Kim Stanley Robinson maps the future’s gray areas

"I think of science fiction as the realism of California," Robinson says.
(Robert Durell / For The Times)

In science fiction, there’s dystopia and there’s utopia.

There are the dark wizards of apocalypse, terrifying us with visions of humanity’s grim comeuppance. And the starry-eyed fantasists, insisting how much better the future will be than the messy, middling present.

And then there’s Kim Stanley Robinson: family man, High Sierras pilgrim, ex- Orange County homeboy and prolific author of several of the most influential science fiction works of the last 25 years.

Robinson, 57, doesn’t put much stock in the extremes of Bad New World vs. Bright New Tomorrow. His work restlessly seeks out the third (or fourth, or fifth) possibility, an alternative evolutionary path.


With total worldwide sales of around 2.5 million copies, in numerous languages, his perspective plainly has a following. Like Dante, Robinson specializes in triptychs. His Mars trilogy of the 1990s describes 200 years of human colonization and ecological transformation on the Red Planet. His “Three Californias” series of a decade earlier imagines the southern edge of the Golden State overrun by ruthless development and flattened by nuclear disaster, yet resilient, like a hardy mutant plant.

His latest novel, “ Galileo’s Dream” (Spectra: 544 pp., $26), deftly lashes together three narratives: a homage to Galileo, a trek to Jupiter’s moons in the year 3020 and a philosophical inquiry into the perpetual tussle between comforting falsehoods and inconvenient truths.

“Elegant, charming, funny and profound,” summarized a reviewer for the Guardian of London, marking Robinson as the rare sci-fi writer whose polished prose and intellectual heft equals his inventive plotting. It’s up to the reader, his speculative fiction implies, to determine which future will prevail.

“You can never properly predict the future as it really turns out,” Robinson told a high school class here recently. “So you are doing something a little different when you write science fiction. You are trying to take a different perspective on now.”

This endeavor raises several questions central to Robinson’s outlook. What if the world isn’t fated to end with a bang or whimper, but simply to go on and on? What if utopia and dystopia aren’t static but dynamic terms, “roads of history” leading us through crisscrossing, switch-backed destinies?

What if history can be read backward and forward, like a reverse nuclear chain reaction, in which altering a single atom could sway the course of religions, cultures, empires? Most crucially, perhaps: How might the world be different if our literature, to say nothing of our politics, behaved more like a rational, intrepid adult than a hand-wringing adolescent?

“Apocalyptic thinking happens on the left as well as on the right, and in environmentalism, that’s a terrible approach to take,” Robinson says over lunch at one of his favorite downtown haunts. “Because it isn’t true. We cannot kill off life on Earth even if we wanted to. Life is insanely robust, though we can make species go extinct, and this is the bad thing. So I always make the point that you can’t say, ‘Is it too late?’ That is the terrible question, because either answer promotes inaction. If it’s too late, you don’t need to act; if it’s not too late, you don’t need to act.”


His sci-fi origins

Robinson earned his liberal-humanist bona fides the way many California boomers did. He was raised in a conservative Orange County home where he agreed to disagree about politics with his Republican parents.

In those days Orange County was a citrus-scented Eden, at least for middle-class suburbanites. But as he grew up, Robinson watched bulldozers plow up the orange and eucalyptus groves. It wasn’t until he started reading Isaac Asimov, and later Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany and Gene Wolfe, that he discovered a genre to express what he’d witnessed.

“When I started reading science fiction, I thought, ‘This is me. This is about going from a human world to a machine world and becoming a cyborg,’ ” he has said. “I think of science fiction as the realism of California.”

When Robinson drove from Orange County to UC San Diego (where he received his B.A. in English), he recalls that “in 90 minutes, I went from 1950 to 1970.” At UCSD, he became radicalized by Vietnam and his exposure to certain faculty thinkers, chief among them his friend Fredric Jameson, the literary critic and Marxist theorist.

Their influence remains. But over the years, Robinson has tilted away from the absolutism of the 1960s and tried to “reimagine what revolution” can be. In his novels, he posits a scientific, gradualist, nonviolent view of how progress can occur.


“He believes that problems can be solved, and he sees the first step as imagining ways they might be solved,” says his close friend and fellow novelist Karen Joy Fowler. “He is not interested in councils of despair.”

Instead of “revolution,” Robinson prefers terms like “better scenario” and “phase change” to express what he sees as humanity’s best hopes for reforming itself. When discussing a hot-button subject such as climate change, his Zen calm ignites with passion.

“The problem is that dealing with climate change is a Big Government issue, and ever since Reagan-Thatcher there’s been this strong move to demonize government,” he says. Climate-change rejecters and free-market ideologues “have done just what the Catholic Church did with Galileo. They’ve made the wrong choice and are going to have to crawl away from it, but the damage will have been done.”

For a man whose mind plumbs the depths of time and space, Robinson savors life as a Mr. Mom homebody. Since the early 1990s, he and his wife, Lisa Nowell, an environmental chemist, have lived in Village Homes, a planned community with similarities to the utopian colony he depicted in his California trilogy. The couple’s elder son is in college, and the younger is a ninth-grader.

In this well-tended 70-acre enclave, with its community center, school and nearby wetlands where Canada geese and snowy egrets flock, Robinson often writes at a little metal table in his front yard while listening to classical music. He also raises broccoli, artichokes, strawberries and spinach in his small patch of the communal gardening plots, which function as a personal Walden Pond.

Robinson reckons that he knows about 200 of his roughly 1,000 neighbors, and has even served on the community’s board of directors. He’s fond of citing a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Socialism will never succeed. It takes too many evenings.”


“It’s one of the contradictions he balances,” says Terry Bisson, a longtime friend and fellow sci-fi writer. “He’s sort of a high-modernist bohemian. But he’s pretty middle-class about it too.”

The challenge for the affluent developed world, from Robinson’s viewpoint, is to make places like this green-friendly Brook Farm of the Central Valley reproducible. “It’s what I said in ‘Pacific Edge,’ we live in a pocket utopia, and we need the rest of the world to be utopia, or else we seem like criminals or idiots.”

Much left to write

Although Robinson has a contract to complete three new novels, he also hopes to write a nonfiction book about his experience of the Sierras. He hikes there often, inspired by both John Muir and the poet Gary Snyder, another friend. For Robinson, such a book would be part spiritual meditation and part how-to book about “how to have fun up there as a Californian, without being a climber, without being in danger and without suffering.” But he plans to heed Le Guin’s advice: “Don’t do the lone, enraptured male.”

There’s one more book Robinson envisions that can’t be fully finished. As he sees it, humankind is authoring a great science fiction novel, as individuals and collectively. Every day, he believes, we are writing the future into being through our actions and dreams.

Is it harder or easier as a sci-fi writer not to know how those future chapters will turn out?


He reflects in his tranquil living room as the fog spreads its fingers against the sliding glass doors. Oh, definitely not harder, he says.

“It’s a kind of reconciliation, since so much of our life is an imaginative act anyway. Since I can’t go there biologically, at least I’ve imagined it.”