My 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.
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) – 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).