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New York 2140 book cover Image: Orbit

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We asked Kim Stanley Robinson: Can science fiction save us?

How good utopian novels can change our thinking about the world

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Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.

When we started thinking about the big question of whether utopian fiction can map a positive future in an unrelentingly negative era, we naturally started thinking about Kim Stanley Robinson. The novelist the L.A. Times Review of Books called “our last great utopian visionary” and the New Yorker called “one of the most important political writers working in America today,” Robinson is known specifically for dense, thoughtful novels about where Earth might go based on science and culture today. The trilogy he’s best known for— Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars — uses terraforming in space as a way to raise the issue of reclaiming our own Earthly environment, and to consider how we interact with it. His 2017 novel New York 2140 is set in a future New York that’s flooded due to climate change, and like many of his other books, it presents utopian alternatives to capitalism.

And his latest book, The Ministry for the Future, again models a series of attempts to contain and control climate change, in a sprawling story that acknowledges personal and public problems with systemic change, but still comes across as more hopeful than pessimistic. Polygon spoke with Robinson by phone to discuss the problems with science fiction utopias, how they’re sparked real change in the past, and how we use science fiction in everyday thinking.

Can science fiction save us in our present political and cultural circumstances? Is it a useful teaching tool to help us think about how to solve our present problems, or model better ways of living?

Well, it’s the latter, for sure. Whether it’s the former depends on whether we pay attention. But let me answer a little more at length.

If you think of science fiction as just a kind of modeling exercise, everybody is a science fiction writer in their own lives. You make plans based on modeling in your mind. When you’re feeling hopeful, you have a kind of utopian plan: if you do these things, you’ll get to a good place. And then when you’re afraid, you have these worries that if you do these things, you’ll get to a bad place. So the fundamental exercise of science fiction is a very natural human thing. And then when it gets written down in long narrative forms, like science fiction novels, everybody recognizes the exercises involved there. Although when I say that, I realize that, actually, lots of people don’t like to read science fiction, so they’re not recognizing the way books are the same as what they do for their own lives. That’s surprising to me, but it happens a lot.

The cover of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry For the Future Photo: Orbit Books

Anyway, science fiction is a modeling exercise where all the science fiction put together, especially all the near-future visions, they range from totally horrible to perhaps quite nice. It’s heavier-weighted at the disaster end than at the utopian end, maybe because it’s easier, or maybe because it’s more shockingly interesting to read. It’s not like going to town meetings and reading blueprints for plumbing facilities. The utopian end of science fiction has a reputation for being a dull, eat-your-greens type fiction, so there’s less of it compared to the disaster stuff. But there is both. And if you read a lot of it, one hopes you’re prepared for anything.

That isn’t 100% true, but you’re maybe better prepared than if you hadn’t read it. In that sense, I think science fiction could be a great teaching tool for people. You can’t read all science fiction, and if you’re reading nothing but space opera, none of this would obtain. Because the problems of spaceships flying faster than light across the galaxy are not always immediately applicable to the situation we’re in here on Earth. So it’s a specific wing of science fiction I’m talking about that could be helpful if people read it.

With a book like New York 2140, are you actively out to teach people? To model a positivist future where people can make real individual change?

Yeah, I am! I consider my novels, amongst many other things, to be my political activism. I’m interested in portraying futures where there are more cooperative, altruistic, post-capitalist systems that are working well. I try to model them on things already going on in this world that seem to be better to me than the dominant global neoliberal order. And then pretend that those small communal efforts around the world intensify and take over, so their emergence signals an emerging world order that would work better with reconciling humanity and the biosphere. Because we have to come into a balance with our biosphere, or else we’re in terrible trouble.

I do that on purpose in the New York novel, very explicitly so. I was trying to work on how to make people think about how finance works, how it can be made to work for us, rather than for extracting our money for the 1%. So yeah, for sure.

You’re celebrated for a level of research and realism in your novels, regardless of whether they’re near-future or set in space. Is part of the urge for that level of realism just that you can’t model a real and inspiring future if you’re not working from real facts?

That’s one way of putting it, and I would agree with that. But what I’d also say is that, along with thinking of my novels as my political activism, I’m just an art-for-art’s-sake kind of English-major guy. I would like to write good novels. And that’s my overriding consideration. And it’s a kind of life-quest thing, or a religious quest. What makes a good novel? When I think about them as a reader, what I like in a novel is that kind of dense feeling of reality, where you read it and go, “Yeah, that’s the way life really is.”

If you set novels in the future, like I seem compelled to do, and you want your readers to say, “Yeah, that’s the way life really is,” you have to overcompensate a little bit. I used to call it “cardboard sets.” You know how you look at the TV Star Trek from the 1960s, and you can see that the spaceship’s bridge was made of cardboard and plywood? Science fiction, to me, has too many cardboard sets and backdrops, and it reduces your ability to take the story in as something serious and moving. So in other words, to make a good novel, and yet also have the story set in the feature, which is a bit of a crazy thing, I had to overcompensate and try to make them even more realistic than your ordinary realist novel.

So then they become a little fact-heavy. I’ve had to work against being too ponderous, or overcompensating too far. But yeah, that’s the reason I’ve gotten caught up, in — it’s almost like I’m in a double bind. I’m trying to do two things at once that don’t match up very well. And it causes the distortions in my books that make them weird. I’ve long since reconciled myself to that. It’s actually a good thing to be different. And it’s a good thing to have weird novels, because there are too many novels that aren’t weird enough. They’re too easy and too ordinary, and they slip through your mind, and then you’ve forgotten them and the writer. So to be a little bizarre and obdurate, so it’s actually a bit of work, and even sometimes irritating? Well, that’s part of the experience of reading one of my novels, and afterward, you remember it better. [Laughs]

At least I hope so. I mean, that’s a good way of looking at it. You know, they are very controversial books. I’m highly aware that I get a high positive and a high negative. There are a lot of people who think I’m just simply inept, because I don’t do it like other people do. And I’m not very fast-paced, although I would like to be. I’d like to show people are wrong. I have fast-paced sections in my book all the time. But the ultimate effect is that my books are these big monsters.

The LA Review of Books referred to you as “our last great utopian visionary.” What do you think of that title, or at least the “utopian visionary” part?

I think that’s fine. I’ve rolled the dice toward doing utopian fiction. There isn’t very much of it — the canon of utopias could be listed on your fingers and toes. And yet I think they’re very valuable. Occasionally, they have effects in the real world. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward from 1888 was a big part of the progressive movement 120 years ago. H.G. Wells’ utopian novels had a huge impact on the Bretton Woods agreement and the settlements after World War II. A good utopian novel can, a generation later, or even a few years later, have an impact on how people think the future should go.

I felt a deep kinship and love for Ursula K. Le Guin and Iain Banks, these two great utopian writers. They’ve died, and I do feel a bit lonely for my own generation. But I also see a lot of young writers coming up who call themselves solarpunk, or hopepunk, or the new utopians, and whatnot. They’re forming schools, they’re trying to get enthusiastic about improvising our way to a green future. I think they’re utopian, but perhaps a little bit outdated or scared by the term “utopia,” because it’s so often used as a weapon to mean “unrealistic and never going to happen.” So they make up different names. I’m glad to see these. I don’t think utopian fiction will ever go away. It’s like a necessary blueprint for thinking our way forward. So it seems like it’s a good time for utopian fiction. I’m sad at losing colleagues I loved, but I’m encouraged at the way the genre itself is ratcheting its way back into people’s attention.

It’s surprising how many classic novels described as utopian fiction are actually disguised as dystopian novels.

This is worth talking about! In the Greimas rectangle, there’s the thing that’s not you, and there’s the thing that’s against you. These are not the same. In that model, the opposite of utopia is dystopia. But the thing against you is anti-utopia. What that model is saying is, if you try to get to utopia, it would necessarily be bad. So it’s against the idea of utopia itself. Dystopian fiction isn’t against the idea of utopia. It’s just saying, “Oh, we tried, and we lost.” But anti-utopian ideas say that trying to make utopias necessarily rebound, and boomerang into disaster.

So for example, 1984 is a dystopia. Big Brother is not trying to make you happy. That government is putting its boot on your neck. But Brave New World is the great anti-utopian novel, where they try to make everybody happy, so they drug them and electroshock them, and then everybody’s supposed to be happy, and it doesn’t work. Those two very, very famous novels service, the great dystopia, and the great anti-utopia. And the fourth term in the rectangle —this comes out of Fredric Jameson’s Marxist literary criticism — would be anti-anti-utopian. That gets super mysterious, but it just refers to insisting that it’s possible to make a better world. So that’s the mysterious fourth term in that particular rectangle. I am anti-anti-utopian, but I’m also utopian, which is a little more obvious.

It may be obvious, but as a lot of people have noted, it’s difficult to write utopian fiction

Yeah! Yeah, it is!

Supposedly utopian fiction can’t have a story, because it can’t have conflicts or imperfections. How have you approached that problem as you’re thinking about all this philosophically?

Yes, sure. I think there are some. One strategy I used in Pacific Edge is, you show that in a utopia, it’s still possible to be extremely unhappy. In a utopia, there’s still “A falls in love with B, who’s in love with C, who’s in love with A, and they’re all miserable.” Or “A is in love with B, and then he dies.” Utopia does not guarantee human happiness. It just takes away unnecessary suffering by way of political oppression.

Another way is to define utopia as not a perfect end-state society. That’s impossible anyway. You define it as a progressive movement in history, with each generation doing better than the generation before, in substantial ways, in terms of equality, justice, and sustainability. It’s a process, not a product. So “utopia” is just a name for one kind of history. I do that a lot. Lastly, Iain Banks was great at this. In his space-opera novels, there was a post-scarcity galactic utopia, but it’s always under assault by forces that don’t like it. He was one of the greatest writers of my generation, in so many ways, but especially in terms of stage business and exciting plots, Iain was the master. His utopian society always had to defend itself, sometimes quite violently. So the defense of utopia becomes like a war zone, and suddenly you’re back to war novels. And then the utopia sits there as a kind of a given, but it has to be defended. That’s a great strategy that I haven’t used as much as Iain.

I learned from him, and I learned from Le Guin. She always went right to the heart of the contradictions: if everybody’s free to do what they want, who takes out the trash? What happens when there’s a drought? Is there a police force? If there isn’t, how do you control a violent person? In The dispossessed, she basically went to every one of the problems utopia would have in terms of contradiction, and dramatized that. I learned a lot from her, too.

The cover of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars Photo: Spectra

What else interests you in science fiction right now? What’s going on that you find intriguing or inspiring or enlightening?

I like a lot of feminist science fiction, from the women who are basically my generation of writers. They’re still doing good work. I like the new, young solar utopians. I like British science fiction. I’m a little hampered here, because there’s way more going on than I’ve had a chance to see. I read my friends, who tend to be my age, I read interesting new things to try to keep track of stuff. I see utopians like Cory Doctorow, or leftist science fiction that’s political and intense. And that and the leftist feminist wing, I think, is strong right now in community.

People see science fiction as a way to write out your social, political, and personal hopes. I think it’s at a pretty healthy status right now. Science fiction seems almost central to the culture in a way that wasn’t when I was young. Everybody’s aware of it. There’s no prejudice against it. Most of that’s gone away. So I like the feeling of it being an aspect of the mainstream. I’m a public intellectual and a political figure — I’m really just a novelist and a science fiction writer, but because this culture now takes science fiction seriously, that means they’re taking me seriously.

When you bring up women writers of your age that you particularly admire, who are you thinking of?

Karen Fowler. Molly Gloss. Eleanor Arnason. Kathy Goonan. Pat Murphy. Lisa Goldstein. Gwyneth Jones and Justina Robson in England. The list could go on and on. A thing happened in academia and in culture at large — Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree, Jr., [the pseudonym of] Alice Sheldon, they took all the attention. People like to reduce their attention to a few charismatic figures and forget about the rest. Academic critics are like that too, creating their canon. So the Le Guin/Russ/Tiptree combine sort of represented feminist science fiction as if it was the only thing there. And this whole cohort of women my age, who are just a little younger than Le Guin/Russ/Tiptree, they got sidelined by academia, and had a tough time catching readership, even people like Sheri Tepper, or Suzy McKee Charnas. Names will keep coming to me.

They are all great writers, and they haven’t gotten the academic attention they deserve, because academics tend to flock to what everybody else has already read, so there’s a mutual shared understanding of what you’re talking about. So there’s a natural canonization is a weird increasing-returns situation, where early attention to someone like Le Guin — as great a figure as she is, she wasn’t writing novels that were any more distinctive than, say, Suzy McKee Charnas.

I’ve been a beneficiary of a very much slower, smaller increase in returns. A lot of writers of my generation are very fine writers, so I see it happening all over. Also, cyberpunk came in in the ’80s and said, “Oh, everything going on in the 70s was junk,” and that included all these women science fiction writers who got erased by a publicity-hound machine that wasn’t interested in feminism, per se. So the ’80s were bad in many ways, politically, and that was one of them.

Where would you like to see science fiction go from here?

That’s a good question, because I’m feeling kind of mystified. If science fiction is mainstream, and it’s the realistic fiction of our time, what now? The future seems to be getting really hard to foresee or predict. The bottom line is, you could you could have a horrific mass extinction event next, or a superb Golden Age. It isn’t like we’re on any obvious trajectory.

Here’s what I could say: There’s lots of different kinds of science fiction. There’s the kind that is a disguised version of today. There’s space opera that takes us off into the galaxy, and it’s millions of years from now, and it’s basically magic. And then there’s that middle time that’s talking about various futures about 100 years out, maybe 200 years out at the most. I call it future history, and that’s been my zone. And it’s relatively depopulated, compared to the other two. I’ve done a lot of near-future, day-after-tomorrow, science fiction really talking about right now, like the New York novel. I would like to see that zone become really vibrant, so people begin to see how important what we do now is for determining the next couple hundred years, and that huge spread of possibility. So I guess I would just say more future history.