American science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, 2312, has just been published worldwide. He spoke to me by phone from his home in California. The conversation ranged over Robinson’s whole 38-year career; I’ve inserted a few notes where comments about one or another of his books did not seem self-explanatory. There are a few minor plot spoilers for a number of the novels. For anyone wondering where to start reading Robinson, 2312 is a good entry point, or Red Mars if you want something epic in scale. I discovered him through his short fiction, which you can sample in The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson, available here in book or ebook form. This post is an extended Q&A version of an interview that appears in the June 23 edition of the Listener.
I finished 2312 yesterday, so it’s somewhat freshly in my mind. Could I start by asking you about pseudo-iteration. And specifically, pseudo-iteration and Frank. Frank?
Yeah… Frank Chalmers. Oh, you mean the way the name keeps coming up?
Not just the name. If not the person then the persona, if you know what I mean. [Interviewer’s note: Pseudo-iteration is the term used by Wahram, one of the two principle characters of 2312, for the way patterns continually repeat in a structured life, but with endless variation. Frank Chalmers, one of the central characters of Red Mars, is in significant ways very similar to Frank Vanderwal, one of the central characters of the Science in the Capital trilogy; and also to Frank Churchill, of the short story “A History of the Twentieth Century, With Illustrations”. And, though I’d forgotten this when I asked KSR this question, to Frank January, of the story “The Lucky Strike”.] Yes… well, the iterative and the pseudo-iterative I got out of Gerard Genette, French structuralist, whose main book was translated into English under the title Narrative Discourse, in which he explained everything that novels can do using just Marcel Proust’s novel [In Search of Lost Time] for all his examples. It’s a funny joke, because Proust’s novel is so strange in so many ways, and yet it has examples for every point Genette wanted to make, many of which had to do with chronology. Genette’s structuralist point of view was much more useful to me as a writer than the Anglo New Criticism angles. So I’ve used him all along.
When did you first read him? I read Narrative Discourse first in the late 1970s, and have reread it several times. The pseudo-iterative is just one of many useful concepts in the book, but the one I have used the most. It addresses a big problem for the novelist, which is to to describe daily life and the whole texture of life instead of just adventures where unusual things happen. If you want to describe daily life, you need to find some intelligible or interesting or hopefully exciting ways to write about it, to avoid just doing summarisation. Genette talks about the strange tenses and moods in French that Proust took advantage of, in which sentences often start with “he would…” or “in those days they would…”, implying these were repeated actions, but the descriptions would quickly become so specific, in the usual Proustian way, that they had to be understood as standing for many other incidents that would be more or less like it, but not quite the same. I used that mode a lot in the Mars books, and often elsewhere when I’m describing stretches of time or lived experience, as in The Years of Rice and Salt or Galileo’s Dream. It isn’t quite summary or dramatisation, but is something of both. The concept of the pseudo-iterative is something I also find to be useful in my life. I am a creature of habit, I like the elements of my daily life to repeat with only small variations, which I enjoy performing. You know, sort of same but different.
Yeah, I kind of sensed that Wahram was the character in 2312 who’s closest to you personally, would that be fair? No, only to the extent they all are. Certainly I can relate to many things he was thinking, but he also was an attempt to come to grips with someone quite unlike me. I think I’ve got just as much of Swan in me, to tell you the truth.
Really? Yeah, sure.
There’s quite a lot of Saturnian characters, so to speak, in your fiction, though, and I tend to locate your point of view more strongly with them. There’s an optimism and a solidity to them, which seems more in line with the overall mood of your work. And also with the ongoing project of successfully producing novels – I mean Swan keeps on producing art, broadly defined, but I can’t imagine her keeping on doing the same thing again and again and again to the extent that you have in your career. Whereas with Wahram I can imagine that. Yeah. That’s probably right. But I feel fairly labile and variable in my own mental life; I find it very easy to inhabit these different characters. And Wahram in particular is somewhat of an attempt to cast myself into the mind of someone with an equanimity, you might say, that I don’t have myself. I’m often doing that, trying to imagine various others. Ultimately these characters come out of myself, but I’m also watching the people around me and trying to cast myself into the different mindsets of the people I see. And I feel a bit chaotic in my own interior life, so that these phlegmatic or steadfast characters, that’s not exactly my self-experience! [laughs].
Well, I wanted to ask, actually, in terms of Michel’s system of the four humours, where would you place yourself? [Interviewer’s note: Michel Duval, a psychologist in Red Mars, uses structuralist semantic analysis to combine two personality oppositions that have proved robust in many psychological studies – labile/stabile and extrovert/introvert – to produce a new theoretical underpinning for the pre-modern personality sorting system, the four humours.] I think I would place myself as sanguine, but I look at that quadrant figure and think maybe everybody who is dominantly one thing has the reverse as well, like a coin, so that the sanguine person would be melancholy underneath all that, and feel biochemically lucky not to be melancholy, since the world seems to provide a lot of ammunition for melancholic reflections. But mainly I’m sanguine. But I do think the quadrant might have that double aspect to it.
Would a melancholic person really have a sanguine side? That surely isn’t a good description of Ann Claybourne, who must be your most melancholic character. Well, but many melancholy people forge on very steadfastly in the world, it’s a kind of courage. Their sanguine underside, so to speak. Ann is a good example of what I’m trying to express, yes.
To rerturn to the idea of pseudo-iteration, when Wahram is contemplating marrying Swan, he reflects, “Experience has taught all it is going to teach, more experience will be a reiteration, yet nothing ever repeats. Feel that and go on.” How does that relate to the experience of being a mature novelist, with a large body of work behind you, trying to create something that extends that body of work but at the same time is new? How do you establish reiteration as a novelist? What I think it really comes down to is simply the ideas, the ideas for the novels demanding new forms and characters and sentences. That’s where you get new variations even within the form. And the novel is very flexible in that sense. Naturally I fall into my habits, and my characteristic modes of attack on the various problems, so I don’t think I come up with novels that look wildly different from each other, but they feel pretty different while I’m working on them.
They feel pretty differently on the inside, too; while obviously they’re your novels, you couldn’t mistake any of them for someone else’s writing. I guess the last two [Galileo’s Dream and 2312] have felt more strongly connected to your greater body of work than some have, in the ways they tie back into the Mars books, and also tie those books back even more into the earlier science fiction, The Memory of Whiteness in particular. Yeah, that’s right, I think. Galileo made a huge difference to me. It was Galileo himself, and also the fact that I moved my writing outdoors. I work only in my front courtyard, with a Japanese maple overhead to give me shade so I can see my laptop. The climate here is the back end of a Mediterranean climate, a little too cold in winter and a little too hot in summer, but I put a tarp overhead when it rains, and write outside no matter what the weather is. It’s quite a beautiful experience. There’s the birds, the clouds, the weather, and facing up to the cold if it’s cold. And Galileo was such a tenacious stubborn worker, a grinder. Writing about him, I came to admire the old man so much I thought, “Well, I can grind out a few more novels without complaining about it.” And the material was just gold for a novelist, Galileo was a beautiful character. So that book brought me back to enjoying the process, and 2312 is a continuation of that. I felt like I had a good idea, and I had a very helpful push from my editor, Tim Holman at Orbit. He was really supportive of the John Dos Passos format.
What was the book looking like before his input? In what ways did he encourage you? He encouraged me to portray the whole society that Swan and Wahram lived in, to go big. It was a challenge, and I kind of groaned, but the more I thought about it the more I thought, “He’s right. This is an obvious opportunity, and the love story won’t work unless it’s in a credible society anyway”, and so you get the social aspect as well as the personal aspect of the novel, and the more I thought about it the more excited I got.
How did you arrive at the idea of using the intertextual extracts and lists the way you do? – because that really expands the book. It was a bit of an accident. A small press here in America, Centipede Press, was reprinting John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, and I was asked to write the introductions. I said yes and went back and looked at his books, and saw again that his formats came from Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, but I had never actually read the USA trilogy. So I did, and it boggled me. I think it’s equal or better than the novels of the greats of American 20th-century literature, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F Scott Fitzgerald and the rest. It is a great novel.
I don’t know it at all. Very few people do. It’s not in the canon. He was a leftist in the 30s and a rightist in the 50s, so he was absolutely backward to the American literary-political zeitgeist in both decades. In the 50, Dos Passos was like Arthur Koestler, he turned hard against the left and became a cranky old right-winger, and this damaged his literary reputation. Anyway, his USA trilogy invented the format I used, and it’s quite powerful. There is a stream of consciousness strand, and prose poems that describe prominent Americans, which are tremendous pocket biographies; then also newspaper clippings, either true or invented, all of them examples of American weirdness. These sections alternate with more typical scenes that follow characters who keep changing, and the characters all pinball around, and only in the third volume do they strand together, in quite a clever way, in terms of plots impinging on each other. But the way the characters bounce around, out of control of their lives, is something I tried to mimic a little in the Kiran chapters of 2312.
Yeah, that’s fun. It also approaches being a weakness in the book, in that Kirin only just escapes feeling like a plot mechanism wandering at large. Events always sweep him exactly where your larger structure needs him to be. Because Swan and Wahram are allowed much larger internal realities, the fact that they also go where the story needs them to be doesn’t feel contrived. They’re driving the book, the book’s not driving them. That’s true. Still, I’m glad Kiran is there, I think his story is a good angle on Venus, and it’s a relief from the interiority of both Swan and Wahram. I think readers need variety in pacing. Every chapter should not confront you with the same pace and the same mood, there should be some flux and heterogeneity.
Yeah. And in fact Kiran works fine. Would you consider a book in which he’s the principal character, or one of two principal characters? No, I’m done with 2312. I like the idea that a novel encapsulates an entire story world. The feeling that there are possible sequels or loose ends is a good feeling for a reader to have, but not something one should actually try to satisfy.
You still haven’t told me about Frank. By my count, you have three of him. Right.
I may have missed one… when did you decide to do that? How conscious – no, it must have been extremely conscious. Why did you do that? Well, let’s see [laughs]. My explanation may cause you to groan, but what it comes down to is that all of my liars are called Frank.
[Laughter in quite large quantities; interviewer had been gnawing on this question for years, and did not see this answer coming.] That’s too good. It started with the first one, with Frank January from “The Lucky Strike”, Janus being two-faced. I like to be kind of Dickensian with character names. The Mars trilogy in particular is filled with meaningful names. And so, when I realised that Frank ought to be named Frank in the Mars books, being also very duplicitous, I had the pattern, and it was easy to name Frank Vanderwal in the climate trilogy, because he, too, is two-faced.
Trilogies. You’ve done three. So a trilogy of trilogies. Did you do that as a kind of conscious completion of the meta-form? No, it was basically just an accident. The first one I always thought of as being some kind of triptych, and not really a trilogy anyway. [Interviewer’s note: The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge offer three different near-future Californias, linked together by the presence of an old man called Tom, who seems to have been a boy or a young man when the three time lines diverged.]
It’s interestingly similar to the situation with Frank, in that you’ve got the three Toms – I mean the one Tom who exfoliates in three ways. I wondered when there were three Franks if that was in some sense a continuation of that idea. [This was a better theory before interviewer noticed there are at least four Franks.] Maybe a case could be made for that subconsciously, but for me those exist in different departments. I always knew that Tom would be in the first three books, he was the structural element being repeated and having different lives. I felt that was a new structure, the triangular structure of the California books. Then the Mars book was intended to be one novel, the climate trilogy was intended to be one novel. So I think of them as Victorian triple deckers, but of course I guess that’s what a trilogy is anyway.
Kind of, yeah. So essentially I’ve done two very long novels, and another quite long novel in The Years of Rice and Salt, though I did try to compress things there. 2312 is another attempt at compression – hoping for the same amount of information, but squishing it down.
I think it’s a more successful attempt than The Years of Rice and Salt. 2312 has the advantage that there are all those links to your wider body of work, so you don’t need to fit as much in. The entire history of the Mars books is grandfathered in, for one thing. At the point where Swan looks down on Mars and someone comments “I hear it’s an interesting place”, that’s a very nice line. So consciously resonant. I thought that would be the only time we’d touch on Mars in the whole book, it’s such a nice little glance. Although it’s lovely to end there as well, in that same John Boone crater. Thank you for that. I thought 2312 would never go to Mars, so it was my little joke, to wave at it while passing by. And I really am done with Mars. So it was a late decision to make it the place of weddings, and to tie it back into the book. It struck me as a little surprise at the end, a last little poke. Surprises are good, and so I was pleased, but that was a very late decision.
Ha! Oh, that’s very nice to know, actually. That changes the reading experience interestingly, because I imagined, with that line of Swan’s, that I was being told to expect no more glimpses of Mars, and then at the end I felt double-bluffed… Speaking of the Mars books – another repeated pattern. Pauline was John Boone’s AI. Now Swan has one with the same name. Yeah. This is English major stuff, the explanation for Pauline. That was Robert Browning’s first poem, an imitation of Shelley, a poem about a tortured young poet with an ideal, basically a rewrite of Shelley’s “Alastor”. A Memory of Whiteness is another rewrite of this early poem of Shelley’s. But Browning turned against his poem, he actually bought up copies of “Pauline” and burned them, and tried to suppress the memory of it, and he largely succeeded, although of course he didn’t get all the copies, and people interested in Browning have more of an interest in “Pauline” rather than less. It’s not a very good poem, but it’s a homage to Shelley by a 20-year-old, very unlike the mature Browning. I was interested in this when I was doing anxiety of influence studies amongst the British poets, a project in graduate school, and I liked both Shelley and Browning. It’s funny, when you’re young it’s all Shelley and Keats, and as you get older suddenly Byron looks so much funnier, and wiser too. I thought Byron was a cynical old bastard when I was 20, and now there’s nobody funnier. Anyway, that’s why all of my AIs are named Pauline: she was the guiding spirit for the young poet in the Browning poem, a kind of Ariel figure, and thus somewhat like my personal assistant AIs.
I’ll ask you about another echo. Different sort. Wahram thinks of Swan as Diana on the hunt, when they’re following the caribou they’ve just reintroduced to Earth. Now earlier on, immediately after the reanimation, she thinks of herself using the exact same words. It’s just a passing metaphor when it goes through her mind, but when he uses the same phrase it becomes codified. Which has an odd effect. It’s like this similar line of thinking is threading itself through two characters. It’s not particularly implausible that they should have the exact same thought; but you do this in a number of contexts, in a number of books – allow the same phrase to thread from character to character as though they’re all in some sense inhabiting the same mind; which of course they are. How consciously do you do that? I often do that very consciously. In the attempt to make novels beautiful objects, like vases, there’s a shapeliness that is invisible and has to be intuited or felt. I have a tremendous joy in stone work, by the way, because I can finally see the patterns and touch them. Anyway, in terms of creating beauty in a novel, these repeated phrases have an effect, I hope, and I also like to alter them slightly, in the manner of a villanelle. Often it’ll take the full two years of work to have these ideas come to fruition. For instance, in the Galileo book there’s this phrase “the tumble of days” which recurs several times, and in the last page I realised I could change tumble to tumbrel, because Cartophilus was in the French revolution going off to the guillotine. That was very satisfying, a sweet twist, although actually Bantam thought I had made a mistake, and thus misprinted it as tumble, and I had to get it corrected. But it was a nice needle poke out of that repetition. I have no idea if people notice these things, but I do think they have an effect. You read the novel and you feel there’s something going on. It doesn’t have to be a conscious perception to have an effect.
The phrase “horizontal brothers and sisters”, used to describe animals during the reanimation – I’m not entirely sure I like it. Is it yours, did it come from somewhere? My problem with it is that not all animals are quadrupeds, so it doesn’t quite work for me literally, and all siblings are horizontal in terms of a family tree schematic, so there’s no distinction there between animal brothers and sisters and human brothers and sisters – so I’m not quite sure what work the phrase is doing. That’s an interesting point. The phrase comes from John Muir, the California nature writer.
Yeah, yeah. He’s in your story “Muir on Shasta”. Yeah. Muir is an important figure in my life, because of the Sierra connection. And I liked the phrase when I ran across it, because he was trying to get people out of that Victorian or Biblical mindset that the beasts of the field are there to be our servants. So as a first statement of wildlife preservation I’ve always liked it. Muir left the church, but he shifted his religious feelings over to the high Sierra. I have a lot of sympathy for that, and his phrasing is often quite good; but you know, no phrase will serve entirely with something as big as that.
You must have some idea how your language affects readers – if nothing else you must discuss them intensely with people who read them as you’re writing them. And you must get feedback once they’re published. Not at that level of fineness. While I’m writing them nobody else is reading them, so they don’t get discussed. I don’t want to show them to anybody til they’re done. And after they come out, the discussions are not usually at that level of fineness. Although I have to say the academic discussions have gotten tremendously stronger. During the course of my career it’s gone from nearly nothing to nearly more than I can keep track of. I read essays about my work now that boggle my mind. They teach me things I didn’t know.
How does that change your thinking about your work? Are you pleased, displeased, neither in particular, that you haven’t been getting that kind of feedback for the entire length of your career? Would it have changed your career? I presume it would, because it is audience response, and it is an interactive process. It’s one of those hypotheticals I can’t really track, and I’m glad I don’t have to. But mainly I am pleased. Ever since Red Mars I’ve felt that the people who find me are the ones who are meant to find me. I had a transformative experience in the writing of the Mars books – for whatever reason, they gave me a way to do everything that I wanted to do. There was enough room in them to try all the things I wanted to try. I threw off certain mental restraints and decided to do anything it took to get that story told, including looking slow, looking cumbersome, the various complaints people have about the Mars books – I think they manage to overwhelm these problems of hugeness or monstrosity.
Oh, they’re not huge or monstrous. Well, good, thank you! Although they are in a way. They test the Plimsoll Line.
No, but there can be no argument about that, surely. As you say, they’re one great novel, and the scale of them and the things you take on, and the various problems you’re solving simultaneously – I won’t hear words said against the Mars books. Well, thank you for that. I’m proud of them, I think they hold up, I can actually go back and read them as if I’m just a reader myself, because they’re so big and so far in my past that I don’t remember them, so I can read them. And I’m glad I don’t have that project before me now. God knows what I would do with it. Now I have this urge to cut to the chase. I might not be as patient as I was when I was writing the Mars books. And they needed that patience, that was right for them.
To what extent – very possibly to no extent at all – is your Accelerando future an act of advocacy? To what extent could it happen, to what extent would you like it to happen? That’s a good question, because I don’t know if it could happen or not. One of the things 2312 is is a question. Could we both wreck the Earth and have a rather active space civilisation at the same time? Could the Earth be thoroughly wrecked and yet also be flourishing in certain limited respects? I don’t know the answer to those questions. They’re proposals that I’ve put out there, saying could it be this way? Whether it’s physically possible or not I’m not quite sure. I have this double feeling: that the sciences are making us immensely powerful, so that the potential for a flourishing future civilisation a few hundred years from now is really quite realistic, and yet at the same time we’re in this dangerous moment, where we’re thrashing the environment and we have climate change, and it’s quite clear that politically the system is being manipulated by certain people who want to keep the destruction going, because they’re not convinced that it is destructive, or they don’t care because they don’t think it’ll apply to them or their families. So they’re going to be hard to beat, even in the best scenarios, because they have amassed a lot of money and political power resulting from money. So in 2312 I’m contemplating a future that seems to include environmental disasters like the raised sea levels, not at all unrealistic to postulate, and yet at the same time have things flourishing, because of materials science, because of medicine, because of all of the things that we’re learning. The ways we can manipulate nature and biology are becoming rather stupendous with potential. 2312 is an attempt to splash all that into one story. It’s a distorted lens aimed at 2012, at where we are right now. Science fiction always works like that, 2312 is not a particularly special case. Science fiction is a way of talking about right now by way of strange forms of metaphor that have to do with temporal dislocation and cognitive estrangement, etc.
Specifically, though, would you like to see us colonise Mars? Could we, should we? I think we should, but I also think that for a very long time it’ll be like what we’ve done in Antarctica. So you can’t really talk about colonising it so much as having some scientific stations there. Mars could be more like Antarctica than the New World, or Australia; not colonisation or full inhabitation, but scientific stations in a very bleak place. Interesting as such, and useful. We’ll get important information out of it, and we’ll get a sense of adventurousness and beauty, but it isn’t at all central to the human story. I think we ought to do that on Mars as soon as we can. The terraforming project is a different order of business, on a different time scale. You have to postulate a healthy earth, a healthy human civilisation, expansive and powerful and not screwed up. So it’s kind of a utopian wish. But yeah, sure, we should terraform Mars, and make it a second Earth. And if we do that we will have done a great thing, because we will be in a somehow healthy situation on Earth itself.
I’m intrigued to know that you’ve done time as a house husband. Because so have I, and the scenes in the Capital trilogy where Charlie is trying to keep his working life afloat while looking after Joe – it’s authentic, anyone who’s been there can tell it’s either researched very well or written from personal experience. Life with primary charge of a young child while you’re trying to get things done – there’s nothing quite like it. Yeah. It was a blessing in my life. I was taken by surprise… I mean by the time we had kids I was 37 and had my habits all in place, and so it was kind of a revolution – to become servant of this little inarticulate god, etc. Also, they don’t teach male writers in America about child rearing, the model is always Hemingway or Jack Kerouac, it’s pretty much alcoholic solitary adventure; family life just doesn’t come into it, and nor do portraits of young kids. So as I lived it, I began to realise not only was I getting a lot of joy out of it, in terms of the day to day, but also it was material for more fiction, where once again I could write out of my life, rather than out of books. Because I have a horror of writing only out of previous books, out of one’s book knowledge.
That’s the great problem with the professionalisation of writing. Yes. And I am not outside that problem, because once I gave up teaching, which was an awfully long time ago, I haven’t done anything but write either. But I have parented, and I have wandered in the mountains. And I’ve worked a garden. So the things I’ve done myself I’m desperate to find ways to write about. That’s a real driver for me.
James Joyce says to you, in the introduction to The Planet on the Table story collection, that you must solve the aesthetic problems of your time – it’s a resonant phrase. What have you perceived those problems as being? [Interviewer’s note: KSR’s conversation with Joyce is only to be found in the first edition of The Planet on the Table; it was left out of subsequent editions. For a number of reasons, including Joyce’s use of a logarithmic scale to describe the increasing complexity of his own books, and his furious pursuit of a hastily retreating KSR across the winter snowscape of Zurich after the latter asks, “Typos, in Finnegan’s Wake? How could you tell?”, it’s worth tracking down.] That’s a good question. I think I was trying to place Joyce’s blessing on my head for choosing to be a science fiction writer. I made that choice because I thought it was the best realism for our time. Because we are all now living together in a science fiction novel; that’s what history has become. The 25 years since I wrote those words about Joyce have just made that ever more obvious. So, one basic aesthetic problem one faces is, what genre do you choose? I chose science fiction. But I wanted it to be a science fiction open to the general public, who if they happened to pick up my book would be able to comprehend it without the genre training and background. If you did have the genre background, then all the better, you would see how I might be playing off the earlier science fiction writers. But it wouldn’t be necessary.
Okay then, can we talk about the quantum walk chapters of 2312. It strikes me that those really demand the kind of reading strategies you learn as an English major. There are only the three of them, dispersed throughout the book, and they’re very short – the first one took me by surprise, and I didn’t really succeed in reading it. I mean I read it; but when I struck the second I realised I needed to physically focus my eye on each phrase, absorb it, and then move on to the next. I usually scan prose text continuously. Now that switching of reading strategy is something you don’t necessarily need to know how to do as a science fiction reader, by and large. I can see why you take the risk of forcing your readers to figure it out; you’re trying to portray a different kind of consciousness, and how else could you do that – but did you hesitate? I was confident that in the body of the larger novel if I kept the quantum walks short enough people would slow down and deal with them. The lack of punctuation and the gaps would force them to look at it phrase by phrase, and quickly twig that this was an artificial intelligence, and begin to think hard about what does that mean, what is consciousness, and what happens if you’ve got a computer mind that is spinning a trillion times the speed of ours but doesn’t have human connective faculties or body or upbringing, etc. So a scattershot collage of phrases that are popping into the foreground of this artificial consciousness – it was actually problematic, to think is this how it would be, is this how it would work? For those passages, I looked back into a lot of the stream of consciousness novels, so it is an English major’s thing, but I thought, “Make it short, make it clear that it is a computer mind. Try to keep the reader’s focus on the characters, in this case, on a quantum computer mind.” And in the end those passages are only about 15 pages out of 575.
Yeah… that is true. And it’s a novel that calls attention to its own techniques – you’re constantly changing voices, the intertextual bits do that. That isn’t a problem. But with the quantum walks, the first one frankly defeated me. By the third one – I was wrapping up the novel in my head at that point, I was reading it to resolve the plot, so again I didn’t get the full force of it. The second one was gem-like, it was lovely to read, the “gaudeo”s in particular – so beautiful. Thank you. It helped that this particular computer has been heavily programmed with the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Yes, I did notice – I thought you were taking a risk, having an actual Dickinson poem on the last page. Yeah. But she was the appropriate commentary. She is kind of like a quantum computer. You can’t understand her.
Okay, I have a follow-up question I want to leap to, but just parenthetically – what order did you write the book in? I naively tend to think of books as written in reading order, but there’s no particular reason to have done that with this one. Did you write the various extracts and lists whenever you needed to drop them in, or after you’d written the rest of the book, or some other way? I think the best way to describe it is that the first draft mostly told the story of Swan and Wahram, and their scenes, and then I wrote Inspector Genette and the Kiran scenes, and all along I was trying to write supporting materials. It was a really mixed project in that regard, and one of the things that happened as a result was I lost my sense of what it would be like to read the thing in the same way that readers would read it. I couldn’t simulate that in my mind. That always happens, of course, but this time it was worse than usual.
How much time will have to pass before you can do that, do you think, if you ever can? Oh, a long time.
I mean you can read the Mars books that way now, but that’s going back a bit. Yeah. It takes years or decades to be able to read my work as if an outside reader. But in 2312 there was a certain point where I had the thing in more or less its order, where the extracts and lists served not just as arbitrary interruptions, but actually helped the plot; so, for instance, right when Swan is getting irritated that no one wants to solve Earth’s problems, that’s where you have the list of bad excuses that we always make for not doing things to help others. So I did place everything as carefully as I could. But how it then would read to people, well, I was really dependent on my first readers getting back to me.
You’re familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s late short stories, the ones she was writing in the middle 90s? Anthropological pieces where each one is set on a different planet and she manages to give you a whole planetary society, usually in the course of a reasonably short story. Yes, I’ve read those. Four Ways to Forgiveness, and also in Birthday of the World, I think.
They’re experiments in form, as much as anything, and what’s really striking about them is the density of information she achieves, a novel’s worth of detail typically, built into a short story. 2312 struck me very similarly, but a trilogy’s worth of detail, expressed in the space of a novel. Playful, formally inventive. Really fun. It was fun. One of the things the form gave me was the ability to jam a lot into a small space and then call it a prose poem, rather than an expository lump. You can play all kinds of games. You can cut sentences off when the reader will be able to supply the end of the sentence on their own, because the trajectory is clear. Those kinds of games added a real pleasure for me – not only was it getting more compressed but it was getting funnier, and more springy, and I could use those repeated phrases that I spoke about. By the time I was about halfway through I was having a blast. Which doesn’t always happen.
Was Galileo’s Dream a pleasure to write? It was, yes.
The Mars trilogy is a single novel, you’re right that you have to view it that way, and it’s your great novel, if one has to say that you have one great novel. But as a thing compressed between two covers, Galileo’s Dream is also your great novel. It’s the single richest volume you’ve written. But it’s such a densely woven thing. You have to live in it, it’s more work to read than 2312 – 2312 has a lightness, an expansiveness, it’s very easy to read, in a way that Galileo’s Dream is not. I can easily imagine that 2312 was fun to write. Yeah, well with Galileo’s Dream I wanted to make sure that I did justice to Galileo himself, and be accurate to his life, so that despite my backstory and my science fiction dream-life the detail of Galileo’s real life is properly conveyed. That meant a mass of interesting small points. It also meant covering about 25 years of his life. Even that is something of a stretch for a novel. So it has a density, and a length, that makes it yet another big novel, yes. Cartophillus was really the saving grace there, the idea that I wasn’t the narrator. I feel that in focusing on Galileo, and moving outdoors to write, I brought back a great deal of joy to my writing life.
The manoeuvre of moving outdoors really interests me. Could you describe your outdoors environment a little bit more? How much nearby noise-making activity is there, to what extent do you have an open space around you? I’m in a suburbia on the edge of town, so there’s a county road that can be loud. In spring the birds’ singing is amazingly loud. In the winter they’re much subdued. I’m in a courtyard at the front of my house, I’ve got a café table and a comfortable chair. If it happens to be raining I put a tarp overhead, tied up to the trees at a tilt so that the rain runs off toward my feet. I’m under trees, a Chinese tallowberry, a Japanese maple, and also a mock orange, so there’s dense shade. The birds are sparrows, goldfinches, scrub jays, doves, and hummingbirds, with crows and magpies and hawks and geese above. I actually know some of the birds on an individual basis. So I’m surrounded by greenery, and in the winter it’s a little bit bare, and in the summer it’s a little bit too hot… but summers I’m generally in the mountains. I take the summers off, somewhat, and then in the school year when I’m home writing I write every day now. It sounds gruelling, but it actually helps a lot. Every day out in that courtyard.
How long do you write? Per day, how many hours? Doing first draft I write about three hours per day, and then when I’m revising I write much more, because I can look at sentences and fix them pretty much as long as I’m awake. Revision is where I begin to feel that I’ve got some power over the material and some results sitting in front of me that look satisfactory.
Yeah, the effort of imagination involved in primary creation. Yeah, it’s a push.
So doing this six, seven, eight hours, seven days a week, this isn’t too great a strain on your family life? Well, it’s my job, so they’re used to it. I do take breaks to do the family things, then I go back to it.
Can I take a hard left to another passage I wanted to ask you about, kind of the inverse of the quantum walks, which is Galileo’s science lesson, if we can call it that, the passage where he overflies the history of mathematics in his mind. I said that the quantum walks seem to require the reading strategies of poetry – this seems to require reading skills that you’d pick up from science fiction. Yeah, they’re dense, gnarly scenes. I wanted Galileo’s future math tutorial to be a visual experience, a pedagogy of the entire body. So I had to get quite imagistic, and the concepts themselves are difficult.
It’s ecstatic writing; I think it’s one of the definitive hard science fiction sequences. It’s also embedded in a novel that in the main strikes me as more accessible than it is itself. It’s a potential sticking point the same way the quantum walks are. Sure. All I can say is, I do like variety in novels.
Can I ask a few questions about your early life. What did you read as a child, when did you know you wanted to be a writer? Oh, and also – why do you use the name Kim Stanley Robinson? I began reading young, and I loved it. I seldom watched TV, I didn’t know anything about movies, I was always a bookish kid.
Did you not watch TV because you had no TV, or because you just chose not to? No, we had TV, and I watched a little of it, but it was never as good as the books I was reading. So that if I had a choice, and I did, I would rather read a book. I early ran into Huckleberry Finn, which was a magnificent book with an enormous impact on me. I was living in an agricultural community, and I felt really that I could be Huck Finn. This was a mistake, because I was right on the edge of the giant translation of southern California into suburbia. Southern California got wrecked right in front of my eyes. Out of that childhood I became a science fiction writer. When I ran into the New Wave of science fiction, that struck me as realism, as the best way to convey California in the 1970s. The literature best describing the way that time felt was Bew Wave science fiction.
When you say New Wave, you mean which authors particularly? Well, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel R Delany, Roger Zelazny, Thomas M Disch, Joanna Russ, JG Ballard, Gene Wolfe, M John Harrison, Keith Roberts. Michael Moorcock was in command of the British New Wave since he was editing New Worlds, you know, publishing writers who were making science fiction into something extremely exciting and dangerous.
Okay. When some people say the New Wave they just mean two or three people; you really do mean all of them. I mean it as a period, as all the science fiction being written between 1965 and 1975. Following Fredric Jameson, I like to talk about time periods rather than styles or individuals, and so by New Wave I simply mean those years. That gets you some people like Jack Vance or Poul Anderson, who were doing good work but were not defined as New Wave. And many things changed in those years, it felt like history itself was coming off its axis, rolling in new directions. So that was very exciting to me. I became an English major and began to write poetry, then science fiction short stories. Happily, Damon Knight was an editor who was distributing the literary credit he had accrued over the previous 30 years to new writers he liked, and he bought my first stories and got me started. I sold a story to him when I was 22.
What was that first story? “In Pierson’s Orchestra”, which later became the first chapter of The Memory of Whiteness.
And the use of your full name – I sometimes wonder whether that creates a kind of distance – whether it’s a conscious act of self-creation, you know, “My writer self is different from my private self”. That is very true, yes. I am Stan, and that distancing from the books can be a comfort. But Damon said to me, “Your parents gave you a very good name. It’s a travel name, you sound like a travel writer”, because Kim is of course Rudyard Kipling’s Kim of India, whom I was named after, and Stanley is like Stanley searching for Livingstone, and Robinson is like Robinson Crusoe. And also it’s gender-ambiguous, he said, so that won’t do you any harm. He was very canny.
Two major threads that run through your work are memory, the imperfection of memory, its implications for knowledge and especially for the discipline of history, and also brain damage. Brain alteration. I’m thinking particularly of Sax, and also of Frank, in the Capital books, and of the “Ridge Running” story, and also of what Swan does to herself in various ways; but particularly of Sax and Frank, who both have head traumas and experience various forms of somewhat ambiguous change as a result. Where do those threads come from, why are they so huge for you? For a long time I felt like I had a nearly photographic memory. That faded on me through my thirties. As that went away, I thought, “Well, what if you were 600 years old? Would you have forgotten huge tracts of your life? – and then would it matter that you were 600 years old or would you effectively be gone?” And so I wrote Icehenge. And there’s also something very peculiar about memory, which is if you had someone to tell you what you did at a dinner party in 1985 it might pop back to you in its fullness. But because you don’t have a recall mechanism you can’t find it in your own head. And so it sits in there, and will never be accessed. I know this is true, because I keep a daily journal, very minimal, merely the facts of the day. My wife and I play a game where we check what we were doing on that day 20 years ago, and now 25 years ago, and a lot of times I’ll read a passage and we’ll remember the day and be able to tell each other about what happened at that dinner party that night. But without me looking at the journal and giving us that prompt, we never would have thought of that night ever again. So I think evolution accidentally gave us a great power to lay down and store memories, but not an equally good recall mechanism. It’s odd, this discrepancy, a strange part of being human. I was interested in brain damage all along, as with Joe in “Ridge Running,” and I thought that was what should happen to Sax, because I wanted him utterly transformed. I wanted him tested, forced to grow a new mind starting from his ultra-rational position. Then while I was writing the climate books, I was playing softball and misjudged a line drive and caught it on my nose. It was a quite terrific hit, it knocked me to the ground, broke my nose, I was bleeding like you couldn’t believe. Essentially it was what happens to Frank Vanderwal. I was stunned for about a week afterward, and I had to contemplate what could have happened, from instant death to brain damage to more lingering problems. I think all it was in reality was a mild concussion and a broken nose, but it was quite an accident, one of the worst of my life. And in those climate books, if interesting things happened to me in those years, I put them in the story. So it was similar to Sax’s story, but different enough that I felt it was okay to use it. In fact quickly it became very right.
Last thing. I wanted to seize the chance to ask you about A Short Sharp Shock, because it strikes me as being really out on left field among your novels. If you were grouping them in physical space, you’d need to position it further from the centre than any of the others – perhaps it’d be out in one direction, and Years of Rice and Salt would be in the opposite direction, equally distant from the main body – it’s just not like the other books. How did you come to write it? When our first child was born, we weren’t getting much sleep. I was gearing up to write Red Mars, and I knew it was going to be a long novel, a historical project, a realist project. I was often insomniac, and I had always had a desire to do a book that was like George MacDonald or David Lindsay, because I felt that a fantasy novel should be truly strange, like theirs are. There should be new elements. And I was living in Washington DC and I wanted to be back in California, I had a kind of dream California in my head. So often I’d be there in the middle of the night with our kid, trying to give my wife a break, and I wasn’t getting any writing done, it was just in the first months of his life, and I was thinking to myself, “I’m not a writer just because I’m a professional making a living. I’m a writer as a way of being in the world, as a self-definition, and I should write no matter what.” So I said to myself, “Let’s just write whatever comes and do that fantasy. Now’s the time for it. It should be short, it should be sharp, it should be shocking.” And as I wrote it, I let happen whatever happened, I let the story lead me around that world on that peninsula. I’m quite pleased with it, because of that personal history and because of the way it turned out. I would actually have dreams and say, “Okay, that’s what happens next.” And in the end it seemed to work.
That is how it feels! It feels like you’re channelling something from quite deep down. It’s really wild, it’s quite unanticipated, and there are all these gorgeous things in it. The folk with the trees growing out of their shoulders. It’s a grand book. It’s a grand little book – a little grand book? – in a way that counterpoints the Mars books very nicely. Thank you. I am pleased with it. I wish things like that would occur to me more often, but wishing doesn’t make it happen, you have to wait and watch.