19 Mar 2012

With Disney releasing the blockbuster film John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic pulp series Barsoom/John Carter of Mars, there are several articles on Mars in fiction popping up. You can say what you like about the fact that the vision of Burroughs' Mars is now extremely dated (and you can say even more things for today's film still choosing Mars as the setting!), but it left an undeniable mark in the history of science fiction.

Inevitably given the Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson offered some thoughts on Mars for some of those articles.

For SF Signal:

The appeal of Mars is that it’s real. We can see it in the night sky, and we know it’s the next planet out. And now we know a great deal more about it than that. Its surface looks like parts of Earth, and has huge features, much bigger than equivalent features on Earth (volcanoes, canyons). It’s possible it still harbors bacterial life underground. It’s also possible we could visit it, and set up stations to inhabit and study it.

So: it’s real but empty, beautiful and remote, but within our reach, just barely. It’s this combination of qualities that gives it its appeal. We want to fill that emptiness with stories.

For Space.com:

"because of the Percival Lowell hallucinations, educated people from all over the planet from about 1895 to about 1935 could in good conscience believe there might be life on the next planet out, and maybe even intelligent life," said science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who has won Hugo, Locus and Nebula awards for his Mars trilogy ("Red Mars" in 1992, "Green Mars" in 1993 and "Blue Mars" in 1996) and is author of the forthcoming novel "2312."

The first major works to deal with Mars were Kurd Lasswitz's "Two Planets," an 1897 German novel that imagined a technological utopia on the Red Planet, and H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" (1898), in which Martians invade Earth.

"'Two Planets' had this powerful influence on the German Rocket Society and rocket pioneers such as Wernher von Braun — we might not have been able to reach the moon if weren't for this science fiction about Mars," Robinson said.

For the Los Angeles Times:

“Mars has this secret, sneaky, almost mystical pull on people’s imagination,” says Kim Stanley Robinson, the Central California science-fiction writer who’s penned several important Mars novels.

[...] “It was a zeitgeist thing,” says Robinson. “The whole science-fiction community said, ‘We have to get beyond the Lowell-Burroughs vision.’” And though a number of writers — Frederik Pohl, Philip K. Dick — rendered distinctive visions of the Red Planet, the first and most enduring was Ray Bradbury’s.

The magazine stories that were collected in “The Martian Chronicles” in 1950 were poetic and mythical and showed a planet with a graceful, tragic race on the verge of fading out, just as mankind is showing up. “As a kid he must have loved Burroughs,” says Robinson. “In ‘The Martian Chronicles,’ he realized that Martians would be ghosts inside our minds. By the ’40s, we knew there was no oxygen, almost no water…. He was saying, ‘They may be hallucinations, but they will still haunt us.’”

And these Martians, as Newitz points out, were truly alien — not even humanoid. “The Martians are unknowable. To live on Mars you will have to become a Martian.” This, and the stories’ flashes of environmentalism, showed thinking about colonial conquest maturing past the Manifest Destiny model, she says.

A little later, the dream died unambiguously. The Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars in 1964 and sent back the first detailed photographs: No canals, no seas, no aliens. “This is actually a dead world,” says Newitz. “How do we cope with that? We thought these were people we could be friends with.”

It took until the ’90s for a fictional masterpiece to adjust to the idea. Robinson’s Mars trilogy — “Red Mars,” “Green Mars,” “Blue Mars” — looked at the slow process of terraforming a dry planet by an international team and kept a focus on what the planet did to the humans who transformed and settled it. The books, Newitz says, are about “the horror of meeting ourselves — all our bad qualities are transported there.”

But even after these visions of a civilization on a sister planet teeming with life died, the shimmer of Mars hasn’t entirely dimmed.

It may be hard to move forward: Robinson’s Mars trilogy will be a tough act to follow, and the writer himself has little interest in going back. “It’s a closing-down story space,” says Robinson, “compared to Earth and climate change, or Earth and overpopulation, and so on. Earth is gonna be intensely interesting. It’s also pretty clear with the space program’s budget that we’re going to be on this planet for a while.”


Following up on the film-and-Mars topic, Alyssa Rosenberg, who had moderated a Red Mars book club reading recently, wrote a piece on"Towards Smarter Politics In Art, As a Means to Better Art", which tackles the representation of politics in films through narrative, aesthetics and the power of images in such films as Avatar, Iron Man, The Triumph of the Will, The Ides of March, Primary Colors, and eventually tails into Robinson's Mars trilogy:

Like Avatar, Robinson’s Mars trilogy has its artistic flaws, particularly a tendency to lapse into overly technical prose that explains everything from the way time works on Mars to the composition of Martian soil. And like Avatar, the Mars trilogy’s novel and refreshing engagement with politics more than makes up for those lapses. Simply by asking us what we’d dare to make new if we freed ourselves from of our gravity and our political system, Robinson’s performing a valuable service, removing some of the heaviest constraints on our thinking about everything from corporate power to energy consumption to living in multi-faith communities. His characters experiment with a barter-based economy, integrate Islam and Buddhism, and learn what it means to live beyond the normal human life-span. We may never reorganize our society so dramatically, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering what we’d do with the knowledge and concepts that we have if we were given an opportunity to radically realign them. Fiction can suggest juxtapositions that may not occur to us. Scenarios that seem impossible now may suddenly become pressingly important. And as his characters experiment with everything from architecture to monogamy, Robinson manages to affirm that some essential principles of humanity will carry into the future with us, making the prospect of heading off towards it less frightening.


(Image: cover for the 1970 Doubleday edition of "A Princess of Mars" by Frank Frazetta)

1 Mar 2012

2312 in The Baffler 19

Submitted by Kimon

The upcoming issue of The Baffler will feature an excerpt from Kim Stanley Robinson's upcoming novel 2312! This is an exclusive look before the novel's publication in May!

The Baffler, a magazine of cultural, art, political and business criticism, has been published since 1988 and has featured articles from some prestigious contributors. Since 2010, The Baffler has been relaunched with new editor John Summers and new publisher MIT Press.

On the contents of Issue 19:

In March, after a two-year hiatus, The Baffler will return with a dazzling new issue. Behold its cover! Contained therein are thundering new salvos from Thomas Frank, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rick Perlstein, and David Graeber, fiction from Kim Stanley Robinson and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, plus a scintillating assortment of poetry, photography, and satirical art. Both print and digital subscriptions are now available.

The Baffler Issue 19 will be available in select bookstores but especially on subscription, on March 6.

23 Jan 2012

It seems that anything you do nowadays will end up online! Videos or texts around a number of older conferences where Kim Stanley Robinson participated found their way on the internets. A great thanks to frequent contributor Albinoflea for a great deal of the links!

First and foremost, Stan has reworked the talk he gave at the 2010 "Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe" conference in Melbourne. The resulting article, "Remarks on Utopia in the Age of Climate Change", was published in the Arena Journal and it is fully accessible online.

In 2010, Stan also participated in a workshop by the Space Studies Board, "Sharing the Adventure with the Public: The Value and Excitement of 'Grand Questions' of Space Science and Exploration". The full video of the panel "What Could the Future Hold for Humans in Space?" is online (or at least I only found it now). The participants were:

  • Elizabeth Cantwell, National Research Council Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, spoke of distinguishing when speaking about the human presence in space between a decade-view, a century-view, a millennium-view
  • Jeff Bingham, US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (Republican), gave a view of how space exploration programs are voted and funded
  • Marc Kaufman, Washington Post journalist
  • Linda Billings, George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs
  • Q&A

A text summary of this panel along with all the other panels of this workshop is also available online.

In 2011, Stan spoke at the Center for Values in Medicine, Science and Technology at the University of Texas Dallas. His talk, "Valuing the Earth and Future Generations: Imagining Post-Capitalism", is also online.

Speaking of post-capitalism, that was one the topics in the 2011 Rethinking Capitalism conference at UC Santa Cruz, and Stan wrote up a few thoughts following his participation in the conference for the Rethinking Capitalism newsletter.

An interview with Stan also appears in "The Gothic Imagination: Conversations on Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction in the Media", by John C. Tibbetts, professor of film at the University of Kansas, a hardcover book published in October 2011 (review). It looks like it includes a revised interview of a 1994 interview, "Footprints on the Sands of Mars: Science Fiction Writers Explore the Red Planet", which by the way is available on Tibbetts' site.

Stan, a Californian, also appeared in a recent documentary for KVIE, a public television channel, "California Heat", on issues of water and extreme heat, climate change and water over-exploitation in California. Stan's segment is available online (there's even a transcript of the whole documentary!).

And finally, the novella "A Short, Sharp Shock" has received the audio book treatment by Blackstone Audio.

That should keep you busy till 2312!

9 Jan 2012

2312 in 2012

Submitted by Kimon

To kick of 2012, an article on 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson's next novel that will be a kind of sort of sequel to the acclaimed Mars trilogy!

Last November, Kim Stanley Robinson did a reading for SF in SF, the first public reading for 2312. He read several extracts to give a taste of the patchwork style of the novel, and fellow writer Cecilia Holland joined him for a chapter, Stan and Cecilia reading for the main character and her sentient (?) computer discussing on revolution -- very entertaining and very topical for our times!

Agony Column, as always, provides a podcast for the event: full reading, and the Robinson/Holland Revolution part only.

2312 is also mentioned in a short and sharp interview for the radio station KPCC done on the occasion of the publication of the anthology I'm with the Bears (review), in which is featured "Sacred Space", an extract from Sixty Days And Counting.

Alistair Reynolds lists 2312 as one of his most-awaited SF novels for the year in the Guardian books podcast.

(Pictured: A Mayan calendar. Of course.)

5 Dec 2011

After Galileo's Dream in 2009, Kim Stanley Robinson's next novel is 2312, which will present the world three centuries from now. Robinson's writings have often been concerned with imagining a future that is not as pessimistic as most futures commonly depicted in the media or our collective (un)conscious: a future that can become all the more possible because representations of a better world would form part of our mental relationship with what could possibly come tomorrow.

2312 was originally planned to be published in the beginning of 2012 -- fittingly enough, February 3 (2.3.12) for the USA and March 2 (2/3/12) for the UK were aimed! But eventually, the publication date was pushed back to May 2012: May 3 for the UK, May 22 for the USA and basically the world. It is Robinson's first novel with Orbit Books, and is being published in hardcover.

The official description reads:

The year is 2312. Scientific and technological advances have opened gateways to an extraordinary future. Earth is no longer mankind's only home; new habitats have been created throughout the solar system, on moons, planets, and in between. Humanity itself, augmented and modified, has changed. But in this year, 2312, a sequence of events will force mankind to confront its past, its present, and its future.

The first event takes place on Mercury, on the city of Terminator, itself a miracle of engineering on an unprecedented scale. It is an unexpected death, but one that might have been foreseen. For Swan Er Hong, it is an event that will change her life. Swan was once a woman who designed worlds. Now she will be led into a plot to destroy them.

2312 is a bold and brilliant vision of mankind’s future and a compelling portrait of those individuals who will shape its events. It is a major new SF novel from one of the most important and gifted writers in the field.

'If I had to choose one writer whose work will set the standard for science fiction in the future, it would be Kim Stanley Robinson' New York Times

The NY Times quote is generic and is from Red Mars (I think).

The Fall 2011/Winter 2012 catalogue of Orbit Books included extensive coverage of that release:

With the front and back cover dedicated to 2312, it looks like it is considered a flagship item in their catalogue!

You can click for larger versions. I'm pretty sure the Borg are not featured in the novel.

Between 496 (amazon.co.uk), 592 (amazon.com) and 800 pages (Orbit catalogue), there is some confusion as to its final length.

Stan referred to 2312 in several recent interviews, most significantly in the Coode Street podcast which was released recently. After the down-to-earth Science in the Capital books, he seems to be eager to have some fun with science fiction concepts that he had not touched upon much previously. In Galileo's Dream, he touched upon extraterrestrial intelligence and time travel. In 2312, we can find some Robinson ideas explored in the latter parts of the Mars trilogy -- human expansion in the gas planets, terraforming of Venus, hollow asteroids, the Terminator city on Mercury -- but also some new territory: new technologies, groups of genetically modified humans, starships, artificial intelligence, the solar system as humanity's new playground... with the memory of a damaged ecosystem on Earth. 2312 sounds effervescent, all over the place, full of vitality!

Also, 2312 will be written with a similar structure to John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money, 1930-1936), which was adopted decades later by John Brunner in his landmark science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968): chapters focused on the 'main' characters alternating with newspaper clippings, radio show transcripts, fictional book excerpts, speeches, vignettes from other characters' lives... This 'collage technique' helps give a fuller view of the richness, complexity and contradictions of the world at hand. Robinson wrote an introduction to a recent edition of Stand on Zanzibar. In 2312, parts of these chapters will focus on narrating the history that has elapsed from our 2012 to 2312.

This is an exclusive excerpt of the book:

The sun is always just about to rise. Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do. Many have made this a way of life. They walk roughly westward, staying always ahead of the stupendous day. Some of them hurry from location to location, pausing to look in cracks they earlier inoculated with bioleaching metallophytes, quickly scraping free any accumulated residues of gold or tungsten or uranium. But most of them are out there to catch glimpses of the sun.

2312 is just five months away!


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