This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.
WHO THEY ARE
Robert Silverberg (Bob) and Kim Stanley Robinson (Stan) are both highly acclaimed science fiction writers, each with decades of experience. Bob has been writing sci fi since the 1950s and Stan is best known for his Mars trilogy about terraforming Mars for human habitation (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars).
He discussed how he studied “high fallutin and uppity stuff” at Columbia University then wrote for pulp sci fi magazines.
During the discussion Bob was well-versed in modernist literature from his Columbia days but seemed far more interested in sci fi.
He discussed how, at 19, he decided it was impractical to compete with established ‘literary’ sci fi writers of the time like Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Heinlein so he wrote potboilers because he could get them published.
He discussed that, after becoming established, he went back to some of his old stuff, and this was heralded as the arrival of ‘a new Silverberg’ but was really a return to his older work from his youth.
He discussed that sci fi is often about explaining the unexplained – that a sci fi story can start from the premise that an explanation is convincing. This is not the same as believing that the explanation is actually convincing but writing a fictional story as if it were convincing because it provides potential for a good story.
Stan discussed a range issue for which there are hypothetical explanations which could have interesting story potential, such as:
- archaeological hoaxes like the faking of Lysenkian/Lamarckian genetic data
- the question of whether the Kensington runestone in the Smithsonian museum is an authentic Viking artifact or a later forgery
- discoveries such as those of 9000 and 10,000 year old caucasoid skeletons in what is now the United States, which are not as well known and discussed as they might be were it not for contemporary political sensibilities; or
- what life may have been like for ‘the Tollund Man’ preserved in a peat bog from the Paleolithic period in what is now Denmark
Stan is often portrayed as an environmentalist, and he could be called that, however the focus by many journalists is on environmentalism as some others conceive of it whereas Stan’s conception is what he described as “an anthropocentric, or human centered, environmentalism”. He discussed that this basically the idea that people find themself in a situation such as being on Earth and that the situation they find themselves in is also part of who they are. This is not in a mystical or social identity theory way but in the sense that gravity acts on us with a force great enough to hold us to the planet but not so great that it crushes us, the mass of Earth and Earth’s electro-magnetic field shields us from cosmic radiation, and so on. As Stan put it, “the world is all around us and within us” and he mentioned that he usually demonstrates the point by asking someone to hold their breath and they soon realise that our situation within the universe is crucial to who we are and how we can function. He said, “This relativist stuff that there is no situation is complete nonsense.” He doesn’t advocate a re-wilding of the Earth to remove the effects of human influence; he advocates more of a position that humans should manage their interaction with their environment to achieve their desired outcomes.
THEIR ATTITUDE TO SCI FI
One thing I really enjoyed about this discussion between Stan and Bob is that while both are multi-award winning sci fi writers, each with decades of experience, who people often describe as masters of their craft, they were both down-to-earth and realistic about what they know and what they don’t. Stan asked, “Are we capable of saying anything about the current state of science fiction?” to which Bob replied, “No, we aren’t.” As Bob explained, there is too much being written and published to make comprehensive judgments about the state of science fiction, regardless of how long you’ve been writing it yourself or how much you read.
A good point which Bob brought up was: “A writer who writes about writers is a writer in trouble.” This is a useful rule of thumb, especially for beginner writers. If the most interesting thing you can think of as a writer is a story about someone trying to write a story, then maybe you should seek some new life experiences and then come back to writing. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every story about a writer is bad, but most tend to be because so many are written by writers who don’t have a good idea for a story.
TECHNOLOGY AND THE CRAFT OF WRITING
Bob and Stan discussed how writing technology has been developed over the course of their careers. Interestingly, Bob said he still uses the same desk and chair as when he started writing professionally around 60 years ago. Both started out writing on a typewriter and have known the frustration of typing and retyping pages because they couldn’t delete with their typewriter. Stan recalled about his first experience with a computer, “I remember pressing the backspace for the first time and the letter went away. I said, “I want one of these.”” Bob recalled how, when he started using a computer, he wasn’t completely reassured that his story was safe stored inside the computer and would print once each page was complete in addition to saving it and backing it up on disk. Then, as he built trust in the reliability of the computer, this extended to printing at the end of each day… then each week… then each draft. Bob contrasted this with a moment from the convention when someone got him to autograph the back of their Kindle.
Toward the end, Stan and Bob turned their discussion to the topic of governance. Since the Mars trilogy, Stan has become quite well known for his ideas on geo-engineering and people working together to create effective ways to share a planet. This is often simplified in journalism about Stan to just focus on centralised government and engineering climate, however his ideas in this area are much broader than those two buzz topics. Stan supports an idea of what could broadly be called a utopia, a way of people living together sustainably and in happiness, which he contrasted with a dystopia (a way of living in which people are actively harmed, as in Nazi Germany) and an anti-utopia or failed utopia (a way of living in which people are actively harmed but are told they are being helped, as in Soviet Russia). Stan suggested that people’s lives in all societies are calibrated by the laws of that society and that governments have a role in continually re-calibrating those laws to meet the needs of people’s circumstances. However, Bob suggested that societies have worked best when people have freedom to pursue happiness. Stan suggested that governments have a role in distributing resources appropriately. Bob suggested that the appropriate role of government is to ensure people have the freedom to accumulate resources to direct as they choose toward the pursuit of happiness. It was refreshing to see this kind of conversation in Australia, in which two people with fundamentally different ideas on the most appropriate way for people to govern not only discussed it civilly but also discussed it in good humour as good friends. As Stan pointed out, they both have a similar goal motivating them; a desire for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. They just have different ideas about how to go about achieving that outcome.
The Australian Literature Review