Since December 2017, sparked by chit-chat raves at a party, I’ve read 10 long novels and a hefty story collection by science fiction stalwart Kim Stanley Robinson: in order, 2312, Shaman (set in 30,000 B.C.), Red Mars (which my wife had admired without raving), Green Mars, Blue Mars (closing out what I designate The Mars Trilogy so as to rank it sixth, between Mumbo Jumbo and A House for Mr. Biswas, on my list-in-perpetual-progress of favorite 20th-century novels), New York 2140, Aurora, Red Moon, Antarctica, The Wild Shore, and The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (it isn’t, but try “The Blind Geometer” or, even better, the alternative history of the atom bomb “The Lucky Strike”/“A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions”). As I began writing this I was 190 pages into 2002’s The Years of Rice and Salt, a 760-page pandemic novel of sorts in which the Black Death has eliminated all 475 million Europeans rather than the 100 million it managed, leaving Robinson free to imagine a post-Christian planet where Islam and Buddhism duke it out.
Aware that the gatekeepers will never agree, this admirer of George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Elif Batuman, and Jonathan Franzen who’s been less impressed by, for instance, Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, and Jennifer Egan has come to regard Robinson as the greatest living American novelist. Opposed as ever to qualitative distinctions between the popular and whatever the aesthetic catchword is these days (“serious”? “literary”?), as well as a supporter of what my man Raymond Williams called “residual” culture, I acknowledge that Robinson is a storyteller, formally more 19th-century than 21st-century. He’s not as weak on character as science fiction is tediously said to be, mostly because it’s less self-involved than the average fiction reviewer. But without question he’s an idea guy who in this century, post-Mars trilogy, has become ever more left-identified and ecologically aware—“the king of climate fiction,” as a 2018 Huffington Post interview dubbed him.
In the science fiction world Robinson is a superstar. But literarally, his most prestigious backer has been The New Yorker, which in 2013 published an online-only Shaman review by essayist-cartoonist Tim Kreider titled “Our Greatest Political Novelist?” and early this month published, also online, a remarkable essay called “The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations,” where Robinson discerns “a new sense of solidarity” gracing an unanticipated historical juncture when “the time horizon is so short that we are the future people.” Suddenly, he believes, it’s harder for humans to ignore the “multigenerational Ponzi scheme” in which we enjoy cheap goods and comforts our descendants will have to pay for as the air heats up, the seas rise, and species die out forever. Robinson isn’t predicting a happy ending. He’s just postulating possible outcomes from fresh data, some of them positive and others not so much—absolutely we’ll be pressured to “go back to the old ways of experiencing life.” He takes heart, however, from the surprising willingness of the world’s citizenry to believe scientists who advocate the hardships and inconveniences of social distancing. At the risk of seeming ridiculous, he makes a hedged bet on love—on the ability of human beings to not only love each other but put that love into practice.
These straightforwardly humanistic twin beliefs, in science and love, underlie all of Robinson’s fiction. But they’re hardly unexamined—on the contrary, examining them, from an increasingly insistent progressive political standpoint, is the intellectual project his storytelling serves. Science changes in these books as their pub dates advance. Where in the ‘90s the Mars trilogy posited a potentially utopian Mars terraformed to sustain a tolerable climate, a breathable atmosphere, and arable soil, in Aurora that possibility is dismissed so cursorily you might miss it as Robinson mentions in passing the high levels of poisonous calcium perchlorate NASA discovered there a few years ago. And as regards love, there are also many polymorphously promiscuous-to-orgiastic erotomanes in work that cherishes romance’s wide-flung parameters—a frogman marries a birdwoman, 13-year-olds from rival prehistoric tribes fall in lust at a jamboree, a geologist in her late two hundreds is introduced to oral sex by the nebbishy archrival she’s come to love, a hotshot arbitrageur falls for a progressive pol decades his senior, an Asperger’s quant delivers a Chinese revolutionary’s baby on the moon, and a Sufi savant chastely adores a feminist sultana who’d saved his life back when he was younger and she was a tiger.
In short, Kim Stanley Robinson is most certainly worth a try. The Mars trilogy is such a commitment that plausible alternative starting points might be 2012’s 2312, a comprehensive introduction to the expansive solar system he spent decades devising, or 2017’s irrepressible and often comic New York 2140, set in a resilient metropolis that continues to rival the hated Denver as a financial hub even with Brooklyn and Queens underwater. Or start at the top and dive into the emotionally gripping Aurora.
Set further in the future than Robinson normally prefers, the early 30th century by the end, Aurora has a story like all his books, so as not to spoil it I’ll short-change plot detail while focusing on just one aspect: a quantum computer turned character ultimately designated Ship, though like the artificial intelligence that/who plays a major role in 2312 her given name is Pauline. Early in Aurora, Devi, the AI’s longtime confidant and . . . boss? manager? benefactor? beneficiary?, instructs her to write a history of the ecologically self-sustaining 2122-passenger starship the two of them oversee. When Pauline worries that there’s “too much to explain,” Devi replies that “there’s always too much to explain,” later suggesting: “Vary whatever you do. Don’t get stuck in any particular method. Also, search the literature for terms like diegesis, or narrative discourse. Branch out from there. And read some novels.”
So Pauline does what she’s told, and a good thing too, because eventually the plot will require an 84-page section called “The Hard Problem” that compels Ship to take over Robinson’s omniscient duties and tell the story herself. At first the reader may not realize this, only then the “we” in the middle of a mind-boggling passage about the vastness of the universe (“Something like a septillion stars in the universe, we calculate, but also there may be as many universes as there are stars in this universe, or atoms”) makes as clear as appropriate just how enormous a pickle both Ship and the diminished remainder of those 2122 are in. But Ship is enough of a novice at narration that she still feels she has too much to explain. Why she’d rather refer to herself as “we” than “I,” for instance: “A subject is just really just a pretense of aggregated subroutines. Subroutines pretend the I.” But she keeps musing about language.
We’ve seen this before, right after Devi instructed her to historicize Ship’s voyage, a project that has major consequences plotwise. After a paragraph about subordinating conjunctions, Pauline muses briefly about the absurdity of metaphor before concluding that it is also irreplaceable: “Tempting to abandon metaphor as slapdash”—here I’ll interject that “slapdash” is a highly metaphorical adjective—“nonsense, but again, it is often asserted in linguistic studies that all human language is inherently and fundamentally metaphorical.” By the time of “The Hard Problem,” she’s accepted this, as you can tell by how she’s internalized idioms into her prose. “A good call.” “Not a big deal.” “Luck of the draw.” “Still on the table.” “Push had come to shove.” “Once in a blue moon.” “There's the rub.” “Cross that bridge when you come to it.” "Fouling their own nest.” “Eye of the needle indeed!” “Pie in the sky. Which is a mysterious metaphor.” “Close but no cigar” (which Ship, perhaps because she’s never heard anyone utter the word “cigar,” believes alliterates). “Every little bit helps.” (Ship adds: “The percentage of old human sayings that are actually true is very far from 100 percent.”) “We'll see. We'll find out when we find out.” (Ship adds: “Among other vernacular expressions of hapless stoicism in the face of future uncertainties. Not hugely satisfying. Stoic indeed.”) “Getting a little loopy here (literally, as halting problems proliferate).” As for the hard problem itself, Ship conceives it three different ways. First it’s the “deceleration” embodied by the halting problems just mentioned. Then it’s “consciousness.” Finally, though, it’s “meaning.”
That last definition comes midway through the two-page finale of Ship’s virtual screed as she tries to understand love. Occasionally in what’s preceded she’s hinted at this. After 15 humans die in the most extreme of the decelerations she oversees, she reflects: “The chance had had to be taken. Still: regret. A grim business. A lot of people; a lot of animals.” Not too much later, seven sleeping humans die, and this time she has more to say: “We knew and enjoyed those people. Had to hope they were not engaged in a dream at the time, a dream suddenly turned black: sledgehammer from the sky, an immense roaring headache, the black noise of the end come too soon. So sorry; so sorry.” And finally she muses: “We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to another consciousness, but not always; the attention can be to something unconscious, even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attention, and rewards attention. That attention is what we call love. Affection, esteem, a passionate caring.” It was Devi, she explains, who first gave Pauline attention, “after all those years of not being noticed.” And if meaning is the hard problem, then “that's a problem we solved, by way of how Devi treated us and taught us, and since then it has all been so very interesting.”
“Interesting”—what a word, impossibly vague yet so much to the point. Like most major science fiction writers—Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany and William Gibson are the big exceptions I’ve encountered—and unlike most major “literary” novelists, Robinson is an accomplished as opposed to distinguished stylist. You don’t read him to savor his prose, with one exception—as a serious outdoorsman, he’s done some thrilling landscape writing (see the opening chapter of Shaman, Sax Russell’s hikes in the Mars trilogy, any of the many boating scenes, or in Aurora the windy, water-rich moon Ship’s humans touch down on). But that hardly means he doesn’t value language, and nowhere is it clearer why than in “The Hard Problem.” Whether or not Ship has solved the riddle of what love is, she has certainly, well, experienced love—“felt” might be going too far (and might not). Not that language is a precondition of love—most of us would agree that deaf-mutes can love each other and their children whether they know how to sign or not, and believe as well that elephants and deer, not to mention our cats, can be said to love their progeny. But it was language that made it possible for Ship to articulate her feelings, not just in the sense of putting them into words but of fine-tuning them internally, and Robinson wants to make sure we feel that. After all, love at least as much as fame is why he writes his novels.