Sunday 29 August. Kim Stanley Robinson sat calmly at the front of the vast reaches of BMW edge. Lucy Sussex – a longtime supporter of Overland – interviewed Robinson in a freewheeling discussion about his work and opinions. It’s not surprising that that the hall wasn’t full: Robinson was the Guest of Honour at the World Science Fiction Convention a few days later. Many of his fans no doubt planned to catch him there. Still, it’s a pity the session wasn’t better attended, for Robinson is one of the most astute commentators on politics and history. He possesses qualities too rare among novelists; most importantly he thinks deeply about his work; he has an aesthetic and political project. As a result, Robinson is not simply a novelist, but a commentator – a kind of public intellectual that is all too rare. As a radical leftist, Robinson – along with another SF leftist at the festival, China Mieville – has the knack of appearing eminently reasonable, rational, knowledgeable. It is hard to underestimate his value.
Robinson’s career has been one sustained attempt to think about how society might transition from a contemporary capitalism that is destroying the environment and plunging us towards a ‘mass extinction event’ to a utopian post-capitalism. His first three novels – the Orange County trilogy – imagine three future Californias, two dystopias and one utopia. His novel The Years of Rice and Salt imagines how society may have developed had the black plague wiped out western civilization. Thus capitalism develops first in the East. This raised many questions such as, ‘Would there have been colonialism?’ These are the kinds of questions that only science fiction can ask and try to think through. Robinson’s aim, he explained, was to make his work fun as well as educational, as ‘Aristotle asked us to do’.
Robinson has become something of an expert on climate change (his Science in the Capital series imagines that the earth reaches a climate-change tipping point, which forces the world to transition to, once again, a post-capitalist world). Indeed, Robinson is probably the single most important commentator on science within the science fiction community. When others allow themselves to be seduced by technological flights of fancy, Robinson is a sober corrective to these fantasies. His science fiction is both realistic – it asks what is actually possible – and optimistic. As a result, Robinson was a critic of cyberpunk. ‘I didn’t like It,’ he explained, because it was the literary equivalent of the neoliberal dogma that ‘There is No Alternative’. Cyberpunk sought to celebrate and revel in a free market future. For Robinson, optimism is not optional. We need an ‘optimism of the will’ he explains (paraphrasing Gramsci), because ‘to be pessimistic now is to let down our children and generations to come.’
In his latest novel, Galileo’s Dream, Robinson examines the relationship between science and capitalism and, as he explained, relied on Raymond Williams’ concept of a ‘structure of feeling’ to capturing a sense of sixteenth-century consciousness. In this novel, Robinson examines the nature of science as a project to liberate humanity. For him, the traditional left critique of science is a ‘category error.’
The panel covered many topics, but sustained a remarkably high-level discussion. Where other panels are often like coffee chats, Robinson has such a roving intellect that by the end of the hour, there was a sense of profundity. You felt that important subjects had been discussed. This is not to say there was no humour: one of the funniest moments was as Robinson described his response to the McKinsey Global Institute, who asked him to set out a plan to halt climate change. ‘You’ll notice I was quite irritable in that response.’ Not the kind of things you generally explain to the advocates of capitalism, his plan included things such as:
• ‘Dispense with all magical, talismanic phrases such as “free markets” and promote a larger systems analysis that is more empirical, without fundamentalist biases.’
• ‘Encourage all business schools to include foundational classes in ecology, environmental economics, biology, and history.’
• ‘Start programs at these same schools in post-capitalist studies.’
For those who are interested in finding out more about Robinson, I was lucky enough to interview him (with China Mieville) a few years ago for Overland. If you’d like to see him speak, here’s a great talk he recently gave: