Index of Main Settings in Kim Stanley Robinson's Books
The Wild Shore (1984)
The Gold Coast (1988)
Pacific Edge (1988)
Escape from Kathmandu (1989)
Red Mars (1993)
Green Mars (1994)
Blue Mars (1996)
Forty Signs of Rain (2004)
Fifty Degrees Below (2005)
Sixty Days and Counting (2007)
—Asteroid belt, Mars, Saturn, Pluto
The Memory of Whiteness (1985)
—Solar system grand tour (i.e., a visit to all planets)
The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
—Alternate history versions of Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa
For a long time, I've said that my two most-admired writers are Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. I took a look at the career of Le Guin here on Strange Horizons earlier this year with a piece called "Eras of Le Guin," and now it's Robinson's turn under the microscope. Le Guin's work breaks down into discrete eras fairly easily, but Kim Stanley Robinson's career doesn't seem to have the same sweeping changes in it. Instead, I think the one thread that follows through all of his books is a sense of place, of visiting somewhere with Robinson as a friendly guide. This is a notion that ties a light fantasy/travelogue like Escape from Kathmandu (set in Nepal) to Robinson's famous Mars trilogy, essentially giving Robinson remarkable freedom to pursue current interests and still give fans the same kind of experience from book to book.
Now, it's true that it's not difficult to figure out the locations of Robinson's novels—see sidebar for an index to his major works. Really, Antarctica, the book, is mostly set in Antarctica, the three books with Mars in the title are mostly set on Mars, and so on. I'll start at the beginning of his bibliography and make my way through all the books. I haven't had a chance to read Robinson's latest, Galileo's Dream, just yet, since it hasn't been released in North America. I will tackle that one the next time around. I'm curious to see what the new book is like; by comparison, I found that Le Guin's latest, Lavinia, ranks as one of her best books, and maybe Robinson's latest will be the same kind of career capper. The bar is already set high.
The Wild Shore
The Three Californias trilogy is a fascinating effort by Robinson to look at three possible futures for the west coast of the USA. The first book in that series, The Wild Shore, is about a future where American civilization, as we know it, has pretty much collapsed. There are a few hints in the book that other nations are keeping America at a low level of tech, but the inhabitants of the wild shore of the title don't have the energy to spare for such considerations, and the point of view in the book follows them.
Ironically, when I think about this book, I have this recollection that it's an idyllic life. Sure, there isn't the same fancy technology that we have, but everyone helps each other, and the simple life seems to suit the climate and location. All three books have interesting undercurrents like this, and the ambiguity of theme saves the trilogy from its potential as a preachy and dull work.
Would you recognize California from this book? Do you feel like you've visited a real place after reading it? Maybe, but Robinson has layered the imaginative differences pretty heavily over the real-world geography. That's a notion that will continue throughout his career, and we'll encounter this mix again. I would say that this California reminds the reader of stories of the area from about 100 years ago, maybe even pre-Gold Rush.
The Gold Coast
If The Wild Shore was about a California fallen (or pushed) into a state of technological primitiveness, then The Gold Coast accelerates its version of California into the other direction. Namely, more cars, more technology, more drugs, its inhabitants less moored in history, and so forth. One of the characters in the book is trying to write a history of the locale, and it doesn't prove easy.
That might be because of all the drugs. If The Wild Shore is memorable for its agrarian idyll, The Gold Coast shows a vivid picture of drug culture. One of the characters is a drug dealer, and at one point, he talks about all of the substances in his bloodstream, present for the simple reason that he's going about his business.
I like this book, and I think it might be the most likely of all three books to come true, if that's something we're caring about. Reading The Gold Coast is like visiting California in, say, ten or fifteen years. Perhaps it's the dystopia of the three? As I said, Robinson likes to play with the ambiguities of the trilogy's structure, making the people and places seem more real, more lived-in as a result.
The third book in the Three Californias is supposed to be the utopia, so Robinson adds some interesting social speculation as to how that might be possible. Two examples: corporations cannot grow past a certain size, with laws limiting them to around the size of the main employer in a small town; all of the characters in this book are paired with families in various overseas countries, like video penpals who will broaden your mind by the simple fact of the split ordinariness/bizarreness of their day-to-day lives and customs.
That stuff aside, Robinson makes the striving of his main characters the engine of the novel. The Wild Shore and Pacific Edge resemble one another greatly in this regard, since the circumstances are smaller and slower than in The Gold Coast (as it happens, this shrunken circle of reach and choice is involuntary in the first book, while in this one, a modified form of it seems to be the vision of society), yet there is always something to strive for. That's the gist of the book, and it's all wrapped up in one of my favourite conclusions of any book. It's one of those epiphany-style endings; in this particular case, it's both thematically fitting and a moment that I end up reminding myself of when I fall into the same intellectual/emotional traps as the protagonist. It's worth reading the book to see what I'm talking about.
So that's a wrap for California. The three books form a surprisingly complete vision of the place, culturally as well as geographically. Of course, the trilogy has the advantage of discussing a place that not only exists but is easy to visit to see for yourself. Mars, not so much.
The Mars trilogy is where Robinson made his name, with a Nebula for Red Mars, and Hugo Awards for both of the sequels. I remember reading them with great enthusiasm when I first encountered Robinson's books, but I'm not so sure about them anymore. Part of it is the heavy slogging required to make Mars seem like a real place, by way of making the dilemmas and challenges of the settlers understandable and convincing. California is an easy place to describe, and when we encounter a subplot about water conservation (like in Pacific Edge), it makes immediate sense. People who live in a dry place have to be careful about water use. What are the dilemmas of life on Mars? If someone says we should terraform Mars, why should we care about the people who don't want that to happen? Robinson uses the weight of his hundreds (and hundreds) of pages of Mars-centric exposition to give weight to both sides of the ethical and geographical challenges of people who live in this real (yet unreal) place.
Red Mars in particular is the story of the arrival of colonists on Mars, so there's a whole frontier angle going on. The oversize personalities of the voyage and founding of the colony are present in full force, and Robinson also plays heavily on the frontier vs. mother country issue. It's not the British crown this time, though; it's the so-called transnats, giant corporations intent on squeezing every drop of profit from the cold barrenness of Mars. Hence the terraforming debate, as an Earth-like climate will enhance the forms of profit-taking familiar to the overlords back on Earth.
Red Mars ends with a rather shocking act of sabotage. The fact that there is some exciting action at the end of the book feels like either a long time coming or a betrayal of the style of plot development that makes up the earlier bits of the book. More on this in a minute.
Green Mars/Blue Mars
As the title of the second book indicates, the terraformers have won the debates of the day and the required and massive planetary-scale engineering efforts are well under way. Two other scientific developments affect the plot: conditions back on Earth are getting desperate, especially climactic changes; and there is a breakthrough in longevity treatment. The longevity issue creates a huge range of social problems back on Earth, and it also allows Robinson to keep around some of his original characters over the course of the trilogy (the three books cover about 200 years).
The second and third books in the trilogy blur together in my mind—both feature tons more detail about life on Mars and the changing geography of the not-so-red planet, both feature philosophical and scientific debate (at great length) between the titans of Mars society, and so forth. The exception is the way that Robinson uses his endings. I mentioned that Red Mars used an action-focused ending for a work that's essentially about scientific discovery, and that it didn't fit so well. However, there's something interesting that develops when you compare the endings of the three books: all three have almost identical endings, except that the same characters have refined their revolutionary techniques, and the philosophical underpinnings of a fair and just society, to the point where the related violence lessens in each iteration. The revolt against the tyrannical powers of Earth in Red Mars is basically a catastrophe. In Green Mars, it's much the same but less violent. By the time Blue Mars rolls around, the revolution is more of a whimper than a bang, told almost in passing. As far as I can tell, this effect (which people have complained about, like here) might be the entire point of the trilogy. Robinson is showing us how to get from here to there, from our current hypercapitalism to something more concerned about social justice and environmental sustainability. In one sense, it's irrelevant that the books take place on Mars, but I'd prefer to flip that and say that the issues feel so real, paradoxically, because the debates about them take place on a world that's both real and completely imagined. That it took 600+ pages of dense writing per book to do this is somewhat unfortunate; I admire the books greatly, but I'm not in a hurry to revisit them.
Escape from Kathmandu/Antarctica
These two books essentially bookend the Mars trilogy. Escape from Kathmandu is a fix-up of several novellas following some people living in Nepal. Specifically, two American climbers have a bunch of adventures in the Himalayas, like freeing a yeti from some captors, and other oddball escapades. However, I did feel like I had visited Nepal, in the sense of "descriptions of geography" and also in the sense of the culture of the place and the kinds of stories people who live there or visit there might tell.
Antarctica came out after the Mars trilogy and is essentially a link between the Mars trilogy and the next series (see below). It's about scientists in a remote and forbidding location trying to negotiate a place for scientific discovery and environmental justice in a society obsessed with short-term concerns. It also takes place on planet Earth, and has some of the same characters as the Science in the Capital series. I liked Antarctica, and Robinson gets all the details right since he visited there in order to write the book, so that familiar Robinson shtick of the importance of a locale is here. All the same, it's not the most memorable book in his bibliography.
Science in the Capital
Kim Stanley Robinson's latest series is made up of three books: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting. The location this time around is mainly Washington, D.C., since this is where science policy for the American scientific machinery is set. And that's the exciting topic of this trilogy! If you thought the three Mars books were slow-moving, don't set foot here. I ended up liking the three Science in the Capital books, but your mileage may vary since this is not an action-oriented series.
Robinson also deliberately sets out to tell a domestic comedy of sorts, as one of the main characters is trying to juggle his job as a science advisor with raising a young boy. The characterization of a family is not something that gets much air-time or special theoretical consideration in science fiction (about the only comparable example I can think of is Card's Speaker for the Dead), and Robinson does what he can with the topic. There's a rather bizarre side plot for the family involving some Buddhist monks and some apparent changes in the son's character. Rather baffling stuff.
That said, these three books give the reader just as strong a sense of place as the two earlier trilogies. I had visited D.C. not long before reading the books, and the things Robinson wrote about the city all rang true (granted, I was a tourist). You get the feeling from the books that Robinson was a bit relieved to be writing about a locale that's so easy to research and/or visit, after the rigors of writing about Mars.
The theme of the Science in the Capital series reduces, in some ways, to much the same as the Mars books: how do we get there from here. In the case of Forty Signs of Rains and its two sequels, Robinson is pondering how to get to "action on climate change" from our current state of general inaction. I wasn't entirely convinced by his answers, maybe because these books are stuck much more firmly in a recognizable state of affairs, and the imaginative process is a little harder to run wild with. Interestingly, when I first read these books, I considered the whole idea of a smart, activist president who cared about things like policy and energy and the environment and science to be rather nonsensical, like wish-fulfillment of the rankest sort, a form of undercutting the efforts of ordinary people by emphasizing the "great man" theory of history. That was 2007; things can certainly change. At the same time, my takeaway line from the Science in the Capital series is that smart people working together can make an enormous difference for the future of the planet. Whether that difference is enough is entirely up to us.
Two of Robinson's early books, Icehenge and The Memory of Whiteness, take place in a civilization with the capability of solar system-wide space travel. Lots of details about the various planets (including Pluto, of course). They're not bad books, but they are early works and feel like the parts of the process of Robinson discovering his own personality as a writer.
The Years of Rice and Salt is a major work that Robinson wrote between Antarctica and Science in the Capital; it's an alternate history spanning hundreds of years in a world where the Black Plague did an even more thorough job of wiping out European civilization than it did our own version of history. The book covers centuries of imagined history, takes place in just about any and every location in the world, and tells each step of the story with the same cast of characters by way of reincarnating them over and over again. It's a bittersweet book, and it's one that's filled with Robinson's trademark mix of extensive research and great imagination. You can read it for the adventure of visiting mysterious places (familiar places made strange by changes in history), or for the bits of social and intellectual speculation that saturate the story, or for the characterization that's applied to an unusual premise. In one way, it's an encapsulation of Robinson's career in one book—and calling an 800 page book a "capsule" is deliberate. Robinson's trips to other times/places/worlds are always thorough.
Robinson's latest book, Galileo's Dream, will be out in North America soon (after a much earlier release in the UK). I will take a look at this book in my next column.
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