This article is based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Guest of Honour Speech at AussieCon 4 (audio recording here, courtesy of Gary Kemble).
By the time of Kim Stanley Robinson (Stan)’s Guest of Honour Speech on the third day of the convention, I had attended one of his group panel discussions and his conversation with Robert Silverberg. Based on these, I thought Stan’s Guest of Honour speech was likely to be interesting. I wasn’t disappointed. From the moment Stan announced that the plan had been for him to be interviewed by Sean Williams but since Sean was unable to make it he would be interviewing himself as his alter-ego Dr Robinson it was evident this wouldn’t be your average speech. So he proceeded to ask very formal and educated questions as Dr Robinson (with his jacket on) and respond candidly as Stan (jacket off). The form of questioning was that the jacket wearing Dr Robinson would ask “Stan, could you tell us…”, he would shed his jacket, and t-shirt wearing Stan would respond “No, I can’t” and talk about something else for a while, before the jacket would go back on for the next question.
Stan talked about 1960s Orange County during his childhood as suburbia on a beach, comparing it to fellow Guest of Honour Shaun Tan’s childhood in 1980s Perth. “I thought I was Huckleberry Finn,” he said, thinking as a child that it was more like 1835 Hannibal Missouri. Later in the speech, he described one of his novels, The Wild Shore, as a retelling of Huckleberry Finn. In hindsight, by the time he set off for college 1970 Orange County seemed like 1955 to him and he said driving down the highway to college was like being transported from 1955 to 1970 in an hour. He described his experience driving to college as a very visceral future shock.
“Writing is a desk job,” he said. “It’s not really a sane way to live.” So he engages in sports for relief. He explained that although he has been described as a mountain climber, he is more of a backpacker; a recreational mountain walker. He said it’s not about danger, adrenaline, bragging rights, or any of that; he’s ‘just a primate playing in the natural world’. He said his original notion for the Mars trilogy was thinking “that would be a good place to backpack”.
He suggested “spend as much time as you can with infants and toddlers” and this may seem to some like strange advice. However, since infants and toddlers don’t have a lifetime of learned habits to put self-imposed rules and limits on their behavior spending time with infants and toddlers can provide regular hints and reminders about what is innate and what is learned.
He discussed that he was taught by Ursula Le Guin at University, also mentioning that Le Guin was in the seat next to him when he first saw Star Wars.
Stan is well known for his support for some form of utopian future for humanity. He said he believes humans are heading toward a utopian future. However, he also said that ‘the blueprint is boring, while the falling apart of the implementation is exciting’. For this reason, dystopian stories are more prominent than utopian ones as they provide a lot of conflict; whereas if everyone gets along and everything works smoothly then there is no story conflict. However, even in a fictional utopian society there can be ways to build in story conflict and excitement (for example, stories of friendly rivalry, solving a mystery, road trip stories, adventure stories where the conflict is with the the characters’ situation in the natural world, stories of desire for discovery where the conflict is about whether the character will succeed in learning what they want to know, and so on).
When asked by someone in the audience which of his novels he was most proud of he named The Years of Rice and Salt, adding “that book blew my brain. Fuses went out that will never come back.” For those not familiar with The Years of Rice and Salt, it is an alternative history novel based on the premise that the Black Death killed around 99% of Europe’s population in the 12th century rather than around 30-40% of the population. More recently, Australian novelist John Birmingham used a similar alternative history premise in a contemporary setting in Without Warning.
Stan discussed that his utopian interests are not for goals like immortality or other high ideals but the basics such as food, water, clothing, education and welfare can be achieved for all people. He suggested that all 400 or so generations of humans since the ice age, all have been working toward a better future for their children. His idea of utopia seems to be a situation in which every person has a satisfactory life and that this can be maintained permanently. With this achieved, human effort would be freed up for discovery and enjoyment of life.
“I could easily imagine a terraformed Mars,” he said, describing the terraforming of Mars as something he personally thinks is a matter of when rather than if it will be done (ie. made suitable to support human life).
He also mentioned that his ideas on economics were along the lines of Schumpeter’s concept of nested co-operative groups, adding that “economics is a pseudoscience; the astrology of our time”.
Stan came across in his speech, and throughout the conference, as a guy who is of good humour, has a range of interests across arts and science, seems realistic and honest in his judgments and passionate about people enjoying life but not judgmental towards those who have different ideas on the best ways to facilitate people’s enjoyment of life.
If you haven’t read his Mars trilogy, it’s worth a read. Here, I’ll get you started:
“Mars was empty before we came. That’s not to say that nothing had ever happened. The planet had accreted, melted, roiled and cooled, leaving a surface scarred by enormous geological features: craters, canyons, volcanoes. But all of that happened in mineral unconsciousness, and unobserved. There were no witnesses – except for us, looking from the planet next door, and what only in the last moment of its long history. We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had.
Now everybody knows the history of Mars in the human mind: how for all the generations of prehistory it was one of the chief lights in the sky, because of its redness and fluctuating intensity, and the way it stalled in its wandering course through the stars, and sometimes even reversed direction. It seemed to be saying something with all that. So perhaps it is not surprising that all the oldest names for Mars have a peculiar weight on the tongue – Nirgal, Mangala, Auqakuh, Harmakhis – they sound as if they were even older than the ancient languages we find them in, as if they were fossil words from the Ice Age or before. Yes, for thousands of years Mars was a sacred power in human affairs; and its color mase it a dangerous power, representing blood, anger, war and the heart.
Then the first telescopes gave us a closer look, and we saw the little orange disk, with its white poles and dark patches spreading and shrinking as the long seasons passed.”
NEXT: Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey
The Australian Literature Review