The Big Idea: Kim Stanley Robinson

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.


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.


2312: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the book’s site.

33 Comments on “The Big Idea: Kim Stanley Robinson”

  1. I’ve been extremely excited, Mr. Robinson, about 2312 for some time. Your Big Idea just amplifies my interest. Well done.

    Looking forward to it.

    And writing should be pleasurable. It certainly sounds like you had a blast writing this.

  2. I hope this isn’t too off-topic, but that novel has a truly beautiful cover. Congratulations on the striking artwork – I’m sure you never know quite what you’re going to get. I would like it as a framed poster. I will probably read the book, too. :)

  3. Kindle sample downloaded; I expect I’ll follow it up with a purchase before too long. (My to-read list keeps getting longer — good thing I have a vacation coming up where I’ll be able to kill some backlog!)

  4. Kim Stanley Robinson novels are among the few I buy, no questions asked, the minute they hit the shelves. I’m incredibly stoked by this one, and look forward to reading it.

  5. Christopher Turkel: To hazard a guess, the expression “everything but the kitchen sink” is used to try to quantify a large amount of X, whatever X may be. To further the metaphor, I imagine the “Kitchen Sink Theory of Novel Construction” refers to the attempt to make a large number of disparate plot elements come together in an experience that’s pleasurable for the reader. Some authors do this better than others. Some authors do it well in one novel, and their next novel’s a disappointment–sometimes they’ve thrown so much stuff together that they forget to account for one or more plot threads at the end of a novel. If the novel is a stand-alone, that’s a big letdown. If the novel is part of a series, as long as the plot thread is ultimately accounted for in a reasonable way, I’m satisfied.

  6. When I was an undergraduate at UCSD way too many years ago to admit to, I took a required writing course. The graduate student who taught it had us read Stand on Zanzibar, which was one of the most eye-opening reading experiences of my life. I’ve always thought I saw Brunner’s influence on KSR’s works, but I have to admit I am kind of startled to discover this perceived influence might be more than my imagination. Cannot wait to read the book, which has been on pre-order for months.

  7. Just downloaded the free sample to my Nook. I’m sure I’ll be buying it later! Also, the cover art is gorgeous! I agree with Jennifer K., this would make a beautiful framed poster.

  8. @sorcharei 11:27
    Hey, I took that course from that same grad student, but it must have been a different quarter. He didn’t have us read any Brunner. He talked up Samuel R. Delaney and lot, though. Lots of interesting talks in and out of class (though he spoiled Absalom, Absalom for me). But my first impression of this dripping wet guy who showed up a couple of minutes late because he’d been surfing will always stick with me.

  9. Oh, I’m *definitely* looking forward to reading this.

    Also going to have to check out Dos Passos.

    And props for the Andy Goldsworthy mention.

  10. I must ask: What is the “Kitchen Sink Theory of Novel Construction” ?
    Everything including the kitchen sink. Later in the essay, he provides a long list of the scifi type elements or predictions of the future which he included.

    I think the only things that were left out were: ESP, faster than light travel, matter transmission and time travel. :-)

  11. I want to read this book more than I’ve wanted to read a KSR book since finishing the Mars Trilogy. Alas, my backlog is so big! I’ll be picking this up as soon as i plow through all the other books I’ve got lined up for sure…

  12. So terraforming, off-world human populations, AI, genetic manipulation of all living things, etc. but “hot sad old Earth?”

  13. My husband works at a bookstore and I got an arc of this. It’s outstanding! Highly recommended.

  14. Downloaded it after reading this… enjoying despite post-surgical pain & meds. Thanks for the Big Idea piece, both of you!

  15. I’m not a big KSR fan (couldn’t stomach the Mars Trilogy but loved Antarctica) but this looks intriguing. and “the icy dangers of frozen Venus” caught my attention also!

  16. “Frozen Venus” must be a result of humans colonizing Venus and because of the intense over reaction hundreds of years earlier had learned to not only halt the dangers of global warming but then developed the problem of global cooling….

  17. Read the excerpt, and am going to pass on this this one. Very poetic but FILLED with technical mistakes, not the least of those being that the sun looks only 2.5x bigger from Mercury than from earth so convection cells are still totally unresolvable with the unaided eye (and adding optics sorta destroys the intent, I think, of the passage)…..I thus can’t sustain my disbelief to enjoy the language…

  18. @whatever indeed : It’s a good essay by J.S. (and I remember doing a LONG online rant about that Star Trek movie, possibly even at ) but it wasn’t just ONE flying snowman and it’s a pretty short passage…As I’ve said here and/or at before, it’s when authors get the physics we know NOW wrong that I get bothered…..I won’t belabor the point as I enjoyed Antarctica very much and thank KSR for that work. This one is just not for me.

  19. I read all threes of the “Mars” books when they came out, and I thought they were easily some of the best near-term hard SF I’d read. Ever. I am intrigued by 2312. Will absolutely be looking to pick up a copy. Especially since I just got Vinge’s latest in paperback. I was on a panel about how to write good SF without warp drive, and I cited the “Mars” trilogy, and Vinge’s two (now three) Zones books as examples.

  20. @ Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff

    Sigh… You were doing so well until ye olde “big sea level rise on a hot sad old Earth; ” ….zzzzzz….. grow a brain.

    If you ever expected a KSM story to posit a future where anthropogenic climate change hasn’t raised sea levels, then you must not have read much of his writing. Just out of idle curiosity, do you only read SF in which you agree with every single scientific extrapolation, because that would be a pretty short list, no?

    @ coolstar

    I’m not a big KSR fan (couldn’t stomach the Mars Trilogy but loved Antarctica)

    For me, it was the other way around. His Mars Trilogy was great, Antarctica was a neat concept that just didn’t pan out so well, and I couldn’t even motivate myself to read the second of his earlier Three Californias trilogy. This looks like a return to his forte, though, so I look forward to reading it.

    @ whatever indeed

    “Frozen Venus” must be a result of humans colonizing Venus and because of the intense over reaction hundreds of years earlier had learned to not only halt the dangers of global warming but then developed the problem of global cooling….

    Actually, one proposed method of terraforming Venus posits irrigation (usually by icy comet nuclei) followed by an artificially induced Venusian ice age (a giant parasol would be the most efficient method) after which it might be made habitable for terrestrial life.

    @ coolstar

    and I remember doing a LONG online rant about that Star Trek movie, possibly even at

    Just please tell me you didn’t fault the artificially induced black holes. That was one of the very few things the movie got right since black whole growth is exponential given a constant diet of infalling mass and requires only that the red matter collapse enough of the initial mass to start out well along the growth curve. Since red matter is bullshit anyway, I can swallow that.

    @ Brad R. Torgersen

    I was on a panel about how to write good SF without warp drive, and I cited the “Mars” trilogy, and Vinge’s two (now three) Zones books as examples.

    You should check out Alastair Reynolds’ fiction. House of Suns might be the best sublight rendition of old-school space opera ever written.

    That said, I’d like to see more SF exploring the (not necessarily FTL) warp metrics of Miguel Alcubierre and Chris Van Den Broeck. Stephen Baxter took a whack at this in Ark, the sequel to his highly speculative ecofic novel Flood. And physicist Travis Taylor was the first SF author I know of to use it in Warp Drive. Other than those, I’ve not seen the “Alcubierre drive” in SF even though the math is almost twenty years old now.

  21. “Gulliver-You should check out Alastair Reynolds’ fiction. House of Suns might be the best sublight rendition of old-school space opera ever written.”

    Yes! I loved that one!

  22. Gulliver you should check out Ian Douglas’ star carrier series. Alcubierre drive is the main propulsion method.

  23. The Mars trilogy is high on my list of great science fiction works. While the science and the colonization story were fascinating, it was the characters who pulled me in and kept me reading. There was something exceptionally vivid, realistic, and, often, admirable about the people who lived in those novels. When you’re reading a good book, you find the characters compelling; when you’re reading a great book, you want to know those folks.

    It’s interesting that the new book was influenced in part by the USA Trilogy. Joe Haldeman claimed that it was an influence to him when writing Mindbridge, one of his best works.

    I see that 2312 is already available for the Kindle, so, uh, gotta go…

  24. @Gulliver Can’t remember if I ranted about the micro black holes. It is true that the growth rate of black holes is NOT exponential however as eventually the “Eddington Limit” is reached when the radiation pressure produced by the infalling matter balances the gravitational force. It turns out the time for a small black hole to “eat” the earth is roughly 50 years* (M(earth)/M(BH)), which is lifetime of the sun long for a micro BH. I didn’t work this out while watching the movie but knew intuitively that the timescale would be LONG. Compared to the other physical and logical idiocies, this one bothered me very little! My apologies for straying far afield of the thread topic.

  25. @ coolstar

    It turns out the time for a small black hole to “eat” the earth is roughly 50 years* (M(earth)/M(BH)), which is lifetime of the sun long for a micro BH.

    I admit that my own expertise are mostly limited to computational physics, not GR. I was basing my assumption on the expectation that physicist David Brin did his homework for the novel Earth, but I don’t recall whether he took radiation pressure into account as it’s been a while since I read it. Scaling would still necessitate the black hole growth accelerate, though, since the gravitational attraction along the event horizon would grow faster than the radiation pressure. If your equation is accurate, then it would take 50 years for a black hole equal to one Earth mass to consume the Earth, which still seems unlikely despite the small surface area of such a BH’s event horizon. I’d love to see the paper that worked it out if you know the authors.

    Even going by that formula though, the black hole would eat Vulcan rapidly so long as the red matter collapsed the overwhelming majority of the planet’s interior in the singularity’s initial formation. As I always say, arguing with Treknology is like arguing with an empty lab after the all the scientists have left :)

  26. Remember, David Brin is a planetary scientist, not an astrophysicist, as is Greg Benford (and me, btw). Brin is a smart guy, but he’s not the first science educated author to make physics mistakes in his fiction (or to just ignore relevant physics for whatever reason) and he certainly won’t be the last. And GR doesn’t really play into the calc. Remember an earth mass black hole is only about 9 mm in radius, and that size scales only linearly with mass, so it’s not surprising it would take a LONG time for a really small one time to eat a planet (assuming it didn’t evaporate first due to Hawking radiation). Lots of good, accessible BH physics on the web that doesn’t require GR. And lots of info concerning tiny black holes (good info) due to the LHC kerfluffle. As I said, this was the least of my worries about that particular movie. “flying snowman” is a good term, and I’ll remember it. Time to end our private conversation, I think.