Big Echo

Critical SF

Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is an American Science Fiction novelist and short story writer. 


The central conceit of this issue of Big Echo is that Capital is a science fictional text. If you have any immediate thoughts on that (good idea, bad idea, obvious idea, stupid idea) we’d love to know them. If you would prefer a more focused question we just had a conversation with Cory Doctorow in which he argued (with nuance) that Marxism was inherently (even essentially) techno-utopian, that it sought social transformation through technological revolution. Would you agree with that position?

It’s been a long time since I’ve looked into Capital, and I’m not sure any more what is in that book and what is in other writings by Marx and Engels. My impression is that Capital is not science fictional. It’s a historical analysis with particular political ramifications. Science fiction also does historical analysis and has political ramifications, so I can sort of see what you’re saying here, but it might make just as much sense to reverse this formulation and say science fiction is Marxist, because it performs a similar mental operation. I don’t think that’s necessarily true either.

One caveat here is I can’t remember how much of Marx’s predictions or prescriptions for future actions are in Capital—I thought they were mostly in The Communist Manifesto and other writings. I definitely think there are two parts to Marx. In one, where he is analyzing the past, he is a historian and philosopher, and one of the best and most important ever to have lived. In the other, when he either predicts the future, declaring it is determined, or else calls for a particular future by way of choice and action, he is being a science fiction writer. Even a utopian science fiction writer. I say this because I think the future is radially unpredictable, and anyone who begins to talk about the future in any detail is by that very act doing science fiction of one sort or another.  No one is any good at prediction, but there can be interesting science fiction nevertheless. 

So, I’m not going to re-read Capital to figure out where in his writing Marx’s futurism lies, but you can tell me.

As for Cory’s remark that Marxism is inherently techno-utopian, I would de-strand those parts that are squished together in the word “techno-utopian.” Marxism is utopian, yes, despite Marx and Engels’ attacks on the utopians of their time.  And Marx and Engels were often over-confident about science and technology and what those can do for us, so I think this is what Cory might be referring to; Marx and Engels asserted pretty often that science can solve all the problems presented by over-population and environmental destruction, and here they were wrong, to the point of espousing a sort of scientism in some sentences (although in others they show more restraint and ecological awareness, as in the idea of the metabolic rift). But I’d say the center of their utopian dream comes from a reworking of the political-economic system to make it more just, by way of a horizontalization of wealth and power, or in their terms, an end to class differences.

It’s maybe possible to argue that law, justice, and language are all systems, therefore like software systems, therefore also technologies. But in that sense, everyone is a techno-utopian. Here the implication is that Marxism believes the system software to be the important part, rather than the machinery per se; that social forces drive which machinery gets funded and built on a civilizational scale. I suspect Cory would agree with all this.

I just read a short essay on Capital at 150 by Radhika Desai in which she argued that the two most significant contributions of the book were that it historicizes capitalism and gives us a method by which we can understand that history. Is that a fair reduction of the text? And to what extent is the SFnal project a historical as much as futurological?

Adam Smith and others historicized capitalism before Marx did, and he also historicized the doing of history itself, as well as describing world history from the prehistoric period to his present, with some thoughts about what that vision of history suggested in terms of historical trajectories, thus what would come next. So I don't disagree with this first statement, but want to add that it’s bigger than historicizing capitalism per se. 

Marx's method of analysis is indeed his major contribution and gift to the rest of us, so I agree completely with the second part of this description.

The science fictional project is mainly a historical project, and to the extent there is any such thing as a futurological project, that would also be a historical project, so this isn’t a good distinction to try to make. I don’t think there are any valid futurisms or futurologies. I think most people who describe themselves as futurists or futurologists are claiming too much, almost to the point of being scam artists, especially if they charge people fees for them to come in and do consultations, as sometimes happens in the business world, or as a form of “edutainment”. Because the future can’t be predicted ((possibly my essay asserting this is online at Scientific American, though I’m not sure)), it’s best to leave all this at the level of science fiction, which for me is mainly a literary genre.

For me, science fiction has a kind of double action as a genre, and the image I use to convey this thought is the 3-D glasses you wear at 3-D movies to create the false impression of three dimensionality. Through one lens, sf tries to describe one possible future in great detail; not a prediction, but a modeling exercise or scenario. Not "this Will happen," but "this Could happen." Then the other lens is simply a metaphorical or symbolic portrayal of what’s going on right now. "It is as if we are all zombies being predated on by vampires"—this is my current candidate for the best metaphor for our times, even though people are too scared to write that one down, it seems. Anyway more traditional examples are “it is as if the working class are robots who may revolt,” or “it is as if cities are spaceships detached from Earth,” both older sf metaphors. Cyborgs are great images of us now, as Donna Haraway showed long ago. On it goes that way through that lens, symbolist prose poems of great power. Then, when the images coming through the two lens coalesce to a single vision in the mind’s eye, what pops into visibility is History itself, often deep time, casting into the future as well as back to the past. That’s how science fiction works and what it does.

I am curious about your use of timescale. You are often pretty longue durée, as was Marx, for that matter. How does choice of scale impact the stories you tell, and the thinking that precedes them?

It’s been a huge problem for me in aesthetic terms, because the novel is better suited to cover a few years, or at most a single lifetime, in some sort of biographical novel. Multi-generational sagas are a weak form to me, because readers never care about the third and fourth generation characters as much as the first ones, in any such novel. Even the best multi-generational novel, Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, suffers from this structural/emotional weakness inherent in the form.

So then to contemplate a novel covering 200 years, as in my Mars trilogy, or 700 years, as in The Years of Rice and Salt, was daunting. I solved the problems structurally by way of longevity treatments and reincarnation, giving me characters that lived through the whole story. But the problem still remained—in stories covering so much time, whatever happens that is worth dramatizing at the level of the scene, which is the basic unit of fiction? Especially if you don’t believe in the great man, or the turning point battle theories of history, but in a more social, Braudelian long durée historical process? It was a big problem for me, occupying many years of my life and creating many sleepless hours. But in the end it was an opportunity too.

Is it possible to write about the future without fetishizing technology?

Yes. But this is because you used the verb fetishizing, which is pretty strong. In writing about the future you have to think about, and discuss, technology. Especially if you agree that language and law and justice are technologies, being civilizational softwares. If that’s the case, and even if you think of technology as material tools only, still, humans have been technological since before we were human, in that pre-humans had technologies, and then evolved in a co-evolutionary process with those technologies. So we are homo faber indeed, a technological species. So, can you write about the human future without writing about sight, or hearing, or biology, or tools? Can you write about humanity’s future without talking about humans? No.

How would you characterize your political/ideological origins? How has your political trajectory changed over time? Would you characterize your project as revolutionary?

I went to college during the Vietnam War, at UCSD where Fredric Jameson was my teacher and Marcuse was still around, and I got a sophisticated political education there, from Jameson and many others, including my fellow students. Later I met and studied with Gary Snyder, whose writing had already taught me a lot about how to be a young Californian writer. Gary’s own background was Pacific Northwest IWW, so he has always been an important, exemplary figure for me. Lastly I got to work with Ursula Le Guin on writing sf, also with Samuel R. Delany, Gene Wolfe, and many other fine sf writers, including my first editor Damon Knight, who was a leftist in New York in the 1940s. So I was very lucky in my teachers, and I read widely, and I was part of the Sixties generation, including the California New Age hippie Buddhist mountaineering element. I am a very characteristic example of my place and time, greatly influenced by my friends and my era.

That political trajectory was set so strongly, it has not changed much in the years since. I’m still working out ideas and principles that were ambient at that time. The years since the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution of 1980 have been frustrating and sometimes infuriating. I would say the ugliness of the Bush torture/war administration was the low point of my political life, as well as perhaps in the history of the United States, such that even what is happening now is not (yet) quite as bad. So I’ve been trying to figure out ways to make the leftist interpretation of history more compelling to more people. Even getting back to New Deal Keynesianism would be a victory given where we are now, but now in our global moment we probably need even more than that; it’s just we may pass through that again on the way to something even more progressive and just and sustainable.

My project is to be a novelist, and to try to write good novels, to be a good artist. That’s it for me, first and last. A very bourgeois romantic hippie Buddhist Californian goal in life, I know. But also, if trying for that means telling revolutionary stories, as so often it seems to me, then I do that. I do it in the hope it makes a good novel. All art is political, so that’s not the issue; and novels, being built of meanings, are the most political of the arts. So it’s a necessity to get involved in that way. 

But I find myself always questioning what revolution means in our time. Some of the big revolutions of the past caused so much death, and such gigantic backlashes into ultimately reactionary results, that I am like many others, I question their efficacy, and wonder if a subtler and cleverer and less painful and more successful form for revolution can be invented for our time. I’m willing to entertain the thought that it might be a stepwise process taking many years, and that we might be able to surge our way there without violence on any side. Raymond Williams wrote of "the long revolution," and I wonder if science itself is the long revolution under another name. I’ve been trying to model a historical vision that sees science as utopian, and thus opposed to capitalism, rather than complicit with, and even a tool of capitalism. That’s a battle we are fighting, not a natural position or permanent result—to make science in charge, or in service of all, rather than subject to capitalist logic. For sure science’s impact on humanity and the world has been revolutionary, if you give it the full four hundred years of its modern run. But along with the scientific revolution (ongoing) has been capitalism (ongoing), so I see this as a Manichean struggle between cosmic conjoined twins, as in some Hindu myth; basically human social good versus human social bad; and who wins is still uncertain.

Rather than calling my project revolutionary, I’d just like to say I’m an American leftist who writes science fiction novels.

Putting together an issue like this means running smack into the wall that so frequently seems to lie between SF that is analytical about class, and SF that is analytical about gender and race. Any thoughts?

Does this really come up? If so that would be bad. Maybe I’m naive about the present state of the left, and of course it has always had way too much infighting, damaging the cause for everyone. Freud named this fight the narcissism of small differences, and it’s a good name, because to get so caught up in your own particular ideology that even your own allies are denounced is indeed narcissistic. And ineffective in creating real political change.

The natural argument against this point is that these are not small differences, but big ones, and need to be fought over. Maybe so. But I always want to point out that the front is broad, and capital uses our arguments against each other to split us apart from each other in the common fight against capital.

So, SF that is analytical about class— is there really any wall between that kind (which is where these days, anyway?) and the kind of SF that is analytical about gender and race?  I think the last 30 to 40 years of discussion have made it clear that patriarchy and capitalism are tightly allied and reinforce each other, and both are bad. Gender discrimination is a deep fundamental class division of a discrimination, and the problem of unpaid social reproduction being appropriated and exploited to support the ordinary economic exploitations of ordinary class need to be addressed, and the situation made just—this would be one central feature of post-capitalism. Nancy Fraser is exceptionally clear on this, a leading thinker on this front. Meanwhile race is another kind of Othering and dehumanization, a form of discrimination that allows capital to dominate many people, by way of fear, prejudice, hegemony, and so on. Fanon and even Sartre were very good on this more than 60 years ago, and it’s been made very obvious since then in the work and lives of many people, despite which it is still an ongoing struggle, as we see all the time.

In other words, the situation has been made clear, and none of these forms of oppression can be solved without all the others being solved as well. There is no such thing as a feminist capitalism, there is no such thing as a non-racist capitalism. Every leftist must needs be a feminist and anti-racist, it’s part of the definition of the left, and although every individual novel has to pick its particular topic, being a novel and not a world (people do tend to mistake the two), there is no need to set up either-ors when it comes to discussing these things. They are all part of one system, and we’re in a battle and the front is broad. It’s best to accept that your allies in this battle may have different emphases than you do, and even disagreements about tactics and so on, without them becoming enemies. A vision of the total project is important, which is why utopian fiction matters, because that’s one place where the vision comes into being.

What would you characterize as the most exciting developments in contemporary SF writing over the last twenty years? How do you see it proceeding?

I haven’t been able to read enough contemporary SF to know much about this. To a certain extent I keep my distance now, so that I am freer in my novels to get strange without knowing that I’m getting strange, so that I don’t scare myself. Since I don’t know what everyone else is like, I can’t try to be more like them. So a big part of me, the working part of me, avoids knowing the field now.  Are my books weird or normal? I don’t know, and it’s better that way. 

Also there’s too much good stuff to read. Also, I do still read many of my friends in the field, who tend to be about my age, so that I end up a bit ignorant about the new good writing. I’m sure it’s out there.

I do try to catch up a little when I can, by reading a book here or there and seeing what’s new. There’s a lot that I try and then find it too conventional, in literary terms. Remember I began reading sf during the New Wave, and that is still for me the literary high point in sf’s history. Then also, I usually want more science, and more near-future proleptic realisms. I want more finance and more leftist visions. I like seeing that there are more women writing sf, and more people of color writing sf, and more people in China and India writing sf, and I hope for more from all these. It’s a good sign that sf, and therefore global society, are getting stronger.  Everyone needs a positive vision of the future for themselves and their people and culture, so everyone needs to be doing sf. 

I like sf a lot more than fantasy. As for fantasy, and the rise of fantasy over science fiction in our time, I often repeat an old phrase of H.G. Wells: where anything is possible, nothing is interesting. This feeling kills most fantasy for me. And as Jameson once remarked, trying to cut the Gordian knot between fantasy and science fiction, fantasy is about pre-capitalist societies, while science fiction is about capitalist and post-capitalist societies. I’m more interested in these. Indeed for me science fiction is the realism of our time, and the strongest genre alive today. So this keeps me oriented toward science fiction. I want lots more young writers of all backgrounds, types, races, ethnicities, and genders writing science fiction. That would be the best for all.

Plus I am interested in science, and think of it as an under-theorized utopian politics already active in the real world. So my hope is to see more science fiction that interprets history and science in that way, and writes stories accordingly, to make that perception clearer, and even perhaps to help make it more real.

Mark Bould (Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction), who I also interviewed for this issue, would certainly agree with you that Capital is not a text that risks crass predictions (and Marx himself was amused by the idea that it should contain “recipes for the cookbook of the future”). But, isn’t the whole dialectical method of Capital one that is always pregnant with the future? What I suppose I’m suggesting with the Capital-as-SF provocation is that the rigorous materialism of its analysis, the way it unfolds through time in a particular direction, the sense of perpetually impending crises, makes it not only satisfying in a pulpy science fictional sort of a manner, but illuminates very clearly the way in which our future history is contestable now, and even provides us with a set of tools for engaging in that contest. I would argue that the futurism in Capital is to be found in the way it politicizes time: the project isn’t to predict the future, but to change it. You can address any of that if you wish to but I suppose I really do need to somehow reduce it all to a question: To what extent is the idea of “the future” – the concept itself – an ideological production? What are the sorts of assumptions that shape our understanding of it?

I still doubt thinking of Capital as SF is useful except in the most general sense of getting one thinking how both are ways of regarding history. As for “the future” as an idea, I seem to recall another remark Jameson once made, that the future came into being during the French Revolution. A sense of the future was something the Enlightenment perhaps did, which was to create such a quick break with the early modern period in so many different ways that the future rose into general consciousness as a place that was going to be different from the present and past. Also, that humanity was confronted with different possible futures, and present actions could help to bring one future into being rather than another. This doesn’t seem to be a strong idea in culture until after the time of the great revolutions, and then it becomes part of the discussion, and in those early moments of awareness of “the future,” you see the appearance of science fiction as a genre. It’s often remarked that “science fiction” is an inaccurate name, and my definition for the genre is all the stories that are set in the future (although I would not want to change the genre’s name, as it is a very productive misnaming).

So, there are all kinds of assumptions that shape our understanding of the future, and one I can mention is that we make assumptions about the rate of change that will occur in the future. This is simple enough to be graphed: we often talk about “straight line extrapolation” in which the rate of change persists as it is, then there is accelerating change, and also decelerating change, less often mentioned, as change has been accelerating for a while now. But the logistic curve, a kind of big S in which slow change eventually accelerates and speeds up, but then hits various physical constraints or the like, and slows down again, is a very common phenomenon in nature. I find reasons to believe that the logistic curve will probably describe the rate of change in human history— but when will the curves in this big S graph occur? No one can say. So it is over-simple, only one factor, and does little to help us predict or envision the real future coming. It’s just one more tool for thinking about something that resists thought.

We talked a little about Braudel’s longue durée and you mentioned Raymond William’s “Long Revolution” (with which I am less familiar). As I understand it, both are attempts to justify a slow (reformist?) pace to social and cultural change by arguing that such changes occur on a slower track than political, and that to force the issue too quickly invites catastrophe. I’m curious if that sort of multi-track thinking about time and change is also a part of your world-building and storytelling.

I had those two long durée novels, and there I had to think about these things; also to an extent in 2312, Aurora, and even Shaman in a different way. But my own work is quite a bit more intuitive and ad hoc than your question suggests. I don’t see them well until after I’ve written them, and even then I’m stuck inside them to an extent, and in any case have moved on. So I don’t know about this.

In general I think some changes are very slow, take longer than a human life, and yet we still have to persist in working to make them happen. This is a hard thing to grasp. Raymond Williams has another concept, the residual and emergent: each historical moment is composed of residual factors going far back into prehistory, but also very prominently, persisting from the immediately previous world economic system: thus capitalism’s residual is feudalism, and we see those feudal remnants everywhere, often still dominating the situation. But there are good residuals too, many out of the paleolithic.

Then the emergent is harder to see precisely because it is new and not yet fully emerged or formed, so one has to guess at this. I call it post-capitalism because we can’t be sure what it’s going to be yet, and labelling it is maybe a good attempt to influence what it will be, but then again, we could easily be wrong as to what is actually emerging. Also both good and bad things could be emerging at once—it looks that way right now—and so it isn’t just a case of seeing what’s coming and helping it—we have choices to make about which emerging phenomena to support and which to oppose.  Thinking of this mesh of past and future is a good tool however.

I am increasingly frustrated with how I formulated that gender/race/class question and your bemusement is justified. It is the result of my efforts to drum up writers for this particular journal rather than the outcome of any clear-eyed analysis. There is no shortage of sophisticated and ambitious young writers out there dealing with race and gender who are perfectly aware of the economics of it all, and there are plenty of great venues for them to publish in. It is really a fantastic period in which to be reading short form SF in that sense. It seems like every week there is something new and challenging to engage with out there. But there are not as many digging into class as aggressively I would personally like – plenty of irony and satire about capitalism, but not enough blistering critique of economic asymmetries. So I’ll rephrase it entirely: In your own work, how have you gone about exploring the profound connections between economic exploitation and other forms of oppression?

As a straight white American male artist, getting older, I have been interested to figure out how I can help make a better world, having lived a life of incredible privilege and luck when compared to most human lives so far. It’s not obvious how to do this, especially since my chosen art form, the novel, has historically been a form about the bourgeoisie and their problems. That’s my class, that’s my form. But the novel is big and powerful—maybe that’s not a coincidence, given its origins, but also, every human is in love with stories and even addicted to stories, and novels are one of the best story forms ever invented. And ideologies are made of stories, they are a kind of story. So it becomes suggestive when you think of it that way.

Virginia Woolf spoke of Shakespeare as being androgynous, and the writer’s goal being to be like that, to be an absent presence, to try to speak the other, to try to imagine other minds in other times and places, and see what happens when that attempt is made.  No art or artist can escape history, but a good novel can examine history and think about what it means, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with my novels.

Politically, it seems to me that all forms of oppression are bad, and they are interlinked and feed off each other, and the economic is just the way we legalize, quantify, and enforce injustice, and the exploitation of the many by a few. Different novels of mine have given me more or fewer opportunities to tell stories that link all oppressions together into a system of habits. I tried to discuss their origins in Shaman, I tried to historicize them in The Years of Rice and Salt, and I’ve explored ways we might do better as a global civilization, and make a more just and equal society, in many of my other novels. These efforts have bent the novels into odd shapes, but also, these are good and interesting stories to tell, and to an extent they are even new stories.

Science fiction has been a marvelous escape from the dead end much “literary fiction” is in now, stirring the dead ashes of the great modernist works, and getting caught up in the narcissism of late capitalist bourgeois neurosis. SF is outsider art, looked down on by official literary culture, and that’s such a great place to be. It’s outside the MFA system, outside postmodernism, it’s even replacing the postmodern with the Anthropocene, historicizing and politicizing everything, able to take on science and use science’s exploding new vocabulary— well, there are many reasons why science fiction is the great realism of our time, and some of them are because of the traps it has avoided, either by its own efforts or by others misunderstanding and rejecting it.  

I saw the SF community accept difference well before the general American culture did, and now I’m seeing it being filled with young people of all descriptions, who are using it to imagine and call for futures that will be better for them. Recently there was a very stupid objection to SF being “taken over” by “social justice warriors”— for one thing, this is a great development; for another, SF has always had a very strong strand of social justice advocacy in it. So really there is no problem here to worry about, in terms of which injustice is primary or whatnot. Just remember the front is broad and attack at the place that matters to you most.