THE HIGH SIERRA: A LOVE STORY – Kim Stanley Robinson (2022)

The High Sierra Kim Stanley Robinson coverMy fondness for Kim Stanley Robinson is no secret. I’ve only been disappointed by two of his books: The Memory of Whiteness, and Red Moon – which I didn’t even finish. And while I haven’t read all of his novels – 6 to go – whenever he publishes something new, I instantly buy and read it. Even if it is something as seemingly bizarre as a non-fiction book about hiking in the Californian Sierra Nevada.

It’s marketed somewhat as an autobiography as well: “Robinson’s own life-altering events, defining relationships, and unforgettable adventures form the narrative’s spine. And he illuminates the human communion with the wild and with the sublime, including the personal growth that only seems to come from time spent outdoors.”

Well – I think that part of the marketing is a bit off, but nonetheless I enjoyed reading this book. I’ll say a few words about why I did in a second, but let me first quote a part of the marketing blurb that is true: “a gorgeous, absorbing immersion in a place, born out of a desire to understand and share one of the greatest rapture-inducing experiences our planet offers. Packed with maps, gear advice, more than 100 breathtaking photos, and much more, it will inspire veteran hikers, casual walkers, and travel readers to prepare for a magnificent adventure.”

I’m not really the target audience. I’ve never been to the Sierras, and I probably never will. But I’m so fond of KSR’s writing, I do want to understand what makes him tick, and as a result I was curious enough to buy this.

As I hinted at, the biographical parts were few and far between – I mean, other than the biographical parts about certain trips and hikes – and as such the book was a bit of a disappointment, but on the other hand, I really liked reading it.


For starters, Robinson’s narrative voice is just a joy to read. His prose is clear and effortless. He really manages to translate the love and joy he feels to the reader.

That takes me to the second reason: it simply is nice to read about a guy being passionate and joyful, the whole affair has something uplifting, all the more because Robinson manages to convey a cosmic sense: being amazed about our planet, deep time and human life. Rapture is real. It also has a certain radicalness to it that is inspring: his love borders obsession, and there is something radical about the praxis too – who would slice Proust’s The Captive in two to save weight?

Another reason is that some of the stories of certain hikes truly are exiting. There’s tension and relief. They are good stories, even though they are about not much more than walking through a mountain range.

The same goes for some of the tidbits of information you learn: a bit about geology, about psychogeology, about people that were important for the Sierras, about the Sierra history, about gear. It’s all interesting stuff, quite specific at times, yes, but stuff that also sheds light on bigger issues, bigger histories – stuff that’s embedded in the world, and as such teaches us about certain aspects of the world. So yes, there’s a bit of politics in this book too.

And while personal growth is certainly not the focus of this book, there are a few occasions of personal stuff that were brilliant nonetheless. The way Robinson deals with interpersonal friction and the death of a hiking buddy was very emotional to read. Again, a story too, something that could have been made into a novel. But the fact that Robinson embeds it in something larger makes it even more deep, and less melodramatic. The same goes for his evolving views on climbing: it’s subdued, there’s no theater involved, but at the same time KSR ends up presenting us a sharp and keen insight into the nature of humans. (Spoiler: free will doesn’t exist.)

I must admit I skimmed a few parts: those with very specific information on certain routes, trails, passes. As I said, I’ll probably never hike the High Sierra, so those parts aren’t meant for me. No biggie. Tons of other good stuff in these 532 pages.

The pictures are often gorgeous indeed, and do the job, but would have benefited from other paper. Then again, my wallet would have not benefited, so I’m more than okay with how it turned out. Great value for money, and the hardcover simply is a beautiful book: quality illustrations, including some great woodblock prints by Tom Killion, nice typesetting, a joy to hold and read.

The High Sierra feels very free and unrestrained. In that respect, it resembles the excellent The Ministry of the Future: Robinson somehow found a way to just write what he wants, not hindered by genre conventions, classifications or whatever. The book is a strange hybrid, formally diverse. Amazingly, it works.

Hats off to Kim Stanley Robinson.

I will read more love stories.

Kim Stanley Robinson in the High Sierra

My other Kim Stanley Robinson reviews are here: The Wild Shore (1984)Icehenge (1984) – The Memory Of Whiteness (1985) – The Gold Coast (1988) – A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) – Pacific Edge (1990) – The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) – 2312 (2012) – Shaman (2013) – Aurora (2015) – Green Earth (2015, the revised Science In The Capital trilogy (2004-2007)) – New York 2140 (2017) – The Ministry for the Future (2020).

Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

21 responses to “THE HIGH SIERRA: A LOVE STORY – Kim Stanley Robinson (2022)

  1. That’s nice. It reminds me of the scientific project I was part of while writing my PhD. The project was about motivation for nature conservation and the psychologists in our project gave us presentations about the capacity for nature to bring about feelings of epiphany in people who are in close contact with it. Sometimes it happens when you observe wildlife: you suddenly realise that there is this hidden world of creatures that live autonomously from humanity and it is a wonder. But engaging with landscapes offers the same opportunities for epiphany.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Interesting. Is it possible to summarize the findings of your group’s research in a couple of sentences.

      Re: animals. KSR talks about the exact same sentiment you describe (seeing wild animals and realizing that they get by on their own in the world) in this book a couple of times too. For him it deepens the Sierra experience, and hiking the range provides the epiphany in multiple ways. Robinson speaks of animals as “a people” and our “horizontal family”.

      Liked by 2 people

      • The research was pretty broad, incorporated social psychology, environmental economics and organisation science. One clear finding from psychology is that people who became advocates for the protection of nature all had significant encounters with nature in their childhood. They played outside, often unsupervised, and had encounters with animals. And for future protection of nature, it is necessary that natural areas should not be completely sealed off from humans but should have zones where people, and especially children, can still experience that interaction.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Did you or other readers notice the page that describes ksr experiencing a frostbitten penis while hiking once in a very windy Sierra snowstorm?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I played outside unsupervised as a child and now I work outdoors.
    I want to pave the planet. Nature is a bitch that will shank you as often as she can…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting! Not a book for me, I think, but I do like the idea. KSR has a special sensitivity toward nature and he actually can pull off writing about it in a personal way that yet feels shared. The mountains do look amazing, though. I’d love to visit them one day.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. His joy clearly rubbed off on your review, I gulped it and it intrigued me so much. I must add it to my list. I have a thing for books and authors that challenge genres.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, glad that came through. Obviously this is mainly nature writing, so in that sense it’s not challenging genres, but it’s really diverse in its approach. I haven’t read much other nature writing, so I can’t really compare, but I’d say his voice here is pretty unique. In that sense Ministry For The Future is maybe more formally challenging.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for your review. I already wondered what new book from him would be published this year, and here it is. I need my fresh annual dose of KSR, and gladly ordered the book.
    I‘ve been to the Sierra, though not hiking there. So that’s an additional touchpoint.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for your enthusiastic review! I just put it on reserve at our library, and am pretty sure I’ll enjoy it. KSR has been hit-or-miss with his fiction for me, but I really enjoyed his essays on his times hiking in the Alps, when he lived in Switzerland (he didn’t much like the Swiss!). I recall these are online, so if you Google you can likely find them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think there’s a typo in this review’s opening line: it should be Red Moon, not Red Mars, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

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