KIM STANLEY ROBINSON, Hugo and Nebula Award–winning author of The Ministry for the Future (Orbit, October 6, 2020) and 20 previous novels, talks with Everett Hamner, whose chapter about Robinson’s fiction just appeared in The Palgrave Handbook of Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature and Science (2020).
EVERETT HAMNER: The Ministry for the Future imagines the UN setting up an international task force responsible for representing the needs of future generations, particularly with an eye to the climate crisis. Its team members agree initially that their leverage point lies in enabling new legislation while working within established governmental systems, but eventually, the Ministry’s head grows convinced that a black ops division is necessary. While the tension between this leader, Mary Murphy, and her kidnapper-turned-friend, Frank May, is no zero-sum game, would you agree that with this novel, your work edges closer to acknowledging a role for ecoterrorism, as Gerry Canavan’s LARB review also probes?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: Using the noun “eco-terrorism” is a political act in itself, heavily weighted. Usually the term would be used by a state, or by people backing the status quo. It’s an accusation as such. So alternative descriptors need to be considered — “physical resistance,” “revolution,” or the like. This is part of what The Ministry for the Future is doing. In the novel, it’s sometimes called the War for the Earth. Is it a war? If so, what kind of war? If the legal and institutionalized not-so-slow violence of neoliberal capitalism is immiserating people and wrecking the biosphere, and beginning a mass extinction event that will devastate human civilization and harm all the generations to come, is there a role for physical resistance? Would sabotage be okay? What about rioting? What about physical assaults on people? What about murder?
I’m a middle-class white American, a suburban house husband. I believe in the rule of law, and in nonviolent action. If prosperous people like me were to advocate violence in resistance to injustice, and people suffering in the current system took such violent action, they would then be the ones to get jailed or killed. So I don’t advocate political violence, in my person or in my work. I say the laws should change. And getting out in the streets sometimes helps push that.
But I tend to set my novels in imagined futures, and when I try to imagine this coming century, it seems likely to me that some violent things are going to happen. So I write that judgment into my extrapolations. Of course I’m shaping my stories. I hope to provoke in my readers thoughts of a certain kind, one of them being: This scenario seems plausible and realistic. Something like this could really happen.
Once that impression is created, I can provoke maybe various kinds of moral considerations. If 5,000 people on the planet are vigorously orchestrating a mass extinction event, no matter their self-justifications, shouldn’t they be in jail? And if their actions are legal, shouldn’t the laws change as soon as possible to make their actions illegal? In the meantime, would it be okay to terrify them? Kidnap them? Trick them? Take all their money? Kill them? All these various forms of resistance to those destroying the biosphere are likely to happen in the coming decades. So I decided it was acceptable to tell those stories, to make people think.
I find it a very troubling issue, and I can see the novel’s various slippages as it squirms and quivers under the pressure of these considerations. I suppose these are visible to readers as well. One thing the book does is put its readers in the position of a detective, also a judge — what did the Ministry actually do? And which of those possible actions would be justified?
For the record, I share your commitment to nonviolence — at the least when defending self or dependents isn’t required — and I too want to be careful with terms like “terrorism” (ecologically motivated or not), “revolution,” or “war.” Violent social upheaval has felt increasingly plausible to many Americans during the last four years, but whatever responses we choose to the devastation caused by those 5,000 you mention, we cannot afford to gloss over the horrors of violence.
As I survey your work (for which I happily declare myself grateful, critical objectivism be damned), I hear many echoes in Ministry’s conversations between Mary and Frank, whose firsthand experience of unprecedented heat in India — which has caused over 20 million deaths in a week — sends him searching for more aggressive interventions. At the same time, many moments in your fiction featuring violence on behalf of other people or species meet with significant pushback. When the polar bears Amelia Black has transported to Antarctica are murdered in New York 2140, for instance, she rages at the attackers’ narrow view of nature: “I hate their self-righteousness about their so-called purity.” Further back, the “green” terraformers led by Sax Russell and the “red” preservationists epitomized by Ann Clayborne battle in your most famous trilogy, but Blue Mars ends with these characters taking up each other’s lines.
It may be a matter of proximity, but Ministry feels more full-throated in defending those who would take the battle to destroyers of the land, other species, and our descendants. Mary fully buys Frank’s argument, deciding that “of course [future generations] would” support offensive attacks — possibly including murders of oil barons and weapons manufacturers, kidnapping of Davos billionaires, sinking of container ships, and most uncomfortably, downing of business-traveler-heavy private and commercial jets. Your fiction is hardly prescriptive, but can you say anything about how your vision for this novel evolved, so that humanity’s success in achieving more abstract changes (e.g., in monetary policy) comes to depend on these hostile confrontations?
Killing polar bears moved to Antarctica would be stupid. There’s a lot of stupid violence. And I’m not sure Mary ever agrees to the idea of some of the actions her agency may be involved with.
One change in my thinking came after finishing Red Moon, with the feeling I needed to go right to the heart of the story and not work on the margins any longer. (The moon is particularly marginal.) Another was the very strong impression that if, or when, people suffer a bad enough climate disaster, things will change. Then I began imagining a future history that felt real and yet ended up in some kind of “best case scenario” space — that was my challenge for this project. Then it seemed inevitable that chaos and violence were going to be part of the story. If I sometimes thought of it as a coming revolution, it still seemed clear it was also going to be a giant mess — all kinds of different revolutions at once, adding up to a violent set of spasms out of anyone’s control — something like Williams’s “long revolution,” narrated as a slurry. That struck me as accurate to how even a best-case scenario would play out, and it was also a formal challenge and opportunity, for game-playing in the novel as formal construct.
I’m glad you mentioned Red Moon, because I’m fascinated by your work’s intertextual evolution. You have often invested in purposeful repetition: not the lazy recycling of characters, but variations that acknowledge “a sensitive dependence on initial conditions” (to use the language with which you once analyzed your short story, “The Lucky Strike”). Could we focus on two of your evolving characters, if I can call them that? First, so many of your novels feature a protagonist named Frank: e.g., Frank May (Ministry), Franklin Garr (New York 2140), Frank Vanderwal (Green Earth), and Frank Chalmers (the Mars trilogy). Indeed you once said, “All of my liars are called Frank.” Second, you often feature a female professional and/or scientist as mentor: we move from Ann Clayborne (Mars) to Diane Chang (Green Earth) to Alex (2312) to Devi (Aurora) to Charlotte Armstrong (New York 2140) to Mary Murphy (Ministry).
It began with Frank January, in “The Lucky Strike.” Frank Two-faced — because he needs to be completely hidden, to have been assigned to be the bombardier on the first atomic bomb drop, while being also someone who would choose not to drop it when the moment came. It was just a joke, the name Frank, and a gesture to Dickens and all those symbolic names in literature. Gradgrind, Malaprop, I enjoy all that very much, and for me the stupid reversal of Frank being a liar never stopped being funny. Being able to clomp around in one’s novels like Brahms in a boisterous mood, that’s one of the ways it can stay fun.
As for coherent future histories over a career, to me it seems like a terrible bind and restriction. The little connections between my novels take place at the level of characters reused, or just name games, like echoes — Frank being the main one there, but I also like Charlotte (my wife’s great-aunt and one of my favorite people while she lived), and Pauline, etc. That kind of play got expressed most fully in The Years of Rice and Salt, where the names identified the characters as they reincarnated.
That resistance to excessive coherence lets you remain agile, adapting as a thought experimenter to each new compositional moment, right? Maybe rather than comparing each “Frank” to the next, or each of these female professionals to the next, it would be more fruitful to consider the mutations of the relationships? I’m thinking here of a bit of wisdom offered by Ship in Aurora:
To assert that x is y, or even that x is like y, is always wrong, because never true; vehicle and tenor never share identities, nor are alike in any useful way. […] Whereas on the other hand, saying x is to y as a is to b bespeaks a relationship of some kind. An assertion taking that form can thus potentially illuminate various properties of structure or act, various forms that shape the operations of reality itself.
Thinking analogically like Ship, what stands out to you about these relationships?
I like both analogy and metaphor, but when it comes to the relationships between various pairs in my novels, I don’t have any sense of these being anything but discrete relationships between completely different characters. During each book I’m so far into it that I don’t remember what went on in the other books. Readers may see patterns, I wouldn’t doubt it, but I’m not aware of them.
I do like the various relationship pairs in my books that aren’t always marriages or even conventional romances. Fred and Qi in Red Moon were an important couple for me in that respect. All couples are odd couples, and the story of a couple is a great thing to hang a larger tale on. Very often these stories are where the characters become surprising people to me, because of their interactions with each other. Sax and Ann in the Mars trilogy, also Art and Nadia, Maya and Michel, not to mention John and Maya — that book had a lot of pairs. To me they are all unique, but stuck inside them as I am, there may be patterns invisible to me.
I like that you’re expanding these “odd couples” beyond opposite-sex relationships; Mutt and Jeff from New York 2140, for example, are among my favorite in your work. Regarding the pair in your most recent novel, I’m curious about whether you see anything significant in the proportion of the narrative spotlight that Mary receives relative to previous female protagonists in these pairings. Can you say anything about when you realized that Frank’s story was more a part of hers than the inverse?
I knew from the start Mary was my protagonist, and Frank was both her antagonist and then the other half of some kind of dyad, maybe call it a friendship. That was scary to me, it seemed a little transgressive. Growing fond of your kidnapper — that’s weird. I read a lot about the initial incident that got us the phrase Stockholm syndrome, and watched the movie made of that incident — quite good. Also, Peter Dickinson’s The Seventh Raven was very impressive to me on this topic. Lima syndrome also — I believe Dickinson (a wonderful novelist) was thinking about that too: it’s the reverse of Stockholm syndrome, in which kidnappers develop a sympathy for their hostages, and free them. Eventually I had to forget these syndromes, these psychological categories and generalizations; the novel exists precisely to say that every time is different, every couple, every story. In the near-infinite number of human stories and interactions, anything might happen. So I followed Mary and Frank and tried to get it right as I saw it. But she was always the novel’s lead.
It seems to me I’ve had women protagonists before — Swan in 2312, Freya in Aurora, all the way back to Emma in Icehenge. The Mars trilogy was gender-balanced in that regard, I felt. But I must admit I don’t usually think about things at the scale of all my books. It’s always just one book at a time.
The scale of one of your novels is probably enough! Before we leave this thread, I wonder if you’d like to talk a little about the impact of Lisa Howland Nowell on your writing. I imagine this would require a full autobiography to answer thoroughly, but what are your thoughts about breaking American gender stereotypes, whether in your fiction or your person?
I think my novel Green Earth says more than I probably should have about that. It’s one of the problems with that book, and why it turns so decisively toward Frank Vanderwal as the lead. Before I began, I thought basing the Quibler family on my own would give me lots of fun material, and maybe it did. But a plot is the story of something going wrong, so when I understood that, I got nervous. Bad mojo and all that. It began to look like a mistake, and I dodged it mid-novel. Not a great move, among other not-great moves in that book. Though I think in its compressed version it turned into something good.
Anyway, I’ve been lucky to live with Lisa my whole adult life, for many reasons, and lots of them have gotten into my work. Watching a woman scientist at work was one. Being a house husband and Mr. Mom was another. It’s been good for me and good for my work. I feel lucky.
It’s been a pleasure to watch women flourish in STEM in the years since I was young — not just my wife, but many other female scientists too, now many younger ones included. Old gender stereotypes about The Scientist have been shattered by these women, and we’re into the start of a better world because of it.
Also, living near San Francisco, and in the science fiction community, I’ve been in strong positive contact with many LGBT* people, and these acquaintances and friends have taught me a lot. I wonder if my sticking with utopian novels has been bolstered by witnessing all this. In other words, it’s not unrealistic to think that social reality can get better. When I write about these things, I don’t feel I’m making stuff up, but reporting what I’ve seen and lived.
Speaking of direct experience, we’ve been having this conversation as the 2020 election approached and as the results trickled in, and we just learned that for the first time, a woman — and particularly a woman of color — has been elected vice president of the United States. While we share a progressive political vision, you’ve used the term “splitting” to describe the danger of letting a “narcissism of small differences” block needed steps forward (not to mention sabotaging America’s resistance to fascism). In helping campaign for her and president-elect Biden, how much congruency did you sense between their platform and the conception of political economy you’ve been offering?
That’s a good question! I guess we’ll find out more about that as we go forward. For now, I think I’ve seen a fairly strong commitment from them for a genuine attempt to mitigate climate change and to work for rapid decarbonization. Staying in the Paris Agreement will be an important part of that. If they learn from the Green New Deal and the European Union’s green recovery plan, they might begin to do something like the carbon quantitative easing that I’ve been writing about in my essays and in The Ministry for the Future. That’s something I ran into in my research that I’ve seen getting quick traction as a plan. All this bodes well and is a huge change, almost a 180-degree turn, from what was happening under Trump. Support for science in general, and for the federal government as being of the people, by the people, and for the people — these positions are no longer to be taken for granted. To the extent they come back, it will be good.
I suppose once the transition is complete and we get into a Biden/Harris presidency, there will quickly come complaints that they aren’t moving fast enough or far enough. But this is to anticipate trouble. Right now, there’s no reason to feel sure of anything. Even the transition is looking like a battle, just to hold to the rule of law and the legal force of the election and so on. I would hope that this kind of intense pressure would make people on the left band together rather than split. I think it might. A united front happens when people feel a larger existential threat bearing down on all of them. If ever it was time for a united front, it’s now. Possibly we can help convince Biden he has an FDR moment to do big things. I hope so, because we need them.
Let’s stay with the possibility that there is opportunity for serious transformations in the near future. In recent years, you’ve published opinion pieces in The Guardian and Bloomberg Green that focus, respectively, on E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth idea and the need for carbon capture technologies. You’ve also written for Bloomberg Green about the proposal you just mentioned, which plays an especially prominent role in Ministry: carbon quantitative easing, a carbon coin system routed through the world’s central banks. Beyond stick-wielding proposals like a carbon tax, it provides a carrot. As articulated by Delton Chen and others, the idea is that central banks would supervise a certification and reward system aimed at petro-states and others who sequestered greenhouse gases rather than emitting them. What else might you say about this globally tradable mitigation incentive — this means of exposing the “fictionality” of money, pricing ecological health into our economic system, and turning the ideology of neoliberal capitalism upon itself?
Because of the quantitative easing of 2008–’13, and now in 2020 related to the pandemic, everyone’s used to the idea of new money being created and injected into the system, without disastrous results in terms of inflation, deflation, or loss of trust in money. After 2008 it was about five to eight trillion dollars, in 2020 about two trillion, and more is needed. Now, if the first spending of that newly created money was always to be explicitly dedicated to decarbonization projects, then you have a quite powerful alteration in neoliberal capitalism’s valorization of the market as the source and calculator of all value and prices, and a lot of money spent specifically on good and necessary work. It’s one step on the road to post-capitalism, and to a just and sustainable political economy — a first step, basically a return to Keynesianism, but in a powerful way.
More could be done along that line by way of a strong use of taxes. The carbon tax that ought to be levied, if it were to equal the costs of the damage of burning carbon, would be huge, so maybe this needs to be ramped up over time, on a published schedule so that people can see where it’s going, and get out of carbon burning as soon as they can. And it would need to be equitable in terms of having a progressive and targeted structure. Again, these are not my ideas, but they strike me as legal, and they’re available now as tools if a working majority in favor of them is established in the legislatures involved. In centralized governments like China and Russia, if the top echelon became convinced they were good ideas, they could act even faster. Often governments like the idea of becoming stronger than finance, and they do set the rules in the first place. So there shouldn’t be any objection from government people to this strengthening of governmental control of the economy — except when they’ve been bought or suborned by capital, which often happens. So it’s a discursive and legal battle, as always.
You said earlier that a bad enough climate disaster like the heat wave that opens Ministry may prove the impetus for this kind of economic transformation. But, as you acknowledged in the Bloomberg Green piece, “We also have a market that won’t invest enough in this project. So governments need to do it, by way of creating new money specifically targeted to pay for rapid decarbonization.” What do you say to those who object that the major banks seem more powerful than the world’s governments? If the bankers do own the politicians, how do we push forward such a system?
The major banks aren’t more powerful than the world’s governments. Those governments make the rules; they both make and back the money, and they own the central banks. The state/finance dynamic is maybe hand-in-hand, but those two hands are also arm-wrestling for control. Even if they rely on each other for mutual support, governments call the shots. This is why bankers have to try to “own the politicians” as you put it. The politicians could in theory write legislation that sharply curbed bank power. It would even be possible to nationalize all the banks, and banks could do little about that, if it was an international move and currency controls were imposed such that they would have nowhere to run. All this sounds radical, yet the big central banks are already publicly owned, sort of. They are kept semi-autonomous from their legislatures and even more so from the general public, but they’re given their tasks and powers by legislation and beyond that, by hegemony.
So in this latter respect, the story told about them matters. It’s again the discursive battle. In the discursive battle, you can say the public should own the means of production — and surely the banks and money are part of that — and that sounds socialist. And it is. Which is fine by me, but then if you say finance should be run as a public utility district (because it is one), then this is the language of credit unions and ordinary American society, where public utility districts get attacked by free marketeers, but they persist anyway because people believe in their public utility. The whole discursive battle needs to be regularly reframed and refreshed in terms of its language, so that reifications get broken, and estrangements happen, and things get seen newly, and hopefully as more amenable to change.
So: Money is a public utility, banks are badly run credit unions, a nationalized bank system would make money into something you get access to for a fee that you pay to the public treasury — and so on, like that. This sounds weird until you reflect it’s almost like that already; it’s just been mystified by predatory rent-seekers pretending things are different in such a plausible way that current legislation tends to skew toward their interpretation of these large structures. Finance has been made so complicated that legislators turn to financiers to craft financial legislation, because the legislators are scared they don’t understand it. But good financial advice can come from the left as well as the right, and ultimately it’s still very simple — a power dynamic. And people seizing power from a privileged minority is the long arc of history. A better story changes politics, then laws — that’s how it happens, most of the time. That and revolution.
Any time there’s a tiny minority that is far wealthier than the rest of the population combined, that minority is scared. They know the situation is bizarre and can’t hold. The tactic then becomes to frighten the majority into thinking the situation is massively entrenched, unchangeable, natural, and so on. This is the real terrorism, coming from the top. The end result is a lot of fear, and that never helps, but anger can focus fear, anger at having to be so fearful. Then things might change.
Really, one thing to point out here is that what can’t happen, won’t happen. We’re not in a fantasy novel; there’s no magic. The current political economy can’t go on without crashing the biosphere and causing a mass extinction event. That’s becoming clearer every day in ways many people can see with their own eyes. So a change is simply inevitable, one way or another. The question is, what kind of change? Can we make things better?
No, as you’ve said, it’s not fantasy — we’re living in a science fiction novel, one we’re co-writing. Sometimes it feels to me like we’re casting around a science fiction library, one full of diverse, only partially congruous visions, and injecting bits of this, bits of that. But either way, it’s crucial for people to understand that by science fiction, you mean here “proleptic realism,” correct? The genre’s effect, as you’ve compellingly condensed it, can be like that of 3D glasses at the movie theater: one lens urgently attempts to envision a possible future, the other works as metaphor for our present reality, and we need both to gain “a trajectory of deep time.”
I take your point — it’s not really one science fiction novel we’re writing, but a clutch of them all overlaid on each other in a palimpsest that doesn’t necessarily have a coherent plot. At least not in our act of writing/living it. Later on, people will maybe see a history of our time that will be their plot imposed on our slurry of overlapping plots. But that too will be contested.
All attempts to speak of the future are science fiction stories, and thus bound to be wrong. The polling done for the recent election, which turned out once again to be notoriously wrong — that seems weak and unprofessional until you consider that in evaluating the present to suggest what will happen in the future, polls too are science fiction stories, so it shouldn’t be surprising when they get it wrong. The future just can’t be predicted. Anyone who says they can do that is operating some kind of scam, even if they believe it themselves. In finance, for instance, you have futures markets; these and many other financial instruments gamble on predictions, and of course try to hedge their bets, being so uncertain. Once you have to put your money where your science fiction story is, the uncertainty gets very obvious.
So far we’ve talked about ecological defense, gender equity, political transformation, and economic policy, but you’ve also alluded repeatedly to challenges of literary form and structure. Let’s foreground the capacities of the novel now: you mentioned that Ministry utilizes many short chapters (106!) and you’ve talked elsewhere about the impact of realizing you could make up “eyewitness reports” for this project. How did that strategy fit your concepts of narrative time and deep time?
I wanted to describe about 30 years of world history as fully as I could. That’s not typically what novels do, but the novel is a very flexible form, and sometimes takes on projects like this. I had tried similarly large-scale topics before, so I knew it could be done if I found the right form for the content, and I began to think about what particular form would work for this one. It seemed clear it would have to be polyvocal, and often compressed, and capacious.
There’s a kind of default narrative time in an ordinary dramatized scene, which suggests that if you were to read the passage aloud, it would take about the same time as the action described. It’s a default normal, and we call them dramatized scenes because of the theater, in which what happens on stage occurs at about the same speed as it would happen in life.
Novels can range so far from this normal speed of narration that it can be stunning to contemplate. In a talk I give on Virginia Woolf and Olaf Stapledon and their brief correspondence, I try to calculate this range in potential speeds of narration, in a rough “minutes per page” way, to compare Woolf’s moment-to-moment stream of consciousness with Stapledon’s deep time chronicles. With some fudging of the numbers, using William Golding’s Pincher Martin as one end of the scale (in which something like two minutes of a man’s drowning takes 200 pages), and Stapledon’s Star Maker at the other end (about 75 billion years covered, also in 200 pages), I got a ratio of 47 trillion to one as the spread in speed of narration in fiction. I like that very much. Make that my contribution to the digital humanities.
To get more practical about it, for this particular novel, the eyewitness account eventually jumped out at me as the crucial mode. It’s a genre of its own, with conventions you see employed time after time — concise summary, often made long after the events witnessed, so that judgments get added, and the significance of the event in the witness’s life noted. A powerful genre, not fully recognized as such, and after I read a dozen collections of them, I felt ready to write a bunch of fictional eyewitness accounts for the Ministry novel. It was the great formal discovery for me in that project. Then other modes came to look helpful too — meeting notes, radio show transcripts, Anglo-Saxon riddles, dictionary entries, 18th-century “It narratives,” essays, and so on — a kind of kitchen sink approach.
All that said, I think it remains true that the dramatized scene is still a kind of anchor mode for fiction. The Frank and Mary scenes provide that anchor in this novel.
That interest in narrative time and speed also leads me to ask about various quantum physics references you’ve made in your novels, particularly around questions of causation. In Aurora, your narrator Ship ruminates,
Human brains and quantum computers are organized differently, and although there is transparency in the design and construction of a quantum computer, what happens when one is turned on and runs, that is, whether the resulting operations represent a consciousness or not, is impossible for humans to tell, and even for the quantum computer itself to tell. Much that happens during superposition, before the collapsing of the wave function that creates sentences or thoughts, simply cannot be known; this is part of what superposition means. So we cannot tell what we are. We do not know ourselves comprehensively. Humans neither. Possibly no sentient creature knows itself fully.
Relatedly, in New York 2140, your “Citizen” narrator (incidentally, a voice that the eyewitness mode of Ministry recalls for me) reflects, “Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions. So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand.” Would you something similar of your stories, insofar as their sentences also emerge from unknowable superpositions of individuals and collectives?
I’d say the Citizen in New York 2140 is not an eyewitness, but some kind of folk historian, or the voice at the end of the bar. Not quite the same, though both are voices and do summary.
As for my stories, I don’t know. All verbal descriptions of quantum mechanics are highly imagistic, especially coming from me. Twice, for Galileo’s Dream and its time machine, and Aurora and its AI narrator, I’ve had to talk about the quantum realm, but when I do, I’m imitating the people who do quantum mechanics and then try to describe what it might mean. They’re flailing and they usually admit it, as it’s very hard to make human sense of what that math, and those experiments, are saying about the quantum realm, which is also our world. Mysterious stuff, and very useful for a science fiction writer wanting certain effects. And of course it’s very interesting that people are now making computers using quantum mechanics. Something real is going on, but I don’t claim to understand it, and language, maybe human cognition, doesn’t seem very good at getting it either. To bring it back to the novel, I guess I’d say all its sentences come out of one mind, and then they’re read by another mind, thus creating a new thing, in a sort of gestalt. Is this a wave function collapsing to a single state? Does it have particle/wave aspects? Maybe so, but that might be true of any human interaction.
If novel-reading is a co-creative human interaction — and granted that all kinds of unknowability and uncertainty are involved — what do you think about the directions that the novel seems to be evolving? I’m especially curious about your response to what Richard Powers told me in a conversation a couple years ago about The Overstory, that “there are three general levels of dramatic conflict: the battle within a person (psychological), the battle between people (social or political), and the battle between people and non-people (environmental).” And that while most good stories rely on some measure of all three, the third (environmental) tension is relatively neglected — but he named your work as a particularly valuable exception that “burst[s] out of the merely private and domestic.”
I think there was always a healthy strand of fiction concerned with people coping with the nonhuman — Conrad’s sea stories, planetary science fiction — but maybe what Powers was pointing out was how often the domestic realism of the English novel, and then the modernist novel, especially as valorized in the postwar American academy and “highbrow culture,” leading to what now gets called literary fiction — how all that line focused on the psychological and the social, and seemed to suggest that dealing with the planetary was a lower realm, and not so serious, nor a subject for the higher art, etc. All that has collapsed, first with postmodernism’s leveling of all the kinds of art to the same level of respectability, then with the Anthropocene’s growing awareness of the planet as our extended body, so to speak — a major character in all our stories, always. Now, those still holding to that old high art/low art split, and to the focus on individual subjectivity as the privileged object of fiction, are far out of date, also wrong to begin with. Cocooned in fossil fuels, they lost touch with the reality of the planet. But there’s a kind of snobbery that is the refuge of the confused, which can be quite stubborn. So you still see a proud little island of people holding to that standpoint, but sea level is rising.
Richard Powers isn’t like that. He’s a great novelist, I’m a big fan of his work, and I feel, from my angle as a science fiction writer — under that mark of Cain which of course I am very proud of — that he is doing his own version of science fiction, by basing so many of his novels on various new scientific findings, and making his speculations from these findings into stories set in the present. At this point there’s a Richard Powers subgenre of SF, so to speak. My favorite is The Echo Maker, which engages on all three of the levels he describes, and to me is his masterpiece. The Overstory also engages with all three levels, but there, as I’ve told him — we are pen-pals and have met a few times — I think he wanted to write trees directly, to let them speak. Then when the character who came closest to that died, the understory of The Overstory became the novel’s intense frustration at not having access to the point of view it wanted most. Lots of characters got seriously thrashed by that frustration. But this was Powers staying true to his method, it was maybe even his point, and I think it’s part of why people responded to that book so powerfully — it expresses a deep frustration that we all feel. I look forward to what he writes next, because I think he’s continuing to work on this problem, and the results are going to be really interesting. Meanwhile I like to point to The Echo Maker, and to Generosity, and to others of his books; they are all very rewarding.
It strikes me, too, that your work and Powers’s fiction — The Echo Maker and Generosity: An Enhancement included — share a deep interest in various forms of eco-religion. In your case, if “religion” is conceived of as an embodied form of individual and collective storytelling, is it fair to say your novels are invested in a kind of Buddhist-inflected, non-literalistic pantheism? I’m thinking of the sacralized hill in Pacific Edge; the mystic collection of “demimonde Christians,” “gnostics,” “Baha’i Rastafarians,” and “Sufis” in Green Mars; and the articulation of science as “the most ethical religion, the most devoted and worshipful religion” in Galileo’s Dream and as “a kind of prayer, or worship of the world” in The Years of Rice and Salt. I’m thinking of Freya kissing the sand at the end of Aurora. And I’m thinking of how Ministry features Badim promising to bring back “the oldest [religion],” how the novel traces the roots of the Mondragón cooperative to liberation theology, and how it imagines a global ecological economy in which “healing the Earth is our sacred work.”
Yes, I find all this crucial. Although I don’t like any of the big patriarchal religions with their hierarchies and faked traditions and fundamentalisms. In that sense, I’m a secular person.
But I want that old Earth religion and I feel it in myself. These feelings of significance and meaning need to be religious (from the Latin for binding together), and they’re already spiritual or mystical. There’s a big part of our brain that lights up on the scans when we’re feeling these feelings, and devotion is surely one of the most beautiful of feelings. But it could also be put in the secular language of having an existential project. That’s my usual mode.
I’m interested in the Ur-religion of shamanism, which is probably over a hundred thousand years old, and came out of Africa when people did; and in all the ones you listed above, Buddhism in particular. And then also science as a kind of devotional practice that regards the real as a sacred object of study; isn’t that a religion? And when I’m in the Sierras I often feel something ineffable, some kind of holiness. I think almost everyone has these feelings, and not having them would be bad; it would constitute a kind of lack or crisis.
So, how to write about that? I try various ways, mostly indirect, but not always. In fact, I guess I’ve come at it quite directly, pretty frequently. It’s a crucial topic for literature. And literature itself is a religion — it’s my religion, I feel that very strongly. And I can see that I’m not alone in that.
Lately you’ve been writing nonfiction about backpacking in the Sierras, and you’ve also told me that Ministry completes a kind of novelistic trajectory for you and that your future fiction will take different forms. How so?
Right now I’m completely focused on my Sierra book. It has some geology, history, natural history, and gear talk in it. Also a big strand of memoir, which I’m finding hard, and not something I’m inclined to do again. But in this case I have to. It’s a personal book, and it’s been very absorbing, and I think it will take me through the winter, trying to get it right.
After that, I don’t know. I’ll keep writing novels. Right now I’m thinking about short novels. The Ministry for the Future finished a long line of long novels from me, and I feel done with those, I want to try a different approach, just to see what might happen.
Banner image: “Bushfire NW of Lithgow, New South Wales, Australia – November 13th, 2019” by Pierre Markuse is licensed under CC BY 2.0.