Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

San Marco, 2014, Venice [photo: grumpylumixuser; via Wikimedia Commons]

Since his Mars trilogy became the most highly Hugo-decorated book series of the 1990s, reviews of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work have been peppered with superlatives. According to The New Yorker, for instance, he is both “one of the greatest living science-fiction writers” and “one of the most important political writers working in America today.” Robinson has seemed to enjoy such praise, but he has also made no secret of his irritation that the two are still considered separate compliments. Unlike other science fiction writers who have gained renown outside the genre, he tends to work on the “hard” end of the sf spectrum. This means that his novels owe much of their hefty page counts to detailed descriptions of anything from terraforming technologies to interplanetary supply chains. But Robinson, who describes himself as a product of the “California New Age hippie Buddhist mountaineering” scene of the 60s, says his interest in technology has never precluded a staunch commitment to anticapitalist utopianism.

With his most famous novels set throughout the solar system or on intergalactic spaceships, his latest novel, New York 2140, shows Robinson’s renewed interest in the terrestrial realm. The 613-page opus follows a motley crew of characters through a New York City fundamentally altered by the effects of climate change. Robinson’s voice projects an engineer’s no-nonsense resolve. After some 20 novels and various other books, he speaks about his place in the literary world with the confidence of a mechanic discussing a familiar machine. He explains his writerly decisions not as the results of vague inspirations but instead as carefully planned means to achieve specific ends. For Robinson, literature is not a vehicle for his personal secrets, but a useful tool for his readers to do what short-term profits and myopic politicians have made us forget: to think seriously about the future.

In the early 1980s, Robinson completed a PhD at UC San Diego. The idea to write his thesis came from his academic advisor Fredric Jameson. Even though the eminently readable language of Robinson’s novels is a far cry from academic jargon, the author relishes opportunities to explain his ideas with words and concepts from dense critical theory. For all the interplanetary wanderlust of his past characters, he himself has remained fairly stationary in recent years. After school, he made a permanent move to the comparatively quiet city of Davis, California—close to his beloved Sierra Nevada mountains, which he once described as resembling “a terraformed Mars.”

Gregor Quack: Your most recent novel New York 2140 has received a lot of attention, both within and outside the world of science fiction. For most reviewers it’s not just a good novel, but one of the first successful attempts to write about one of the central issues of our time. In this issue of ART PAPERS, there is also an interview with the novelist Amitav Ghosh, who has also thought about the issue and famously complained that writers of “serious fiction” have left the important theme of climate change to science fiction. Is it important to you that your work is seen as sufficiently serious?

Kim Stanley Robinson: I have read several interviews with Ghosh, and I’ve frankly been quite offended by the assumptions he makes. I am perfectly comfortable being called a science fiction writer. The notion that there are “serious fiction” and “nonserious fiction” feels insulting. What makes it even more irritating is that he’s such a wonderful novelist. The Glass Palace is a superb novel. But when you read these interviews, you have to ask myself: Why doesn’t he write a goddamn climate novel himself? What he doesn’t seem to understand is that climate change is extremely difficult to represent with the tools of an ordinary novel. Ghosh and others can’t bring themselves to admit that science fiction might be the best literary means of representation for hyperobjects like climate change. I think of hyperobjects in Timothy Morton’s sense — objects that are too big and complex to be thought of as things in the traditional sense. Climate change transcends time and humanity to such a degree that it becomes a kind of a gigantic actor-network. It’s not representable in the categories of traditional bourgeois fiction. That’s why, in New York 2140, I tried to construct a story where nonhuman actors are vitally important characters. And the tradition of science fiction gives me the tools for this. Writers like J.G. Ballard and John Brunner paid attention to the planet as a character long before anyone talked about climate change. With their dismissal of science fiction, Ghosh and writers like him are robbing themselves of the literary tools that would be useful for their project. It’s their loss, but I don’t think they should go around berating an entire genre about it.

GQ: So, if critics had paid more attention to science fiction in the past, they’d know that “climate fiction” isn’t such a new idea?

KSR: Every couple years, critics notice that science fiction gets interesting to the general public. Usually the first step is to give it a different name. In the 80s it was cyberpunk, now it’s “cli-fi.”

GQ: Yet despite all the attention New York 2140 pays to the effects of climate change, that genre term does not seem to fully describe the book. Although all of your characters have to navigate a world changed by sea level rise, none of them is a meteorologist or a climate scientist. Instead we meet building supervisors, bankers, police, vagabonds, and documentary filmmakers.

KSR: I think of New York 2140 as what, in my world, we call near-future science fiction or future history—as opposed to space operas. In this subgenre it’s clear a novel needs to deal with the whole of the historical picture, not just climate change as an issue in itself. With a lot of climate fiction, people are just running around bemoaning the fact that the environment has gone haywire. That kind of story has its place, but I personally tried to provide a political perspective that I thought was missing from the broader trend.

Flooding at canalside in downtown Buffalo, New York during April 2018 windstorm [photo: B137; via Wikimedia Commons]

That’s why there’s a lot about finance capitalism in New York 2140. One of my main characters is a stock analyst who runs an index tracking the economic effects of sea levels. I wanted to portray that type of work both as one of the crucial mistakes we’re making in dealing with climate change and also use it to help readers imagine the counterfactual of how we could deal with climate change in a post-capitalist order. Rather than just focusing on climate change alone, a very big part of New York 2140 is a leftist critique of the current political and economic order. A lot of it is about the 2008 financial crash and my anger about how high finance got away scot-free. As a writer, I get to imagine that the next time a bubble bursts, there will be a plan in place to nationalize the financial markets and direct their resources to work for good.

GQ: That sounds unusually hopeful for a novel about climate change. Is that why the book is set in the year 2140? In your book, you describe climate change as happening in a few “pulses” of sea level rise. And I remember being surprised that your book was not set during one of the pulses but a good while after, in a period when people have already adapted to the change.

KSR: Good question, because 2140 is really not an obvious choice of date at all. A couple of reasons led me to that year. In a practical novel-writing sense, I knew early on that I wanted the story to take place in a version of New York that had been transformed into a kind of Super-Venice. For that to be possible, I needed to have a fairly substantial sea level. I soon learned that we are actually not that good at estimating the speed of future sea level rise. The ice on Antarctica and Greenland is incredibly unstable and it’s still difficult to calculate how fast it’s going to slide into the sea. Even so, we know that the 50-foot sea level rise I wanted would take at the very least 140 years—and that’s already a worst case scenario. So I had to push the novel this far into the future to get my Super-Venice.

GQ: Still, it seems significant that you’re choosing to drop us into a moment wherein the characters have had time to get used to their new city.

KSR: Absolutely. I wanted to make the point that life goes on even in the wake of disaster. It’s a catastrophe, not an apocalypse. People forget about that distinction, but the two work completely differently. An apocalypse implies a total break. It’s an end time after which you don’t really have to worry about anything because it’ll just be zombies running around a wasteland. In a way, it’s probably comforting for people to shift into apocalyptic thinking. You don’t have to think about your great-grandchildren living in an extremely challenging planetary situation you didn’t do anything about. I did not want to take that easy way out. I thought: pulses or not pulses, young people in 2140 will be trying to cope with whatever cards they’ve been dealt. The book is a comedy of coping, in a way. People accept the situation they’re in and try to have the best possible life they can. They have families and friends, and try to hook up with partners and have sex. There are certainly good novels to be written about catastrophes, but those books would come up against another crisis representation. In a catastrophe, it can be hard to find a human moment that can be narrated. Historically, the novel is very focused in on the human. Once you get away from the standard subject matter and you get into this planetary and historical time, narration becomes a problem that’s right in the face of the novelist. I know that because I’ve approached the problem many times.

GQ: Right. Even in your books that play on foreign planets, natural disasters happen. In your Mars trilogy, there are even a few floods.

KSR: In the Mars trilogy, it felt like I had a huge blank canvas to invent future history on. There is a moment in those books when one of the Mars cities floods because a dam breaks. That event is a lot like a pulse but I had the freedom to limit it to one day, which gave me the chance to narrate the event in the way that a classic novel would. You can’t do that so easily if events have to be plausible for Earth. I wrote those books a long time ago, but I do sometimes get nostalgic for the artistic freedom the Mars setting gave me.

GQ: And yet, even though it’s more closely tied to the earth, setting your novel in “New York as Super-Venice” shows that you retained some creative wiggle room with New York 2140. I was interested to learn that you yourself live in Davis, California—100 miles away from the coast. What attracted you to these two port cities?

KSR: Well, if you learn about topography, that changes your perspective about these things. As far as Davis is from the coast, we’re only 50 feet above sea level. After the sea level rise, I’d actually be at the beach. The thing is, to answer your question, I wanted to write a novel about defeating the finance capitalist order that we live in now. I wanted to add a utopian turn where neoliberal late capitalism gets transformed into something saner and better in terms of how it treats the planet and how it treats people. So one day over lunch I told my editor I want to write about finance. He thought it was a terrible idea at first, but then he told me that the only way it might work would be to set the story in the version of New York I had described in a previous novel called 2312. It is a solar system novel, and the characters visit underwater New York only briefly before jetting to other planets. But that set piece gave me the setting and also some of the characters I needed for this new book.

GQ: With that setting decided, how did you go about your research?

KSR: My research included a lot of reading and many visits to New York. I am a Californian, so writing about New York was at least as intimidating as writing about Mars. Luckily, I’ve spent some time there because it’s the home of the publishing industry. I also have a good friend in Manhattan who drove me to the places that seemed important to illustrate sea level rise—places like Coney Island that would be drowned, and other places that would still be sticking up out of the water, like the Cloisters at the north end of Manhattan. I got a topographical map of the New York harbor area and I made a big line at the 50 foot “topo line.” That way, I could see what would be underwater and what would be above water. It was really startling. As I began to craft the novel, I always paid close attention to that map.

GQ: People have been praising the novel—and your work in general—for its realism. I don’t think I ever quite understood what that term means in relationship to a novel that’s set more than a century in the future.

KSR: What I do has sometimes been called “proleptic” realism. The goal is to make all your extrapolations and speculations look inevitable, or at least possible or plausible. That way, the reader can do the Samuel Taylor Coleridge thing and suspend their disbelief. It’s an important game to play, I think, and I’ve gotten quite good at it.

GQ: So your work is not dissimilar from the way scientists map out future scenarios in their computer models?

KSR: It’s only one part of my work, but an important one. I like to say the kind of science fiction I write works like the 3-D glasses in a movie theater. The two lenses show you two different images at the same time to reveal a composite image with more depth. In my books, one lens is a real attempt to imagine a future and the other lens is making a metaphorical statement about how life feels right now in the present. You know how people say that science fiction is actually all about the present? I think it’s very important to recognize that that’s only half of the story. If we focus only on the present-day lens, it actually defangs science fiction. It takes away its power to genuinely think about the future. So if you follow my analogy, the 3-D effect is what happens in the reader’s mind between thinking about deep time and the distant future and a present you can think about. This is what science fiction does as an aesthetic activity.

GQ: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the different time scales of your work. Your book actually made me think about how many professions have to balance different time scales. Artists and architects work under the trends and economic pressures of their present but also have to think about the longue durée of their works. Another person being interviewed in this issue of ART PAPERS is the architect Bjarke Ingels, whom you actually thank in the acknowledgements for New York 2140.

KSR: I met Bjarke at a conference at the Google headquarters in Mountain View. We have stayed in contact ever since. His work is so interesting to me because architecture and urban design necessarily have a science fictional element. They imagine something that isn’t there yet and then they make arrangements in an actor-network with other human and nonhuman actors to make it real. It’s like writing a novel, except instead of a string of sentences in the reader’s head, there are objects in the real world that people will have to incorporate into their lives. Personally, I think it’s the more interesting of the art forms. You could say that architects are science fiction writers who inscribe their novels on the real world. In the Mars trilogy, there’s, like, 20 cities that I describe in some detail. That all came out of utopian architecture design in the 1980s and 1990s.

GQ: Besides the acknowledgment, there is another way he shows up in New York 2140.

KSR: Yes. At some point after Hurricane Sandy, Bjarke became involved with finding creative ways to build a storm wall around New York City. A version of this wall shows up in my novel. I call it “Bjarke’s Wall.” You know, like Hadrian’s Wall. It surrounds the lower half of Manhattan, a 12-mile embankment that does not disrupt but actually adds to the experience of the city. When a flood happens, you can close certain gates and protect the interior of lower Manhattan from the sea level rise. I don’t know at what point they’re at in this process, but I think it’s still being planned.

Looking north toward Jacob Riis Houses from FDR Drive, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, showing flood damage from Hurricane Sandy [photo: Beth Carey; via Wikimedia Commons]

GQ: But in the novel, the wall eventually breaks. You both praise and criticize the architectural idea.

KSR: Well, it’s only designed to handle about a 15-foot or 20-foot sea level rise. I think someone in the novel says, “It gave lower Manhattan ten years it wouldn’t have had otherwise.” That’s the other thing about architecture. Architects have to take the job that’s handed to them. Not even the best- designed wall could handle 50-foot sea level rise. Which brings us back to the realism question. The amount of sea level rise my book assumes is quite extreme. There’s a climate scientist at Rutgers University, Robert Kopp, who wrote a review of my book. He started out by saying: “Wow, 50 feet is a lot.” But then he ran through the real calculations that glaciologists had been making. He saw that 50 feet could actually be possible, and he gave the book a sympathetic review. First, unlike some scientists, he understood that I wasn’t just trying to make a literal prediction but was trying to make an aesthetic object. And then he also saw that my idea was not even that far off.

GQ: Who’s learning more in these conversations you’re having? The architects and scientists or you? Are you just using their work as inspiration or do you hope that they might take something from your work as well?

KSR: I’m definitely learning from them, and much of my writing is about what their project means for all of us. My hope is that architects and scientists learn to think of their own work as a type of science fiction. It would be good if they learned that their buildings and plans can tell the public a story of how we will live in the future. Of course, there are lots of people who already understand this. I am very interested in biologist E.O. Wilson’s “Half-Earth” idea. He proposes that humanity should concentrate into the cities in an organized way and leave half of the Earth’s surface to the rest of the biosphere. That idea also works as a science fiction story. And incidentally, Wilson is not only a great public intellectual and a great biologist but also a good writer. He has written a novel from the point of view of ants, which were his original scientific specialty. I just look at what these scientists and architects are doing, and I’m filled with admiration for the practicality of their stories

GQ: For all that admiration, there are also moments in your book that could be described as architecture criticism. When your characters talks about “super-scrapers” in uptown Manhattan, it sounds lot like the polemics people have written about Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue.

KSR: I use architecture criticism because architecture also reflects income inequality and class. The super-rich use places like Manhattan to park money. As I say in the book, some of these new residential towers might as well be gigantic gold bars. Many of them have apartments filling entire floors that are owned by billionaires who drop in for short New York vacations. The rest of the time, they’re just empty and clutter the skyline. It’s frivolous and it looks ugly. What is interesting to me is that in a post-capitalist world, you could zone those things out of existence. You could make them financially impossible. And the finale of my book points to that. So, New York 2140 is also a novel about real estate, about housing, about where people live both in and after a stupidly hypercapitalist world order.

GQ: The book’s entire structure really shows how strongly you care about the built environment. Most of the plot centers on a single structure—the MetLife Tower on Madison Avenue.

KSR: This was another thing my editor recommended. The apartment novel is an old 19th-century French novel trope—the reader meets characters from all walks of life dwelling in different parts of the same building. I chose the MetLife Tower because it was built as an obvious homage to the campanile on St. Mark’s square. It seemed like a nice nod toward the Super-Venice idea. It’s a hotel now, and so I was able to spend an expensive night there. I walked through the whole building and tried to get a sense for it.

GQ: And architectural ideas are not only part of the setting but also play a role in the plot. One of your first-person narrators—a banker, actually—comes up with a concept for what he calls “eelgrass architecture” that floats on the rising and falling tides. And the idea comes just as he’s having a change of heart about his job. And at the same time, at least one character in the book acknowledges that architecture and construction have been among the most polluting industries of all. For you, will architects and city planners be part of the problem or part of the solution?

KSR: Like with any profession there will be leftist architects and there will be conservatives or those who consider themselves to be “apolitical.” But the people I’m in contact with, they are … I don’t want to speak for them and say that they’re leftists, but I will say that they are utopian and that they want to make better fit between humanity and the planet by way of design. A lot of people in that utopian crowd end up being on the left politically, simply because capitalism doesn’t work. Its rubrics of success are destructive to people and to the planet. The way in which it creates value, creates price, is drastically wrong. It has long been the job of utopian leftist science fiction writers to say this. But now that it’s no longer just a hypothetical argument but a mass extinction event in progress, architects have to start saying it, too.

As you mentioned, my character Franklin in 2140 comes up with the idea of floating city blocks. The idea was that the most difficult regions of future coastal cities won’t be those that are completely under water, but the intertidal zone. Houses in these zones could be built on floating blocks that are anchored with flexible lines—like eelgrass. When I wrote it, I thought I had come up with that idea myself and was pretty happy about it. What’s interesting is that I’ve since been in contact with city managers in South Miami, where sea level rise is a real problem and with friends in the US Antarctic program who are thinking about redesigning McMurdo on Ross Island, a tiny town that is home to the American portion of the Antarctic Project. All of them have definitely been thinking about very similar things for a while.

GQ: Does that happen often for you, that your fictional science overlaps with science in the real world?

KSR: It does happen on occasion. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research calculated if would it be physically possible to pump all the water that is melting into the oceans back up onto the Antarctic ice cap, and how much would it cost. And I explore that same idea in Green Earth (2015). I’m not aware that anybody had expressed this idea before me. The institute’s estimate was shocking in terms how expensive it would be. Apparently, it would require about 7% of all the energy that humanity produces to pump all that water, which of course have to come from a renewable source so as not to exacerbate the problem. We’d have to ask ourselves if such energy requirements would be worth it. Maybe we could afford exerting all that effort and energy because it would still be less expensive than wrecking the coastlines of the world?

GQ: I like that much of 2140’s action takes place in New York’s Midtown, which has turned into an intertidal zone that is sometimes flooded and sometimes not. It added an interesting complication to the image of the flooded planet.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo toured the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel (formerly known as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel) on Oct. 30, 2012, with MTA Chairman and CEO Joseph J. Lhota and Jim Ferrara [photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin; via Wikimedia Commons]

KSR: Tidal zones pose some very difficult and interesting challenges. People aren’t thinking about them nearly enough. During my research, I was fascinated by the idea that the intertidal is often not only physically but also legally ambiguous. A lot of property law is still based on Roman law, which speaks of the beach as being a public space that is not to be owned by anybody. So suddenly, it becomes at least theoretically possible to argue that big stretches of what we now think of as property—sometimes incredibly valuable property—would become part of a commons. And what would it even mean to own a building if it’s floating in the communal space? My interest had to do with the appeal of ambiguous spaces for narrative, but we all need to be thinking about it. It’s really a fundamentally important consideration if we want to think about the future of port cities. Every port city has a tidal zone. In most places it’s been sea-walled off and ignored. But sea walls will eventually fail.

GQ: Many other writers have explored another option that you seem fundamentally uninterested in. Is it not possible that certain cities will just get abandoned? In your novel, characters frequently mention that many people moved to Denver after the surges. But it’s never without some disdain for people who took the easy way out.

KSR: Sure, the ocean is difficult to deal with. Salt water is extremely corrosive. Waves never quit. But we also have a lot of experience. Port cities make up 10% or more of the human population and 50% or more of world trade. So port cities are prosperous and crucial to current human civilization, and I think they’re going to stay that way. Even if there is a significant sea level rise, it’s just an infrastructure problem or a coping problem. We are not going to abandon those spaces. And every port city is going to find its own, slightly different solution.

GQ: What’s so interesting about your book are the fierce debates between people who share similar goals. You rarely stage the clear-cut fights between science and superstition that still dominate present-day discussions about climate change. The earth and vegetation, water, are not these great romantic concepts, but they’re problematized by new circumstances and advanced technology. In the Mars trilogy, there is one group arguing that the right thing to do would be to populate Mars with life. The other group fiercely believes that the truly ecological thing would be to keep Mars exactly as cold, dry, and barren as it is. In New York 2140, there is a subplot in which one character tries to airlift polar bears from the north to the south pole and meets violent resistance from a group who thinks it’s better for polar bears to die than to live in an unnatural habitat.

KSR: Yes, that has to be in there for the literary realism. All we’re ever going to get is a working majority. It’s impossible to convince people of even the most sensible facts in the world. Holding the minority opinion gives them a thrill to be transgressive, if you will. All these psychological truths are going to remain unchanged, even if our collective knowledge advances. We are social primates, and part of our sociability is argument and disagreement and politics. So what you need are political solutions that gain sometimes 51%, sometimes 55% approval.

At the same time, these debates about the primacy of nature are also my reaction to a complex of new terms that I’ve been wrestling with: this idea of the Anthropocene, the hyperobject, geoengineering, and terraforming. There’s this thing people are calling eco-Marxism or the red- greens or the green-reds—this fusion of ecological concerns with political leftism, which I love. I would say that my work has been centered at that interface, around the idea you have think both about the environment and the planet and about human beings and their own justice and welfare. The two need to be seen as the same.

For way too long a time, Marxism was all about people. The planet was just an instrument used to satisfy our temporary needs. People who focused on the environment were escapists or snobs. On the environmental side, it was the other way around. Nature was more important, and people are just parasites. All that mattered was to get right with the planet—which people thought could happen within capitalism. Now, in the 21st century, we can see that it was always a category error. The two projects are the same. That’s why I like talking about actor-networks. That idea acknowledges that the biosphere is full of many important actors. Unless you include them in your thinking, you can’t get the story right.

A futuristic rendition of New York that has been flooded and the title and author's name appear on the cover of this book.

Cover of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘New York 2140’

Gregor Quack is co -author of the groundbreaking book Girl Positive, and cofounding editor-in-chief os SOFA magazine. She speaks about art, design, fashion, the future, and pop and youth culture at international events. Her presentation on selfies at Forum D’Avignon Paris contributed to a bill of digital human rights.