For three decades now, Kim Stanley Robinson has been mapping the future of humanity through science fiction. His novels are as much densely-packed thought experiments—what would it really take to terraform a planet? What solutions will humanity have to find to deal with what we’re doing to the one we’re living on now?—as they are thrilling adventures. His latest, Aurora, shows us what would really happen to an isolated habitat of humans on a generations-long mission to a new star (spoiler alert: we’d still act a lot like humans on Earth).
We recently talked with Stan about his novels’ twisted timelines, the likelihood of people living on Mars, and what he has in store for Manhattan in his next book.
You’ve said that the planet Aurora, the destination of the generation ship, is a hat tip to Asimov’s The Naked Sun, and some characters (Devi especially), seem mined from the same vein as his gifted, clever protagonists. How much are you consciously in dialog with Golden Age writers?
Not very much, if by Golden Age you mean the 1940s. I’ve enjoyed Asimov, and love Sturgeon and Simak, but I only ever read a little Heinlein, and the rest of that era I read in a rush 40 years ago, when it already felt old-fashioned. The generation of the ’50s means more to me: Dick, Pangborn, Knight, Pohl, Bester, Miller, Vance, Merrill and the rest of that crowd; they were all very smart and fun. Then the New Wave writers were my special heroes, and the ones I learned the most from. I still think they were SF’s high point: Le Guin, Delany, Zelazny, Wolfe, Disch, Russ, the Strugatskis and Lem, and the rest of that group.
In general, I think that anyone writing SF now is somehow in dialog with the SF that came before. And there is a lot of great reading to be had in the genre.
One of your narrators is a ship’s A.I. that seems to have achieved consciousness, but no one particularly seems to notice. Assuming A.I. is possible, is this how you think it will play out: computers just getting better at emulating consciousness until the Turing Test is moot?
Maybe. I don’t know much about A.I., and I don’t think anyone does, because the terms are fuzzy. What we have now is artificial and in some ways intelligent, in that computations are made very quickly, but these procedures have little relationship to how humans think, so the words involved in our descriptions of the procedures are deceptive. However, as we do get faster computers talking back to us, the illusion of a consciousness engaged with us will get stronger, and the Turing Test and the Winograd Schema (which calls for a general knowledge applied to particular questions in a way humans can do easily) may become bars that A.I. can clear. Maybe these are still low bars, I’m not sure. However, I’m more interested in these questions than ever before, I can say that.
As the A.I. matures, it seems to develop more and more of a sense of humor, especially puns and wordplay. (There are some real groaners.) Even in the rather bleak sections, there’s a thread of humor. How important do you think humor is to consciousness, or is this just a quirk of the ship’s personality?
I don’t know. Again, consciousness is a tricky, vague term, so a sense of humor (which strikes me as a more precise [one], somehow) may or may not be important to consciousness. It might just be a quirk of the ship A.I., trying to do a narrator’s sentence-making. If it’s much like me (and it could be), the humor might usually be by accident.
2312 and Aurora seem to occupy the same timeline, with the latter occurring hundreds of years later—there’s a quick reference to a city on tracks on Mercury and the Saturnine miners. Do you have an internal timeline of events, or do you think of your books as pure standalones?
I think of them as standalones, definitely. I have timelines for each novel, but they aren’t the same from book to book. I do lift various ideas from earlier books of mine, if it seems like they will add to the new books. It’s fun to refer to the city Terminator on Mercury, and Pauline the A.I., and a few other recurrent ideas, but it’s more important to create a new and different history for each novel, leading back to whatever present I’m writing from.
Aurora takes a dim view of the generation ship, and is much more downbeat than 2312 about the limits of our technology and biology. In 2312, we have settlements all over the solar system, and it seems the logical extension is to shoot for the stars; Aurora is, in effect, an argument against the generation ship, and what it would take to reach them. Mars One is currently looking at candidates for their mission in 2025, and many are questioning the wisdom of such an undertaking. An argumentative question would be: why do you think even Mars or Mercury would be in our reach?
Well, we have reached Mars and Mercury robotically, and they are nearby, relative to the stars. They have surfaces like the moon, which we have landed people on. The problems seem solvable, so setting up scientific stations on both these planets, and many more moons in our solar system, seems like something we can do.
The stars, however, are different. If you reduce the distance from the sun to the Earth (one AU) to a meter, then Tau Ceti would, by the same reduction, be 800 kilometers away. And Tau Ceti is one of the closest stars. So there is such a quantitative difference there that it becomes a qualitative difference. Put simply: the stars are too far away for us, but our solar system is not. That’s the case that 2312 and Aurora are making, and I think it’s a pretty solid case. I’d be happy to debate it with anybody.
It should be said that Mars One is a fantasy, because although going to Mars and Mercury is probably possible, we’re not ready yet. We haven’t practiced enough yet. We could do it if we invested in a civilizational effort, which would take a few decades of concerted effort by a really big group of organizations.
Oliver Morton has made the very persuasive point that we’re mainly interested in Mars because it feels like the hardest thing we could do at our current moment of technology: it’s the challenge goal, like getting to the North and South Poles was in the 19th century. So we keep talking about it, without being fundamentally interested in Mars per se. If and when we reach Mars with humans, we will be precisely as interested in it as we were in the moon after we reached it, or in the South Pole. There are people now living at the South Pole! Amazing! But are you amazed? No. We are most interested in the projects that are just beyond our reach.
The colonists onboard the generation ship have inherited an unstable environment from their ancestors, one that has put their very lives at risk. Is there a correlation here to your interest in environmentalism?
Sure. We too live in a closed biological life support system. It’s a trillion times bigger than a starship, and so it’s much more robust than a starship, but there are 7 billion of us, too, using new technologies that wreak ecological damage. So it’s an unconstrained experiment, and we need to think about it as an ecology we have to coax along and care for as we do for our bodies, because in effect the Earth is our body. So the starship novel is a great space to talk about that.
One aspect of the “generation ship” that is often glossed over is the generational aspect—that there will be friction between parents and children, and their children, and theirs. Did you consider the conflict between generations as you were building this society?
Yes, to an extent. The thing that struck me most was the difference between the people who chose to go, meaning the first generation, and then all the generations that followed, who did not make that choice, who would know there is a planet back in the solar system that most people are living on, while they are stuck in a few rooms and need to make everything go right, which means population control and various other constraints that, when added up, could seem like a quite fascistic totalitarian state. Even if fully democratic, the situation itself would be totalitarian. Realizing that, the generational divide might become quite stark.
Poetry is a fairly important component in The Years of Rice and Salt, and pops up in Aurora in the kitchen table couplets between Badim and his friends, and a few other notable places. Who are your favorite poets?
My favorite living poets are Gary Snyder and W.S. Merwin. Looking back at the canon, I love many poets, but here want to mention the somewhat neglected William Bronk; and Kenneth Rexroth, whose Sierra poetry I collected into a book published by New Directions; and the amazing Emily Dickinson, a recent discovery for me.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you tried something in this book that you’ve never seen in SF before. Without giving it away, has anyone else picked up on it yet? Has that been gratifying or disappointing?
It’s been mentioned with circumspection by a couple of reviewers, which pleased me greatly. I should add that the basic concept is not mine, but rather a commonplace of rocketry, but I think my application of it constitutes a new science fiction story. I think one reviewer recommended reading the sequence twice, as being physics as poetry, while another noted that the passage’s narrator was an A.I., not much of a stretch for Robinson.
Can you talk about what you are working on now? How do you select which of a myriad of ideas you are going to actually turn into a novel?
Actually I only have a few ideas, but since it takes me a year or two to write a book, by the time I’ve finished one, the list of ideas seems about as long as ever. These days, I compile that list and give it to my editor, Tim Holman, and he helps me make the call concerning which one to try next. So, next up I’m going to write a novel set in a [partially submerged] Manhattan much like the one that my characters briefly visit in 2312. At first I felt intimidated to write about New York, being a Californian; it was worse than Mars or Ming China or the Paleolithic for me. But I’ve been visiting the city and have realized again that it’s so stupendous (like Asimov’s Trantor!) that no one can know it all, and it has lots of room for an outsider’s perspective. Especially after it’s dunked waist-deep in water.
Ceridwen Christensen contributed to this interview.