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WesternSFA
A Chat with Kim Stanley Robinson
by Catherine Book
March 2014
I was so very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and interview Stan during the 2014 Tucson Book Festival.  I mentioned to him that science fiction, as opposed to fantasy, is particularly near and dear to my heart.  He noted that there will always be stories set in the future.  He said he’d recently come to the idea that science fiction can be split into types dependent on how far in the future it is set.  There is the near future, which we are pretty much living through now – today’s realism.  At the farther end is the far future, like a few thousand years, which is your space opera.  It’s so far away that the technology is ‘magical’ placing it rather close to fantasy.  But between those is the period of time just a couple hundred years away.  It can still be realistic, usually set within our solar system without FTL capability.  The fantastical science fiction of the 50’s is now our far future stories.

So, speaking of technology – I asked him how much current social media affects his career.  Stan, by the way, does not even have his own website.  Stan absolutely does not use social media, he feels his books do all the talking for him and he’s fortunate in that his publisher allows that.  He observed that this works for him as an established writer but that the industry is changing for the newer writers who probably do benefit from social media.  He speculated that as things can be cyclical, perhaps people, completely immersed in technology, will eventually turn back to more personal and face-to-face contact. (shades of Asimov…ed.)

I asked him then what he was currently working on.  He just finished a Starship novel and sent it off to his publisher.  He said he’s waiting for the book to come back to him for edits.  I was a bit surprised; he didn’t start work on the next thing?  No, he replied.  He always completes one book before starting the next.  He never works on more than one thing at a time.  He even finishes a series before starting anything else. But he doesn’t really think of them so much as a series; his Mars stories were really just one-very-long-novel (VLN). 

He has plenty of novel ideas ready to go, just waiting for their time.  Short stories don’t always come along that easily; they need that O Henry-type punchline.  He publishes a novel about every eighteen months.  He does have an idea for the next novel but was reluctant to discuss it.  He still needs to write it up for his editor and get an approval.  He has a very beneficial relationship with his editor at Orbit Books.  He once found himself with several equally good book ideas at the same time and has since relied on his editor to make the choice.

What does he think is more important to him – setting, plot, characters?  They’re all a mix but if he had to choose, he’d pick characters.  Then plot.  He mentioned that he felt he was known for his strong exposition.  He thought that if his books work for a reader, then the characters are probably what they most remember.

Does he have a favorite character?  He really didn’t want to say.  He felt that his opinions about his characters shouldn’t be important; and that they might color a reader’s perceptions.  But he admitted he really likes his character, Nadia, from his Mars books, and he really likes the Widow Kang from the Years of Rice and Salt novel.

Does he have a work for which he’s most proud?  He names several:  the Mars series, The Years of Rice and Salt, 2312 and Galileo’s Dream book.  I got the sense that of all of them, he preferred the Galileo story.  This is probably a most-underrated book, according to Stan. 

What did Stan think would be a most probable apocalyptic scenario that would destroy mankind but not the planet?  Accidental nuclear war, an asteroid, a plague – are the most obvious ones.  I mentioned that the oft-feared pandemic seems a most probable danger.  He wasn’t sure that would be all-devastating; he thought most plagues would eventually burn themselves out.

Have we learned too much too fast?  How much of a danger are we to ourselves?  No, he answered, knowledge is never bad; but you need wisdom, too.  But, he mused, with great knowledge we need responsible leaders.  He sees us in a gigantic battle between Science and Capitalism.  Capitalism being the ‘bad guy,’ since there will always be a percentage of rich people who believe they can retreat to a desert isle and don’t care what happens to the rest of us – and they are totally wrong about that according to Stan – plus corporate stupidity.  Up against that is Science which is doing all it can to make us healthier and more powerful.  It’s up to us to help Science come out on top and that takes politics.  Some might protest that they don’t need politics or have an interest in it.  But Capitalism believes in politics and if we don’t get involved, we’ll get our asses kicked.  Stan always tells students to get more involved; you can’t pretend politics don’t matter.

Are our young being properly educated in the hard sciences like math and science, and history?  Stan hesitated a bit on this one – he replied that our education is as good as it gets with the current funding, and given how undervalued are our teachers and schools.  We have good knowledge and we have good teachers but there isn’t good money support.  He sees this as an anti-government reaction.  People forget that without government, we don’t have the infrastructure we take for granted – schools, fire fighters, police, and more.  Without government we have anarchy and disorder – like our school system.

I asked him then what one trait he’d like to see mankind develop.  Stan explained that there is a scientific process of identifying cognitive errors that all human brains make due to our evolutionary makeup.  Scientists have discovered that humans are particularly bad at several mental operations that we’d benefit from by being better.  Most of these are probabilistic errors, like small math problems that most humans can’t solve.  The interesting thing is that the better educated one is, the more probable it is that one will believe they know the answer when they really don’t.  Optical illusions are a good illustration of cognitive error; even when we know the answer to the optical illusion we have a hard time seeing the ‘other’ picture. 

We humans are also terrible at risk assessment.  We will do outrageously risky things but we’ll also block scientific progress for things that are a super-low risk.  We also don’t understand the relationship between risk and danger.  We’ll fear a low-risk thing because if it did occur, there would be a high probability of danger.  And we’ll fear the high-risk thing that has a low-probability of danger.  All these things need to be factored in the human mind and we’re not very good at it.  He believes we’re bad at risk-assessment due to our primate ancestors being geared to deal with problems that have changed faster than our evolution.  We need an educated, political and scientific process that will educate us to understanding this issue.

We need to design a sustainable civilization that is really high-tech and is really smart about the bio-physical infrastructure – the planet itself.  Stan compares us to jellyfish – water flows right through them.  We need behave more like jellyfish – we need to have healthy air and water which we don’t affect with poisons.  The more we think holistically and the more we think ecologically, the better chance we have of making smart choices.  Ecology is the crucial science – seven billion people need to get along.  A daunting task but not impossible.  If you read Stan’s books, you’ll see this attitude throughout which make them both widely hated and widely loved.

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