Tag Archives: Kim Stanley Robinson

NEW YORK 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2017)

New York 2140It’s no denying I’m a KSR fanboy. It’s also no denying I avidly share the same concerns as so many: climate change, rising inequality, the grip of finance on global politics. So I really wanted to like this book. And I did – up unto the first 250 pages. The remaining 363, not so much.

As the cover and the title make clear, New York 2140 follows firmly in the line of Kim Stanley Robinson’s near future novels: there was Washington & climate change in the Science of the Capital trilogy, refurbished in 2015 as the mammoth Green Earth, and California & three different scenarios in his early series The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990).

This time the sea level has risen spectacularly and New York has turned into a New Venice. The book follows nine characters that all live in the same building: a market trader, a police inspector, an environmental activist/nude model internet star, the building’s manager, two orphan boys straight from Huckleberry Finn, a lawyer and two coders trying to rig the Wall Street system.

At first the book is simply great. Robinson uses a mature, daring voice. It is his most ironic mode yet, his most openly self-aware book. He even addresses the reader straight on about his tendency to infodump. In between chapters there’s snippets of quotes from various sources about New York and its history, often funny. They work wonderfully well in tandem with the main text. New York 2140‘s subject is quite heavy, but the writing often manages to be light and breezy. I laughed out loud several times. KSR uses language creatively, with stuff like “thinking they are great gestalters” or “I pikettied the U.S. tax code” and a newly coined adverb like “realworldistically” – all examples of a playful intellectualism. A joy to read.

The story starts with a disappearance that has the smell of a high tech heist movie. There’s also an old school treasure hunt going on, and there’s the general vibe of 22nd century New York with all kinds of new technology dealing with the new water level. It all contributes to a Big Sense of Anticipation, especially since the story has 613 pages, and I know what KSR is capable of: I was set for a long, boisterous feast. (More on the cake later.)

But after a while I slowly started to notice some problems, and those problems only got worse. After I read the book, I started reading some interviews (collected on the excellent, extensive fan site kimstanleyrobinson.info), and those interviews confirmed and explained my suspicions of what went wrong.

In the remaining part of this review, I’ll quote a few parts from various interviews, and use those to explain why this will be the first KSR book I’ll probably sell at the local second hand shop. But – and this needs the extra stress – that does not mean New York 2140 will be a bad read for you, dear reader: that also hinges for a big part upon what news and non-fiction you have consumed the last couple of years, as I’ll explain in my next paragraph.

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THE MEMORY OF WHITENESS – Kim Stanley Robinson (1985)

The Memory Of WhitenessThe Memory Of Whiteness: A Scientific Romance is Kim Stanley Robinson’s third book, and from what I can gather his most philosophical. In it, he tries to tie a few threads of thought together: how determinism ties in with quantum physics and free will; art as representation of reality; how human thinking corresponds with reality & direct and indirect kinds of knowledge. The device KSR uses to connect all this is music.

The Memory Of Whiteness is philosophical musings first, and story second. I don’t think it has aged particularly well, and I don’t think it has a lot to offer to people that are already familiar with the topics I listed above – and I don’t mean as familiar like a CERN scientist, but familiar in a Quantum Physics For Dummies kinda way. I’m not sure how well known the general outlines of quantum physics were back in the 1980ies, but today those outlines are pretty much common knowledge to people with a healthy interest in their reality and a library card.

The notion of indeterminacy on a subatomic level has been a veritable feast for some philosophers of the postmodern ilk: an electron’s speed can’t be measured at the same time as its spin! Nothing is certain!! What we feel has been proven by hard science!!! Praise Heisenberg!!!! It went so far that people thinking philosophically about truth and representation – and that means nearly everybody writing theory about the arts, as most (if of not all) art is grounded in representation, as also non-representative art stems from representative predecessors – needed to become familiar with the Quantum. Of course, all this was quite overblown. It’s not because some subatomic processes are strange and weird that our Newtonian world – still the only world we live in – all of a sudden becomes unknowable and undetermined.  Still, serious writers and serious philosophers needed to opine about Schrödinger’s cat and the possible existence of the Higgs boson, and Einstein’s dictum that ‘God doesn’t play dice’ was made fun of, even in works of popular culture that needed a claim on depth.

Kim Stanley Robinson clearly wasn’t a fool, not even back in those days. He saw through this mirage of uncertainty, and envisioned a world that was beyond these debates.

Newtonian physics is deterministic. It is true that it fits into the larger framework of the probabilistic system of quantum mechanics. But quantum mechanics fits into the larger framework of Holywelkin physics; and Holywelkin physics is again deterministic.

Holywelkin is a fictional scientist, and The Memory Of Whiteness is set in 3229 AD – it chronicles a tour of humanity’s most important musician/composer throughout the solar system.  Continue reading

GREEN EARTH – Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

Green Earth

   

Enough is as good as feast.

Green Earth is a revised version of The Science In The Capital-trilogy, a near future series on climate change, American politics and science. The original trilogy consists of Forty Signs Of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005) and Sixty Days And Counting (2007). They were meant to be one long novel all along. In movies, most director’s cuts are longer, but not here so… Robinson cut about 300 pages, still leaving Green Earth to be a mammoth of 1069 pages. It’s unclear how much updating took place, if any – there’s about a decade of extra research and data on climate change since the first volume was published, so it’s not unthinkable that KSR tinkered a bit with some of the data in the original books too.

You can read the 6 page introduction of the book on io9 here. It is an excellent text by KSR himself on the reasons for this revision, and he tackles some other interesting topics too. His take on the ethics of contemporary literature & science fiction is bold, and rings very true to these ears.

Also, my original idea had been to write a realist novel as if it were science fiction. This approach struck me as funny, and also appropriate, because these days we live in a big science fiction novel we are all writing together. If you want to write a novel about our world now, you’d better write science fiction, or you will be doing some kind of inadvertent nostalgia piece; you will lack depth, miss the point, and remain confused.

I’ll start with some remarks about the book in general, and afterwards zoom in a bit on the 3 parts. I should probably mention that I made about 7 times as many notes while reading as I do for most reviews. Some of that is surely on behalf of the 1000+ page count, but still. Green Earth is an extremely rich book, and this review should have been at least twice as long to do justice to the scope of its ideas: I’ll leave a lot unsaid. So, don’t forget to read the book too!


Green Earth is set in Washington D.C. in a not so distant 21st century future: conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (°1951) is still active, and the book features several Vietnam veterans that are very much alive & kicking.

The main thematic focal point of the book’s setting is climate change: as the original books’ titles hint at, pretty damaging flooding happens in the first part, and a crippling winter in the second. Contrary to what you might think, the book doesn’t have a broad time scope: only about 3 years pass. Yet climate change ultimately is only the backdrop to a much broader story Robinson wants to tell, and so the themes of Green Earth are diverse. KSR identifies a few in the introduction himself: “climate change, science administration and politics, Buddhism, biotechnology and investment capital, homelessness, sociobiology, surveillance, life in Washington D.C., life in a treehouse, life with a fractious toddler.” And since Green Earth is first and foremost a realist novel, all that results in “a peculiar mix of historical fiction, contemporary fiction, and science fiction, in the sense that some of it has already happened, some is happening now, and some of it will happen soon.”

Reading that list of themes might leave readers with a couple of wrong impressions.

One. While Green Earth – as the bulk of KSR’s other books – is extremely well researched, and obviously features a lot of scientific stuff, it mainly is a book about characters and their lives. Not that many characters even. The cast is rather limited: there’s about ten important characters, with a focus on just two of those. There’s Charlie Quibler, a White House staffer with two young children, and Frank Vanderwal, a scientist from San Diego who works at the National Science Foundation. I cared about every character. They all have depth, they all are real persons, and none are too obviously flawed-as-a-token like in the work of lesser writers trying for complexity. But, all that doesn’t make Green Earth a 100% success on the character front: there’s one major quibble which I’ll point out when I get to Fifty Degrees Below.

Two. While that list of themes I quoted is extensive, it lacks what maybe is Green Earth‘s most important theme: America. Green Earth is one of the great American Novels. Simple as that. It his heavily steeped in American history, American thinking and American literature. And while Green Earth is definitely a book about the climate systems of our entire planet, it focuses almost solely on what climate change means for America: catastrophic extinction events in China are mentioned, and a disastrous flooding of Prague too, but that’s about it. That’s not critique by the way: I think it’s one of this book’s many strengths that it doesn’t try to be all-encompassing.

It is no secret that Kim Stanley Robinson is a progressive thinker. People who have watched his great 2011 talk  Valuing the Earth and Future Generations: Imagining Post-Capitalism on YouTube (it’s over an hour) will find a lot to recognize in Green Earth. The book’s both nuanced and broad analysis of the faults of the political and economical system faults is dead on and scorching.

Most readers of KSR’s work probably don’t need convincing on climate change. As such, this book could be accused of only preaching to the choir. And while that may be true, it also misses the point. As Robinson himself hints at in his introduction (“fiction doesn’t have to come true to make it useful”) still has an ethical “use”. As I experienced it, the purpose of Green Earth is to offer hope. Robinson is an optimistic writer – not the easiest choice in these cynical times. That alone deserves applause.

It is all too easy to become depressed reading the papers – this week alone I came across 3 pretty alarming articles on that state of our biosphere in a mainstream newspaper. It is also easy to become afraid watching the ever widening rift between the “two Americas”, and the economical system’s dysfunctions are becoming obvious in Europe too. The myth of apathy is a real danger.

While Green Earth doesn’t offer quick fixes or a naive silver bullet solution to Earth’s problems, it does sketch hints of a possible future in which humanity will get on the right tracks eventually – but not without the loss of an enormous amount of biodiversity: the coral reefs have all died in the book, and polar bears have gone extinct. We can all use a bit of realistic hope, even need it. Green Earth supplies in that need. It is very much a novel for this day and age: a hopeful call to arms.

Robinson’s optimism echoes a feeling I have held for a long time myself: I’m pretty pessimistic about humanity’s near future, but I am a hopeful optimist about the long run. Just look at what giant steps we have made (both bad and good) the last 400 years – science and rational thought have proved to be helpful, and will continue to do so. Green Earth is a solid and convincing defense of the scientific method. Its main message is probably this: the sciences should urgently get involved in politics.

“You’re suggesting we need a paradigm shift in how science interacts with society.” “Yes I am.”

Green Earth might be preaching to the choir, but it enhances the choir’s awareness nonetheless. It sharpens existing insights, refreshes theory, adds stuff you didn’t know, deepens the understanding. It’s a feast for the inquiring mind.

Before I zoom in, a bit about those 300 cut pages. I didn’t miss them. On the contrary. I think KSR should have trimmed a bit more. At times Green Earth was repetitive, I hate to say. Somewhere between page 500 and 800 it had me bogged down, it truly dragged. 300 pages more of that might have worked when the 3 parts were published separately, with some years in-between reading, but read cover to cover even this trimmed version was work. 850 pages would have been better than Green Earth‘s 1069.

Still, Robinson’s prose is extremely readable, light and clear throughout, funny at times. It might seem easy, but it’s a stunning feat not a lot of writers achieve.

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A SHORT, SHARP SHOCK – Kim Stanley Robinson (1990)

A short, sharp shockReading A Short, Sharp Shock confirmed my impression that Robinson is a writer with a tremendous range. It is a novella of about 100 pages that is hard to categorize because of its bizarre, surreal content. The story is about a man who wakes up, washed ashore on an unknown beach, not remembering who he is or how he got there. Next to him is an unknown woman, and very soon a story of travel throughout a mysterious world, filled with adventure and meetings with odd and intriguing characters, starts. Saying much more would spoil the experience of reading, since it has to be read and experienced first hand, as if immersed in a dream.

It’s probably not science fiction (it could be, if you think the protagonist is a space traveler stranded on another planet), and calling it fantasy is also a bit of a stretch, but there sure are fantastical elements to be found. Lets just leave it at speculative literature…  Continue reading

ICEHENGE – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)

IcehengeAfter reading 2312 and Aurora, and watching a lot of his talks and interviews on YouTube, Kim Stanley Robinson has become one of my favorite authors. That is because he combines different persona in such an interesting way: a great observer of humanity, a sharp scientific mind, a poet, and a radical, utopian dreamer. I want to read everything he wrote, and so I started one of his first novels. Does it hold up to his most recent work?

What struck me most in Icehenge is that we meet a very lyrical KSR. In this mystery story about the origins of a Stonehenge-like construction on Pluto, discovered in the 23rd century, Robinson already shows his talent as a writer of fiction that transcends the mere science of SF.

The book consists of 3 parts, that each has a different protagonist and narrator. Especially the middle part has a bit of a melancholic, lyrical feel to it. This is because one of the main themes of the book is the effects of longevity on humans. There’s not much of the naïve ideas featured in some other SF on that subject to be found here, but a rather realistic, plausible take on what it would mean for human society and its individuals – memory being one of the topics explored. The narrator of the 2nd part has lived for a few centuries, and as such has a certain ‘wisdom’. In the form of an autobiography he writes sharp musings about, among other things, love and marriage.

You can make unhappiness into an aesthetic experience, and everyone tries to, so there must be something in it; but I don’t think it does much good. It only means you will remember it better, because of the coding in objective correlatives. It doesn’t make you less unhappy.

For those afraid of Robinson’s info dumps, there’s none of that in this early book. On the contrary, there is beauty to be found.

  “It is a form of grace to become nothing but a task;

  “words are gossamer in a basalt world.

KSR being KSR, this is also a book that explores the usual political and social themes – and yes, a revolution on Mars too – , but it doesn’t dominate the story, all themes balance very well.

It used to be that people could say to themselves, why should I sacrifice my life for social change, it will take years and I’ll not see the benefits of it, let this time be peaceful at least and the next generation can worry about it.

Although Icehenge isn’t as epic, accomplished or mature as his 2 latest books, it surely is an interesting, engaging read that shows Robinson’s consistency. It’s also rather short – only 262 pages in my pocket edition. I think I’m ready to dive into the Mars trilogy…

AURORA – Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

AuroraThis is only the second Robinson novel I’ve read, but both this and 2312 have propelled him to the forefront of my favorite authors list. Aurora is hard SF as it should be done, and as a realistic, meticulously researched book about a generational interstellar ship, it should be obligatory reading for any aspiring SF author that wants to write about big spaceships.

For after reading Aurora one has 2 options as a SF writer: truly address the problems Robinson brings up, or just make a jump to the kind of magical, in-full-control-of-all-matter kinda SF – like Banks’ Culture novels, or to a large degree even Reynolds, whose hard SF tag suddenly seems a bit less merited after reading Aurora. Hard SF is not only about the impossibility of FTL, it should be about aging ecosystems too. That, and so much more. This book deals with microbiomes as well as with macrobiomes, and can double as an highly entertaining, emotional and at times funny introduction to numerous hot topics in early 21st century science.

Both approaches have merit. Banks’ way of doing things allows for a more outrageous imaginative range, and definitely has heaps of interesting things to say about real, present day human society for sure, but Robinson may ultimately be the better one in that latter respect. Aurora again clearly proves that good SF always is good, well grounded Social Sciences Fiction as well.

As a novel itself, Aurora is a masterly crafted. It’s even meta! Robinsons’ narrative choices are highly original and add another interesting layer of content to the story. As it is a layer about AI and the nature of decision making, perception and consciousness, it ultimately is a layer about ourselves too, and Robinson again shows his powers as an all-round science writer, tackling ancient psychological-philosophical problems full on, in a manner that fully resonates with my own views on the matter: consciousness as we experience it is ultimately an illusion.

In a way this book is a depressing read on our abilities to ever escape the sun’s inevitable demise. Yet it is hopeful too, since in Aurora humans have figured out a way to survive the coming climate catastrophes. Who knows? Anyhow, I haven’t come across a better future guide than Kim Stanley Robinson.

Highly, highly recommended.

originally written on the 7th of August, 2015

2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)

2312The heart of this novel is a love affair with the universe itself… People that haven’t lost their sense of wonder and amazement at the splendor of existence, and who also like to learn and discover as much as they can about the vast reality we live in, will find a lot to rejoice in this breathtaking and brave book.

That plentitude is one of 2312‘s strengths. It covers a very broad spectrum, and people with a keen interest in non-fiction will see that Robinson has incorporated lots and lots of stuff from various scholarly domains. It was a boisterous, joyous feast of recognition that broadened my horizon at the same time.

As every more or less enlightened person nowadays thinks in the wake of Darwin, Robinson is a writer of evolution as well, and his bold speculations of how things might evolve in the near future is depressing and hopeful at the same time. As such, 2312 is a very realistic, hard SF book, and utterly mind-blowing at that.

Robinson has found a really interesting narrative voice, funny at times, revealing things at the right time, switching between 3 main different modes, without it ever being confusing. The way the novel is structured elegantly solves the info dump problem. While it drags a wee bit around the halfway mark, and it suffers a bit from too much description at times, generally, it’s a fast paced book.

2312 sometimes reads as a giant, original 540-page summary of other contemporary SF, as it touches upon so many themes. It feels a bit like the true Hard SF variant of Bank’s utopianism, as if we were witnessing the very early stages of the birth of a human Culture, confined to this solar system. And what Reynolds did for the realistic, lonely portrayal of interstellar space travel, Robinson does for the portrayal of life on the other planets, moons and asteroids of this solar system. I’m interested if Stephenson will equal this in his upcoming Seveneves – a book with a similar setting, albeit part of it in a much further future.

This was the first book of Robinson I’ve read. I guess most of his other stuff will end up on my TBR-pile, so there you have it.

One more thing… Over the course of a small week, this book made me look up at the sun, the clouds and the sky multiple times, and made me deeply appreciate our biosphere, not really for the first time, but this time with a new sense of wonder and awe – we are actually walking and living on the surface of a planet, without space suits at all.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of Hard SF.

originally written on the 17th of May, 2015