Robust Utopias: A Conversation with Science Fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson is the winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, and is the author of 14 novels, including the Mars trilogy, which focuses on the conflicts among idealistic settlers working to create alternative societies on Mars. More recently, the Science in the Capital trilogy (Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days of Rain) presaged the demise of a thinly veiled Bush-type presidency due to a failed response to a meteorogical emergency - written before Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters woke up the US public. The excerpt on page 12 is from Sixty Days of Rain. This interview was conducted by Peacework co-editor Sam Diener via email on July 10, 2008.
SAM DIENER: A character in Fifty Degrees Below refers to "the law of unintended consequences," which would seem to be a boon to the novelist (because it can lead to the exploration of alternative futures) but could lead to despair and paralysis for social movement activists. Since each advocated solution might make things worse in unexpected ways (as Ursula K. LeGuin demonstrates so memorably in the Lathe of Heaven, for example), what prevents you from falling into political despair?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: It's best to consider this matter proactively and search for things to do that people in decision-making theory would call "robust." Robust actions are those that would be beneficial across a wide range of possible futures, while attempting to anticipate and minimize potential negative impacts.
For instance, inoculation against disease remains a good thing even though the precipitous population rise of the last century is based partly on its effects. Paolo Bonanni, of the Public Health and Epidemiology Department at the University of Florence, estimated that 3 million children's lives are saved around the world each year by inoculations, while 2 million die for lack of them.
Another example is that the suite of actions necessary to de-carbonize our power and transport systems could result in so many positive effects that it should be vigorously pursued.
Similarly, in a different mode, a more important mode, in that social justice is more important than technical sophistication, promoting women's education and full rights worldwide is a good in itself that also has proven positive effects on population issues. Countries which largely recognize women's rights have about a replacement rate of reproduction. Bundles of good effects should be pursued and the unintended consequences will remain as problems for generations to come.
SAM DIENER: When talking with an interviewer for The Zone, you mentioned that the large scale network of cooperatives in "Mondragon, Spain, was also a constant reference point." Cooperatives, and the importance of creating economic systems based on democratically controlled cooperatives, are a theme in many of your books. Could you describe the cooperative in which you live?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: I live in Village Homes, which is a small neighborhood within Davis, California. It's a very moderate cooperative, mainly a kind of well-tweaked surbubia. We own our homes and the land under them, but everything else in the neighborhood is owned in common, including a set of offices, meeting spaces, daycare, pool, studios, some apartments, fields, playgrounds, and a lot of agricultural land, including space for individual gardens, orchards, and vineyards. Small volunteer boards run the various neighborhood operations. There are other landscape design features that emphasize communal work in maintenance, harvesting, and clean-up. It's too bad that residential neighborhoods aren't all set up this way.
SAM DIENER: How have you used your experiences of the joys and challenges of cooperative living in your novels?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: All my novels from Green Mars on have incorporated things I've learned from living in Village Homes, especially gardening, utopian nano-politics, and small group dynamics.
SAM DIENER: In an interview in Science Fiction Studies, you said, "What's hard is imagining any plausible way of getting from here to there." One fundamental problem is how to scale up cooperatives in the context of a capitalist system which creates destructive incentives. In Sixty Days of Rain, the new reform-minded President certainly is concerned about these issues. Yet these utopian aspects are just getting cranked up at the end of the novel. Might you return to this series in order to address some of the issues of how to scale up cooperatives and how to transition away from capitalism towards the eco-economic democracy you're pointing towards? Or might this be a theme of a future book?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: Yes, it is very much the theme of a future book, which will not be connected to the Science in the Capital series. Describing a later moment, say 50 to 100 years out, is a very obvious goal for a utopian science fiction writer right now. The technical and social potential is enormous, while at the same time the dangers of failing to enact this future are truly serious: the possibility of a human-caused mass extinction event, the threat of a partial crash of our civilization and population. In that context the pressure to invent some kind of permaculture civilization is intense.
The description of the change - say the gap in time between the end of Sixty Days and Counting and the start of some novel set a century from now - is really the hard thing to conceptualize and write in any plausible way, in a way that doesn't feel heavily manipulated by the writer's desires rather than the reality principle, which one would want in any proper work of art.
SAM DIENER: You told one interviewer, "I think of us as all living in an enormous science fiction novel, which we're co-authoring together." As a teacher of social studies and English, I love the idea of trying to encourage students to see ourselves as collective authors of our socio-economic-ecological futures. But unlike in the Mars trilogy, in your most recent trilogy it seems that most of the protagonists are not practitioners of social movement activism or the creators of alternative communities, but elite scientists and politicians. Even the progressive politicians don't seem to be pushed by social change organizations, movements, or cooperative enterprises. As a social change activist trying to imagine how we could motivate more of us to work towards utopian permacultural change, I think the Mars trilogy and Antartica were more satisfying in this way than the most recent trilogy. What do you think?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: I think this is right, that Science In the Capital was very concerned with the current moment, as a kind of realist novel, or an attempt to portray the present and the immediate days to come (like next year) as a science fiction novel. I wanted to write about the way science and the federal government work now, and right now it seems like these large "mainstream" movements are too over-awed by capitalism's hold on our economic and social order to challenge some of the basic assumptions. I wanted to portray the start of a change away from that, but it was not as utopian a work as the Mars and Antarctica novels, except in suggesting we can start utopia at any time, because it is a path, not a destination.
SAM DIENER: You told BldgBlog "I've been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms - in more dynamic terms. People tend to think of utopia as a perfect end-stage, which is, by definition, impossible and maybe even bad for us. And so maybe it's better to use a word like permaculture, which includes not only permanent but also permutation. Permaculture suggests a certain kind of obvious human goal, which is that future generations will have at least as good a place to live as what we have now." Do you see yourself as a permacultural novelist, trying to envision how characters might help create future permacultures? If so, are there other novelists or novels you admire which you would classify under this heading?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: The obvious one to me is Ursula K. Le Guin, who was my teacher in 1976 and before and since then has been one of the most important writers to me. The Dispossessed is one of the great American novels. Beyond her there are individual works, like that of Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia) Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time and He, She, and It) or Samuel R. Delany (Triton), a new novel by Geoff Ryman, called Air, and a lot of feminist science fiction that describes what could be called permaculture futures. Still it seems to me there haven't been nearly as many such novels as there should be.
SAM DIENER: Many Peacework readers are skeptical about applying technological solutions to social problems. Are there particular technologies you see emerging that might help foster the kinds of change you advocate?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: This is complicated because the social and the technological cannot be well separated and need to be considered together, because we can build most technologies we can imagine now. How to finance them is a different question, a social question. For instance, we could develop micro clean renewable power, like independent houses or apartment complexes that created their own power and some of their own food and were carbon neutral. It would require a social decision to pursue these decentralized technologies, instead of continuing the big damaging old technologies which make profits for those who now possess big lumps of capital.
In that context it's worth remembering that our technological potential for a clean, powerful, sustainable, and socially just system, is tremendously high. Social activists should by no means ignore or disdain "the technological." Better to think of social justice itself as a technology (for making better lives).
SAM DIENER: Are there social current social movements, initiatives, or organizations that particularly excite you or give you hope?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: I like open-source computer code; the return to the concept of
the commons (as in regarding government as a commons); the possibility
of combining organic and (gasp) genetic engineering approaches
to create cleaner agriculture; and the sense that there are so
many more of these movements that are gaining ground in our minds
and lives as we face up to the emergency of this century.