Professor Emily E. Jones interviews author Kim Stanley Robinson, whose novel 2312 is the centerpiece of her new science fiction class.
Terminal (2004) by sculptor John Powers. A visiting artist at Whitman during fall 2014, Powers creates objects and temporary installations. A lifelong fan of Kim Stanley Robinson, many of his works are inspired by science fiction concepts and imagery.
A lot of the work that we do in the humanities involves encouraging our students to challenge their preconceived notions of the world. As an assistant professor of German and environmental humanities, that often means making them aware of environmental issues they don’t personally encounter, modes of interacting with the environment that challenge them and ways of enacting environmental change in a political and economic landscape that resists it. When designing my new class “Other Earths,” I asked myself how I could go even further in making students reconsider what an environment even is and what our relationship to it should be. I decided to leave behind the familiar—Thoreau, Muir, McKibben—and even set aside personal favorites like Goethe and Cather to explore entirely new environments. “Other Earths” leads students on a tour of strange worlds that, for all their sulfur-colored skies and ominous, unfamiliar life forms, reset our own environmental experiences—both anxieties and moments of sublime beauty—in alien terrain. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a political thriller, interplanetary romance and a meditation on the beauty and fragility of our Earth, raises questions from the ethics of terraforming to the meaning of being human. I sat down with three students to interview Robinson. There, we learned that environmental justice is inextricably linked to social justice and that cultural revolution is our best hope for saving Earth—both in his novel and in our lives.
Emily E. Jones: Are humanity and the environment at odds in your works or in the world?
Kim Stanley Robinson: More and more, we learn that we’re not very separate from the biosphere—80 percent of the DNA in your body is not human DNA—and all of these new findings show how implicated we are in the surroundings. I think of us as very much an expression of the landscape, and I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to live away from Earth. You can see that in the nearly 2 million years rounding up to homo sapiens, our predecessors were, like us, trying to get control of the landscape just to be more comfortable and have less danger, less pain, a little bit longer lives, do everything they could to get along in an environment that was neither forgiving nor harsh, it was just surround. And so I try to deemphasize these kinds of dualities, or at least complicate them.
Natalie Lyons-Cohen '16: I’m interested in the fragile relationship between humans and Earth. In 2312, people still have to make a “sabbatical” back to Earth every few years. How does this alter the definition of humanity?
KSR: We have never spent much time in different gravities than Earth’s gravity. We haven’t spent much time outside of the magnetosphere, which protects us in certain ways. And then [there’s] the bacteria we’re coevolved with and coextensive with—a big biosphere of creatures and a lot of them are inside us. So my postulate is this: we can’t live away from Earth for long. Because of all these factors that we’ve never really studied very long, we might need to always stay on Earth or to come back to Earth frequently to stay healthy. The idea of a sabbatical was kind of a joke, but it’s a nice way to remember it. One year out of every seven you have to come back and get your hands in the dirt, get a bacteria load, eat some dirt, drink some ocean water.
Emma Kilkelly '15: In what ways can science fiction, specifically 2312, be read in the context of an increasingly environmentally conscious culture?
KSR: I think of science fiction as being a way of thinking historically and a way of doing cognitive mapping, as my teacher Frederic Jameson calls it. You get a vision of what the future might be, but that’s not really an attempt to be accurately predictive, it’s more scenario-building—if we do this, we can get there; if we do something else, we could get to this place—so it has this spread from utopia to dystopia in terms of whether it can be good or bad. Every science fiction text—and 2312 is a good example of this—it’s doing two things at once, like 3-D lenses in a movie theater. On the one hand, it really is trying to talk about the future, and then on the other hand, it’s just a symbolic representation of the current moment.
NLC: Speaking of dystopias, science fiction authors are often pigeonholed as predictors of the apocalypse. Do you find yourself thrust into this role?
KSR: Well, it doesn’t have to be always warning, because there is the utopian thing about how it could be good if we were to do certain things right. But what you do get for sure is political writing. In science fiction, the utopian strand is probably the most explicitly political of all fiction because it gives up on pretending that it’s just playing a game. You might say, as a utopian science fiction writer, I’m probably one of the most political artists about. It does create some pigeonholing, which already happens when you’re in the science fiction section of the bookstore. I’ll always have a huge chip on my shoulder at snobbery of any kind exerted against science fiction, because I think actually it’s the realism of our time. […] At this point in the year 2015, we’re all in a big science fiction novel anyway.
EEJ: 2312 is grounded in science, but it also focuses on music and art. What do you think the role of the arts is in a possible future?
KSR: On the one hand, I’m a huge believer and a fan of the scientific community as kind of pre-political utopian thinkers who are trying to make a better world directly and empirically without pausing for political reform. And it’s questionable whether that can work, but I like science a lot and I like to write about it. That’s why I do science fiction. And then in terms of the arts—this is something that my great Scottish friend [and science fiction author] Iain Banks used to do all the time—if you get to a utopian situation, it will be endangered, but also at that point everything you do becomes art. Living your life itself will have to become a kind of artwork where anything you do is your particular work of art. Your body could be an artwork, your landscape could be an artwork—that’s your house, your garden, your surround—and slowly but surely the values of art—make something beautiful, make something startling—could infect other parts of life.
EEJ: You’ve said that politics, law, science and technology need to work in concert to make our future at least as good as our present. What can students do on a micro-scale to help this movement?
KSR: You can very effectively rate your carbon burn right now, and it will be low compared to most American adults. And then you can try to keep it that way well into your adult life. Not by way of renunciation or any kind of suffering, but by playing it smart and looking to where there’s wasteful carbon burn that doesn’t add to your health or happiness, but does add to the planet’s carbon burn. […] I think it’s incredibly educational to keep gardens. Of course it’s hard if you’re just in an apartment, but even window boxes and vegetables in window boxes is a frightening exercise… but also very gratifying and tasty. Politically, I think it’s really important to think about public over private, and always to be an American leftist and to push the window of acceptable discourse to the left. Whenever you have public over private, you’re going to increase the chance of a good future by reducing the strip mining of private interests that still think they can get away with exploiting natural resources and human labor.
EEJ: And what about institutions like Whitman? What can they do?
KSR: That’s a good question, because there is “green-washing” when people use these captured terms [like sustainability], which are somewhat ambivalent. What I think we can do as individuals and as groups is try to push very intensely at the level of making people live up to these supposed ideals. It’s very much worthwhile talking to corporations and to business schools and to political representatives and to university boards and investment banks. The front is broad. Every good kind of political action scales right up to the global.
Sam Chapman '15: Do you believe that revolutions as defined in 2312 are possible, and if so, what role will science fiction play in bringing them about?
KSR: That’s a very good question, because I think this is the story of the coming century. Can we enact a revolution that isn’t so violent that it creates a violent backlash and reduces the good? What I’d like to do is take it back to revolutionary politics: A rapid change in culture—a cultural revolution—followed by a rapid change in laws. That means seeding democracy and making democracy real, so that it’s not just a name on an oligarchic system, but something that we actually do as people.
EEJ: It seems like that kind of revolution would be predicated on doing away with capitalism. Are capitalism and social progress mutually exclusive?
KSR: Yes. Capitalism is a name for a system that is extremely destructive of the natural environment and of human lives. And so I’m always talking about post-capitalism and the need for a cultural revolution and an economic revolution. More and more, I’ve been talking about social democracy as a first step. First you get an end to austerity, then you get social democracy, then you get socialism, then I even start talking about communism. That’s enough to raise people’s eyebrows. […] I try to encourage people to think about public utility districts. We have food stamps, so people get food as a basic right, we have nationalized healthcare in some countries, there used to be public housing for people who couldn’t afford anything else, and so food, water, shelter, clothing and then education.
EEJ: I’m pleased to hear you mention education as a public utility district, but as a professor at an exclusive college, I realize the irony in that. How can education become more accessible?
KSR: It comes back to the Reagan-Thatcher revolution/counter-revolution—where they went back to laissez-faire capitalism and got rid of the social protection systems that had been set up after World War II. I feel the pendulum may be out at the furthest reach it can get and it may go back the other way. It might go back kind of fast, and education will be part of that, but anything you can do as a citizen—because everybody’s a political citizen, I think—to push it that way and to make it faster will be good for yourself and your friends. Before 2008, I couldn’t talk about these kinds of things without just being “the guy from Mars,” but after the crash of 2008, nobody has any faith that free market capitalism actually works. And in climate change, it isn’t clear that it can work to keep the Earth going to support us.
EEJ: In 2312, you engage with questions of gender fluidity. Is this something you’ve always been interested in, or is it related to the human speciation and other body modifications in the book?
KSR: It’s a little bit of both. I come out of Southern California, and when I was a college student it was the early 1970s, a very intense feminist moment. Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Joanna Russ’ Female Man and many other texts like that that in the ’70s were giving us a new kind of education. I would regard myself as a feminist. But what a man in semi-post-patriarchy does as a feminist is a tricky question. In the Mars trilogy, for instance, there’s an almost exactly equal split between men and women point-of-view characters, and I have women always presented in positions of power as if that’s normal rather than being bizarre. But also, the woman I married is a full-time scientist who’s away from home at work a lot, and so when we had our two kids, I became a Mr. Mom, and it was really useful to have science fiction concepts of gender separated from sex. The incredible pleasure of being a mom, and the weirdness of being a man and being a mom, was not lost on me, but it was a point of pleasure and of interest.
EEJ: You acknowledge that the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos is an influence. It seems that he’s trying to capture the fragmentary nature of modernity in those books. Is there a similar connection for you between form and content?
KSR: Jean-Paul Sartre thought [that trilogy] was the great American novel, and he said: this is what happens when people don’t have interiority. They’re not self-aware, they’re not in control of their own lives, they’re like pinballs in a pinball machine. But [in 2312], I also wanted to show there’s always the existential moment. You can always just seize your life and say: this is what I like to do; this is what I don’t like to do. And the things you don’t like, you walk away from and you construct a self that is clearly constructed, and there you’ve again got art. I think it’s particularly fun to be talking to undergraduates who, in your early 20s, are still a kind of menu of possibilities. Putting yourself together as a personality is still a project. And it remains a project lifelong.
EEJ: What would you hope a student would get out of studying science fiction?
KSR: I think science fiction is a tool of human thought. [It] is great for political science, political thinking and for a kind of sense of where you are. The more science fiction you read, the more the present makes sense to you. And when things happen in the news, you’ll say, oh yeah, I already knew about that… and it’ll be some part of composite of science fiction knowledge that will be informing you. There’s no question in my mind that it’s a really powerful literature, and I even would say that it’s the realism of our moment. There are areas of this world that have science fiction and areas that don’t, and when they don’t have science fiction, they don’t have a good image of their own future, they don’t have something they’re aiming towards.
EEJ: Can you tell us about Aurora, which comes out in July?
KSR: It’s a starship novel. But… I don’t really believe starships can work, so this novel is going to be the third (with 2312 and Shaman going backwards and with Aurora going forward to the stars) [which tries] to set parameters on what we could do. I really do think it’s a useful social thing to take the stars out of the picture and to say: humanity will never go to the stars; we’re stuck here. In the solar system we may only be visitors or scientists, like scientists in Antarctica, and we’ll always have to come back to Earth to stay healthy. So we don’t have any plan B; it’s here or nowhere. This is kind of the case I’m making over these last three books.