It could have been worse. The biggest star in the 1950s movie of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim was Errol Flynn, and he played a secret agent called “Mahbub Ali, the Red Beard”. Kim Stanley Robinson’s parents named him after the title character instead. “All white American men named Kim were born in 1952. It’s a party trick that I can play, but the truth is there are only a few dozen of us.”
This was 1950s California. Robinson slid sideways into “Stan”, and he’s been Stan to his friends ever since. He would have been publishing under Stan Robinson these past 36 years if not for the intervention of Damon Knight, one of the great science fiction editors and the man who gave him his start. “He said, ‘Look, your parents gave you a very good name. You sound like some great travel writer.’ Because Kim is, of course, Kim of India, and Stanley gets you Stanley and Livingstone, and Robinson is like Robinson Crusoe. He was very canny.”
So it was Kim Stanley Robinson who made his debut in the pages of Knight’s 1976 anthology Orbit 18 with “In Pierson’s Orchestra”. That story became the first chapter of Robinson’s 1985 novel The Memory of Whiteness, which imagines a future civilisation based around music – one of the hardest tricks to pull off in science fiction, which is why it took him most of a decade to get from story to novel. He had published two other novels in the intervening years, while working on his music civilisation in the background, trying to find ways to evoke the experience of listening to great non-existent composers, the Bachs and Beethovens of the coming millennium. “It was one of those things that you try your best at, and then you think, ‘Let’s not try that again.’”
Despite its flaws – Robinson isn’t wrong when he says his goals for the book were in some senses unrealisable – The Memory of Whiteness is dazzling, his first major achievement at novel length. He had already won the World Fantasy Award for his 1983 story, “Black Air”, a magic realist fantasia about the wreck of the Spanish Armada. Now he was beginning to attract notice as one of the rising stars of science fiction. The Memory of Whiteness was favourably reviewed in the New York Times. It was not immediately obvious that Red Mars, eight years later, was a prequel of sorts.
This was the book that established him as one of the major living science fiction writers; with its two sequels, it describes the human colonisation and terraforming of another planet with a high degree of scientific realism and literary ambition, as rare a combination outside the genre as within it. The trilogy’s central tension, between people who want to adapt Mars for human habitation and people who want to preserve its natural state, has its earliest roots in Robinson’s boyhood. “Chronologically, I grew up right on the edge of the giant translation of Southern California from an agricultural community into suburbia, and the auto, freeway, condominium world that is there now. In other words, Southern California got wrecked right in front of my eyes.”
He hardly noticed at the time, because as well as growing up in Southern California he grew up deep inside the world of books. “I never watched TV. There was something about reading the sentences and having it all happen inside your head that was just magic to me.” He wrote stories and poems through his teens, and gravitated to science fiction when he discovered its New Wave movement. “It struck me as realism, the best way to convey California in the 1960s and 70s.” Selling a story to Knight when he was 22 was the career-making moment. “I threw my caution to the winds and said, ‘I’m going to be a writer, no matter what else I do to support myself.’ It was like the old shaman, tapping me on the shoulder, saying, ‘You can do this.’”
The Mars books remain Robinson’s most popular work, and their success has been an important psychological anchor for him. “I had a transformative experience writing them. They were long enough to try all the things I wanted to try. And I had thrown off certain mental restraints and decided to do anything it took to get that story told. To feel like I did something that matters to people, and that still works – they still sell, the Mars books, in quite satisfying quantities – it really gives me confidence to try anything I want.”
In the final volume of the trilogy, Blue Mars, Robinson has the historians of the late 22nd century name their period of fast technological and cultural growth the Accelerando – a musical term meaning “speed up”, and the same name used by The Memory of Whiteness for its own far-future era. The two future histories are not quite congruent, but there are key things in common between them. In particular, they both have memorable scenes set in a rolling city called Terminator, built on a giant set of tracks circling the planet Mercury. As the planet turns, the sun heats the tracks, and they expand. The expansion drives the city forward, on into the night-cooled section of tracks just over the horizon from the constantly advancing dawn.
So in Terminator it’s always night, but the sun is always just about to rise. “The sun is always just about to rise” happens to be the first sentence of 2312, Robinson’s latest novel, and to longtime readers it’s as good as a fanfare: after 15 years, and six novels set variously in near-future Antarctica, the Washington DC of the second Bush presidency and medieval and Renaissance Europe, welcome back to the Accelerando timeline. “I originally pitched my publishers the idea of a love story called Mercury and Saturn, and as a backdrop there would be this solar system-wide civilisation. I was roughly thinking of the world of The Memory of Whiteness, and the world after the last of the Mars books, but it was backdrop. Except that in the final paragraph of the proposal I got lofty, and said I’ll describe everything. The solar system will be completely described!
“And when I got it back there was a little note on the side of that last paragraph that said, ‘Do this.’ My editor basically urged me to go big. Not necessarily long, but big. To try to portray the whole society, and not just my protagonists.” A love story with a panoramic focus is not necessarily a contradiction in terms, and Robinosn had invited the suggestion with his proposal, but he was still taken aback. “I kind of groaned, and said, ‘God, I don’t know if my mind is even capable of the mental effort of another big novel.’ But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘This is an obvious opportunity. The love story won’t work unless it’s in a creditable society anyway.’ The more I thought, the more excited I got.”
The challenge was to find a way of doing a large-scale social portrait that didn’t swamp the love story at the book’s heart. Around this time he happened to read John Dos Passos’s structurally innovative USA trilogy. Its complex interleaving of different types of narration showed him how he could compress a vast amount of information into 2312 without creating an off-puttingly dense reading experience. “I strongly believe that readers going through a novel need variety. There should be some flux and flow and heterogeneity.” The question of how to keep things fresh and flowing also crops up within the novel. Robinson’s two lovers have each lived very long lives, and have had to learn ways of dealing with the fundamental limiting factor of human existence: whatever we do, we never stop being ourselves. Swan is thoroughly mercurial, given to mood swings and sudden changes of career.
Wahram has consciously attempted to create a life of rich variety based around settled habits. Robinson has spent most of the past four decades physically doing the same thing – sitting at a keyboard typing – while trying to create fresh new work. Does Wahram inherit his approach to life from his creator? “I’ve just as much of Swan in me, to tell you the truth… But I like setting up habits where things are repeated and only have small variations day by day. You know, sort of the same but different.” One of the things this means in practical terms is that a few years ago he moved his writing desk outdoors.
“As you say, I’ve been writing novels for a long time. And the act of sitting down in a chair indoors was driving me crazy. I would garden, I would go up to the mountains, I would do everything I could except sit down in a room and write. So I moved my writing production outdoors. I’m out there right now, I’m sitting out in my front courtyard, I’ve got a Japanese maple overhead to give me shade, and I’ve got a café table. “And I’m into the third draft of the next novel. It’s about the people who painted three or four of the panels in the Chauvet cave that Werner Herzog filmed recently. And you know, at age 60 I could easily be burnt out. You catch me in a very happy moment in my career, I have to say.”
2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, $36.99).
To join the conversation about this month’s Listener Book Club choice, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, $37.99), visit the Book Club section of www.listener.co.nz, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club. For July, we have three book choices – the fiction finalists of this year’s NZ Post Book Awards: Fiona Kidman’s The Trouble with Fire (Vintage, $36.99), Paula Morris’s Rangatira (Penguin, $30) and Sue Orr’s From Under the Overcoat (Vintage, $29.99). Coverage begins on July 6.