Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

Posted by Goodreads on August 27, 2013
Steel yourself for extreme adventure when you pick up a Kim Stanley Robinson book. His works of science fiction often thrust characters into the most vicious environments, most strikingly in his best-known series, The Mars Trilogy, a sci-fi epic about a colony of humans that terraforms the inhospitable Red Planet. Robinson followed that best seller with more perilous settings, including a flash-flooded Washington, D.C., in Forty Signs of Rain and the subzero conditions of an isolated research station in Antarctica. Now he's managed to one-up himself in his latest ultrasurvival tale, Shaman, a historical novel set 32,000 years ago in the unforgiving wilds of the Paleolithic Ice Age. Cast naked into the wilderness in the opening chapter, a young shaman-in-training has only his wits to protect him from freezing temperatures, hungry lions, and unfriendly Neanderthals. The nature-loving author tells Goodreads about learning from our evolutionary past, writing outdoors...and reveals whether he's packing for Mars.

Goodreads: The young shaman Loon must complete a "wander," surviving many days alone with only the tools he can build himself. You're an avid mountaineer. Have you ever attempted something on par with Loon's wander?

Kim Stanley Robinson: No, nothing quite like that. It's a ritual initiation into a shaman's life and meant to be an extreme experience. Don't try Loon's wander at home!

However, I have snow camped with my friends in the California Sierra for many years, and for the last ten years or so when up there I've tried to imagine Loon and his people and what life must have been like in the Ice Age. It's been a really thought provoking and even inspiring contemplation. Sometimes in storms or at night under the stars I've thought, "This is something people have done for thousands of years; this is what we did to evolve into ourselves." When I came to write the book, I had those moments to call on.

GR: You're already known for alternate history, notably The Years of Rice and Salt. But Shaman goes considerably further back. What inspired you to write about the Paleolithic era?

KSR: It was partly the backpacking. When the body of the Ice Man was discovered emerging from a glacier in 1991, it occurred to me that his clothing and gear much resembled the stuff we took with us into the mountains. His materials were different, but the design and function were much the same. This started me thinking about the Paleolithic and the many thousands of years we lived that kind of life, and it became something I wanted to write about.

This stayed a general desire until I learned about the Chauvet Cave, discovered in 1995, with its beautiful paintings that turned out to be 32,000 years old. At that point I felt I had found my story and characters.

GR: How much is known about human culture in this period? Did you feel free to fictionalize beyond your research base, particularly for the details of the shaman religion?

KSR: We know a lot, and yet we don't, because it's all by inference. Prehistory is just that; there were no texts, so we infer from the things left behind: bones, stones, some cave paintings, and other things. We also infer by assuming the first peoples still living in historical times were living modes of life that are very ancient, something I am sure is mostly true. And now we infer by genetic evidence.

So I wanted to be true to these things we think we know, and I only fictionalized in the way you mean in a few small particulars, expressing my own theories about that time, usually about things that archaeologists can't determine one way or the other and therefore decline to speculate about.

As for the shaman religion, it is still practiced and well documented worldwide. One of the main current theories explaining the cave paintings of Paleolithic Europe is that they were part of a shaman religion, so I am following the archaeologists there, too.

GR: Goodreads member Jon Sayer writes, "I've noticed that mystical religious experiences and mysticism in general are a recurring theme in your work. One scene that comes to my mind is John Boone's Sufi spinning experience in Red Mars. This new novel is continuing on that theme. What attracts you to writing about mystical religious experiences, and have you ever had any yourself?"

KSR: Thanks for this; it's true, I am interested in mystical experiences. Again I think it may have begun in the Sierras, where from the start I always felt like I was entering some kind of magical space. That began when I was young, when I was also getting interested in Zen Buddhism, with its satori moments, and I was also beginning to study literature formally, thus learning about the epiphany form in the stories of James Joyce and others; this is an explicitly mystical form of plot. All these youthful experiences seemed of a piece, and they combined and remained lifelong interests.

GR: Jared Diamond's recent book, The World Until Yesterday, looks to traditional societies for lessons on how to live. Shaman offers a similar look at an older way of life—much, much older. What do you think we can learn from looking backward?

KSR: We can learn how we became what we still are now; this has to be instructive. Nowadays, with our powerful technologies, it feels as if we have detached from nature and can become anything we want, but in fact we are still the same animals we were 50,000 years ago. And we evolved into the animals we were then, and are now, by living a certain kind of life. The more we understand that, and contemplate what it was we were doing in the Paleolithic that we could regard as fundamentally human (meaning the things we did that made us human in the first place), the better we can judge our current range of potential behaviors: Are they good or just the illusion of good? Do the activities make us healthy and happy? Bringing in the Paleolithic can make these questions shift from what might seem mere matters of opinion to a set of physical facts that can't be denied without bad effects in our lives. So I think the Paleolithic lessons can be really useful and profound.

GR: Goodreads member Chris writes, "Your work is set far apart from cynical dystopian science fiction, envisioning a very positive trajectory for humanity's development. What present-day phenomena give you hope that we will achieve the kind of world you write about? (Social movements, technological development, etc.)"

KSR: Part of what gives me hope is that we are an adaptable species that has survived radical challenges in the past, including enormous climate changes. So we have done it before, and that gives me hope. I'm also encouraged by aspects of our global civilization, the way everyone on the planet is aware of the dangers of our situation and the criminal injustices and hierarchies that exist. This will lead to increases in social justice as everyone expresses their desire for the full set of human rights we have defined in the last century. Cleaner technologies will help, too, but the ultimate survival technologies are in effect software: our laws, our cultures, our habits. Our successes are part of what has led to an extremely dangerous time, so we have to keep succeeding.

GR: CNN recently reported that 100,000 people have already applied to Mars One for a chance at a one-way ticket to the Red Planet. Founder Bas Lansdorp predicts they will land by 2023. The project seems straight out of your Mars Trilogy! What odds of success would you say it has?

KSR: Zero.

This project is either a delusion or a scam—possibly one of those scams where the organizers have conveniently deluded themselves, too.

My Mars Trilogy should have made it clear: Getting to Mars is hard! And once we're there, it only gets harder! So we don't have the spaceship that can make it there, and we don't have the infrastructure in place that will be necessary for survival once we arrive. What we need is very clear-cut, and what this Mars One project actually has is nothing like that; nor does it have a real plan to assemble that technology and expertise. So this is an example of the kind of fantasy that can emerge in the age of the Internet, with the gullible scientism that comes from a culture that lacks scientific literacy.

GR: Goodreads member Kyle wants to know if you would personally like to visit Mars.

KSR: Even if there was a real way to get there, I would still say no. I once spent a week at the South Pole, which was like Mars at its best, and even so I didn't like it; it was by far the least interesting of my weeks in Antarctica. I like Earth too much. This is a great planet, if you like to walk around outdoors in your shirtsleeves. The first people on Mars are going to have to be people happy to stay indoors all the time. This is something else I wrote about in my Mars Trilogy.

If you could get me there in two weeks, let me wander the surface for two months, and get me home in two weeks, I would do that and love it. I expect that to be available to people around the year 2600, if things go well. So I need the longevity treatments to kick in real soon!

GR: Goodreads member Mark Vickers writes, "The privatization of the space industry has picked up a great deal of speed and momentum in recent years. What do you see as the possible drawbacks as well as the benefits of this trend?"

KSR: I think the drawbacks are potentially devastating, as with privatization everywhere. It's like the enclosure of the commons; something that once was shared by everyone becomes owned by a few. With space, what can happen is that the public will lose interest and regard space as a playground for the rich; thus public support and public money will go away; then it will become clear that space is not a place where profits can be made, and private investment will go away, too; then there will be no space program. And as space science is an earth science, and extremely useful as such, that will be bad.

So I think it needs to stay mostly a public domain, and our efforts there public efforts, funded by all of us. Most public expenditures are channeled through private contractors anyway, so in the end everyone benefits when projects are public. This is true of most major human projects.

GR: Goodreads member Norman Cook writes, "One of the recurring themes in your books is human life extension and the ramifications that would bring. What do you think is the limit to the human life span, and would extended life affect how we deal with our memories, particularly our early lives and relationships?"

KSR: Longevity treatments, yes!

I don't have an opinion concerning the limit to the human life span, because I think it's one of the great mysteries; we really don't know. Possibly we are so complex that we'll never be able to push life spans much past where they are now; or maybe we'll slowly and unsteadily, and with decreasing success, push them out to something significant (like 150-year norms?); or possibly we will keep making progress and end up living for a long, long time. So this is a big range of possibilities! And thus a good subject for repeated science fiction stories, describing different outcomes to the effort, which is what I've done in my work.

Memory is the weak link, as I wrote long ago in Icehenge, when first exploring this theme. I feel that is the case because memory is already a weak link, so it might only get worse if we live longer. It's just one possibility, but if we live longer lives, and yet don't remember them properly, then has the point been lost? I'm not sure.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

KSR: Yes, I've recently developed a somewhat unusual habit, in that about four books ago I decided I would write my novels only when outdoors. I have a café table out in my front courtyard under a tree (because I need shade to see my laptop screen), and now I set up out there every day and write my novels there. If it rains, I put up a tarp and let the rain fall around me like a bead curtain. In the winters I wear my snow camping gear, which is a pleasure in itself. In the summer I bring out a fan and recently even installed a mister. Heat is much harder to write in than cold, I've discovered. But whatever, I just stay out there and write. It has transformed the experience into a daily adventure, with a lot of bird friends (sparrows, finches, hummingbirds, jays, doves); I see the seasons change, the trees leaf out and then lose their leaves, the clouds pass, the days go by. It's really been quite amazing.

GR: What writers, books, or ideas/philosophies have most influenced you?

KSR: That would be too long a list of writers and books, because literature is like my religion, and I've loved so much of it. But I can say that I've been most influenced by science fiction, by the novel and its tradition, by poetry, by Buddhism, by the leftist political tradition, and by science.

GR: What are you reading now?

KSR: At lunch I'm reading The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau, and at night, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Both are great! What fun and more it is to read! This is something I think the Goodreads group knows, and I thank you all for reading this.

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Widdershins (new)

Widdershins KSR's Mars Trilogy was the first time I deeply understood the 'science' part of science fiction, and my writing has been influenced by that ever since.

message 2: by Ken-ichi (new)

Ken-ichi Great interview, particularly the GR user questions. More about the mysticism, KSR! What's the role of mysticism in a rational life? Should it be public and codified like Hiroko's aereophany or more private and idiosyncratic? Ah, well. Too late.

message 3: by Gina (new)

Gina W Fischer I had the pleasure of seeing KSR speak earlier this year. He is as smart, optimistic and well-rounded as anyone who loves his books would expect. And a good public speaker to boot! Still trying to get a copy of Antarctica, but I will treasure my signed copy of 2312 forever. KSR, you the man.

message 4: by James (new)

James This is my first encounter with Kim Stanley Robinson. I can't wait to get one of his books. Thanks for the heads up, Goodreads.

Niala Terrell-Mason What a great interview! His Mars Trilogy changed my life.

message 6: by Jon (new)

Jon Woodson I am still reeling from reading Robinson's 2312. I was supposed to mail it to a very committed ecologist, but I can't put it in the mail. It's an inexhaustible book, written like one of John Dos Passos's assemblage novels. Now that I know from the interview that he writes outdoors, I can better understand the atmosphere and mood that it tangibly communicates of experiencing the elements.

message 7: by Mike (new)

Mike As always, enlightening. KSR is tops.

message 8: by Garyjn (new)

Garyjn KSR sounds like an interesting writer, but I haven't as yet read any of his books. Any suggestions out there for a good place to start?

message 9: by Gina (new)

Gina W Fischer Garyjn wrote: "KSR sounds like an interesting writer, but I haven't as yet read any of his books. Any suggestions out there for a good place to start?"

I would start with 2312 and work backwards!

message 10: by Caryl (new)

Caryl Barnes The Mars books changed my life, too, about the science part of science fiction certainly but even more about the consequences of privatization. I've since read all of KSR's books. I think Antarctica is my favorite, but Rice and Salt and the Mars books are right up there. I am beyond grateful to KSR. He's a fabulous teacher. Caryl Barnes

message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

I like to sit outdoors and write, too. But I even liked the Antarctica and would gladly return. I love your books, especially Icehange.
Tora Greve.

message 12: by Christina (new)

Christina Gauvin looks like a found a new author to read wondering what book to start with....any suggestions

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

I write in Swedish. Can you read Swedish?

message 14: by Jill (new)

Jill Engledow The Mars trilogy was my reintroduction to science fiction after many years; read it intensely as a teen and young adult but then got sidetracked. Robinson really raised the standards. I love that he writes outdoors. I did that years ago, and it was great. Too tied to my desk setup now, but at least I have a window. Thanks, Mr. Robinson. I look forward to your latest.

message 15: by Roger (new)

Roger Harris If you have not read, Years of Rice and Salt, it is one of Robinson's best books, IMO.

message 16: by Justin (new)

Justin Slick The Mars Trilogy honestly affected me as very few books ever have--I remember back on events, ideas, and locations in that series and it feels like I actually lived them. I don't think there's any greater gift an author can give his audience than that.

message 17: by Mary (new)

Mary Stumbled upon this interview and so glad I did. An interesting outlook and my curiosity is piqued as to how he puts it to page.

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