The Realism of Our Times: Kim Stanley Robinson on How Science Fiction Works

“We're in a science fiction novel now that we are all co-writing together.”

World-renowned science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson is a world builder beyond compare. His political acumen makes his speculations feel alive in the present—as well as laying out a not-so-radiant future. He is the author of more than 20 novels and the repeat winner of most major speculative fiction prizes; his celebrated trilogies include Three Californias, Science in the Capitol, and (beloved in my household) the Mars Trilogy: Red, Green, and Blue. In an earlier life he was a PhD student of Fredric Jameson, and he wrote his dissertation on the novels of Philip K. Dick. He is also, as this interview shows, an acute taxonomist not just of SF but also of its roots in and its relation to a longer, larger realist tradition.

A longer version of this interview aired recently on Recall This Book (a podcast partnered with Public Books) as part of our series on pandemic reading, Books in Dark Times. You can listen to the interview here or by subscribing to Recall This Book on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

John Plotz (JP): You have said that science fiction is the realism of our times. How do people hear that statement today? Do they just hear the word COVID and automatically start thinking about dystopia?


Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR): People sometimes think that science fiction is about predicting the future, but that isn’t true. Since predicting the future is impossible, that would be a high bar for science fiction to have to get over. It would always be failing. And in that sense it always is failing. But science fiction is more of a modeling exercise, or a way of thinking.

Another thing I’ve been saying for a long time is something slightly different: We’re in a science fiction novel now, which we are all cowriting together. What do I mean? That we’re all science fiction writers because of a mental habit everybody has that has nothing to do with the genre. Instead, it has to do with planning and decision making, and how people feel about their life projects. For example, you have hopes and then you plan to fulfill them by doing things in the present: that’s utopian thinking. Meanwhile, you have middle-of-the-night fears that everything is falling apart, that it’s not going to work. And that’s dystopian thinking.

So there’s nothing special going on in science fiction thinking. It’s something that we’re all doing all the time.

And world civilization right now is teetering on the brink: it could go well, but it also could go badly. That’s a felt reality for everybody. So in that sense also, science fiction is the realism of our time. Utopia and dystopia are both possible, and both staring us in the face.

Let’s say you want to write a novel about what it feels like right now, here in 2020. You can’t avoid including the planet. It’s not going to be about an individual wandering around in their consciousness of themselves, which modernist novels often depict. Now there’s the individual and society, and also society and the planet. And these are very much science fictional relationships—especially that last one.



JP: When you think of those as science fictional relationships, where do you place other speculative genres, such as fantasy or horror? Do they sit alongside science fiction—in terms of its “realism”—or are they subsets?


KSR: No, they’re not subsets, more like a clustering. John Clute, who wrote the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and a big part of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, has a good term that he’s taken from Polish: fantastika. Fantastika is anything that is not domestic realism. That could be horror, fantasy, science fiction, the occult, alternative histories, and others.

Among those, I’m interested mostly in science fiction. Which, being set in the future, has a historical relationship that runs back to the present moment.

Fantasy doesn’t have that history. It’s not set in the future. It doesn’t run back to our present in a causal chain.

So the moment I say that, you can bring up fantasies in which Coleridge runs into ghosts, or about time traveling, or whatever. Still, as a first cut, it’s a useful definition. But definitions are always a little troublesome.

JP: So something that was putatively science fiction but set off in an alternate universe wouldn’t be science fiction? It’d be more fantasy? Star Wars comes to mind. The important thing for you about whether something is science fiction is the point of departure from our own present.


KSR: Yes, but when you point it out, it’s clear that what I was describing is just one type of science fiction, one subgenre within the larger genre. Space opera is a kind of science fiction where you’re zipping about the galaxy and the laws of physics are much relaxed. It claims to be set in our future, but in our far, far future.

For this subgenre there used to be a term, “science fantasy,” describing authors like Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe, who set stories so far in the future—like five million years, or a billion years—that anything could be happening then. So the story feels like fantasy but includes a cover story that makes it supposedly science fiction; it’s part of our history, but very distant.


JP: Ursula Le Guin talked about a genre of the late ’60s and early ’70s—“Swords and Spacecraft”—in which space travelers arrive at fantastical worlds. Actually, a lot of Le Guin’s work feels close to that. In the Hainish Cycle, she has that interstellar federation called the Ekumen, which is a space-technology world (that theoretically intersects with our own, real Earth). But then the places that the space travelers arrive at are essentially fantasy spaces.


KSR: Yes, when she began there was a thing going on in science fiction that I would call the planetary romance. You get to a new planet and things there are wild and different. It goes back to works like David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in the ’20s, but then in the ’50s, Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith and many others. When Ursula began to read science fiction there was quite a bit of this going on. And she loved it and put it to use.

Note that in science fiction you see the word planet, while in fantasy it would be a world, or in any case, never the word planet. These little markers indicate which game you’re playing.

JP: It sounds as if you’ve got an ethos, a way of reading that really isn’t affected by this crazy pandemic moment. Do you have any thoughts about why that might be? Does that say something about you temperamentally?


KSR: Yes. My reading habits come from being a student for so long, getting a PhD in literature, and having since then been involved in various kinds of teaching, or selection committees, or award committees. All that was too much, and now I don’t like to read anything that people tell me to read. I make my own schedule of reading. These days, I go to the used book sales at my local library and pick books randomly, and then read randomly, and I enjoy that feeling of randomness. Within that scattershot exploration I also have my particular loves, and I read those writers comprehensively, because I enjoy it. I enjoy getting to know those writers.

For researching my own novels, I have to read a lot of nonfiction. It’s mostly interesting, but typically I’m strip-mining texts for information and going fast. I would like to be able to touch a book on the spine and immediately know everything in it.


JP: Download it.


KSR: Yes. But only when it comes to nonfiction. I’ve also got an influx of periodicals, led by Science News and the London Review of Books, so I have that contemporary reading, which is very instrumental. And then for deep reading, I have my literature track.


JP: I know you put novels first and foremost, but I was wondering about other, slower genres: say, poetry or philosophy or other genres?


KSR: Yes, I read poetry with great pleasure, usually a poem or two a night, in collections by single authors, right before I go to sleep. I’ll go through books that often contain a poet’s career—that might take up to a year. I love that. I also read a few short stories, and even more often, plays in print, because it’s hard to get to many plays where I live, and I love the theater. And I read a fair bit of literary criticism for the fun of it. But the novel is at the heart of my project as a reader.


The Worst of All Possible Worlds?

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JP: Has your reading struck or affected you differently over these last few weeks? I suddenly discovered that I like reading quickly: I was reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and I suddenly found myself slowing down. Rather than wanting to just get through it and get out the other end, I found it was acting as a solace world for me.


KSR: Hilary Mantel is one of the greatest living novelists. But I read at the same pace at all times. I can’t hurry, I can’t slow down. It’s not a fast pace, it’s just my pace. And I love reading in the way that puts you under, like a hypnotist puts you under. It’s that willing suspension of disbelief. I don’t read critically. I don’t read as a writer trying to figure out how they did it. That might come later, but mainly I’m under. And in that sense I’m out of conscious control. I only read at that pace, at least with fiction and poetry. Nonfiction is different.


JP: Can I ask whether you ever go back to your childhood reading?


KSR: Yes, sometimes. I read lots of my old favorites aloud to my sons when they were young. My parents had me in the Scholastic Book Club: for a quarter, a book would come once a month. I adored many of those books. And there were enough of them printed that I could find them 40 years later in used bookstores. Books like Secret of the Old Postbox or Pursuit in the French Alps; then also, not in that club but favorites, the books of Joan Aiken, or Freddy the Pig by Walter Brooks.

Now I’m getting set to look into Robinson Crusoe. It’s often read as a children’s book, but it’s much more than that. I’ve been reading Defoe, most recently The Storm, and he’s great.


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JP: I don’t know The Storm.


KSR: In November of 1703 a big hurricane blasted England. It lasted about four days; the damage was stupendous. In the aftermath Defoe went around interviewing people about it. He even put out advertisements asking for people to send in their eyewitness accounts. I’ve had a recent interest in eyewitness accounts, so that caught my eye. As for Defoe, he may have made some of them up. He was tricky when it came to attribution. He often wrote things and then claimed someone else wrote them.

So it’s unclear how much of The Storm is really other people and how much is him using the eyewitness format. He definitely made up eyewitness accounts in Journal of the Plague Year, which he wrote probably 50 years after the event. It’s one of the first historical novels and a great work.

The Storm is nowhere near as good. Defoe wrote a staggering amount of stuff, and a lot of it is not at the level of his famous novels. But it’s interesting anyway.


JP: Do you think of him as an inventor of the novel? Do you feel a sense of distant kinship—like he’s your great-great grandpa?


KSR: Sure. Ian Watt, in The Rise of the Novel, tells that story well. There was a group of people inventing the novel, who don’t get remembered as well as the famous ones. So it isn’t as if Defoe invented anything from whole cloth. We have Cervantes; we have older things that look like novels all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

But what Defoe was doing in Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana are first-person narratives that tell the story of a life, or one period in a life. These are novels as we recognize them, and they’re better than Richardson and Fielding. (Laurence Sterne is a different story, an amazing case of his own.) But for me, when you’re looking at the 18th-century novel, Defoe, even though he’s earlier than most of them, is more interesting.

JP: So you don’t understand science fiction as outside of the realist tradition then. You think of the science fiction that you’re doing as a continuation of that realism, which leads back at least as far as Defoe?


KSR: Say that maybe science fiction is a proleptic realism. In other words, you’re trying to cast realism into the future, which is a weird thing to try. Say you’re asked to consider: This is what’s happening on the moons of Jupiter in the year 3000. Immediately that sounds like a fantasy, or a romance. Something like a dream. But if you love novels, you want that novelistic sense of this is the way life is.

So in the science fiction I do, I have to overcompensate for the weirdness of the basic concept by adding even more realistic detail to it. That way it doesn’t look like a cardboard TV stage set, but rather something you can really believe in. Or at least it helps in the willing suspension of disbelief, so that people reading science fiction can fall into it in the usual way. And then they might think: I guess Mars must really be like that. That is indeed how you would build the first shelter on Mars. Because there’s so much detail there in the account.

So my books have a craziness to them; there’s some risks being taken. But the method serves my purposes; it seems to me to solve the problems I set myself.


JP: What do you think of that Frederick Turner epic poem, about the terraforming of Mars? Do you think of it as an accomplishment that is comparable to what you’re aiming at with your own Mars Trilogy? Or do you think of them as in different registers?


KSR: I love all Frederick Turner’s epic poems. They are for sure in different registers from my science fiction; he’s more like Le Guin. What I admire in Le Guin and in Frederick Turner is an ability to compress, and to find the beautiful phrase.

I aspire to that, but I see that they’re especially good at it. They have a clean line. They don’t need or they don’t want the intensive realist details that might make something feel more substantial. They’re willing to go with the power of poetry alone, with phrasing. They’re evocative and mythic. Turner is a true poet; his epics are not just novels lined out. They’re poetry too. He has his own special project.


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JP: Can I ask how the Darko Suvin phrase “cognitive estrangement” fits in with the way you’ve just described what your own realist science fiction does?


KSR: Yes. Suvin’s very important theoretically. His cognitive estrangement comes out of Brechtian verfremsdungeffekt, the estrangement effect. Both are using ideas from the Russian structuralists.

It works like this: you present to the reader a skewed vision, in which at first they think, This is very, very different from my world, but let’s look at it anyway. Then there’s a big turn of the screw, which says: But wait—we were describing your reality all along! Then the reader hopefully thinks, Wow, my reality is actually much weirder than I thought it was. It’s not to be taken for granted. It’s historical, it’s constructed. We can do it differently.

So there’s a lot of utopianism in the estrangement effect. The way I’ve been putting it over the last few years is that science fiction works by a double action. This is maybe another way of talking about the estrangement effect. Think of the glasses that you put on at a 3D movie. Those special glasses have one lens showing you one thing and the other lens showing you another thing, slightly different. And your brain puts together a 3D view from these.

So one lens of science fiction is a real attempt to imagine a possible future. The other lens is a metaphor for the way things are right now. What you get when the two coalesce is a vision of historical time, cast into the future. Like a trajectory of deep time.


JP: That’s an amazing analogy.

Similarly, when you look back at your own novels over the years, do you see your understanding of what you’re doing changing? Can you look at the early books and say, Oh, I thought about it so differently then from how I think about it now?


KSR: Mostly not, because I don’t see my novels very well. But I do see a break that came with Red Mars (1992).

All of my novels before Red Mars were operating within a style sheet, you might call it, an agreed-upon understanding of how science fiction should be written. It had to do with Heinlein’s “the door dilated”: you don’t explain things; you avoid exposition and let the action describe the world. Everybody did that, and it became the norm. If you went back to an earlier style, it was seen as clunky.

Even so, I decided with Red Mars that we had a mass of new information about Mars, from the Viking missions, that I wanted to convey. And I wanted to emphasize that reality effect too. So I dispensed with the style sheet and said, I am going to talk about rocks. People say I talk about rocks for 20 pages at a time, but really it’s only two paragraphs at a time. It just felt different.

So in Red Mars I formed a different style, partly an older style, partly my own style. That’s made it a controversial book, but there’s nothing I can do about that. The idea you can please everyone is quickly lost. You just have to write what you want.


This article was commissioned by John Plotzicon

Featured image: Kim Stanley Robinson (detail). Photograph courtesy of Kim Stanley Robinson