a thousand years down the line. What
makes us do that?
KSR: Imagination, I think. People who have the ability to imagine what
the other is like, what the life of the other is like, put themselves in the
place of the other—they can imagine that these future generations are going to
look back at us and either curse us or say "Well, they tried their
best." And it would be better if they were to say that we tried our best.
So I think it’s the power of the imagination.
One thing I find encouraging is that of my three Orange County books, by far
the one that people are most interested in talking to me about is the Utopia. I
find this encouraging and a sign that people have a hunger for this kind of
BF: The person you remind me of most, strangely enough, in your
intellectual stance, is Fred Pohl; he has a kind of a modest optimism, a very
qualified optimism, a cynical optimism—
KSR: I admire Fred greatly, because he’s very high-spirited and
playful, full of fun, but also politically engaged. He’s always been a
leftist, in a field that doesn’t have all that many of them. And he has a very
practical bent, a realistic view of institutional inertia and the various things
that might slow us up. I hesitate to say "human nature" because I
think human nature is fairly malleable, although this is a question that
sociobiology and SF as well are investigating: how malleable is human
BF: Well, neither you nor Fred have demanded that perfect people come
into being in order to inhabit a utopia.
KSR: Joanna Russ, I think, made up the term the optopia, which
is not that you go for the perfect society, but that you go for the optimum
society, the best one possible, given—everything. And I think that’s a nice
reworking of the utopian notion. In Pacific Edge I tried to show that
even if we were to reach a fairly just society, we would still have tragedies
left, just because of the nature of biology and of the cosmos, that between
death and the various failures of human relationships, even in Utopia there
would be a lot of unhappiness—but it’s still important to try for Utopia,
because then we would be experiencing the most human unhappinesses; it
wouldn’t just be war, famine, and meaningless death, but it would be
unrequited love, and death at the end of a meaningful life. And that’s a big
BF: But human beings seem to have a sort of original sin, or innate
KSR: When you say "original sin," you invoke a whole system
that I reject. But when you say "innate depravity" I say, yes, there
is perversity, there’s the cross-grained streak, there’s the Jungian shadow—there’s
a dark streak in us. Or so it seems! I’m very interested in the scientific
view of this stuff, in studying ourselves as animals, and so I’m very
interested in sociobiology, although I would insist that it’s more a
philosophy, or a speculative fiction, than it is a science, because it’s
making analogies from ants and termites and other animals to the human,
analogies that are simply leaps, analogs, metaphors. But still it’s
interesting to look at sociobiology as a way to think about our natures. Because
we evolved from primates, and we have to think about ourselves and our brains
and our values as having evolved from a certain lifestyle on the savannah that
lasted over millions of years. This being the case, I think we ought to be
shooting for a society that satisfies the brains that were grown in those years
of evolution, a society which would include simple things like walking or
spending most of the day outdoors or looking at fire, because these were things
that over a million years were profound pleasures to us, and still are, and when
we sit in our little boxes in the urban environment and don’t give ourselves
these pleasures, we begin to go perverse. And my feeling is that, if over the
next five hundred years, we reduced our population and started living in
tree-houses with little computers in them and spent a lot of time outdoors
throwing rocks or softballs, and doing work outdoors, growing our food or even
hunting our food, I suppose, although I haven’t thought about that one very
deeply, then I think a lot of this so-called innate depravity would begin to
slip away, and what we would show is what animals show. Very few animals kill
just for pleasure; the wantonness of the minx is a problem—
BF: Or shrikes.
KSR: Yes. But we’re not sure that these things are true. I mean,
this is a metaphor for ourselves, these observations of these animals. And so I
say what we ought to do is run a consistent experiment even if it takes 500
years. Let’s give ourselves a utopian society and run it for a while, and see
how depraved we are. Right now we don’t know.
BF: Most of the hunters I know are like everybody else; but people who
are gardeners have, in a lot of ways, more pleasant personalities than people
who are not. The Carlos Casteneda books, strange books, fiction, but interesting—
KSR: Science fiction, in fact—
BF: He has Don Juan say "You must think like a warrior,"
which doesn’t mean you should go out and kill people; it’s more like what
you’re saying: you must think like a primate on the savannah.
BF: I teach people to read fast and I tell people "You must read
like a warrior." And I see the act of reading as very much like hunting—it
involves the eyes, it involves the brain, it makes the same kinds of demands. So
the reader is in a way a savannah hunter.
KSR: It’s a wonderful metaphor. The more I think of us as animals,
the easier it becomes for me to understand things that I didn’t understand
before. I can better frame the goals that I’d like society to be working for
when I think of us as primates, as large mammals, existing as predators at the
top of the predator heap. And I can see a lot of the arguments that go on
amongst us as primate-dominance dynamics, with all their triviality and their
day-to-day swipes with the back of the hand. One of my definitions of Utopia is
that if we could just satisfy ourselves as animals, then the part of us that is
human, the consciousness, the awareness of the cosmos, would then begin to
flower even more than it has now. It would not take tragedy out of our lives,
but it would bring a lot more joy into them.
Notes on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars
If all goes as planned—a hazardous enough assumption, to be sure—Green
Mars (the second volume of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, not to be
confused with the semirelated novella "Green Mars") will appear in
this country at about the same time as this issue of SFS. (The British edition
appeared earlier, which accounts for the fact that a book not yet on American
bookstands has been reviewed here and there in SF mags since last November.) At
the moment I write, therefore, one can only speculate about what Green Mars will
add to Red Mars, and what will be added a year or so later by Blue
Mars; and, furthermore, Red Mars is itself so long and so rich in so
many ways that no paper of this length can do more than suggest some approaches
to the first novel of the trilogy.
Having read the earlier work of Stan Robinson, we come to Red Mars with
certain expectations. We have read the careful hard-core presentation of the
life-support system of a starship in Icehenge, and we therefore
anticipate a similarly careful treatment of the technology Robinson will
hypothesize as desirable, first, for the establishing of a permanent colony on
the red planet, and, second, for making the naked Mars inhabitable for Terran
life. We get them.
We have read Pacific Edge, and we therefore expect ecological
concerns. It is not simply an easy irony which makes those who would keep Mars
as it is—stark, and dead, and beautiful—those who on Earth would be those
most concerned with the preservation of the living environment: the aesthetes,
the nature-lovers, the artists, the humanists. Those who wish to bring life, in
all its peculiar and multiple beauties, to Mars are, on the other hand, the
technicians, the scientists, and the engineers. There is no easy judgment to be
made between these positions: both in Red Mars and in the earlier books,
the appeals and the honesty and the beauty of both sides are presented with
skill and passion.
It was Asimov, I believe, who noted that most SF is political, explicitly or
implicitly: that postulating a new society of necessity involves a comment on
our present society. Pacific Edge, an ambiguous enough Utopia, certainly
gives us politics in abundance; and as soon as we enter the first part of Red
Mars we are in the middle of a power struggle. Pacific Edge, like the
rest of Robinson’s fiction—and like much of Le Guin’s—has a
mainstreamish quality about it. Unlike Le Guin, Robinson has taken a certain
amount of grief from some readers for this mainstreamishness: what sort of a SF
novel is it, after all, we are asked, that spends so much time worrying about
how many times the protagonist has hit safely in softball games, and what it is
doing for his head?
In his concerns for the ecology, Robinson is very contemporary, but not
contemporary SF, which puts some people off. In his concern for human struggles,
interior and exterior, he returns to the example of the great SF writers of the
nineteenth century; and in his scrupulousness about technological possibility,
he belongs to the generic SF hard-core of the Campbell era.
We are barely into Red Mars, when a Swiss guide explains to tourists
the structure of the dome under which the new city has been built: