The Utopian Kim Stanley Robinson  

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Terry Bisson has an interview with utopian science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson - Galileo's dream: A Q&A With Kim Stanley Robinson (via Bruce Sterling - The Utopian Kim Stanley Robinson).

TB: My favorite of that series is Pacific Edge, the utopia of the series. What’s yours? Are there any particular problems in writing a utopia?

KSR: My favorite is The Gold Coast, for personal reasons, but I think Pacific Edge is more important to us now. Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization.

It’s a slim tradition since [Sir Thomas] More invented the word, but a very interesting one, and at certain points important: the Bellamy clubs after Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward had a big impact on the Progressive movement in American politics, and H.G. Wells’s stubborn persistence in writing utopias over about fifty years (not his big sellers) conveyed the vision that got turned into the postwar order of social security and some kind of government-by-meritocracy.

So utopias have had effects in the real world. More recently I think Ecotopia by [Ernest] Callenbach had a big impact on how the hippie generation tried to live in the years after, building families and communities.

There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection—that they must be boring—are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying “No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.

And if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama, as I tried to show in Pacific Edge. There would still be love lost, there would still be death. That would be enough. The horribleness of unnecessary tragedy may be lessened and the people who like that kind of thing would have to deal with a reduction in their supply of drama.

So, the writing of utopia comes down to figuring out ways of talking about just these issues in an interesting way; how tenuous it would be, how fragile, how much a tightrope walk and a work in progress. That along with the usual science fiction problem of handling exposition. It could be done, and I wish it were being done more often.

TB: Your recent “Global Warming” trilogy (40 Signs of Rain; 50 Degrees Below; 60 Days and Counting) was about global warming—which leads to a deep freeze! What do you think of Obama’s “green” agenda? Is it headed in the right directions?

KSR: Climate change will mostly be warming, but that will add such energy to the world system that the turbulence will lead to areas of greater cold in winter, as well as more severe storms, etc. So I followed a scenario that describes the “abrupt climate change” that the scientists have found in the historical record, that results when the Gulf Stream is shut down at its north end by too much fresh water flooding the far north Atlantic.

That could happen with Greenland melting, though now they think it is lower probability than when I wrote (oh well). I like Obama’s green agenda and hope his whole team and everyone jumps on board and pushes it as hard as possible.

One thing happening is that the Republican Party in the USA has decided to fight the idea of climate change (polls and studies show the shift over the first decade of this century, in terms of the leadership turning against it and the rank and file following), which is like the Catholic Church denying the Earth went around the sun in Galileo’s time; a big mistake they are going to crawl away from later and pretend never happened. And here the damage could be worse, because we need to act now.

What’s been set up and is playing out now is a huge world historical battle between science and capitalism. Science is insisting more emphatically every day that this is a real and present danger. Capitalism is saying it isn’t, because if it were true it would mean more government control of economies, more social justice (as a climate stabilization technique) and so on. These are the two big players in our civilization, so I say, be aware, watch the heavyweights go at it, and back science every chance you get. I speak to all fellow leftists around the world: science is now a leftism, and thank God; but capitalism is very, very strong. So it’s a dangerous moment. People who like their history dramatic and non-utopian should be pleased. ...

TB: I understand that you live in a utopian community [called Village Homes, pictured above and below; images by Michael Corbett]. How does that work? Is it pre- or post-modern?

KSR: A little of both, I guess. The model is an English village really; about eighty acres, a lot of it owned in common, so there is a “commons” and no fences, except around little courtyards. There are a lot of vegetable gardens, and the landscaping is edible, meaning lots of fruits, grapes and nuts.

It’s really just a tweaking of suburban design, but a really good one. Energy mattered to the designers and we burn about 40 percent the energy of an ordinary suburban neighborhood of the same size. That’s still a lot, but it’s an improvement. Village Homes was built in 1980 or so; if every suburb since then had followed its lead, we would have much less craziness in America, because the standard suburb is bad for sanity. But that didn’t happen, so for the 1,000 people who live here it’s a kind of pocket utopia. Not the solution, but a nice place to live right now, and it could suggest aspects of a long-term solution. It’s been a real blessing to live here.


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