To many, science fiction is light sabers and hyperdrives and space battles and other mind-numbing eye-candy. Yeah, it is fun to watch, but it misses the heart of good sci-fi, the consideration of just what we are and where we are going. In that world of (mostly) written science fiction, authors tend to land in a particular part of the landscape. This is in part because of the effort taken to build their future worlds, and in part just how the author feels about things. Pick up a Ben Bova book and you may find a heavy-handed government dominated by religious zealots in his future, but the focus is on cleverer protagonists who can outmaneuver such folk to reach an optimistic conclusion. There are fewer authors who really twist around their futures to see dramatically different sides. One of interest to us in earth science is Kim Stanley Robinson.
Now there are plenty of interviews with him on the internet, so you can look elsewhere for his take on his work, but from GG’s perspective what makes things interesting is his varying vantage point on what we as a species can and cannot do to worlds. In his Mars trilogy, Robinson kind of follows the line of many earlier science fiction authors in finding ways to remake another planet, to make humans denizens of the solar system (something he carries farther in 2312). It is that sort of optimistic kind of science fiction, where we can do amazing things even as he uses the complexities of it to populate the book.
Then the tone shifts and he gives us Aurora, which comes closer to the dystopian novels of humanity fleeing a dying core in multi-generational ships, though Robinson’s ships are more exploratory than the last hope of a dying race. Here he conjures up the attempt to confront a new world and master it, a task humanity could manage in the Mars series, but one that utterly defeats the would-be colonists. Success is the retreat of some colonists, tail between their legs, to carry word back that, well, there’s no place like home. He pushes back on his optimistic tone of Mars with the message that we’re trapped, the undertone being, we’d better make the best of what we have.
Most recently he has published New York: 2140. In making Earth the center of the story, Robinson’s visions seem to collide. On the one hand, an angry unnamed observer through the book provides some historical context, lambasting our present society from the perch of a not-terribly-distant future for the shear stupidity of climate change denial and the down weighting of future societies implicit in capitalism. New York and coastal regions the world over flood; the gap between rich and poor has grown larger. There is real anger here, and it is the stuff of classic sci-fi dystopias. But these are short passages within a vision of humanity dealing with a world it has damaged, indeed living in it much as we plod through day after day of our hum-drum lives. It is a world that people inhabit and one where progress is possible. Some of the optimism from the Mars books returns: while people have fouled the planet in ways beyond belief, they are still capable of coming to grips with the products of their folly.
Earth science is not often a significant part of science fiction; most authors are content to make planets kind of earth-like, or work with what they are today, or posit something different producing different species without really considering the planet itself that would underlie it. Planets are sets, not characters. Robinson’s books, though, demand that you honor the realities of the planets you inhabit: while much science fiction uses planets as they are, to make planets as they could be requires an extra level of effort, and the result is planet as a kind of character. His books suggest that if you understand how a planet works and build on that knowledge, you maybe can win; be ignorant and arrogant and you can lose. Nature is not malevolent, but it is powerful. Knowing it allows you to shape dreams, imagine futures, understand limits and move forward successfully. Arguably the care Robinson has put into envisioning how the different planets he visits actually work is a big part of why the visions he builds on those planets is so compelling.
So if you somehow haven’t encountered these books, go have a read…