Alternative Californias

September 16, 2011

The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson by Jonathan Strahan and Kim Stanley Robinson

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.

Storms also gather in "Black Air" (1983), a story about a teenager pressed into the Spanish Armada who, it is suggested but never confirmed, has miraculous powers; and in "Muir on Shasta" (1990), a retelling of late-Victorian ecologist John Muir's account of climbing California's Mount Shasta, which culminates in a vision of "hills dotted with millions of white points" surrounding a "bay-circling city" that he mistakenly surmises must "be thousands of years in the future, as glaciers were thousands of years in the past" (336). In "'A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations'" (1991), Frank Churchill, an American historian suffering from depression, is offered a lucrative contract to write a coffee-table book which gives an overview of the century in 30,000 words. His researches in the British Library confront him with the 100 million who died in twentieth-century wars. When he finds a book from 1902 titled A History of the Nineteenth Century, with illustrations, he is bemused by its author's conclusion: "'I believe that Man is good. I believe that we stand at the dawn of a century that will be more peaceful and prosperous than any in history.'" Churchill drives north, through Scotland to the Orkneys. There, amid centuries-old churches and the archeological traces of five-thousand-year-old settlements, "leaning out against the gale," he stands "at the end — the end of a continent, end of a century, end of a culture." What Churchill discovers is that, although "it was dark, and the wind howled," he, too, believes man is good. Just as he has emerged from depression and reconnected with the world and with a deeper history, so too might humankind survive the imminent, culminating catastrophe of global capital. Neither recent history nor the disastrous present necessarily forecloses a future of peace and prosperity.

Storm No. 2 © Ran Ortner 2009 All rights reserved

Storm No. 2 © Ran Ortner 2009 All rights reserved

A story called "The Blind Geometer" (1986) obliquely approaches SF's fascination with alien-encounter scenarios. A storm over Washington brings to crisis point the peculiar relationship between the blind narrator and a woman, purportedly brain-damaged by extraterrestrials but also given insights that might advance the geometer's groundbreaking work on the geometry of n-dimensional manifolds. The truth is simultaneously more melodramatic and more mundane: she has been abducted not by aliens but by a multinational corporation and programmed to spy on the geometer's work, since it could solve problems they've had developing a particle-beam weapon. But Robinson's story is more concerned with human relationships and how to understand and describe them, than it is with thriller shenanigans and techspeak.

Like many other stories in the collection, "The Blind Geometer" amply demonstrates Robinson's hard-SF credentials, but on the whole he tends to wear the science in his science fiction quite lightly. For example, "Ridge-Running" (1985), whose simple focus on small actions and incidents so minor that they barely deserve the name recalls Stephen Crane or Ernest Hemingway, was nominated for a Hugo, one of SF's leading awards. Yet the only science (and, therefore, only SF) in this account of three old friends hiking in the Sierras is a brief discussion of the treatment one of them has undergone to repair neuronal connections sustained in a car crash. The linguistic aphasia from which he still suffers produces a directness of experience, a preconceptual apprehension of being in the world towards which Robinson's minimalization of plot directs the reader. Elsewhere, as in "Glacier" (1988), the didacticism inherent in scientific exposition re-enchants the world:

It was steep on the rounded side slope, but the ice was embedded with thousands of chunks of gravel. Each pebble, heated by the sun, had sunk into a little pocket of its own, and was then frozen into position in the night; this process had been repeated until most chunks were about three-quarters buried. Thus the glacier had a peculiarly pocked, rocky surface, which gripped the torn soles of Alex's shoes. A non-slip surface. No slope on the glacier was too steep for him. Crunch, crunch, crunch: tiny arabesques of ice collapsed under his feet with every step. He could change the glacier, he was part of its action. Part of it.

The epiphanic realization that we are all parts of larger processes also underpins Robinson's treatment of history. In "The Lucky Strike" (1984), after a grandstanding Colonel Tibbet fatally crashes the Enola Gay, Captain Frank January, the bombardier on the replacement mission, discovers en route to Hiroshima that "there was no part of his life that did not apply to the situation he was in" (86), that "you're accountable for what you do" (95). On that August morning, he is faced with a world-changing decision. Robinson's thoughts on this particular alternative history are developed further in "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions" (1990), which combines historiographical debates and chaos theory with a range of counterfactual realities to place the reader in the position of the bombardier flying towards Hiroshima who must decide whether or not to obey orders. Robinson uses this elaborate conceit to identify the ethical and political demands made on us by "our asymptotic freedom to act, uncertainly, in time's asymmetrical flow" (108). Alternate and false histories are a recurring preoccupation of Robinson's. "Remaking History" (1988) follows a group of filmmakers attempting to produce a more accurate account of the 1980 mission that rescued the hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Teheran than that promulgated by the old TV movie, Escape from Teheran. As the cast and crew debate different models of history, the small actions that produced the story's own alternative history are gradually uncovered. And in "Vinland the Dream" (1991), archeological and archival research reveals that the whole history of Norse discovery and settlement in the Americas is a hoax, perpetrated by an unknown man who faked and planted all the evidence in the early nineteenth century; but, Robinson suggests, perhaps the "value" of the stories that make up history lies not in their empirical truth but in "how much they spur our imagination."

"The Timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942," written especially for this volume, provides it with a fitting culmination. It is one of several stories that belong to SF more by virtue of being written by an SF writer than by form or content. It is a detailed account — and an imaginative inflation — of the performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at Hitler's birthday celebrations, based on close listening to the Berlin Philharmonic's recording made several weeks earlier. It acknowledges the controversy around conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who helped a number of Jews to escape abroad but did not himself take advantage of several opportunities to leave Nazi Germany, but is more concerned with articulating Furtwängler's philosophy of conducting than with his political actions: unlike the metronomically precise Toscanini, Furtwängler saw the score as an invitation to produce an ecstatic, sonic encounter with the power of nature. And as the drums take on the sound of Allied bombers, so the Philharmonic produces a performance that bears witness — in front of Reich dignitaries — to the fact that "not everyone had been suborned, that some had had to stay and fight from within as best they could, with whatever they had, even if it was just to make a music that would remind people hunched by their radio that there was a better world."

A hard rain is falling. The storm is here. You are flying toward Hiroshima. It's down to you.


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