Part V. Authors Who Tackle Climate Change in Fiction – Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson is an award-winning author of literary and science fiction; he is widely known for his realism in fiction since he bases his stories on modern scientific theories. He is known for carefully researching climate and other sciences while planning his stories. His academic research and credentials, and his fiction writing, go back decades; you’ll find themes of ecological, social, and economic justice in his literature. Kim Stanley Robinson is also one of the pioneers of fiction writers dealing with human-caused global warming.
Before anyone ever came up with a way to label climate change in fiction, he and others had long been tackling it; in fact, scientists knew, and came to a consensus in the 1970s, about global warming. According to the American Institute of Physics (AIP), in 1977, “Scientific opinion tends to converge on global warming, not cooling, as the chief climate risk in next century.”1 Writers of earlier science fiction had already been speculating about long-term climate change, but finally we had scientists convey what was happening in our world.
I read a good article by Marie Myung-Ok Lee recently, in Quartz Media2, titled “Here are the books you need to read if you’re going to resist Donald Trump,” and while the list focuses more on dystopian outcomes in fiction, if we stay on this path we’re on (and Robinson was not mentioned due to it being quite a short list), one quote stuck out to me from the article, “Artists are like deer: They sniff the winds of change long before the rest of us.”
For decades, such writers have warned us of predicaments in which we are now finding ourselves. They warned us in genre fiction, other times in literary fiction. And Robinson, among such great storytellers as Ursula K. Le Guin, Ernest Callenbach, Octavia Butler, John Brunner, J.G. Ballard, David Brin, and many other speculative fiction authors, blazed the path for those of us who came later, who are younger but who now see climate change in front of us, along with some of the dystopian themes predicted in early science fiction. Paying homage to those before us–in many cases they are obviously still here–seems to be a worthy cause in this day and age, and one of the reasons I felt this series needed to come alive.
See Wikipedia for a complete bibliography of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books and short stories. Unlike other authors I’ve spotlighted here who may write one iconic book on climate change, Robinson is way more prolific, so this profile will lack the focus on one work in particular.
Because he so often deals with ecological resources, sustainability, and environmental justice (which also go hand in hand with political, social, and economic events), his books about climate change have made a big impact. However, climate change is not one event. It is a hyperobject, as previously alluded to in this series. It is a massive object, tough to write about and hard to explore in its totality. Global warming is made up of many pieces, and all the pieces are subject to exploration in fiction, including in many of Robinson’s stories.
Robinson said, in an interview with The Atlantic, when asked about using science fiction to portray climate themes3:
Science fiction can be regarded as a kind of future-scenarios modeling, in which some course of history is pursued as a thought experiment, starting from now and moving some distance off into the future. The closer to the present the work of science fiction stays, the more obvious it is that it is a way of thinking about what we’re doing now, also where we may be going, and, crucially, where we should try to go, or try to avoid going. Thus the famous utopian or dystopian aspects of science fiction.
Whether Robinson’s stories explore climate change set on Earth (such as Buddhist-environmental themes in Science in the Capital series; what I like to think of as Orange County in three fated acts, the Three Californias trilogy; or in the upcoming New York 2140) or outer space (such as in his Mars trilogy, the moon colonization novel Aurora, and 2312), it is clear that Robinson is both deeply concerned about our existence and is greatly talented at building worlds in fiction. His concerns about the fate of humanity often stake our good intentions against our imperfections and model our fates. His approaches are diverse, from pure hard science fiction to literary fiction.
The New Yorker asked if Kim Stanley Robinson was our greatest political novelist and stated, referring to the Mars trilogy4:
Robinson argues that, now that climate change has become a matter of life and death for the species, it’s time for scientists to abandon their scrupulous neutrality and enter into the messy arena of politics. Essentially, Robinson attempts to apply scientific thinking to politics, approaching it less like pure physics, in which one infallible equation / ideology explains and answers everything, than like engineering—a process of what F.D.R. once called “bold, persistent experimentation,” finding out what works and combining successful elements to synthesize something new.
Another great deer sniff on the upcoming wind, wasn’t it? For now, just over three years after this article came out, we are presented with a new president who is promoting fossil fuels and doesn’t believe in or care about climate change or any other environmental issue. And scientists are becoming more political (such as with the Alt National Park Service and the upcoming March for Science on Earth Day 2017).
Robinson’s newest novel, New York 2140 [editor’s note: now published], is set in New York City after sea levels have risen enough to drown the city–yet the metropolitan area still seems to thrive, with canals rather than streets. The novel may be fairly sobering…just a warning.
As always, I think that fiction and the arts have a unique place in the narrative about global warming. Fiction writers, such as Kim Stanley Robinson, are important in using the arts to convey our humanity’s identity in an exponentially changing world. How do we deal with the extinction of an ever-increasing amount of species? How do we find the wilderness again (when any idea of “pristine wilderness” is questionable since we have already altered the planet too much)? How do we cope with recent changes in government that seem to be dystopian and dangerous? How do we deal with a natural world that is dramatically changing to the point our constructed worlds are threatened by sea level rises, long-term climate changes, ocean acidification, food security, and so on? How do we ensure stability in the world when a host of changes result in violent terrorism and large refugee crises? Are we coming to a tipping point wherein we’ll lose natural identity and find a fugue state?
I like the saying, “It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness,” which is a quote attributed to many but more likely was an old Chinese proverb. To me, fiction and the arts can be the candles in seemingly a darkening world, especially fiction that is based upon science and realism, which guides us, well, as realistically as possible (with hope or with warning).
Kim Stanley Robinson has spent a lifetime writing and speaking about humanity. His fiction knowledgeably considers our cultural aspects–environmental sustainability, technology, economy, polity, and ideology–and artfully helps us to find our identities, sense our fates, reflect on our mistakes, and learn how to prepare for the future.
- January 2017 (updated). “The Discovery of Global Warming“. American Institute of Physics.
- February 1, 2017. “Here are the books you need to read if you’re going to resist Donald Trump” Quartz Media. Marie Myung-Ok Lee.
- April 1, 2013. “In 300 Years, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science Fiction May Not Be Fiction“. The Atlantic. Scott Beauchamp.
- December 12, 2013. “Our Greatest Political Novelist?” The New Yorker. Tim Kreider.