Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson is widely recognised as one of the world’s foremost science fiction writers. He has received both the Robert A. Heinlein Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society for his body of work, which includes the Mars trilogy, the Science in the City trilogy, and the cli-fi novels 2312 and New York 2140. His latest novel, The Ministry for the Future (2020), tells the story of a global body tasked with advocating for the all the world's living creatures, human and non-human, present and future.
Kim Stanley Robinson is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost science fiction writers. He has received both the Robert A. Heinlein Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society for his body of work, which includes the Mars trilogy, the Science in the City trilogy, and the cli-fi novels 2312 and New York 2140. His latest novel, The Ministry for the Future (2020), tells the story of a global body tasked with advocating for the all the world’s living creatures, human and non-human, present and future. He’s interviewed here by Writers Rebel’s Liz Jensen.
Liz Jensen: The Ministry for the Future reads as both a kind of manifesto and a warning. Did you intend it that way?
Kim Stanley Robinson: For sure I meant it as a warning, as the first chapter must make clear; the danger of mass deaths from overheating is very real. But a manifesto, no. It’s a novel, and a science fiction novel, so it’s trying to tell a story set in the future, hopefully a story plausible enough that readers can believe it might happen that way, at least while they’re reading. So on the one hand, I wanted to warn readers that bad things are going to happen; on the other hand, I wanted to describe humanity reacting to the climate crisis in an uncoordinated way that nevertheless dodges the mass extinction event we have started, and comes to a better moment in future history, where even more progress could be made. So ultimately this was a kind of low-bar utopian novel, which presents a good future happening despite the lack of any strong plan imposed from above, or below or from the sides. Instead it results from lots of people trying lots of different things. So that’s not exactly a manifesto as I understand it, which usually suggests a particular program being outlined. I feel like my novel is more a matter of suggesting we can scrape by, and dodge a huge disaster, if we persevere with all kinds of different efforts, and don’t lose heart.
LJ: When referring to the estimated five-year window in which the world can avert wholesale catastrophe, you emphasise that we have the mechanisms to ward off the worst. What would fixing the world look like, and what lessons can we learn from recent and ongoing crises such as the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine?
KSR: Johan Rockstrom’s “planetary boundaries” concept has made people more aware that we are in a closing window of time now, during which we can avoid ecological catastrophe and a tip-over into a “hothouse Earth” scenario that would resemble earlier hothouse moments in Earth’s geological past. If we break certain of these planetary boundaries, we may start a run-away warming effect that later people won’t have the physical powers to claw back from. That is very serious news, which needs to be taken into account and acted on. Not all of society has come to grips with this news, by any means. But more and more it’s penetrating the ‘general intellect’ and the mood of our time, and actions to deal with it are being discussed and even begun. But that process has to accelerate, and soon.
So in that situation, I am just a science fiction writer reporting the news from the scientists of our time—world-changing news, one way or another. As I read it, there’s not a ‘five-year window’, but rather just a short period of time, which is quickly getting shorter. Maybe it’s better to think of the 2020s as the crucial time, since we tend to think in decades. But the sooner the better, in terms of taking strong actions.
The pandemic, and Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine, teach us that history is still happening, and things can change fast. With the pandemic we learned that we are part of a biosphere that can prove deadly to us, and also that science can act fast, and society behaves pretty well when feeling endangered, on the whole. Now we’re learning by way of the steadfast world-wide resistance to Russia’s aggression, that we can all possibly accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. That’s good to know, and to be forced to do that by a war is not the best method, but it is an unexpected good outcome to a war of aggression by a petro-state. They aren’t holding the only means to power civilization, not any more.
We’ll have more human crises to add to the ecological crisis before we’re done, for sure. The trick will be to deal with the human issues and the biosphere issues as two parts of a total project.
LJ: In The Ministry for the Future, the global ministry tasked with mitigating the rolling climate and ecological disaster has a clandestine “Black Ops” wing that supports terror attacks on the super-rich. Outside of fiction, ecological protest has been largely limited to damage to property, and self-harm in the form of hunger strikes and recently, in the U.S, self-immolation. Why do you think there has been so little actual violence in defence of ecosystems, and what do you make of non-violent campaign groups like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion?
KSR: I wonder if people who care about the biosphere and the humans who will come after us, are not the type of people who would harm other people to make their point. It’s just a notion. If it’s right, there might come a moment where there is much more non-violent destruction of property that burns carbon. This is one way of saying that the word “violence” should be reserved for bodily harming people, not disabling property—that’s not violence, that’s active resistance, or some other word that might be more accurate and acceptable to most people’s moral codes.
The non-violent campaign groups you mention are crucially important, and I hope they grow fast. Violence against other humans is not something I would do myself, nor recommend to others. In my novel I portrayed it as happening, because I think it might happen, if we don’t deal with climate change fast enough, and people start dying in great numbers. If that happens, some of the survivors will be post-traumatic, furious in their grief, and intent on revenge. Better to avoid that by acting now—that was my thought in writing such scenes. They constitute a different kind of warning than the opening heat wave scene.
In the real world now, there needs to be a fuller study of what I’m calling “a rhetoric of actions,” which would try to determine the best methods of civil disobedience and physical resistance, etc., for getting the desired results. I’m not convinced we have that rhetoric yet—I mean by that, an understanding of the best methods for persuading people in power, and also persuading the public and what you might call the general intellect. But trying things is part of figuring that out.
I recommend Andreas Malm’s How to Blow up a Pipeline, and Erica Chenoweth’s Why Civil Resistance Works, and other works by these two writers, and others, including Bill McKibben and Joshua Clover, to think through these issues. Then I hope everyone will join various actions, trying out different methods of resistant behaviour in the world, to pressure our political representatives to do the right things at the legislative levels, and convince more of our fellow citizens that this is the right way to act, for the right reasons.
LJ: After Joe Biden was elected, you said you thought the world could legislate its way out of the climate and ecological emergency. Do you still believe that, and if so, why?
KSR: I do still believe it, although obviously getting legislatures to actually legislate the necessary actions quickly enough is a big problem. But really it’s the laws that have to change, not just just people’s feelings, or private capital’s investment patterns, although these are both important. Laws insist on, and require, good actions. That’s why laws are crucial—we live by them, and when they’re wrong or too slow, they have to be challenged and changed. Doing that by legal means is far preferable to enacting (or more likely, futilely hoping for) a revolution.
I think the analogy to World War II is not inappropriate here, even though it’s not exact. But the damage from climate change and biodiversity loss could ultimately be as bad as the damage of World War II, so what the analogy suggests is that governments now need to declare that the emergency is real, and overrides all other considerations. We now need public action (government) to be driving all private actions that are relevant to the crucial project; what work gets paid for and done, what consumption patterns are allowed, etc. This is not ‘green fascism’ any more than the Allied response to Nazi aggression was ‘democratic fascism’; it’s more a case of democratically approved coordinated public action in strong support of the public good. Legal action is needed for that. But it’s also an “all hands on deck” situation now, so no one solution will suffice. We need action across all fronts of society.
LJ: You have spoken about how the switch from the term “hedge fund manager” to “asset manager” may signal a crucial shift in the capitalist perspective. Can you give examples of how this manifests, and what form it might take in the years ahead?
KSR: I would suggest the example of Mark Carney’s Glasgow group of investment banks and firms, promising to invest greenly; also the new term “risk-adjusted investment,” in which the risk being adjusted for is precisely climate change itself. That’s taking on the larger and longer view. It seems very clear that there are now many businesses hoping to grow by taking on part of the decarbonisation project. And it also seems to me that the greedy destructive profit-seeking of the neoliberal years is beginning to be regarded as short-sighted to the point of criminal stupidity. This is mostly impressionistic on my part, but the signals are out there for anyone to see, and I think it might be a real shift in what Raymond Williams called our “structure of feeling.”
LJ: You cite your late friend Ursula le Guin as one of your most powerful teachers. What are the most important lessons you have learned from her work, and which science fiction novels excite you most?
KSR: Le Guin taught me, or tried to teach me, to keep my focus on the story’s characters and their emotional lives, as being central to how fiction works; also, to hew to a kind of realism that is more psychological than physical. By her example she also showed me to be patient when needed, and to play the game of literature to the full, and for the long haul. I loved her for that.
Her The Left Hand of Darkness is still one of my favorite science fiction novels, and I also like Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, and Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration, among many others. My most recent favorite SF novel is Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star.
LJ: Why is our temporal imagination so limited, and in what ways can we expand it? How do you see the role of fiction changing in the face of the climate and ecological emergency?
KSR: I’m not so sure our temporal imagination is limited. We range widely in time, it’s a very human thing. Memory, anticipation— we are in those zones so often that really the trick sometimes is managing to focus on the present moment. That’s what a lot of meditation is trying to do, and also the joys of sports, or any flow activities, often come from that intense focus on the present. So maybe the thing to strengthen is not our imagination, but our sense of consequences of our actions on future humans. I’m not sure how to do that except by telling better stories about it.
Fiction is always one of the main ways we create meaning, and we need meaning very much, so the importance there is clear. Fiction will stay important.
As to how the climate and biosphere emergency will change fiction, I can only say, it seems like the story of humanity fitting well into Earth’s biosphere will become the only story worth telling, at least for a while. Or maybe not the only story—just the story that will overshadow all the other stories we might tell in our time, such that all stories will be altered by our historical moment. This always happens (remember Jameson’s observation that literature is always class excuse and utopian wish at one and the same time), but climate change is such a huge danger that its shadow over all fiction will be darker than usual. Fiction, however, as a method of thinking and feeling, will stay much the same. We need it now because we always need it.