In 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson envisions the solar system 300 years hence as a playground for genetically altered superhumans and semisentient quantum computers who turn planets into works of art.
What was your starting point for a work that explores so many different areas of future culture and technology?
I usually start with ideas that are simple, then things get complicated as I try to make those ideas work. In this case, I began with the idea of the romance at the center of the novel, between two people from Mercury and Saturn who were (surprise!) mercurial and saturnine in character, and thus a real odd couple. But to make that story work I needed there to be people on Mercury and Saturn, which implied a solar system–spanning civilization, which in turn suggested the time of the story had to be pretty far off in the future. The project of describing this high-tech future civilization became a major component of the novel, but it all began by trying to give the central romance its proper setting. So I guess you could say it’s a process of following the implications of ideas and seeing where they lead.
Do you see parallels between terraforming planets and the intentional self-evolution of humanity?
Yes, it seems clear to me that we are going to be changing both ourselves and our environment—we always have, and now we have to if we’re going to survive. Advances in biotechnology are more potentially transformative of human nature than living in space, and they’re already happening, and they’ll be getting more and more powerful. At the same time, we are already “terraforming Earth” and will have to think about that, and even plan it, in a catchup effort to keep from crashing our biosphere. So in describing human civilization 300 years from now, I felt it was necessary to show how shocking all these changes are when considered together: bodies, habits, institutions, the Earth, the planets and moons of our solar system, all of them altered by design and by accident.
What led you to include such dramatic manipulations of sex, gender, and sexual and relationship options?
Three hundred years is a very long time off, and by then humanity’s sense of itself will be different. It seemed to me that if technologies existed for lifetime extension and body modification, people might get into a mindset of wanting to try everything.
Science fiction already has a great tradition of boggling minds when it comes to thinking about gender. My own life as a Mr. Mom has been greatly enriched by reading the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Geoff Ryman, Carol Emshwiller, and too many more to list (although I could provide a great list!)—really, the entire tradition of feminist and utopian science fiction. It’s one of the richest veins in science fiction, and it’s not a coincidence that reality is beginning to resemble this vein. People see the potential in literature, and then act accordingly.
From the ring-surfing at Saturn to the “take an asteroid” recipe, you’ve built a future that, despite its dangers, feels like it would be tremendous fun to live in.
I had tons of fun writing it. I just dove in and rode the waves that the scenario threw up at me. What a pleasure it was to see again how science fiction is not just for dire warnings about dystopia or apocalypse, but can celebrate our potential for greatness and joy. The utopian point is to say this potential exists for everyone. Science and justice are never going to be magically powerful, and we do face huge problems, but our powers are growing, and the potential for a decent and exciting future is real. We have to hold on to that vision, and science fiction is the genre that gives us the whole spectrum of feelings about the possible futures we face. So, terror, yes—often appropriate—but also hope, joy, and rolling down the hills just for the fun of it.
Are there any plans for more novels or stories making use of this wealth of background?
No, I’m done with that future. That was Swan and Wahram’s world, and with their story complete, the novel has an ending. I’m on to other things. These days I’m thinking about the Paleolithic, and it’s very exciting.