No road cuts through Village Homes, the Davis, Calif., housing community where Kim Stanley Robinson lives. After parking on the perimeter, it's necessary to trek in on foot, past suburban homes, wood frame houses tiled in the light pastels favored in sunny climates.
Robinson's house is Navaho White with blue trim. He meets us at the door. At 46, soft-spoken and ruggedly handsome, he betrays the occasional fidget and clockward glance of a man on a tight schedule. That's unsurprising, given Robinson's huge international readership and the fact that he's just tidying up details with James Cameron for optioning theatrical rights to his Mars trilogy -- Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996), all published by Bantam.
Even so, Robinson finds time to show us around the compound, from the community dance studio to the daycare center where his two-year-old, the younger of his two sons, is taking a nap, and the village garden, which is maintained by residents who've applied to a committee for a plot to tend. Robinson, who edits the community newsletter, has his own piece of turf surrounded by clover he's planted as the first step in a three-year plan to get rid of the encroaching nutgrass. Nutgrass, he says, existed back in the Pleistocene. It laughs at transients like humans and flowers. With his fingers, Robinson digs through teeming millipedes to reveal the hard root. This is clearly a man who thinks with his hands as well as his head. He has helped create everything that surrounds him here.
How natural that Robinson, a chief exponent of "eco-fiction" and architect of one of the greatest planned communities in modern fiction -- embracing the entire planet of Mars -- should be an active member of his own miniature society. But what of the fractious politics, the mortal struggles between ideologies that mark his stories -- even among the utopians who make a sneak appearance in his latest novel, Antarctica, out from Bantam? The model for that is right here, he says with a laugh. There are endless meetings, endless debates over every detail of community life.
This tumultuous social microcosm has nevertheless provided Robinson with the perfect writer's redoubt. In his study, a picture of the Dalai Lama from an Apple Computer ad lies on an end table next to an ancient dog-eared copy of The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard's classic on the ill-fated Robert Falcon Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1912. Robinson's terrace is composed of flagstones in varied, intricate and interlocking patterns. He points out two of them that look like the California coastline, north and south. A small Buddha figure sits in the far corner.
Robinson laid the stones in the summer of 1997. With his trip to Antarctica completed, and the new novel under his belt, it seemed a well-deserved interlude between projects. But arranging the stones, he found, was "an objective correlative of writing a novel": here were the same musicality and "shapeliness" that inform his fiction.
This from a writer of "hard science fiction," a genre known for its nuts-and-bolts delivery and its subjugation of such dainties as character and mood to fast action and sensational technologies? Robinson chuckles at the label. "Before the Mars series, no one called me that." His earlier novels, the California Trilogy of The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990), as well as The Memory of Whiteness (1985), earned him a reputation as a "humanist" SF writer in opposition to the cyberpunk writers then in ascendance. The humanist label was less a cause of chagrin, since he found the cyberpunk ethos myopic, a glorification of bad morals. But in the Mars books one finds page after page of scientific exposition.
"The novel is a very capacious form," Robinson explains. "There's no reason exposition should be less interesting than stage business."
Not that there's a poverty of drama in Robinson's work. In Antarctica, scientists in remote, ice-bound stations struggle to continue their work against the threat of rapacious conglomerates on the one side and ecological terrorists on the other. The novel features sabotage by ice pirates, life-or-death treks across frigid mountainous expanses, global political and economic struggles between ruthless combatants and even a love affair. Its cadences are poetic, the composition artful.
This aesthetic in itself would be enough to distinguish the book from traditional hard SF, but what rankles Robinson about the label, often applied to his work in reviews and in discussions among SF aficionados, is the politics of it. "Hard SF has traditionally been right-wing: Heinlein, Niven, Pournelle. The classic SF has been hard in attitude -- like you can't let these poor ridiculous people on the starship because they aren't smart enough and it doesn't make sense. And hard SF contains a whole lot of silly fantasy elements: faster-than-light travel, talking aliens -- a bunch of crap that hard SF gets away with because they've got this 'hard' attitude."
The Red and the Green
Robinson is much further to the left. While eschewing rabid polemics, he is distrustful of big corporations, and his tendencies are decidedly Green. When Carlos, a Chilean scientist in Antarctica, discourses on the "globally downsized postrevolutionary massively fortified stage of very late capitalism," it's very much in keeping with the critique of environmentally catastrophic practices that distinguishes all of Robinson's books, including the Mars trilogy, which pits conservationist "Reds" against the "metanats," developers on a transplanetary corporate scale.
Has Robinson ever engaged in "ecotage," a neologism he's used for ecological sabotage? The writer demurs with a grin, reluctant to invite prosecution, perhaps. But he has no problem, he says, with such acts of civil disobedience as obscuring logging road marks to slow down clear-cutting. "If you can make it a little bit more expensive than it already is without hurting anybody, then you're taking away their [the big logging companies'] profit margin, and investors might go away."
As a novelist, Robinson's main concern is artistic, not political. After growing up in Orange County, Calif., he took a B.A. and then a Ph.D. in English and American literature from UC-San Diego, writing his dissertation on Philip K. Dick. He has also been a lecturer at UC-Davis. Nevertheless, for Robinson, politics is inseparable from art and science. "The idea of art for art's sake, that you can be a great artist without being political, especially in literature, doesn't work. Great literature is always political. The meaning of life is a highly political thing."
Robinson's wife, Lisa, is an environmental chemist, and he sees in the purity of scientific inquiry a model for an ideal system of government. The problem for him as a novelist, he says, is that science does not always conform to the demands of narrative. "The way that science runs itself is slow, diffuse and undramatic; it's almost everything that stories are not supposed to be." So writing stories about science is "like trying to fit square pegs into round holes over and over and over again."
That he has succeeded in fitting those pegs into place is demonstrated by Hugos (awarded by fans for the best SF novel of the year) for both Green Mars and Blue Mars, and a Nebula (awarded by professional SF writers) for Red Mars. Part of the trick is Robinson's marriage of the lyrical and the scientific. In Antarctica, he pulls this off through the character Ta Shu, a Feng Shui artist rhapsodizing as he spins through the frozen wasteland remembering the Scott and Roald Amundsen expeditions, broadcasting live over the airwaves as he goes.
The unifying idea of the wandering Ta Shu telling the stories of the old explorers came to Robinson "like a gift." It was one of those "solutions to a technical problem that then become the most beloved thing." Or perhaps, he allows, it was his experience in the 1970s roving through the beaches of the Hawaiian Islands, losing track of time, that gave rise to the idea of Ta Shu. Robinson has hiked not only in Hawaii but in the Sierras, the antipodes, the Himalayas and Buddhist Nepal; Ram Dass, he offers, was an inspiration to him in that great transition of the '70s from drug culture to meditative practice. "The radical politics and Zen spiritualism of the '60s and early '70s certainly did shape my aesthetic and my mission as a writer," he says.
Robinson has since put his body on the line in the service of his writing. On his first trip to Antarctica in November/December 1995, underwritten by a National Science Foundation program that brings artists and writers to the Pole, Robinson visited remote outposts, talking with some of the same scientists he had consulted for the Mars project. Antarctica, it turns out, is a great laboratory for the study of Mars, because of its topographical similarities. "I had never been in a helicopter before. They call them flying refrigerators!"
In Antarctica a childlike sense of timelessness took hold of him. In that impossibly hostile landscape, one simply could not organize one's day in a civilized manner, he recalls. Some of the things he found there were "so science fictional I couldn't believe it," like the neutrino detection apparatus that uses the earth itself as a filter and the polar ice cap as a lens: a blue glow from the ice reveals the presence of subatomic particles from supernovas light years away.
"There was a lucky star over the whole experience," he says. He wrote Antarctica in two short bursts. Recently, Robinson was pleased to learn that his book (already published in its HarperCollins U.K. edition) was on sale at the NSF visitor's shop in Antarctica. It was a big hit among the Antarcticans. "You got it right!" one veteran of many winters told him.
Robinson's road with publishers has been smooth, informed by what he likes to call a sensible team spirit. He has only praise for agent Ralph Vicinanza, who has repped him since his previous agent, Patrick Delahunt, retired in the late 1980s. "In his last act as a good agent, Patrick found his clients another good one to recommend, which was Ralph," says Robinson.
His first novel, The Wild Shore, was the book that relaunched the Ace Specials, a series of trade paperbacks designed to introduce new writers. There followed a second Ace book, and several books with Tor, before Robinson migrated to Bantam for the Mars series. At Bantam he worked with such editors as Lou Aronica, Jennifer Hershey and Tom Dupree (now all at Avon). His current editor is Pat LoBrutto.
As the interview winds down, we linger by a bookcase near the kitchen where the precious original accounts of polar explorations found in old bookstores have their special place on a high shelf. This evokes memories of other old things: while in New Zealand for a recent conference, Robinson visited a museum in which artifacts of the Scott expedition were supposed to be on display. In fact, they were hidden in a box under a stairway while things were being reorganized. It took some doing to get to them, but then he was able to hold in his hands the shards of a certain Emperor penguin egg members of Scott's expedition had risked their lives to obtain. In Antarctica, Robinson advocates returning such artifacts to their original sites. How much more inspiring for visitors to actually come upon them in situ.
What are we to make of interests as diverse as the flagstone tiles arrayed on his balcony -- from the cracked shell of an Emporer penguin egg to the landscape of Mars, conservation, music, Buddhism and the antipode? "That's what a novel is for me -- a bunch of competing desires that I have to reconcile in each sentence, a series of problem-solving decisions. So there's a certain fine process of writing that I truly love." Robinson peers out the window at his terrace as another image strikes him. "It's like hiking in the mountains, where every footstep is a tiny little problem that you solve by where you choose to walk."