Tag Archives: Kim Stanley Robinson

Through the wormhole — 10/8/09

A few weeks ago Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an article for New Scientist, Science fiction: the stories of now. It’s a stirring defense of the genre and its importance in today’s world. Robinson criticizes the jurors of Britain’s Booker award for judging “in ignorance” when they routinely overlook sf. You tell ’em, Kim!

By going here you can find an audio file of a radio program titled “The subversive side of science fiction.” This aired on an NPR affiliate in Louisville, KY, and features two guests, both sf authors/editors/scholars: Amy Sturgis and James Gunn. I loaded it on my mp3 player and listened to it while taking a walk one night. Good show.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie District 9, just don’t make any plans to see it in Nigeria; it seems they’re offended by it and are pressuring theaters not to show it. The reason?

Information Minister Dora Akunyili told the BBC’s Network Africa programme that she had asked the makers of the film, Sony, for an apology. She says the film portrays Nigerians as cannibals, criminals and prostitutes.

To which one person replied:

“It’s a story, you know,” he said. “It’s not like Nigerians do eat aliens. Aliens don’t even exist in the first place.”

This article in National Geographic News is about predictions made by H.G. Wells that have come true.

Soon you’ll be able to see the pilot episodes for a couple of Gene Roddenberry shows that could have been. From the sound of it though, I’d say it’s a good thing he went with Star Trek instead.

Costumes of the sci-fi stars will be on display at the California Museum in Sacramento, running through January 10. Way too far from me, but maybe you’re luckier than I am.

Here’s something I found interesting. It’s an interview with Patrick Gygar, who is the director of the Maison d’Ailleurs (“House of Elsewhere”), a science fiction museum in Switzerland.

And lastly, the Wall Street Journal’s Book Lover column received a letter from a woman asking how to get her 13-year-old nephew off of reading science fiction and onto other genres. To her credit, the columnist, Cynthia Crossen, defended the boy’s interest in sf, and told his aunt:

So Aunt B.’s mission is to gradually nudge the boy along the spectrum from Godzilla and 50-foot women to H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and Douglas Adams.

Excellent advice.

Robinson falls short in attempt to remake history

History is a particle accelerator. Energies are not always normal. We live in a condition of asymptotic freedom, and every history is possible.

Title: Remaking History and Other Stories
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Year: 1991
Rating: 1/5 stars

remakinghistoryIf you were to pick up a book by a known science fiction writer (Kim Stanley Robinson), from a known science fiction publisher (Tor), and with a title like Remaking History, would it not be reasonable to have some expectation of what you’d find in it? As for me, I somehow expected this to be a collection of alternate history stories, with maybe some time travel in the mix as well; that doesn’t seem like such a leap, does it? If you would make that leap, however, like I did, you’d be wrong. Not a single story in this volume fits that description in any strict sense. Of course, the author can’t really be blamed for my faulty assumption, so it’s not for that reason that I consider this collection a letdown. No, my disappointment has more to do with the fact that few of these stories entertained me much, or had much of importance to say; or that, when they did have something to say, the commentary was housed within narratives so dull I couldn’t be bothered to care. I was also, I admit, a little put off to find that about a third of the stories are not even science fiction, but what can only be considered “mainstream.”

There is a “core” group of four stories that deal with history and at least partially justify the book’s title. “A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations” seems to make the altogether underwhelming point that history may be portrayed in a more optimistic or pessimistic light depending on the life circumstances and mood of the historian writing the account. Yeah…. and? In “Remaking History,” a small group of filmmakers living in a future Lunar colony debate the Great Man Theory of History; the debate is short, shallow, and leaves much to be desired. “Vinland the Dream” deals with the topic of historical hoaxes, and asks if it truly matters what “really happened,” or if, rather, we should just view history as a “story.” Put me down as being in the former camp — I do care what really happened. The fourth story is more of an essay, titled “A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions.” It’s the source of the quote at the top of this review, and it explores the intersection of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and approaches to historical interpretation. It’s one of the more interesting parts of the book, actually.

Besides that essay, there were really only two stories I cared for at all. “Before I Wake” tackles the problem of a changing environment — an electromagnetic anomaly that blurs and mixes our waking and dreaming states — and asks if humanity would be able to adapt to it. (Bonus tip: read this story when you’re really, really tired for a trippier experience!) And “The Translator” is a hilarious story about the headaches and dangers involved in communicating with aliens.

I’m afraid I only have negative comments for the rest of the stories, so I’ll only mention a few of the more unsatisfactory ones. “Rainbow Bridge” falls prey to the all-too-common fantasy that Native Americans possess some sort of mystical powers or special wisdom, which is, of course, complete nonsense. “Glacier” paints a picture of a near-future world in which North America is becoming covered once again in ice — at a rate not too much slower than the weather disasters in the movie The Day After Tommorrow, apparently. The story focuses on the social impact, but gives no explanation for why American cities are being overtaken by glaciers in a period of just a few years. The remaining stories weren’t quite that annoying, but were, to varying degrees, simply boring.

Three out of fifteen is not too good. I guess I’ll have to put Robinson into that category of authors whose books I like, but whose short stories I don’t. Oh well, live and learn.

A breeding ground for great science fiction authors?

Is there something in the water at the University of California at San Diego that helps turn the students into great sci-fi writers? That’s one of the questions explored in the video below, a fantastic panel discussion featuring some of those UCSD alumni who have gone on to become successful sf authors. I believe this event occurred in 2002.

The panel participants: Gregory Benford (!), David Brin (!), Kim Stanley Robinson (!), Vernor Vinge (!), and Nancy Holder (ok, never heard of her before, I admit). These are all UCSD alumni, and all extremely intelligent and entertaining panelists. The discussion begins around the question of why that particular campus produced so many great writers, and then moves on to other topics such as the “two cultures” (science vs. the humanities), politics and society, the themes and strengths of science fiction, predicting the future, dumb movies, etc. They also talk here and there about some of their work, about various books or stories. And there’s plenty of laughter to go around! These panelists really enjoy themselves here, and so will you.

By the way, a couple other UCSD alumni are also mentioned, who were unable to attend: Suzette Hayden Elgin and Raymond Feist. Wow, they really turn out the authors there in southern CA, huh?

The video is around an hour and a half long, but well worth that much of your time. So…. here’s your video:

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge — a novel about politics, archaeology, the future, and the past

I’ve been wanting to read something by Kim Stanley Robinson for a while now; but rather than delving into one of his several trilogies, I decided I’d try one of his standalone novels, just to get a feel for his writing, to see if he’s my kind of writer. I’m happy to say that he is, and I look forward to reading more. Icehenge, from 1984, is not easy to characterize, as there are several different strands that intertwine to create a complex whole. It’s about politics. It’s about archaeology. It’s about how politics and archaeology can influence each other. It’s about conspiracy theories, and about different interpretations of historical events that may never be known with certainty. It’s about the psychological issues associated with an extremely long life span. That’s a lot of angles, but it’s a very tight novel, and all those elements are bound together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one takes place in 2248 and centers around the crews of several Martian mining ships. These miners decide to defy their repressive, authoritarian government (known as the Committee) by converting the ships into an interstellar vessel, and risking their lives to see if they can reach another star. This occurs against the backdrop of an imminent revolution on Mars, which takes place shortly after the starship departs. Several miners who were unwilling to take part in the risky voyage go back to Mars and join the uprising, which ultimately fails.

Part two begins in 2547 and is the tale of a Martian archaeologist named Hjalmer Nederland, who manages to get government permission for a dig at one of the many restricted sites related to that old revolution attempt. He’s looking to find the truth and poke some holes in the “official” history, which says the revolution was strictly a small-scale disturbance by a few violent thugs. When Nederland uncovers evidence of a large, well-organized rebellion that was slaughtered by government forces, he is deeply embittered to learn this knowledge won’t shake things up as he had hoped, as the Committee puts its own spin on things:

So they would explain it all away.
I left the room feeling sick. They would admit what they had to, and twist everything else to fit their new story, which would constantly change, constantly protect them. I tasted defeat like copper coating my tongue. Everything I stabbed them with they would accommodate with elastic facts, until the thing was absorbed and dissolved.

Rings very true, doesn’t it? While all this is going on, a new discovery is made: a Stonehenge-like structure is found on Pluto, made of giant ice slabs and containing an ambiguous inscription in Sanskrit. Nederland is extremely interested in this, and has a theory that it may have been built by those rebels who left the system on their starship centuries ago. Once again he goes in search of evidence for his theory, in the hope of giving the Committee (who denied the existence of the starship) a black eye. And once again, he is disappointed. His theory becomes widely accepted, but the Committee goes on, undamaged by news of its past sins.

Part three takes place in 2610, and the central character is an amateur historian named Edmond Doya, who thinks Nederland’s theory is wrong, and makes proving it his goal in life. Doya’s alternative explanation is a wild conspiracy theory, but one with a lot of circumstantial evidence in its favor. That may be a short description, but this was actually the most exciting part of the book, and Doya the most interesting of the book’s three main characters.

In the end, Robinson doesn’t tell us which theory about Icehenge is the correct explanation. Instead, we are left to ponder the successive layers of historical interpretation and make up our own minds. And this was exactly the right way to go, since this is the way it usually is in understanding history — we can never be 100% certain we truly understand past events or have all the relevant details. We do the best we can with the information we have.

One of the other major threads of the novel was the fact that humanity has achieved long lifespans (500-1000 years), but unfortunately memory can’t keep up with the body. A major problem faced by those who are several centuries old is that they can’t hold on to many of their memories from earlier ages of their lives. Such people face a subtle psychological stress, and an ever-present crisis of identity. Furthermore, these longer-living people of the future seem somehow less alive, less focused, more apathetic, just drifting through life. Robinson sums it up beautifully here:

Once we were taut bowstrings, vibrant on the bow of mortality — now the bow has been unstrung, and we lie limp, and the arrow has clattered to the ground.

I think there’s an obvious parallel in the novel between this personal loss of memory, and the loss of historical memory by society as a whole.

This novel is full of sharp observations on politics, the workings of science, and human psychology. I don’t think I’ve really done it justice in this review, so let me just say that I highly recommend it if you want a complex and thoughtful read. I’ll leave you with one last quote as an example of Robinson’s incisive insight on the human condition:

Perhaps we undertake the solution of mysteries as a sort of training, so that we can attempt with some hope of success the deciphering of ourselves.

Video: interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

Here’s a great interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, in which he speaks about his work (mostly the Mars and Three Californias trilogies) and some of his inspirations. A number of other topics are also discussed: science fiction in academia, the New Wave as the pinnacle of sf, politics, environmentalism, utopias, etc.

I’ve had KSR on my (long) list of authors to check out for some time, and this interview only strengthens my desire to read some of his work. Very informative and interesting conversation here.

The Science Fiction Phenomenon

I found this documentary called Brave New Worlds: the Science Fiction Phenomenon, from back in 1993, which was broadcast in the UK, I believe. It’s pretty interesting, especially the commentary from various authors such as Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, William Gibson, as well as SF critic John Clute, some film people such as Paul Verhoeven, and others. Running time: about 54 minutes.

Note: even though in English, the videos are subtitled in a some other language, but it’s easy enough to ignore. Also, several minutes of sound are covered by static in part 2. I don’t know what that’s about, but these are the only copies I could find.

Part 1:

Part 2: