A Functional Form Has Its Own Beauty: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

By McKenzie WarkSeptember 2, 2013

A Functional Form Has Its Own Beauty: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

McKenzie Wark: Let’s start with sex. There’s not a lot of it in your books, but when there is, it’s spectacular. Weightless, naked on Mars, in a treehouse in a blizzard. Not to mention the “tabling” in Blue Mars. But it has usually been heterosexual. Then in 2312 we end up in a world of wonderfully complicated multiple genders, which opens up all sorts of possibilities. What led you to this more inventive approach to gender and sexuality in that book?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Always good to start with sex!   

In 2312, I was thinking that in three hundred years we may have become quite a bit more capable of altering our bodies, and maybe bolder too, and I wanted to suggest that in as many ways as possible. I wanted the estrangement effect of setting the novel three hundred years from now to be strong, but also based in things we are already seeing, so it seemed natural to play with gender, along with size, longevity, and so on. I wanted to suggest that we might start to turn ourselves into slightly different breeds of humans, like dogs. And if being both genders happened to help people live longer (a big if) then our naturally curiosity about the matter might be much enhanced.

I feel I’ve been taught a lot about gender by science fiction, including books by Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, and others, and also by the science-fiction community, which has a flourishing LGBT component, pretty well integrated with the rest of it. Also I was very struck by my own experiences as a “Mr. Mom” when I did the home parenting for our two children, especially when they were infants and toddlers. I wanted to write about that again, as I did in the Science In the Capital trilogy, but from a different angle, to express the feeling that grew in me that gender as feeling is labile and not related to bodies per se.

I actually thought there was a lot of sex in my books, but maybe I am just more aware of it than readers, because it feels risky and exposed to me; I don’t know. I do know that very early on I saw that stories often rely on sex and violence for their thrills, and I thought (and think) that the violence in art is often very ignorant, and so I was going to avoid it as much as possible — and compensate for the resulting possible lack of thrills by putting more sex in my stories.  

This has been a conscious policy. But then the sex has to be interesting as writing, which is not so easy. So it’s been a challenge, but something fun to try. If I can shock myself (and I can), then I can shock the reader too, I hope.

MW: The adjective ‘ballardian’ shows up in Blue Mars, and by 2312 all sorts of author and book names from SF, or key terms used by famous SF authors, seem to have passed into the everyday language: dhalgren, kipple, waldo, and so on. Art works are described as goldsworthies or abramovics, as if these were whole genres of work. Do you think art and writing can actually have that capacity to name the world? And what do you think the Robinsonian contribution to naming the world might be?

KSR: Well for sure writing names the world, in that language names the world. As for art, I think its names sometimes stick. I think it makes sense to call landscape art “goldsworthies” and performance art “abramovics,” because these two artists have so excelled in these genres that they have brought them to the consciousness of the general culture, so that the genres themselves can be understood to be major art forms, likely to get more and more important.  

There is that big raft of words introduced into English by Shakespeare, and I think it has been happening since at a slower rate, even since dictionaries came into being. Science fiction has been pretty good at putting new words into the language by naming things before they actually exist, such as waldoes or cyberspace. And I think ballardian and phildickian are words now, like Orwellian or Kafkaesque. I like that game, because I like to use odd words in my texts when I can, it’s part of the estrangement effect of trying to convey a future. That can be overdone of course, and as time passes most invented science fiction words simply look odd (“spindizzy”), but it’s still worth trying.  

I doubt I have done anything like this that will last, as I did not invent the word “terraforming” but only picked up on it out of earlier science fiction; Jack Williamson invented it back in the 1930s. And the term robinsonian already refers to the Robinsonade, the adventure of a solo human in nature, an accidental association that I love.

MW: One of the kinds of language and thinking in play in almost all of your books is a literary-critical one. Raymond Williams’s structure of feeling, Greimas’s semiotic squares show up. And yet your characters are often annoyed by the imprecision of just these concepts, particularly if they are scientists. Do you think it’s possible to stage a useful dialog between critical and empirical or scientific thought, and might the novel actually be the ideal place to attempt it?

KSR: Yes, the novel is a great space for bringing these different realms of discourse together, and seeing what happens. I’ve been much influenced by Bahktin’s image of the novel as polyvocal, what he calls a heteroglossia (another great word!), so that it isn’t so much the novelist as a single visionary but rather something more like an old-time telephone switchboard operator, plugging in different voices and then orchestrating the flow of that chorus, so to speak. So you get chances for different points of view to speak or argue in dialogues or larger discussions, and the plots themselves also express these arguments in actions.    

But also we’re seeing this discussion going on in the field called science studies, or science and technology studies, which I take to be the application of various aspects of what we call theory to science, its history and current practices. So it is really the latest and most sophisticated and historicized version of philosophy of science, now that philosophy has become theory and science has become science and technology, or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). This is a really important intersection of ideas and practices, given the situation we are in as a global civilization. It’s a crucial conversation and I think it’s happening in all kinds of contexts, which is a good thing. 

MW: When you are working on your books, do you treat it as a world-building exercise in which the world has its own dynamics? Or does the story call the world into being?

KSR: I think more the latter, but my story ideas are often somehow world-building ideas. At least this was true with the Mars trilogy. If the story idea is, “Mars is terraformed over a few centuries,” then this is a big problem for the novel as a form (dealing with the centuries) but also a big opportunity.  

Same with the idea for The Years of Rice and Salt, where the world is the same to begin with, but history is different, so different that it resembles what we think of when we say world-building. Maybe that one is “Asia world.”

So I would say that my ideas often concern a group of people dealing with a landscape somehow (even the solar system as a landscape) and thus both parts of it come into play at once, so that I couldn't say which comes first.

MW: In many of your books, things like the weather or the geology of a situation get equal attention alongside whatever is at stake between the characters, and sometimes even more attention. It is as if you had shifted the novel’s attention to a whole other series of relationships. Do you think this is a just an aspect of the novel that had not much been explored before, or do you think you were bringing something into the form from other kinds of writing?

KSR: Well, I think there has always been a kind of novel that explores the relationships between people and nature, or a physical situation or challenge, and I have always been interested in these novels as a reader, going back to my childhood. So almost every novel has people as the central characters, but sometimes the antagonist is a natural situation, or the setting is not antagonistic exactly, but extremely interesting.  

Thus Robinson Crusoe, which naturally I liked; and then I’m remembering James Ramsay Ullman’s novels about climbing the Matterhorn, or even Huckleberry Finn and the way the river is a very major presence in the novel, the third major character so to speak, or simply a dominant setting. Also William Golding’s Pincher Martin, and really all his first four novels; and so on. The more I think of it, the more I realize that these moments describing people in the world stick out for me even in novels that are mostly social: in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, for instance, Tess’s time working the fields on the moors was for me the most striking passage.

Then in science fiction, this often translates to the planetary romance, where the interest again is in people dealing with a new landscape. I always loved this kind of SF, in Jack Vance, early Le Guin, Edgar Pangborn, Frank Herbert’s Dune, certain early John Brunner, and really the whole subgenre of the planetary romance; these were among my favorite SF novels. That’s one of the reasons my Mars novels took up so much of my writing career.  

I also took an interest in George Stewart’s experimental novels where a natural situation or process was made the protagonist of the story, as in Storm or Fire; this was also somewhat true of Earth Abides (and his other novel centered on an inhuman process, Orals Exam!). These books of his tended to convince me that people were the necessary centers of novels, but they were like limit cases that established how far you could take things.

So, not only were these the kinds of novels that were capturing me most, but all along I’ve spent a lot of time hiking in the Sierra Nevadas, and earlier in my life in other mountain ranges too, and these experiences have been among the most profound of my life. They are what I like to do. And when backpacking, the weather really matters, in a way it doesn’t down in civilization; it impacts that very day, that hour. You live in it. This has always struck me as worth writing about, and as something to bring to my novels that is out of my life rather than my reading. So  I’ve tried to find stories where those experiences could be put to use.

MW: Your characters are often quite preoccupied with their everyday habits and how or whether to change them. There’s a lot of experimenting going on with forms of life. Do you think that is how social change actually happens? At the “molecular” level, as it were?

KSR: I’m not sure about that. Maybe my stories are partly to explore how that might happen. I am very interested in habits, and in describing in my novels how people live in their ordinary lives. This comes partly out of my love for Proust’s novel and my admiration for how he managed to do that, by the use of certain French tenses and what Gerard Genette called “the pseudo-iterative,” in which Proust will begin by saying something like “we always did this” and then go on to describe a day or time in such enormous detail that you come to realize that it could only have happened that way once, so that when he says it always happened like that, he means the form of the day was like that, with individual details different; some kind of variations-on-a-theme thing.  

So, of course novels must have plots, drama, and the urge in the reader to find out what happens next; but there’s also this deep question, how did it feel to live daily life in that time and place? What did they do, what were people’s habits? Which when asked of people living on Mars or Pluto, or on a spaceship, or in an alternative history where almost everyone is Asian, or in any really novel situation, is a profound curiosity in the reader; at least it is for me when I read.  

Certainly we read novels to get into other people’s thought processes, to have a kind of imitation telepathy, but also to do a kind of living sociology or history or life-sharing. So I have always been very interested in trying to do this part of novel writing, which is a technical or formal problem, as ultimately plot is crucial too. You need both the daily and then the thing that breaks the daily, meaning the plot.

As for changing one’s habits, that is so mysterious. Again from Proust; there is the moment when you are cast into a new situation and have to change habits, and I think it was Beckett in his slim book on Proust who spoke of these moments as the true existential exposure, the naked times when you are alive without the protection of your habits, and have to think what to do moment by moment, actually decide, until you settle into (I think Beckett called it exfoliating) into a new set of habits and are somewhat protected again from that existential nakedness. This seems right to me, this is how it has felt for me, and I am very interested to try to write these moments, and present these moments as central to a plot.

Whether these moments come in reaction to broader historical changes, or purely personal events, I don’t know, I think it is probably both. Simply aging can do it. Sometimes you get tired of your habits, and off you go in a new way.

MW: I loved the way Washington DC is described in your Science in the Capital books, where the whole psychogeography of the city revolves around its remnant forest. As a writer who is justly famous for his landscape writing, I wonder what you think of actual cities, and the future possibility of cities?

KSR: I love certain cities that I know:  San Francisco, New York, London, Zurich. I’ve also greatly enjoyed visiting many others. I was influenced in my feeling for cities by my teacher and friend, Gary Snyder, and his wonderful poem describing New York as just another natural habitat, among other things. And I think cities are better for the planet’s environmental future than suburban sprawl, which I see so much of in California.  

So: green cities, neo-traditional design and town planning, densification, white and solar rooftops, garden zones, pedestrian zones, mass transit; and also better agriculture to feed the urban populations, including habitat zones that connect up, so that we’re sharing the planet well with the other life forms, especially the mammals that are suffering so in the current dispensation.  

There is, in short, an integrated total design, including an energy and agricultural vision that could keep all the parts of the ecosystem well, including us. It'’ still emerging but the outlines are clear, it’s only a matter of building it and enacting it. It is not a technical problem so much as an economic problem, meaning a justice problem. I think it is the big project of the next century or two. And cities will be a major part of it.

MW: A lot of artists, writers, and filmmakers have destroyed New York City. In 2312, you drown it. What sets your version apart is that it is energetically being inhabited and made to work by New Yorkers. Would you consider yourself an optimist about the adaptability and ingenuity of our species?

KSR: Not really, but only because I don’t think it takes optimism on this subject, only realism. We have been adaptable and ingenious as a species, and it won’t stop happening. People are born and grow up into circumstances that they tend to think of as normal, just as we do, and if they are born and grow up in a drowned Manhattan, then they will be dealing with that without too much moaning and groaning about the lack of streets and taxis. Some will always lament and gnash teeth, but the society will get on with things. That will be true everywhere.

That said, if we acidify the oceans to the extent that we kill off the bottom of the ocean food chain, then there will be mass suffering for humans and a mass extinction event for land creatures as well as ocean creatures. So we are teetering on the brink of some very serious catastrophes that we are causing ourselves.  

But what I see now is the start of the response to that emergency; not a universal response by any means, but a growing majority opinion that we have to decarbonize as fast as we can. The scientific community is convinced and getting more active in pointing this out, and the public and their political representatives are responding to the news. There will be self-interested and contrarian responses too, but I suppose that is just part of what we are as a species and culture now. What matters is what the civilization itself does. So politics matters, even the stupidest politics. (Groan, gnash teeth.)

MW: Practically all of your writing stages encounters between scientific or technical knowledge on the one hand and cultural or religious knowledge on the other. And now in Shaman you have gone back into prehistory, before these were really separate ways of being. I am curious as to whether you get different reactions and readings of your books from the respective halves of the “two cultures.” Do your scientist readers imagine a different KSR to us humanists?

KSR: Maybe so. My evidence is anecdotal and pretty various, in that it depends on which scientists I am talking to, and which humanists.   

I do often run into scientists who assume that I am a scientist, or scientifically literate in the way that anyone would be in this scientific culture, and they take the science in my books to be natural to the genre, also partial and speculative, as it has to be. In other words, all that realm is a given to them, and then what is interesting is to discuss ramifications of the technical innovations, etc.  

There has also been a considerable amount of discomfort from scientists reading my work, or hearing me talk, when I suggest that scientists and scientific institutions should get more directly involved in making political policy. That worries them, or even offends or frightens them; they see it as a potential threat to scientific integrity. But it is a way in to certain kinds of discussions about Science In Action, so I persist in suggesting this to them.

It’s from the humanities and arts people that I more often get a response that is something like, “Wow, there is a lot of science in these books, how striking!” And they are more likely to ask, “where did you get your science?” or “what was your training?”  — whereas many scientists don’t think to ask, and seem to assume “this is something every person knows, or at least every science-fiction writer.”   

This is as close as I can come to characterizing these various responses into a pattern of sorts.

Not only in Shaman but in the rest of my science fiction, I’ve been interested to cross all these ways of knowing, to think about  science as a kind of religious activity, and definitely as a secretly hegemonic culture within our other various cultures, while at the same time thinking about Buddhism or art as versions of scientific thinking, or some other permanently valid way of looking at things. The permanent necessity of philosophy and art, basically, so that we can decide what to do — that isn’t a question science takes on or wants to take on. 

Often in my novels all these aspects are mashed together in the characters’ lives, and in the plots.

MW: While scientists, particularly when starting out, can be naïve empiricists, it seems to me that many trained in the humanities have become naïve Heideggerians. They are only able to imagine science and technology as some fallen world without real “being”. One way to read your books is as inquiries as to what to do when the past world of being is irredeemably lost. And there’s a range of answers, from getting on with pure science, or engineering a better world, or creating new systems of ritual and arts of devotion. But how can these practices be put in dialog with each other?

KSR: Novels are good ways of putting these practices in dialog, by way of the characters’ lives, and the plots of the novels. It’s often struck me that the name “science fiction,” in some ways so inaccurate and wrong, is actually extremely powerful anyway, because the two words can be translated into “facts” and “values,” and the fact/value or is/ought problem is a famous one in philosophy, and often regarded as insoluble, so that if you call your genre “fact values” you are saying it can bridge a difficult abyss in our thinking.  

This means frequent failure, of course, as it is indeed a difficult abyss. But it is a strong claim for a genre to make, and I’ve come to love the name “science fiction” and dislike very much the various replacement names that would supposedly rehabilitate or make respectable the genre: speculative fiction, fabulation, the fantastic, etc. None of them have the power and historical heft of science fiction.

I think we all believe deeply in science, no matter what we say as humanities people or environmentalists or leftists or whatever else we think of ourselves as (as I certainly do); any of the other positions that gives us a stance from which to criticize the sciences (religion would certainly be included here): because when we get sick, we go to the doctor. And the doctor is a scientist, and medicine is science.  

Of course, as we live on, we learn that going to the doctor is by no means a sure way to a cure, and that medicine leads us into a murky world of guesses and art and precedence and probabilities, etc., etc.: but that means we are getting a very good lesson as to what science really is, all across the scientific disciplines. It’s just that when it’s your own health, the stakes are higher and the lessons sometimes starker.  

That being said, medicine has added many, many years to our lives, on the whole. So that that whole realm of medicine becomes a really good practical lesson in what we mean when we talk about science. I wish more people would understand that connection before pontificating about science as instrumentality, desacralization, etc., etc. Of course, yes, all true; and in the same centuries modern science has been active, capitalism has been likewise active and growing, so the two are like conjoined twins ruling the world, making it hard to de-strand the two, they are so interwoven.  But I remain an advocate of science as a method of understanding, a set of institutions and practices, a philosophy of action, a utopian politics.

MW: Shaman seems to be the first book you have written in twenty years that doesn’t have the word “coriolis” in it — as in Coriolis effect. The word “katabatic” shows up a lot too (usually katabatic winds coming down off mountains). Are these phenomena in the natural world that you have a particular fondness for?

KSR: I can never remember which way the Coriolis force pushes things, and I’m always calling planetary scientist Chris McKay to get it right. This first happened when I was wondering which way the current would run in the Hellas Sea on Mars, if there were a sea filling the circular Hellas Basin. Chris is someone you can ask questions like that without startling him. I think the reason the word has recurred is that I keep writing about situations where it will somehow be a factor, as in Antarctica (is there a Coriolis force at the South Pole?), or the interior of asteroids spinning in order to create a gravity effect inside them, and so on.

Katabatic winds I have definitely felt, first when playing tennis in the Santa Ana winds in Orange County, then very definitely in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, also a few times at Blacks Cliffs in La Jolla, and I think on certain nights in the Sierra, camped under certain plateaus. Ultimately they are no different than other winds in terms of their windiness, and fondness isn’t the right word for my response to them, but I do like the word.  

I like to use words out of the sciences that particularize physical processes (or generalize them) in ways ordinary language doesn’t usually. In fact many of these words are simply Greek or Latin, or mash-ups of the two languages, but they suggest a scientific precision that strikes me as both writerly (like, say, Joyce) and also comic, in the sense of Mr. Spock explaining his Spocklike thinking. Hippocampus, de-intensification, hierarchicalization, etc., etc., it goes on and on and is both funny and sharp, and musical too, in ways I like. 

MW: In 2312, where asteroids are being hollowed out and turned into Bernal spheres and inhabited, you describe in lovely detail some fantastic ecologies and sociologies – from sexliners to blackliners. There’s even an “outie” asteroid called The Little Prince. There’s a tension between the practical design problem-solving in your books and pure invention, whether of an asteroid, a tree house, or a species. What role does a nonfunctional aesthetic play in making things? And can your own books be grasped as expressions of this same aesthetic?

KSR: Yes, I think so. Form follows function, but what’s interesting is how often a functional form has its own beauty, which can then be enhanced by decoration and playfulness in detail. This is true of design in all fields. And of course, art,s main function is to entertain, so there play and beauty are part of the basic goal. 

I am often trying to imagine my novels as having shapes, like vases, but this is pretty abstract and invisible, and often I don’t have any real shape in my mind but am just hoping for some kind of shapeliness.  

Then, in my free time, I enjoy making things with rocks, doing patio jigsaw patterns in quartzite around my house (I have one patio where three stones that made an excellent map of California are in the middle of the patio, and have rays of rock extending out from it; and another that is a kind of rock whirlpool around a Japanese maple); I also am stacking and re-stacking a drywall lake front at my wife’s family place in Maine, made of glacial cobble so that every winter the bad work I do slumps back into the lake, while the good work holds longer.  

All this rock work, I realized, is like doing novels that I can actually see, which is why they give me such pleasure. My conclusion is that everyone should make things for the fun of it.


LARB Contributor

McKenzie Wark is the author of The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso), Telesthesia (Polity), A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard, 2004), Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (Verso, 2015), and various other things. She teaches in the liberal studies MA program at the New School for Social Research in New York City.


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