Many people know the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson as a science fiction writer. And he is that. He has written novels about Mars and the Moon and intergalactic space travel. However, he is also a very good political novelist, he is actually one of our very best. All of his novels, underneath and among his science fiction plots are narratives of human nature, human politics and social strategies.
Over the last five years I have read six of Robinson’s novels. They were all lots of fun and mostly fast and entertaining reading. You do have to be a patient reader though. His novels are almost all very long and they are full of meandering discussions of complex ideas, odd stories and even trivia. But his meanders are all extremely interesting. Some of these meanders are totally irrelevant to the main story and some are right at the core of future human survival. After I finally learned that his digressions are often much more interesting that the fictional plot I got along with his books much better. But don’t despair, there are lots of hairbreadth escapes and lots of heart stirring moments and lots of lovable characters.
One of his most devoted readers, Tim Krider, a cartoonist and New Yorker essayist absolutely loves Robinson’s novels. He says, “I don’t just admire Robinson’s ambitions or agree with his agenda; I’m not recommending his books because they’re good for you. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite novelists, period. I know the characters of his “Mars” trilogy—John Boone, Frank Chalmers, Maya Toitovna, Sax Russell, Anne Clayborne (none of whose names I needed to look up)—like I know old friends from college. I love them; they exasperate me; I talk about them behind their backs with my other friends. “
However, it was only gradually that I began to realize that Robinson’s novels are about a more than space travel and scary adventures in strange worlds.
I read his most famous novel, Red Mars, first. This is actually part of a trilogy of novels about the attempt to establish a human colony on Mars after earth becomes too hot and trashed to support human life. This novel is partly an adventure story but it is also an extended discussion of the difficulty humans have of getting along and of getting anything real done among all the illusions and egotism and greed and selfishness and general irascibility of the human race.
One of the really interesting things about Robinson is that he is one of the very few utopian novelists around today. By utopian I don’t mean a simplistic, Polly-Annish view of life. Robinson is very much aware of what nastiness and selfishness humans are capable of, but he also has a firm belief that if humans stick it out, no matter how difficult it gets, they have often managed to create, at least for awhile, societies and nations that are better than anyone would have ever expected.
Tim Kreider, who I quoted above, wrote an article about Kim Robinson as a political novelist in the December 12, 2013 issue of the New Yorker that I very much recommend. There is a link to this article at the bottom of this post.
In this article Krider concludes that all of Robinson’s novels include some kind of long, difficult voyage that, if the characters stick it out, there is good chance of life turning out to be much better than we would have ever thought.
Here is Krider:
“Our culture is adrift between stories right now—the old ones we lived on for thousands of years aren’t working anymore, and we haven’t come up with new ones to replace them yet. It’s natural for us to see ourselves as being at history’s endpoint … but part of science fiction’s job is to remind us that it’s early yet, we’re still a primitive people, the Golden Age may lie ahead.”
“In an era filled with complacent dystopias and escapist apocalypses, Robinson is one of our best, bravest, most moral, and most hopeful storytellers. It’s no coincidence that so many of his novels have as their set pieces long, punishing treks through unforgiving country with diminishing provisions, his characters exhausted and despondent but forcing themselves to slog on. What he’s telling us over and over, like the voice of the Third Wind whispering when all seems lost, is that it’s not too late, don’t get scared, don’t give up, we’re almost there, we can do this, we just have to keep going.”
Right now, according to the best and brightest of our scientists, we humans are caught in a very depressing and terrifying dilemma. It looks very much as if our civilization is doomed to end, in the not so distant future, in a crash brought on by a combination global warming and and a mass species extinction, including ourselves.
In this situation, Robinson is a somewhat comforting companion. Maybe we need to not give up, but instead keep slogging along, keep trying and things may yet turn out well in the end.
The image at the top of this page was taken at the Oxbow in the Tetons of Wyoming.
The Oxbow is a wide spot in the Snake river with great
views of the Tetons.