29 May 2014

Over May 16-18, the Smithsonian Magazine organizedThe Future Is Here: Science meets Science Fiction | Imagination, Inspiration and Invention” – an event with many panelists, from scientists and engineers and astronauts to inventors and actors and writers – and Kim Stanley Robinson was among them, for a panel on “Humanity in the Solar System”.

The event resulted in an article in the Smithsonian Magazine, on “How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future”, with interviews of SF authors Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, Ursula Le Guin, Ted Chiang or Neal Stephenson, on the relationship between science, technology and SF, the utopian and dystopian strands of SF and on how SF shapes our imagination on the future. As Delany says,

“The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes—sometimes catastrophic, often confusing—that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked.”

According to Robinson:

“Science fiction represents how people in the present feel about the future,” Robinson says. “That’s why ‘big ideas’ were prevalent in the 1930s, ’40s and partly in the ’50s. People felt the future would be better, one way or another. Now it doesn’t feel that way. Rich people take nine-tenths of everything and force the rest of us to fight over the remaining tenth, and if we object to that, we are told we are espousing class warfare and are crushed. They toy with us for their entertainment, and they live in ridiculous luxury while we starve and fight each other. This is what The Hunger Games embodies in a narrative, and so the response to it has been tremendous, as it should be.”

(Picture on top by Mehreen Murtaza)

Robinson along with Gerry Canavan (assistant professor of English at Marquette University) recently edited together a book of “essays exploring the relationship between environmental disaster and visions of apocalypse through the lens of science fiction”, Green Planets. Synopsis:

Contemporary visions of the future have been shaped by hopes and fears about the effects of human technology and global capitalism on the natural world. In an era of climate change, mass extinction, and oil shortage, such visions have become increasingly catastrophic, even apocalyptic. Exploring the close relationship between science fiction, ecology, and environmentalism, the essays in Green Planets consider how science fiction writers have been working through this crisis. Beginning with H. G. Wells and passing through major twentieth-century writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, and Thomas Disch to contemporary authors like Margaret Atwood, China Miéville, and Paolo Bacigalupi—as well as recent blockbuster films like Avatar and District 9—the essays in Green Planets consider the important place for science fiction in a culture that now seems to have a very uncertain future. The book includes an extended interview with Kim Stanley Robinson and an annotated list for further exploration of “ecological SF” and related works of fiction, nonfiction, films, television, comics, children’s cartoons, anime, video games, music, and more.
Contributors include Christina Alt, Brent Bellamy, Sabine Höhler, Adeline Johns-Putra, Melody Jue, Rob Latham, Andrew Milner, Timothy Morton, Eric C. Otto, Michael Page, Christopher Palmer, Gib Prettyman, Elzette Steenkamp, Imre Szeman.

Gerry Canavan describes the book thusly:

The essays in Green Planets are predicated on the proposition that two hundred years of SF can help us collectively “think” this leap into futurity in the context of the epochal mass-extinction event called the Anthropocene (which the literary theorists more simply call “modernity”). SF is our culture’s vast, shared, polyvocal archive of the possible; from techno-utopias to apocalypses to ecotopian fortunate falls, it is thetransmedia genre of SF that has first attempted to articulate the sorts of systemic global changes that are imminent, or already happening, and begins to imagine what our transformed planet might eventually be like for those who will come to live on it. Especially taken in the context of escalating ecological catastrophe, in which each new season seems to bring with it some new and heretofore-unseen spectacular disaster, my coeditor’s well-known declaration that in the contemporary moment “the world has become a science fiction novel” has never seemed more true or more frightening. Indeed, such a notion suggests both politics and “realism” are now always “inside” science fiction, insofar as the world, as we experience its vertiginous technological and ecological flux, now more closely resembles SF than it does any historical realism…

A kind-of-excerpt of the book by Canavan, an essay on “Dystopia, Anti-Utopia, and the End of the World”, is up at SF Signal!

Staying on the topic of sci-fi, “cli-fi” and scientific news, writer Tony White links all these on the occasion of the publication of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report – a big event that happens about every seven years, and with each report raising the level of certainty that climate change is happening, that it is man-made, and that the situation is more and more urgent for us to move towards adapting our energy system, infrastructures, ways of life, to emit less. In discussing the publication, White discusses the Climate Outreach Information Network and references Robinson's talks and their role in informing and inspiring change (specifically, Stan's talk at MOMA/PS1 in New York last year).

The Long View of climate change is also the focus of this New York Times article, where Andrew C. Revkin interviews to paleoclimatologist Curt Stager, Robinson, and astrobiologist David Grinspoon on how humans will deal with climate change impacts – our paleolithic roots (Shaman) and the Venice-like New York (2312) are of course referenced!

Coming soon: Some more panels with Stan. There will be videos!

23 Feb 2014

Stan the Californian

Submitted by Kimon

Boom - A Journal of California met Kim Stanley Robinson at his home and writing spot in Davis, California, for an extensive interview. His childhood, writing, science fiction, science, capitalism, utopia, his Three Californias trilogy, John Muir, and the history and landscape of California were addressed. Some excerpts:

Boom: Is there a special brand of California science fiction?

Robinson: I think so. It began with people like Jack London and Upton Sinclair, and then the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society in the 1940s. This included Ray Bradbury, who moved with his parents to Los Angeles when he was young, like I did, both of us from Waukegan, Illinois, but him maybe twenty years earlier. Bradbury was always focused on what modernization was doing to human beings, to the nontechnological aspects of humanity. There was also Robert Heinlein, who was living in Los Angeles in the forties. Crazy Bob they called him when he was young. He was always a strange amalgam. And then there was Philip K. Dick in northern California, also Poul Anderson and Jack Vance, Frank Herbert, and in her childhood, Ursula Le Guin. It turns out that many of the most interesting science fiction writers were in California. There’s something strange and powerful about California, as a landscape and an idea, so the place may have inspired the literature.

Boom: Your Three Californias trilogy lays out very different visions for California’s future. Which of the three Californias would you want to live in?

Robinson: Pacific Edge without a doubt. Pacific Edge was my first attempt to think about what would it be like if we reconfigured the landscape, the infrastructure, the social systems of California. I think eventually that’s where we’ll end up. It may be a five hundred year project. I thought of it as my utopian novel. But the famous problem of utopian novels as a genre is that they are cut off from history. They always somehow get a fresh start. I thought the interesting game to play would be to try to graft my utopia onto history and presume that we could trace the line from our current moment to the moment in the book. I don’t think I succeeded. I wish I had had the forethought to add about twenty pages of expository material on how they got to that society. Later I had a lot of dissatisfactions with Pacific Edge. You can’t have this gap in the history where the old man says, well, we did it, but never explains how. But every time I tried to think of the details it was like—well, Ernest Callenbach wrote Ecotopia, and then explained how they got to it in Ecotopia Emerging. And there’s not a single sentence in that prequel that you can believe. So, Pacific Edge was my attempt, a first attempt, and I think it’s still a nice vision of what Southern California could be. That coastal plain is so nice. From Santa Barbara to San Diego is the most gorgeous Mediterranean environment. And we’ve completely screwed it. To me now, it’s kind of a nightmare. When I go down there it creeps me out. I hope to spend more of my life in San Diego, which is one of my favorite places. But I’ll probably stick to west of the coast highway and stay on the beach as much as I can. I’ll deal, but we can do so much better.

Boom: In The Gold Coast, your dystopian novel in the California trilogy, and in your other dystopian novels, are you issuing a warning about where we’re headed?

Robinson: I am issuing a warning, yes. That’s one thing science fiction does. There are two sides of that coin, utopian and dystopian. The dystopian side is, if we continue, we will end up at this bad destination and we won’t like it. That’s worth doing sometimes. But I won’t do the apocalypse. That is not realist. It is more of a religious statement. I like disaster without apocalypse. Gold Coast is dystopian. And a lot of it has come true since it came out in 1988.

Boom: Do you think there is something special California can contribute to this utopian project?

Robinson: I do. I think we’re a working utopian project in progress, between the landscape and the fact that California has an international culture, with all our many languages. It’s got the UC system and the Cal State system, the whole master plan, all the colleges together, and Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. It’s some kind of miraculous conjunction. But conjunctions don’t last for long. And history may pass us by eventually, but for now it’s a miraculous conjunction of all of these forces. So I love California. Often when I go abroad and I’m asked where I’m from, I say California rather than America. California is an integral space that I admire. And we’re doing amazing things politically. I like the way the state is trending more left than the rest of America. And San Francisco is the great city of the world. I love San Francisco. I think of myself as living in its provinces—and provincials, of course, are often the ones who are proudest of the capital. And many of my San Francisco friends exhibit a civic pride that is intense, and I think justified. So there’s something going on here in California. I do think it’s somewhat accidental; so to an extent, it’s pride in an accident, or maybe you could say in a collective, in our particular history. So there’s no one thing or one person or group that can say, ah, we did it! It just kind of happened to us, in that several generations kept bashing away, and here we are. But when you have that feeling and it goes on, and continues to win elections and create environmental regulations, the clean air, the clean water, saving the Sierra, saving the coast: it’s all kind of beautiful. Maybe the state itself is doing it. Maybe this landscape itself is doing it.

Another utopia and climate change-focused article by Stan is up at IAI TV (a reprint from Australian magazine Arena).

The Australian Yahoo interviewed Stan on his most recent novel, Shaman, and the way he goes about writing. Some excerpts:

The final piece of Shaman fell into place when Robinson saw photos of 32,000-year-old cave paintings from France's Chauvet cave (discovered in 1995). "I was so struck by their beauty and age I felt I had my story, " he says. "I'd tell the story of the people who painted that cave." [...]

"I definitely enjoy my research, " he says. "It's reading with a purpose. I feel like I'm on the hunt, looking for good stories to tell, because I collect good stories from the research and retell them."

The process often begins years in advance as Robinson collects books and web links that seem relevant to an idea he's been "brooding on". When starting a book, he then looks for whatever he has on hand that's useful, but when he starts writing, the process changes to what he calls "iterative". "Once I've written a draft of a scene I know much better what I need to know to make it better, and that directs subsequent research."

Stan also wrote in NPR for three recommendations of New Wave SF: Thomas M. Disch's Camp Concentration; Joanna Russ's The Female Man; and Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren.

And finally, you have one week left to submit a story to Stan! To The Best Of Our Knowledge, and partners University of Wisconsin’s Center for the Humanities and the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, are running a competition for a 500-600 hard-SF story that would be turned into a radio play, the deadline is March 1!

We’re looking for great sci-fi stories, based on real science and set in the near future. Sci-fi master Kim Stanley Robinson, best known for The Mars Trilogy, will choose the winner.

The winning stories will be turned into radio plays, produced by To the Best of Our Knowledge and LA’s Ensemble Studio Theatre, directed by Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation).

To your keyboards!

31 Dec 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel SHAMAN, out since September 2013, is coming out in paperback on June 10 2014. Meanwhile, it has entered the Locus Bestseller list for December for hardcovers (at #7) -- while 2312 has been released in paperback and has made it to #1 and is continuing its run! (September, October, November, December)

Despite Shaman's setting in the long past, or rather quite the contrary, enriched by that fact, the New Yorker's Tim Krieder published an article on Stan: "Our Greatest Political Novelist?", which draws from both his Mars trilogy and Shaman to make a major point:

Depending on your own politics, this [the Martian Constitution] may sound like millennia-overdue common sense or a bong-fuelled 3 A.M. wish list, but there’s no arguing that to implement it in the real world circa 2013 would be, literally, revolutionary. My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all. [...] I don’t just admire Robinson’s ambitions or agree with his agenda; I’m not recommending his books because they’re good for you. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite novelists, period. [...] The strength of his characterizations is inextricable from his power as a political visionary; Robinson is realistic about human beings but nonetheless optimistic about our capacity for change.

[...] Loon’s tribe in “Shaman” isn’t exactly a preagricultural utopia—they’re starving by the end of each winter—but it’s still a pretty benign view of man in his primeval state, closer to Rousseau than Hobbes. [...] Wouldn’t it ultimately be more optimistic to create a sort of past-dystopia, showing us how far we’ve come? There’s evidence to suggest that prehistoric cultures would’ve seemed far more savage and alien to us than Robinson imagines here. I suspect this is less a failure of imagination on his part than a triumph of his convictions over the evidence, a projection of his resolute optimism backwards through time to show us that folks are basically the same all over. [...] What he’s telling us over and over, like the voice of the Third Wind whispering when all seems lost, is that it’s not too late, don’t get scared, don’t give up, we’re almost there, we can do this, we just have to keep going.

Let the debate begin!

Some more reviews for Shaman: Songs in Squee Minor ; The Sydney Morning Herald
and for 2312: Population GO

Stan participated again to Authors@Google last September, and read from Shaman and talked about creating the world of 30,000 years ago -- one of the great Shaman talks!


He also participated to a debate for iai tv on "Paradise...Lost?" with Marina Benjamin and Alex Callinicos:

Once a driving force of political change, utopian visions are now out of fashion. But is this a lost opportunity or a new realism?  Should we create new utopias and thereby impel social advance, or will we learn the lessons of history and remain sceptical of grand visions?


And so... happy new year 2014 AD!

10 Nov 2013

SHAMAN has been out for a few months now, in hardcover. Shaman is also out as an audiobook: Hachette, Ambling Books, ... It is read by Graeme Malcolm.

Stan was interviewed for Focus, an Illinois radio. Listen to him talk about his Mars trilogy and Shaman, and reminisce extensively about authors that inspire him, Ursula Le Guin and Gene Wolfe.

Stan participated in an online Q&A chat at Firedoglake Book Salon -- a nice way to interact with the author directly. The questions and answers are many and the whole chat long to go through, but extremely informative; Stan's answers only can be read here. Some interesting bits below:

On science fiction writing and worldbuilding:

They are similar processes, in that they are both settings and societies that don’t exist now, and so there has to be enough information in the text for the reader to be able to envision them. So this is a particular method of novel writing that includes description as well as dramatized action, and it has to be fitted into the story gracefully, if possible.

The paleolithic culture is one that really existed but which we have to infer from very few remnants. A future society has not yet existed, but presumably will still have elements of now that we know well. So the absences that have to be filled in are different in nature, but both require an effort of imagination on the part of both writer and reader.

I’ve been interested in the paleolithic humans for a long time. It’s part of my science fiction project; if you try to imagine what humanity could become, you have to think about what we are now, and how we became what we are–and that gets you back to the paleolithic, where we evolved to what we are.

So I’m interested in sociobiology as a kind of sf science, speculative about our deep primate nature and its effects on us now.

The fact that these people had the same genome we do is so very suggestive; it means culture is very important, and also that we might choose deliberately to live in ways that give us the best of the paleolithic experience.

I think the last line of Loon’s wander is one of the great last lines I have come up with, because we suddenly have to recalibrate Loon’s age, and it should be a big surprise. But they had to grow up fast.

On the setting of Shaman:

This all takes place near what is now Vallons Pont d’Arc in the Ardeche region of France, near the Chauvet cave and the stone arch over the river nearby.

Then also my characters trek up to the caribou steppes of northern France, and also eventually get to the dry land of the English strait, and the ice cap of the Ice Age itself, sitting on southern England.

One way I think it’s more like 300 miles, but that trip is unusual. I do posit a traveling and nomadic culture, but their usual annual trek is more like 200 miles round trip; then there is an emergency.

On research for Shaman:

I mostly read about these people but I did try knapping stone and starting fires, and I spend a lot of time backpacking where the activities are often similar. Snow camping is also a technique. What I found interesting about the ice man was that the design of his gear kit was so similar to mine in the mountains. Different materials but same designs for same functions.

A lot of this story came to me as I wrote the book; more so than usual with me. I knew the situation I wanted, and the relationships at the beginning, the apprentice shaman and the old shaman and the herb woman. I was thinking “first scientist” and “first artist” and how culture was passed along so stably for thousands of years. First is not the right word here, as by the time my people were around the culture had been going for thousands of years. But you see how I began. Then the story grew from there.

I wish the First Peoples in North America had a bigger presence in the national consciousness. They have a particular wisdom to bring, a long view, a relationship to the land, and to other people. I think it’s real, although when you’re young it’s hard to sort out feelings of this sort. It’s a bit overwhelming.

On Shaman and oral cultures:

When I fully grasped how huge a consciousness changer literacy is, and how well their oral transmission had to be; and also what oral transmission entails (which is not exactly word-by-word memorization, but more patterns and stories and habits of mind, and proverbs) the book completely changed, and the narrator, the third wind, began to speak the book rather than write it. So I got a different narrator with a different style, but also, the book had to be about that process.

Even after all the work and thinking, I still think it is deeply mysterious how people managed to do it–to keep a culture going for hundreds of generations. It’s occurred to me that the lack of literacy actually helped enable that, somehow. That writing would have destabilized, as it still does. But it’s still mysterious.

As to the terms for sexual parts and acts, I had to think about that for a long time and finally give up on English, because all the words were too weighted with baggage of one kind or another. They all sounded wrong, modern. All the language of the book had to be examined, but there the modern weights and prejudices were so extreme that I reverted to Basque, proto-IndoEuropean, and metaphors from nature.

I tried to use only the words they would have, but thinking also they had full language, with abstracts, but all coming from their own situation.

So I didn’t use the word “fact” for instance, which I find my narrators often used (“In fact,”….) Many like that. But these people didn’t have facts as we understand that term.

It was a big exercise in linguistics and word definitions, also cultures and philosophies and what they knew in their lives back then.

Mama mia! I was so happy when a recent article stated that historical linguists have determined that mama is one of the oldest words in any language, a kind of sound happy babies make; and I/my was really ancient too. I was just trying to suggest they would have phrases from older languages around, other languages, and that it was a Mother Earth religion where you would want an equivalent to OMG!! but in the context of a Mother Earth religion. So it was a joke but I meant it to work too. Actually it has thrown quite a few readers out of the text, so maybe too much of a joke. But many of our old commonplaces phrases are probably thousands of years old.

I think there may have been remnant tales that lasted for thousand of years.

The swan wife story that Loon tells the shamans at the corroboree is one of the oldest stories on Earth, found everywhere. I adapted Loon’s from a Tlingit version and Gary Snyder’s version in his Reed dissertation.

Also the story of the ten years without a summer that Thorn tells early on, is my attempt to suggest that they were remembering the disaster of 70,000 years ago, cause unknown, that reduced the human population on Earth to perhaps 2,000 people, a thing we see by way of the DNA bottleneck in the historical record of looking into our DNA history! A new form of archeology, in effect.

And I was thinking, that Plato’s story of Atlantis and its destruction was the story of Santorini blowing up in 1643 BC, about a thousand years before Plato wrote it down, and perhaps an oral tale all the time.

So I think some of these old stories (like the minotaur which I also postulate in the book as ancient) are really old.

On writing and his ow novelistic style:

I’ve thought for some time now that we love novels for different reasons, and one is to learn about how it felt to live in different times and places; what people’s habits were, what they did in daily life, and then what they thought and how their feelings felt, but just in ordinary life.

Then we also want something more, which is when ordinary life breaks down somehow and things go wrong or get strange or exciting; and that’s plot. And we all love plot, and the hunger to turn pages to know what comes next.

So, I think both are important. And in a prehistoric novel, I thought it was important that daily life be fully established, because for one thing, they didn’t have many of the plots we have in modern life; the story was often the same, which was getting enough food for winter, and doing all the basic paleolithc activities of sustaining life and having families and so on. So, these are events, but not plots. Then when plot comes, it could often be catastrophic. Many plots are dealing with catastrophes to daily life of one sort or another.

So, I have always done both, and have always disliked those novels that are only plot. Thrillers, for instance; I don’t think they’re that interesting.

So I am always testing the limits of readers’ patience here, I guess, and many readers these days have almost no patience for that kind of thing I do, especially in my own genre, science fiction.

So it’s a tension I deal with, and I can see that I have especially fervent fans, and especially dismissive people who are not fans.

I keep reminding myself that Proust’s novel is one of the greatest of all, to encourage myself. And keep on trying to keep a balance.

On what's next:

My next novel is going to be about a multi-generational starship, actually.

But I don’t think they are going to work. I’m still working on that idea.

It’s part of the thinking going on in 2312 and Shaman, and so I think the three books will make a kind of argument for what we are and what we can or should try to become in the future.

This is something my editor, Tim Holman, has been pointing out to me; that these three books will make a kind of extended argument or case.

He’s a great editor, I am so lucky to have him!

And he got me to say something I hadn’t realized, which is in the little video clip of me on the internet, talking about Shaman; that we now are living in a combination of the two books, that in a sense we are already living 2312, whereas we are always living in Shaman’s world too; that’s why now feels so weird and disorienting. A nice thought!

Of course, reviews abound.

"Some" reviews below (beware of heavy spoilers in several!):

And of course the pages for Shaman with user reviews in GoodReads, LibraryThing, Amazon.

6 Nov 2013

Kim Stanley Robinsons' SHAMAN has now been out for a bit over two months. As the winter approaches, you might consider taking a step outside of your current life as an urban-dweller, with food available any time of the day any day, with buildings heated or cooled at will, and delve into our ancestor's minds -- a world challenging and stimulating, in an environment that actually still exists "out there" if you bother to seek it out. If you're not convinced yet, here are some recent interviews with the writer and some reviews on his work and most recent novel.

Above: Drawing of the Chauvet cave paintings by Eric Le Brun.

In an interview for the Library Journal, Stan explained many details in the thinking that went in writing Shaman.

More important for this book were certain other adventures in the Sierra, especially winter trips on snowshoes, in steep terrain, sometimes in storms, once or twice injured. These were crucial experiences for when I wrote about my characters’ escape from the northers.

In this novel, I looked to Anglo-Saxon for the feel of old words; to proto-Indo-European, a lost language recovered by historical linguistics; and to Basque, a very ancient language. Sometimes I used these older words to replace sexual terms in our language that have too much modern baggage.

And for those who were bothered by the fact that no map accompanied the book (but keep in mind that Loon's pack had no print maps or writing to begin with!), here is some context:

Yes, the story takes place mostly in the area around the Chauvet Cave, near Vallon Pont d’Arc. The stone bridge that crosses the Ardèche River there overlooks the home camp of my characters. During their seasonal trek to the caribou steppes, they walk to north of the Massif Centrale, and then some of them continue as far north as the southern edge of the Ice Age’s great ice cap, in Cornwall. They can walk there because there was no English Channel at that time, sea level being so much lower.

In this interview for Amazing Stories, Stan goes through his entire career, from his early Three Californias to Shaman:


I think of my novel Shaman as a particular kind of science fiction, which examines what we are as human beings by looking at how we became what we are now.  Also, it took the sciences of archeology and anthropology to provide the information necessary to write the book, because prehistory is literally prehistorical, in that we have no texts from the time, and have to infer what life was like by what was left behind, and by analogy to first peoples still around when industrial society colonized the planet.  So, this is partly a scientific process, and I have made use of all those findings, some of them very new, to write my book.

In particular, the 1991 finding of the ice man on the glacier between Italy and Austria, with all his gear frozen and intact, was a big inspiration to me; his gear kit was very sophisticated and resembled my backpacking gear in design, and I wanted to write about that.   Then the discovery of the Chauvet cave in 1994 gave me my particular story; it was painted 32,000 years ago, the paintings are beautiful, and they suggest an animal-focused culture with mysterious beliefs.  So I tried to tell the story of the people who painted the cave.

[...] Dystopias are all basically the same, and easy:  oppression, resistance, conflict, blah blah.  Like car crashes in thriller movies.  But utopian novels are interesting (I know this is backwards to the common wisdom) because they force us to think about what we are, what we could become, and if we were to make a decent civilization, what would endanger it, or keep it from spreading, etc.  One point I’ve been making all along is that even in a utopian situation, there will still be death and lost love, so there will be no shortage of tragedy in utopia.  It will just be the necessary or unavoidable tragedies; which perhaps makes them even worse, or more tragic.  They won’t be just brutal stupidities, in other words, but reality itself.  This is what literature should explore.

Also, thinking of utopia, I’ve always felt this:  since we could do it, we should.  And that will take some planning, some vision.

[...] sf looks at the present and imagines the various futures that could come to pass, given where we are now.  It’s not prediction of one future, but consideration of a multitude of possible futures, and that gives sf readers their particular flexibility of mind, their ability to react to history without huge surprise and disorientation.  In effect, they saw it coming.  So sf reading is a kind of cognitive mapping that orients people in time.  It’s not just great fun, but useful too.

Please give us a glimpse of your writing process from conception to award-winning novel.

It usually starts with an idea, fairly simple and basic.  Inhabit Mars and terraform it.  What would the world be like if all the Europeans had died in the Black Death?  What if Galileo were taken by time travelers to the moons of Jupiter?   What if a mercurial personality and a saturnine personality fell in love?

Then I build from there.  Often it takes many years, and eventually I have a sense of the story’s basic outline, with some events, and the climax or ending, but a lot of vagueness.  Eventually I need to figure out a form, and then a narrator.  The story tends to create the characters necessary to live the story.  And so on it goes.  Much is never decided until I am faced with writing particular scenes.  That’s when it gets really hard.

Talking to the North Adams Transcript before appearing at the David G. Hartwell ‘63 Science Fiction Symposium at Williams College as part of a panel on climate change, Robinson commented on science fiction, climate change and our attitude towards it, as well as the relationship between being human and our technology. Some food for thought:

"I often talk about what young people can do in terms of their careers and in terms of how they're going to live, what it means for them," said Robinson. "What I try to do is counter the idea that it means renunciation and suffering and that they're going to have to live like saints. This is a false image of how they have to live in the future. The future becomes a project for them, in the existential sense. They've built their lives around something that has an actual meaning. Life has meaning again and climate change, rather than just being disastrous, is actually being given a meaning to our civilization's existence."

[...] The reaction to climate change is just part of Robinson's wider concerns -- the human relationship with science and technology and how we negotiate a balance so that it does less harm than good. It's something that Robinson thinks is one of the most ingrained issues of our existence on this planet.

"My most recent novel, which was set in the Ice Age with Paleolithic people, makes the point in a different way that we are a high tech species," he said. "Technology is actually one of the first things we did as homo sapiens that really made homo sapiens. In other words, we really started using tools and that's what co-evolved us into being who we are, so we have to admit that. It does become an ecological matter of can you use your technology to stay in a healthy balance with the biosphere at large now that we're a global civilization and have immense powers compared to any times in the past."


[...] "I often think that bad category errors are being made," Robinson said. "By that I mean that often -- and GMOs are a great example -- people are scared and angry at the idea, but it turns out that the operation itself is very little different between that and hybridization and the stuff that we've been doing to plants our entire lifetime as a species, so that the anger has been misplaced. It's not genetic engineering, it's capitalism. Ownership of the natural world, people are very angry at that, and then they get angry at science instead of the business system, the economic system, that we live in. This slippage, this is where the left is so messed up, liberal sentiment in the United States -- and I'm totally onboard with that, that's what I am myself -- but when they get angry at science when it's actually capitalism that they're angry at, they're making a terrible error."


[...] "You've got to properly assess the risks, then you've got to do a true cost/benefit analysis of how much we're willing to pay socially and economically to manage the risks that we're creating. These are complicated things that aren't fully understood. And we have to start make distinctions between science and capitalism, and supporting the one and attacking the other, because I think of science as a public project for the public good and I think of capitalism as just privatization and an oligarchy and injustice. This is my own political ax to grind. It's something that drives a lot of my stories."

In an interview for LiveScience, Robinson talked about science fiction and went through the different kinds of SF: near-future, future history, space opera, utopia, political/economic:

"All sci-fi put together gives you a feel for the future that is fuzzy" [...] The futures are not always compatible, but "taken together, they give you a kind of weather forecast," Robinson said.

Of course, reviews for Shaman abound!

Alan Cheuse's review for NPR also aired on the radio.

Fellow writer Cecilia Holland reviewed Shaman for Locus:

Writing historical fiction is a rite of memory, of recovery – to imagine what the few surviving data can no longer tell us: how it was to live in another time. Stan Robinson has always been a writer of huge ambition – he owns Mars, after all – and in taking on this theme, he has another huge purpose: not to tell us what this most ancient of human worlds was, but somehow, through the act of fiction, to make us remember. This is what we were once. This is our true nature, indivisible from all nature; what it means to be human, then, and now.

Tor.com. Niall Alexander:

On the whole, I suppose the story’s on the slight side, but what narrative drive Shaman perhaps lacks, the author more than makes up for with his masterful handling of its central character, whose coming of age from boy to man and from man to shaman the novel cumulatively chronicles. This is in addition to Robinson’s carefully layered characterisation of the others Loon looks to, like Heather and Elga and Click, whom I loved. To a one, they are wonderfully done.

But if Shaman is about any single thing, it’s about legacies lost and left. Of particular significance, then, is Thorn, the long-suffering so-and-so in charge of painting the caves and preserving the memories of the tribe he tends. [...] we arrive, at the last, at the heart of the matter, for it is he who asks the question Shaman answers: what do we leave behind, and why?

Adam Roberts, massively readable, for Arcfinity:

The overwhelming sense of paleolithic life one gets from reading this novel is what it is like subsisting on little or no food for long stretches. What it feels like when your belly button is a fingers-width away from your spine. How Elga’s substantial breasts simply melt away from the withering lack of calories. One thing the novel does rather brilliantly is have you empathising with an aesthetic of female beauty that inspired the maker of the celebrated Venus of Willendorf figurine.

(Also, this had to happen.)

Val's Random Comments (a frequent Robinson reviewer):

While many of Robinson's characters can opt for a (temporarily) more primitive lifestyle, Loon doesn't have a choice. He simply know any better. What keeps him busy are the most primal concerns of all: food, shelter and sex. What struck me about this novel was the sharp contrast with what is probably the most famous series of novels set in prehistory; Jean Auel's Earth Children series. Where she presents life during the ice age as utopian, where a human being can make a decent living with a bit of planning and a good set of survival skills, and where paradise is lost after the discovery of the link between sex and procreation, Robinson's reality is much harsher and probably closer to the truth. Loon suffers periods of starvation followed by a summer of plenty. His weight fluctuates considerably over the course of the seasons and he is always aware of the upcoming lean season. All things considered it is a miracle he still has time for his more spiritual pursuits.

Forbidden Planet, Malachy Coney:

The learned experiences of the tribe ,the hard won history of survival , is passed on through the wisdom and songs of the shaman. More spoken word than musical theatre. Mostly stories about staying alive, the acquisition and quest for food. The pursuit of the next meal is all. The tribe, the clans, pursue the next meal with the greatest of intents and respect. They revere everything they kill to eat, before and after death. [...] Thorn the shaman is a grumpy cantankerous and unpleasant old sod who seems to take delight in tormenting his only pupil, Loon. [...] Thorn knows that even if he manages to pass on his accumulated knowledge there is the certainty that so much will still be lost. Without a written record even the spoken and learned wisdom will acquire cadences of its own, changing in turn the full message passed, little by little over generations. The Druidic past when guessed at became invested with romantic ideals it most likely never possessed. Wisely Robinson puts at the heart of the shaman’s lore a savage logic that could in actuality serve the needs of the clan. He creates very complex and personal conflicts within the clan.

Irish Examiner, Val Nolan:

Though the plot is straightforward bildungsroman material, Shaman brims over with some of the finest writing Robinson has yet produced. It immerses us in a vivid world of flickering lamplight and intricate ritual, a life of “smoke and mushrooms and dancing and flagellation”.

[...] Of course, this is not to say that the novel is a dry recitation of anthropological facts. Far from it. The pack’s sexual politics are, for example, as developed and intricate as any contemporary society. [...] Meanwhile, its members transcend their somewhat stock origins and achieve a credible life of their own. In particular, Robinson’s shamans are a colourful lot who consume heroic quantities of “berry mash” to “launch their spirits out of their bodies”. They are part-medicine men, part-counsellors, and deeply immersed in oral literature. Through them the author rejects the so-called Great Leap Forward, eschewing any notion of a sudden cognitive revolution in favour of the slow accumulation of human knowledge over generations. “It’s fragile what I know,” Thorn tells Loon. He must pass on his wisdom the same way embers from an old fire are preserved to light a new one. In fact, this is exactly the lesson which Loon and the reader learn on the first night of the boy’s wander: the difficulty of kindling a fresh spark, a symbolic new idea.

[...] For Robinson, stories are about optimism and the belief that life will always go on. Shaman is no different. It is an intelligent, and at times mesmerising novel. The perfect book for archaeology buffs, those who love the outdoors, or readers who prize an unusual perspective in their fiction.

More interviews & reviews soon!


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