Science Fiction Studies

#62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994

Bud Foote

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 Red Mars 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 stories.

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 start?

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 history.

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 fiction?

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.

BF: And 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 poisonous.

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 their peasants.

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 thereof.

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 imaginative project.

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 nature?

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 difference.

BF: But human beings seem to have a sort of original sin, or innate depravity—

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.

KSR: Yes.

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:

"An outer membrane of piezoelectric plastic generates electricity from wind. Then two sheets hold a layer of airgel insulation. Then the inner layer is a radiation-capturing membrane, which turns purple and must be replaced...." (§1:8)

That is the sort of explanation which ought to be hard-core enough for anyone this side of Hugo Gernsback; but note how Robinson immediately turns the technology into metaphor, with one of the political players as his focus:

Frank reached out and pushed at the inner membrane... He poked the tent wall so hard that he pushed out the outermost membrane, which meant that some of his anger would be captured and stored as electricity in the town’s grid. (§1:8)

It is human motion which powers the colonization of Mars; it is human emotion which is turned into energy. Robinson returns briefly to chemistry, only to link the fragility of molecular structure with the affairs of the human colony:

It was a special polymer in that respect—carbon atoms were linked to hydrogen and fluorine atoms in such a way that the resulting substance was even more piezoelectric than quartz. Change one element of the three, however, and everything shifted; substitute chlorine for fluorine, for instance, and you had saran wrap. (§1:8)

Change one atom, or one person, and what you have is saran wrap; remove the human emotion from the equation, and you remove just that much power. (Robinson discusses this kind of metaphor in our conversation.)

If, as I have noted above, Kim Stanley Robinson seems in various ways to be simultaneously contemporary, Campbellian/Gernsbackian, and Wellsian, he is also, using a conventional if finely crafted prose, surprisingly New-Wavish. And he accomplishes this largely by nods at earlier literature of Mars. If a reader misses this fact earlier in the book, he or she will have their nose rubbed in it on page 19: Mars revolves, as chance would have it, in just a bit over the same time that Earth does: 12 hours, 39 minutes, 30 seconds. But the first colonists of Mars, dedicated and accustomed to the old 24-hour day, decide to keep it; and so at midnight, every day, the clocks all stop for thirty-nine and a half minutes. And what do they call this interval? You guessed it: The Martian Time Slip.

And isn’t that a nice family joke, the younger writer sweeping off his hat in a half-bow across three decades toward Phil Dick as if to say "Look, uncle, what I have done with your bad dream."

But most of us have learned to take Stan Robinson seriously, even and maybe especially when he is joking. And so we back up, hardly having started reading Red Mars, and start over again. But before we do that, we stop and think a bit, in both historical and symbolic terms, about those thirty-nine minutes.

Over the last several thousand years, a good bit of the intellectual energy of our species has gone into trying to make mathematical sense out of the timekeepers the universe has given us. The lunar year and the solar year just will not fit conveniently together, and that fact gave our ancestors not only fits but a lot of good mythic material. Prechristians knew perfectly well that 28 went into 365 thirteen times and a bit; hence the very old rhyme,

How many merry months are there in the year?

There are thirteen, I say.

But thirteen is a terrible number; for all sort of reasons, astronomical, theological, and mathematical, twelve is much more to be desired, and so the old rhyme was modified to read "There are but twelve, I say." And all of that makes what might be called a Terran time-slip.

Worse still is the fact that the rotation of the Earth and its circuit around the sun just won’t come out even. Now we have a formula which will work for several thousand years, which gives us a time-slip of a day every four years, except when the year is evenly divisible by 100, except when the year is evenly divisible by 400. But this solution is messy and somewhat offensive. Things are supposed to come out even, we think, echoing Judah Asimov at the candy-store cash drawer.

Humans keep pounding on the universe, demanding that it come out even, finding that coming out even demands more and more complicated systems of thought, shifting scientific paradigms every time the slips get too much to bear. If the history of science tells us anything, it is that shifts in paradigm are coming thicker and faster all the time. Most of us manage to live, somehow, in four different systems: the pre-Copernican ("The sun rises in the east and sets in the west"), the Newtonian, the world of Heisenberg and quantum theory, and the world of Hawking in which black holes may leak naked singularities and anything may happen, any time, and make total hash out of all our mathematics.

It is clear that the biggest part of the lives of the characters in Red Mars, like most of our daily lives, is lived in the sensible world of the pre-Copernican and the Newtonian. That world is Premodern, as Heisenberg is Modern and Hawking is Postmodern. But as we think about the calendar and timekeeping through human history, that struggle to reduce the universe to comprehensible mathematics, we recognize that nothing is ever going to come out quite even, that even in the middle of a history of the conquest of Mars which pays enormous attention to the scientific and technical realities of the whole business, there is going to be the occasional reality-slip in which, for just a moment, the nightmarish and schizophrenic world of Phil Dick flickers into being.

But let’s go back to the beginning of the book. The reference to Phil Dick makes us wary, makes us wonder: to what extent is this book going to be recursive, to use Anthony Lewis’s term? (I’m going to restrict my comments, very largely, to the very first section of the book, "Festival Night," because the book is so vast in its range that there is material there for dozens of papers; and if the Green Mars and Blue Mars to come live up to the promise of this book, graduate students and untenured assistant professors will bless the name of Stan Robinson for decades to come.)

Consider the introduction to "Festival Night"; it consists of two pages, apparently drawn from the speech which John Boone is giving to his fellow colonists as the narrative proper begins. "Mars was empty before we came," he says. "We are all the consciousness Mars has ever had" (§1:2).

A couple of years ago, at the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts convention, I dealt with Stan’s novella "Green Mars" in which, incongruously, in the middle of climbing Olympus Mons, a couple of characters begin discussing Jean-Paul Sartre and his notion that we change the past by what we do in the present. Since the past exists only in our memories and our records and in the relative importance we attach to different segments of those memories and those records, the past of a devout Marxist is going to be quite different than the past of a convicted Christian.

And therefore, going back to the speech of John Boone, the past of Mars is whatever present consciousnesses make it. As Sartre says,

The past is...the past of something or somebody.... There is not first a universal past which would later be particularized in concrete pasts. On the contrary, it is particular pasts we discover first. The true problem...will be to find out by what processes these individual pasts can be united so as to form the past. (88)

John Boone goes on to appeal to all the stories that have ever been told about Mars and all the names it has had—Nirgal, Mangala, Auquakuh, Harmakhis—from the Ice Age down to our present. Through his mouth, Robinson invites us to see the multiple symbolism of his use of color (almost an echo of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books):

Yes, for thousands of years Mars was a sacred power in human affairs; and its color made it a dangerous power, representing blood, anger, war and the heart.

[But] then the first telescopes gave us a closer look, and we saw the little orange disk, with its white poles and dark patches spreading and shrinking as the long seasons passed. (§1:2)

Just as Hawking’s world-view encompasses that of Heisenberg, and Heisenburg’s that of Newton, and Newton’s that of Ptolemy, so Boone’s new story of Mars is made to encompass all the stories told about Mars all the way back to Ice-Age campfires. Fossil stories they are, as the names for Mars are fossils:

perhaps it is not surprising that all the oldest names for Mars have a peculiar weight on the tongue...they sound as if they were even older than the ancient languages we find them in, as if they were fossil words from the Ice Age or before. (§1:2)

But some of those fossils, we are given to understand, come to life rather like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, one of the past pasts of Mars is evoked in terms which are obviously meant to apply to the colonists whom Boone is addressing:

the best Earthbound images gave Lowell enough blurs to inspire a story, the story we all know, of a dying world and a heroic people, desperately building canals to hold off the final deadly encroachment of the desert.

It was a great story. But then Mariner and Viking sent back their photos, and everything changed. Our knowledge of Mars expanded by magnitudes, we literally knew millions of times more about this planet than we had before. And there before us flew a new world, a world unsuspected. (§1:3)

But, Boone goes on to say, even after the arrival of colonists on the planet, the old stories keep reviving themselves, like "elusive little red people, always glimpsed out of the comer of the eye."

They are, he says, "an attempt to give Mars life, or to bring it to life." And here it has to be noted that this whole introductory section, the speech of John Boone, is a deliberate echo—Robinson has confirmed this in conversation—of, and contrast to, the introduction to one of the best-known Mars stories, C. L. Moore’s "Shambleau" (1933):

Man has conquered Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half-mythical names —Atlantis, Mu—somewhere back of history’s first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues— heard Venus’ people call their wet world "Shaardol" in that soft, sweet, slurring speech and mimicked Mars’ gutteral "Lakkdiz" from the harsh tongues of Mars’ dryland dwellers. You may be sure of it. Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of a civilization which must have been as mighty as our own. There have been too many myths and legends for us to doubt it. (7)

These myths, these legends, these stories, all—in Sartre’s terms—parts of the past pasts of Mars are told, Boone says, to give Mars life, or to bring it to life.

But giving Mars life, and bringing it to life, are the central concerns of the book. As in the novella "Green Mars" and as in Icehenge, as we have already noted, the colonists are divided into those who would leave Mars as it is—red, and lifeless, and barren, and majestic in a way that no Earthly landscape can be majestic—and those who want a green Mars, gradually filling up with genetically tailored flora and fauna which will slowly push back the deserts which threatened the pathetic and heroic Martians in Percival Lowell’s past past of Mars.

Like many of the writers of the Golden Age, Robinson is himself a great reader of SF; and he says that before beginning the trilogy he went back and read heavily in the literature. Red Mars gives the reader an almost continual sense of itself as artifact, in its declaration that it is a story encompassing past stories which, in turn, encompass still older stories. The enraged Arab, Selim, mutters about "the Koran or Camus, Persepolis or the Peacock Throne, references scattered nervously among non sequiturs," (§1:11) and we are once again back to Philip K. Dick. Boone says,

what they didn’t realize was that by the time we got to Mars, we would be so changed by the voyage out that nothing we had been told to do mattered anymore...we became fundamentally different beings. (§1:4)

And we are reminded not only of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles but also, less happily, of Pohl’s Man Plus. The underground colony which preceded the domed city was called, we are told (§1:18), Underhill, and all of a sudden, out of the comer of our eye, there is Bilbo Baggins, like an elusive little red native. Nadya (§3:118) is Nadya Nine-Fingers, an echo of Frodo. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Gods of Mars (§13:206-08), John Carter flies his airship straight up a shaft, amazing everybody; and so does Hiroko in Red Mars (§2:60). And it just goes on and on: people will be digging references out of this book for decades. If Robinson’s short fiction reminds us of Dubliners in an SF mode, Red Mars, beneath its deceptively conventional surface, is as recursive and rich in allusion as Ulysses.

And, like Portrait of the Artist, Red Mars is, among other things, a manifesto. At the end of "Festival Night," Frank Chalmers, who has had Boone killed so that he may assume power over the colony, says to himself, in words that seem to come from the author himself, looking back over the accumulation of Mars fiction of the past several hundred years, "Now we’ll see what I can do with this planet" (§1:22).


Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. NY: Doubleday, 1950.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. The Gods of Mars. Chicago: McClure, 1918.

Dick, Philip K. Martian Time-Slip. NY: Ballantine Books, 1964.

Lewis, Anthony R. An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction. Introduction by Barry N. Malsberg. Cambridge, MA: NESFA Press, 1990.

Moore, C.L. "Shambleau." (Weird Tales, November 1933). The Best of C.L. Moore. Ed. Lester del Rey. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, 1975. 7-32.

Pohl, Frederik. Man Plus. NY: Random House, 1976.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Gold Coast. NY: TOR, 1988. Part of the so-called Orange County Trilogy, along with Pacific Edge and The Wild Shore.

—————. Green Mars. NY: TOR, 1988. A TOR double with Arthur C. Clarke’s Meeting with Medusa; first published in 1985. A novella, not to be confused with the forthcoming Green Mars which will be a sequel to Red Mars.

—————. Icehenge. NY: Ace, 1984.

—————. Pacific Edge. Norwalk: Easton, 1990. Also NY: TOR, 1990.

—————. Red Mars. NY: Bantam, 1993.

—————. Remaking History. NY: TOR, 1991.

—————. The Wild Shore. NY: Ace, 1984.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Baines. Secaucus NJ: Citadel Press, 1977. First published in Paris by Gallimard, 1943.

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