Kim Stanley Robinson is the author who I would say has had the most influence on my life.
I got into his books when I was young enough that a lot of what I read I didn’t really understand. The psychological representations in Red Mars left me confused, the eco-economics and gift economy went over my head, the idea of social revolution, of building a new society free of the ‘straightjacket of history’ was fascinating, but much of the more complex themes in the book generally left my young mind perplexed (not to mention the sometimes very explicit sex scenes).
But I thoroughly enjoyed the book, enjoyed reading a science fiction story that felt more like a history book transported back in time from the future, and less like a fantastic tale of make believe. It felt real, and it was simply transformative. It helped me form a lot of the ideals and principles that still hold fast in my mind today. It gave me a way to see the world as an adult, when I was still just a kid.
Indeed it was only last year that I took it upon myself to read the Mars Trilogy again, and was shocked at how much of what I thought of the world seemed to have been ignited by that story over 19 years ago. Though while the Mars trilogy is by far my favourite of KSR’s tales, his other offerings have also left undeniable imprints on who I am.
The Science in the Capital series drew my attention to game theory, the idea of a paleo lifestyle, thoughts on how we could impact our world in opposition to climate change, and a better understanding of how other cultures ways of thinking could be incorporated into our own. It was also nice to have a protagonist who was an attentive father (which at the time I was attempting to become).
The Years of Rice and Salt was an eye opener in that it showed a world free of the cultural lens that I had viewed it through for most of my life. Reading an alternative history without a western civilisation, but still with tendrils of parallel events, experiences and social progress flowing within, helped me to understand history a bit better, and to seek out an understanding of how the world came to be as it is, and how those living at certain times may have faced the challenges of the world.
Overarching themes in Robinson’s works also embedded themselves in my mind.
My first exposure to Arab culture as a young man came through the Mars Trilogy, and then in a post 9-11 world it was fascinating to read about an Islamic world in The Years of Rice and Salt, and to be presented with compelling characters, thoughtful ideas, and a new way to view Islam; all much more interesting than the caricature of Muslims that became so prevalent in those years (and even now).
Forty Signs of Rain introduced us to a protagonist who liked to examine the world through the prism of the savannah, and the human races evolutionary origins; using game theory and sociobiological tools to understand how modern humans are a result of prehistoric human’s journey through time. Then Shaman completed the notion by giving us a first-hand account of how life may have been for those humans who were genetically so like us, but whose lives seems to disparate from what we consider a human existence today. So different, yet still so similar.
His novels are also interesting to me in that they offer me a chance to see the world through different eyes than a lot of other science fiction experiences (especially moves and TV) commonly available. Being a white male from a western society, it is easy to find characters I can seemingly identify with, but that connection always seemed so superficial. In Kim Stanley Robinsons works I was able to identify with characters from wildly different backgrounds than my own.
The Mars Trilogy gave me characters of different nationalities, as many books do, but it also eventually showed me people who have not only been born Martian, but perhaps more interesting; those that have become Martian. The Years of Rice and Salt has a cast of characters who not only seem to be reincarnated throughout history, but who are exclusively non-European. It has African, Arab, Asian and Native American protagonists in abundance. Shaman is populated by Stone Age characters, who seemingly have no corollary with today’s cultures, but nevertheless are distinctly human (except for the Neanderthal that is). And lastly 2312 introduced the post-human possibilities where people skewed both gender and family roles until it was almost unrecognisable from today’s terms.
But throughout it all they were very grounded characters; very human, and as such undeniably flawed. Just as they should be.
At any rate, I write this seemingly random fanboy post because Robinson’s new book Aurora was released a few nights ago. I had pre-purchased it on Amazon and spent the first few seconds after midnight repeatedly tapping the refresh button on my kindle until I had it firmly ensconced in the ones and zeroes of its digital storage.
I have read about 40% of it so far, and I have to say that though I am enjoying it, it does seem somewhat less optimistic than a lot of his other works, though I guess you have to push your characters down a few troughs before you can be suitably invested in them climbing back up the hill.
Strangely, the story only seems to feature one point of view character, though Robinson’s tendency to include interesting narrators for sections of his novels continues here. In the Mars Trilogy we had mythological Martian figures narrate sections, The Years of Rice and Salt had intermissions between characters set in the Buddhist afterlife (with appropriately weird narrations), Shaman even managed to have ones ‘third wind’ personified as a narrator. So I guess the fact that he utilises the ships computer (which has been tasked with constructing a narrative of the journey) to narrate a few chapters seems to make a bit more sense.
Kim Stanley Robinsons books are science fiction the way I like it; real.
I have a deep respect for science that perhaps wouldn’t have survived my transition from idealistic uni student, to pen pushing local government bureaucrat, were it not for the passion that these books ignited in me. I believe deeply that our planet, and other planets, and the environment, and so forth are an important part of who we are, and not just a resource to be used up.
Perhaps these books also have a deleterious effect on my opinions also. Maybe I am a bit too open to anarchism than I should be these days, because Arkady Bogdanov was such a charismatic figure. Perhaps I would be too willing to drop everything, grab my family, and jump on one of Elon Musk’s rockets to Mars, than caution would warrant. But really I would prefer to find an author who is able to inspire a passion and yearning for utopic ideas, than one who fails to create any such long lasting effect on my mind.