KIM STANLEY ROBINSON is best known as a novelist of scale, a creator of complex futures and universes of sublime magnitude. His Three Californias (or Orange County) trilogy (1984-90), for example, offers three alternative visions — a post-apocalyptic pastoral, a dystopian satire, and a precarious ecotopia — of what California (and the world) might become, while the Science in the Capital trilogy (2004-07) depicts Beltway politics during a period of catastrophic global climate change. The Mars trilogy (1992-96), probably the major accomplishment of 1990s American SF, charts both the transformation of Mars into a planet habitable by humankind and the transformation of humankind (including our political, social, and economic systems) into forms fit for a new world. Even the standalone novels like Antarctica (1997), The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), and Galileo's Dream (2009) are in the heavyweight division.
A retrospective collection of twenty-two shorter pieces from the last three decades is therefore an intriguing prospect. People have noted that Robinson's novels, however vast their scope and implications, are usually composed of novella-length parts — suggesting that, as a writer, he is perhaps more comfortable at shorter lengths — but they're still complex wholes, leaving one to wonder what a collection of such parts without a unifying framework might be like. Actually, even The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson is not quite a miscellany: a number of the stories gathered here are linked to each other and to Robinson's other, longer works. But leaving aside such overt connections, the collection returns again and again to Robinson's career-long concern with complex systems. These stories enliven landscapes by treating them as environments with dynamic, unfolding histories. They combine romanticism with naturalism, symbolism with science. They also contain a lot of mountains and music, wilderness, weather, water and work.
Robinson comes from the post-New Wave generation of self-consciously literary but not exactly avant-gardist SF writers nurtured in Damon Knight's Orbit and Terry Carr's Universe original anthology series. "Venice Drowned" (1981), for example, depicts a near-future of global warming in which Carlo Tafur helps visiting Japanese remove artifacts and artworks from a Venice succumbing to rising tides. The partially submerged city is visualized with the surreal eye of J.G. Ballard's early catastrophe novels, while the sense of relentlessly approaching disaster recalls Pamela Zoline's "The Holland of the Mind" (1969). But Robinson eschews such authors' experimentalism in favor of more conventional narrative, ambivalently observing his protagonist with the pseudo-objectivity of an Italian neo-realist film. The storm that slowly gathers and imperils Carlo (one cannot help but think of Romantics on the Grand Tour when reading this story) is clearly symbolic, but ambiguously so, and is kept in hand by Robinson's careful attention to the business of sailing in high seas. The sense of loss and mourning that dominates the story is melancholic rather than nostalgic, and it is balanced by a quiet faith in ordinary people — not the expansionist chauvinism more typical of American SF traditions, but a recognition of human endurance in the face of power's indifference. Because the flood will surely come; it always does....read more