What was your highlight from AussieCon 4 and why?
In program terms, the highlight for me was my on-stage conversation with Robert Silverberg. Silverberg and I are old friends, but we had never tried anything like this before. Our private conversations are always a pleasure for me, but whether they could be turned into a public performance was an open question. In the event, I think we did a very good job. I wish the hour was recorded and online, but in the usual way of these things, one’s favorite is always the one that got away.
In your AussieCon 4 Guest of Honour Speech you characterised your childhood in as ‘thinking you were Huckleberry Finn’ then one day driving down the highway and going “from 1955-1970 in an hour”. How much of ‘your inner Huck Finn’ remains and what have been the most significant changes your thinking has undergone since driving down that highway?
There’s a huge “inner Huck Finn” in me and indeed I think it has almost all migrated to the outside as the years have passed, in that I have more and more openly lived a “Hannibal, Missouri” life at home in Village Homes, Davis, California; and I am often “lighting out for the territory,” the territory in my case being the high Sierra of California. If I can hold on to Huck’s sharp and clear-eyed view of his fellow citizens, then it even is of use value in my work as a novelist; not to mention Huck’s versatile and evocative use of language!
As for changes in my thinking since driving to college in 1970, well, that would be a big list. In short, my whole adult life. My own record of those changes runs to about twenty fat volumes now, so itemizing them would not be a good idea. Mostly significant among the many changes, I guess, would be my commitment to some kind of utopian course of history, whatever that might mean.
What is one of your favourite novels released in the past year and what makes it stand out for you?
I often am behind in my reading, so talking about novels released in the last year is a little difficult for me. For instance, I just finished Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, from 1683, a great novel. But in my reading of recent stuff I have enjoyed The First Rule, by Robert Crais, and Kings of the North, by Cecelia Holland.
You have talked about the idea of permaculture (a way of living which can go on perpetually) but also without an “artificial hatred of left for right” as differences of opinion typically boil down to each person wanting to achieve the most good for the most people; just by different methods. Could you give us an overview of the influence of this idea on one of your novels?
In my Mars books, I wanted to be careful to give the views of the Reds and the Greens faithfully, with full respect to both sides in the hope that the reader would come to understand the thinking of both sides. Red and Green were specifically Martian development issues, but the underlying philosophies are easily translated into current Terran terms, as we take on the unavoidable project of becoming global planetary managers. So, that was one example of a tendency in my work to try to find what’s good in various political positions and present them fairly as human choices that can be comprehended and defended. That said, I am an American leftist, and ultimately would like my political work also to include my novels. So it’s a matter of keeping a balance somehow.
Although your Mars trilogy is set on Mars in a hypothetical future scenario, and this may seem to some people to be a bit removed from reality and everyday human concerns, there is a lot in the there dealing with human behavior and emotions as well as how people share a planet together. What was the key for you in balancing human aspects and speculative aspects in the Mars trilogy?
The main thing is that novels are fundamentally concerned with characters, so the human element is always the point of view, even if interacting with a planet is a major subject of the characters’ interest. So, people will say that Mars is the main character in that novel, but really the eight or nine point of view characters are the main characters, but all of them are involved in a group effort to live on Mars, so Mars bulks large in the picture; in essence, the setting in that novel is “the novum” or new thing that science fiction brings into the picture, and so setting is more important there than is usual in novels.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes that character stand out for you?
Right now, I like Moll Flanders. This is typical for me; the fiction I have read most recently is the fiction that is most alive to me at that moment. As it happens, Moll Flanders is one of the great characters in English literature. Defoe’s working principle seems to have been, let’s take a very intelligent and feeling human and cast her into the position of a woman in 17th century England, and make everything bad that can happen to a woman of that period happen to her, sequentially, and see how she reacts to each situation, and what she thinks about it too. And so you have one of the first and greatest English novels. The first person point of view was crucial; the book really feels like a woman’s final testament after a long and active live. An outside view wouldn’t have had anything like the same impact. So this makes a case for first person point of view that is very powerful; in effect, every sentence is character study too.
Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design came out recently. Do you think Hawking’s popularisation of the quest for a Theory of Everything is likely offer much inspiration for interesting new sci fi stories in the coming year?
Well, no, that seems unlikely, because the quest for a Theory of Everything has been going on for a couple of generations now, and seems completely stalled by the problems posed by string theory; if these strings are truly 10 to the -34 meters long, they are smaller than we can study by some twenty magnitudes or so, and thus, experiments are forestalled, and we are left looking at secondary effects of the theory as revealed by astronomical observations. It all may make its way forward, but it may not; it may take centuries; and meanwhile, what are the human ramifications of gaining a Theory of Everything as opposed to just having the current Standard Model? None that leap to mind, at least not to me. [More on the Standard Model can be found in this video and here and here.] I have in fact tried to write a novel in which certain characters become convinced that the physics of their time imply a complete determinism, so that the universe is a clockwork inevitability, destroying the characters’ sense of free will; this was The Memory of Whiteness. It was a noble attempt (i.e., I was 21 when I began it) but I wouldn’t do it again. However, younger science fiction writers might get inspired by this stuff, I don’t know.
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new fiction writers?
That’s hard. Hmm. Well, I would advise that they figure out for sure whether they actually like the work of writing, the act of writing, or whether they are interested in writing because of some perceived secondary effect (fame, fortune, finished art works one could lay claim to, etc.) I say this because it is so work-intensive, and so you have to pay for the time somehow; often with another job; and it becomes something you pay for, not something that pays you. So it is very important you you actually like the act itself. None of the resulting side effects are as great as they might seem to be, so the act of writing is itself the key. If you like sitting and making sentences, get absorbed in it and enjoy it, then all of the other good things might follow (or might not). Ultimately, you have to like writing. I see quite a few beginning writers fooling themselves about that. But time will tell.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I am about a third of the way through a novel, and will be writing it through the fall and winter, with the plan of finishing it in the spring. It’s a science fiction novel set in our solar system, all over our solar system, in the year 2312. By then people will be terraforming many planetary bodies, including Earth itself; but I hope to keep a realistic feel to the whole thing, to describe what we really could do, rather than shoot off into any kind of fantasy scenario. I’ll be pushing the boundaries of science fiction realism.
More on Kim Stanley Robinson and his fiction can be found at www.kimstanleyrobinson.info.