Kim Stanley Robinson has created such amazing futures in his Mars books and others that it’s sometimes difficult to believe he doesn’t have a direct line to what comes next — a crystal broadband line, rather than a crystal ball. But as Robinson explains in this Big Idea, today’s present changes the future even for him, and for his latest and in many ways most ambitious novel, 2312.
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON:
My new novel 2312 began with an idea for a romance between a mercurial person and a saturnine person. Matching these two character types would make for quite an odd couple, I thought, and since all couples are odd, it seemed like the story might have wide appeal. That the two people should actually come from Mercury and Saturn is my kind of joke, in other words lame, but I like both those planets, and recent robotic space missions have given us a lot of new information about both of them.
However, having people call Mercury and Saturn their home requires some kind of solar system-spanning civilization. Thus the three-century time scale. This also put the story somewhere beyond the end of my Mars trilogy, and allowed me to return, not to that particular future history, but to that general story space: Humanity In the Solar System In the Next Few Centuries! I love that story space, one of the most exciting in all science fiction, so it was a pleasure to get back to it.
But so much about the future has changed since I last visited it. So much that I never believed possible is looking like it might happen anyway.But always in ways that to me seemed very unlike what all the other stories have been saying. I had a different vision of most of these startling new possibilities, and I found on reflection that I needed or wanted to retell the whole Matter of the Solar System.
That was fine, but also problematic. The big stories are hard to tell; you need special tricks, often lifted directly from Sir Walter Scott. I was forced to use the Kitchen Sink Theory of Novel Construction—again, of course—indeed, more than ever—but it was necessary, because the future is going to be a wild place, a recombinant multiplicity of clashing elements, a real mess. To do justice to realism these days, the kitchen sink is really nowhere near the end of what needs to get tossed into the mix.
So: terraforming (on purpose or not); living in space; genetic modifications in all living things; brain implants; artificial intelligences; gender manipulations; space travel; longevity treatments; big sea level rise on a hot sad old Earth; new forms of economics and governance. Sex, politics, art, revolution; and always, no matter what, human subjectivity. Our streams of consciousness. Because we read fiction to experience telepathy; we want to get inside other minds, and hear how other people think.
So my original two characters still carry this story, they struggle in their strange new world, making their way as best they can. In their travels they see the solar system from the Vulcanoids to Pluto; they body-surf the rings of Saturn, deal with some desperate moments on Mercury’s brightside, and cope with the icy dangers of frozen Venus. The plots they are caught up in are an important part of the history of their time, and just as messy and dangerous as history always is. And the romance’s end has a (spoiler alert!) surprise setting.
Writing 2312 was great fun. I got a lot of gentle but electrifying help from my editor, Tim Holman. His combination of stimulus and aid made a huge difference to the book, in both conception and execution, and I am grateful to him. Thanks Tim! And it’s been a pleasure watching his whole team at Orbit produce and promote the book, I’m happy to be part of such a high-powered team. I’m also grateful to all the people who helped me with various aspects of the book, from Chris McKay and his colleagues at NASA/Ames, to Pamela Mellon and all my other friends at UC San Diego, and all the rest who helped me (see acknowledgments at the back of the book).
I was also inspired by the performance art of Marina Abramovic, the landscape art of Andy Goldsworthy, and the novel technique of John Dos Passos. Goldsworthy and Abramovic have become simply genres in my future world, their names common nouns for what lots of artists do. I think that will happen. And it took the model of Dos Passos’ great USA trilogy to suggest to me the best form that could be used to portray a complicated culture in a novel. John Brunner used Dos Passos’ format for his Stand On Zanzibar quartet, and now I can see why; it’s not only useful, it’s lively. I hope readers will feel that way about 2312, and if so I will be happy, and grateful, because it’s the readers of a book who bring it to life.