7 Mar 2017
Some interviews to get you warmed up for the new novel coming out next week. 

Utopia Against Finance, Cli-Fi, Green Earth and New York 2140 

This will be the focus of NY2140. The theme: a socialist realist history of a potential transition to post-capitalism.
This keynote for "Climate Futures: This Changes Everything" for the Environmental Humanities Center in UC Santa Barbara, recorded in his house, sums it up:
Another very interesting discussion is that of the future of cities and ways of living when the sea level rises due to climate change. Kim Stanley Robinson and architect Usman Haque get us to Rising Sea Levels: London in 2080 in this transatlantic videoconference / thought experiment! -- organized by the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination and The Bartlett School of Architecture and moderated by Sheldon Brown and David Kirsch (May 2016). The video of the event is online (don't get discouraged by the bad audio quality in the first minutes). La Jolla Light reports:
Robinson warned those gathered that sea levels are rising even faster than scientists thought they would. “This is one of the greatest problems that humanity faces,” he said, noting America might end up with some of its major cities — like New York and Miami — halfway under water, becoming a “Super Venice, Italy.” Robinson explained that the problem stems from melting ice in western Antarctica and Greenland, an unstoppable process once it gets going [...] Robinson mentioned one possible solution; building 60 huge pumping stations that would pump the melting ice water back up onto the Antarctic bedrock for refreezing.
By necessity, people will be changing their definition of personal space and will be living in closer proximity, in what [Haque] calls a “Liquid Democracy.” Things will get done, not by the government, but by liquid groups of people who form their own organizations as needed. The Internet will no longer exist, Haque reasons. Instead, people will communicate by posting messages on giant electronic billboards, which he calls “light walls.” The main food staple will be algae that people grow at home. There will be no live pets, but instead people will have virtual pets, like holographic cats and dogs. They will sleep in converted, driver-less cars from the company Uber, which they will drive into their homes.;
Also of interest:
  • A similar keynote to the one above and Q&A: "Power and the Space of the Planet", at the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture (April 2015), with response by Phillip Wegner and discussion moderated by Reinhold Martin, Director, Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture
  • "Toward A Plausible Utopia", a discussion between KSR and Bjarke Ingels, architect, at the New York City Museum (May 2015)

Mars, the solar system, 2312 & Aurora

KSR spoke to "Voices from Lagrange 5", a podcast examining the social, political and anthropological aspects of space settlements. A very interesting discussion on the (lack of) profit-making opportunities of space exploration, Space X and space socialism.
In this interview for Public Books, "Earth First, Then Mars", KSR talks about how his ideas have evolved and matured over his career.
Earth is the only place we can really thrive. Terraforming Mars, if possible at all, might take thousands of years rather than hundreds; this is the explicit commentary that Aurora makes on my Mars Trilogy’s timeline. I still think terraforming Mars is a great long-term project, just very long. So it will not serve to help us as any kind of “second home” while we get through the long emergency we are facing with the ecological problems here on Earth.
Health, broadly regarded, means keeping the whole biosphere healthy, because we’re so interpenetrated with it. Something like the Leopoldian land ethic seems to emerge: what’s good is what’s good for the land. You’re happy when you’re healthy, and you’re only healthy when the biosphere is healthy.
I sense that in asserting that humanity can’t inhabit the galaxy, much less the universe, and may only ever be healthy here on Earth, I’ve suggested a limitation that rubs some people the wrong way. They like to think of humans as transcendent, and once a religious afterlife is removed from consideration, the species going cosmic is the secular replacement for that religious yearning.
As a comparison, here is a two-part interview with KSR from 2012 for John Tibbetts' AboutSF podcast, on writing the Mars trilogy and writing science fiction in general: Part 1, Part 2.
In this article for Scientific American, "What Will It Take for Humans to Colonize the Milky Way?" (which reads like a condensed version of his seminal essay for BoingBoing), KSR argues about thedifficulties of manned interstellar travel.
And in this interview in Spanish for El Confidencial, conducted to coincide with the release of the translation of Aurora in Spanish, KSR discusses the ideas behind Aurora, the Singularity and the Mondragón cooperatives.
La secuencia debería ser la siguiente: antiausteridad, keynesianismo, social democracia (tal vez aquí se encuentre Mondragón), socialismo democrático y poscapitalismo. Las necesidades deberían ser socializadas, los riesgos deberían ser socializados y no privatizados (considerando que muchos de estos riesgos no son voluntarios, como la vejez y la enfermedad).
Climate One hosted the event "Remaking the Planet" on the issue of climate change and geoengineering, with Oliver Morton (The Economist), Ken Caldeira (climate scientist at Stanford University) and KSR (January 2016). The audio recording and transcript are online (also at PRX). Some KSR bits:
If we change if we plant a lot of forests, if we give all the women on the planet their full legal rights, we've changed the climate of the earth in a radical way so that's geoengineering too. [...] we’re talking about humanity's relationship to the biosphere and the planet as a complex system that we can't hack, that’s not the right word, but we might be able to finesse it in ways that will keep us from causing a mass extinction event.
If you didn't subsidize the carbon industry massively by taxpayer money, you already have the crossover power where clean energy could be quickly put in by government supported projects and it would be full employment, it would be a thing to do and you could have clean energy so much faster than we thought even 10 years ago.
Ten years ago we couldn’t have had this conversation but the 10 hottest years that we have on record took place in this century. So global warming is happening and everybody knows it.
Space science is an earth science and the solar system is our neighborhood. And when we talk about Mars, we are thinking about planets, and when we think about planets we’re realizing we’re on a planet and so it's all good in that regard. And we, this is the only planet we can live on and stay healthy and I think that will be true for tens of thousands of years. So there is no Planet B and that moral hazard is taken away as soon as you understand that.

Shaman and odds & ends

Two podcast interviews on Shaman and related themes:
...and KSR reading from Shaman at the San Antonio LoneStarCon3 in 2013.
Here are also two videos:
  • From Future in Review 2012 (FiRe 2012) "Looking Ahead: The World in 20 Years" where KSR and David Brin exchange ideas on science fiction and writing.
  • A panel from last year's Balticon (May 2016), "Frontiers of Science and Science Fiction", where Larry Niven, Kim Stanley Robinson, Connie Willis, Charlie Stross, Joe Haldeman and Harry Turtledove and a panel of the scientists and engineers of the Hubble and Webb space telescopes as they explore the places where their worlds collide.
Finally, in an interview for Islam and Science Fiction, KSR talks about writing The Years of Rice and Salt and the role of SF in imagining the future.
The Dalai Lama has declared that if science ever shows something in Buddhism is wrong, then Buddhism should change.  I don’t see the Middle Eastern monotheisms making that kind of declaration.  We are now in a scientific civilization, but it’s been coming for centuries and during those centuries, some religions have regarded science as a particular form of worship or devotion.  I think that might be the best angle for them to take, to make a reconciliation of fact and value, etc.
[...] there needs to be a lot of Muslim science fiction of all kinds, exploring and displaying all kinds of futures.  It would be helpful to the imaginations of everyone alive, and a real service to humanity.  We all need futures in our heads to work toward or against, and the more there are, and the thicker their texture (to add to their believability and impact) the better.  It’s a huge opportunity for young writers.
Now that we are caught up, we are ready for the release of New York 2140 on March 14!
4 Mar 2017

As we await for the release of New York 2140 in barely one week -- here are some other KSR-related bits:

In 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson makes references to performance artist Marina Abramovic several times, through the activities of the main character, Swan. After 2312's release, in 2015 Robinson and Abramovic got together and created a collaborative work, along with the help of composer/sound mixer Adam Tinkle and the Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Human Imagination.

Today, the end result is the audio performance "The Hard Problem: An Audio Voyage", and you can download it here!

An introductory video, "3015 Prologue" was also produced:

The Center for Human Imagination describes the process like this:

In winter of 2015, the Clarke Center produced a collaborative project with the performance artist Marina Abramović and the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson. The multi-day workshop cultivated a series of interactions between a story that Stan was writing about a multi-generational spaceship heading to another star, and the performance art gestures of Marina’s that are a journey into our inner self. We improvised readings and performance actions to find the ways in which these seemingly diametric experiences touched on the common idea of how we extend our sense of time and space from the moment to the eternal. Out of this, we created an installation with multiple audio tracks, which was then further developed for the Venice Biennale. We also made a short film, which you can find a link to on the podcast webpage, and the audio tracks were mixed and choreographed by Adam Tinkle into the podcast we are featuring today: The Hard Problem: An Audio Voyage, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Adam Tinkle, Marina Abramović and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination.

Additional photos from the workshop that served as a basis for the final work can be found at Boing Boing:

The audio elements were produced during a day-long workshop with Abramović and Robinson at the Clarke Center, which subsequently appeared at the Venice Bienalle. The audioscape is rich and haunting, and has moments of goosepimple-raising eeriness as the narration invites us to put ourselves in the mind of an AI plying the spaces between the stars.

See also this La Jolla Light article from 2015. Back then the work was called "3015: Work In Progress".

Also available at the Marina Abramovic Institute.

The whole audio voyage was performed by Robinson alone during his visit to Iceland in September 2015. The full video is online, and you can experience it with dim lights here:

In that same link from the Reykjavik International Literary Festival there is also a recording of a panel on "The Environment, the Future and the Future of Writing", with Robinson and Andri Snær Magnason (both Friday September 11).

23 Dec 2016

Earlier in December, Kim Stanley Robinson recently was in China to discuss the theme of utopia and to promote a new edition of Red Mars in Chinese by Beijing Alpha (Chongqing Publishing Group)! KSR celebrated the 500th anniversary of Thomas More's Utopia in Beijing Normal University -- see this clip, where he talks of the Chinese/Uygur chapter of The Years of Rice and Salt, Widow Kang. With Beijing Alpha he also appeared with Chinese SF author Liu Cixin (famous for his Three Body Problem trilogy, which KSR has called "the best kind of science fiction" on the English translations), with simultaneous aural and written (!) translation of their live Q&A and a live internet stream followed by tens of thousands. Both are pictured here, from this report from the event. Perhaps Chinese speakers can share more content? The internet spheres are not very well connected yet...

Anyone following long history trends can perceive that the future of humanity will be more and more defined by Asian affairs (estimates of "the West"'s share in world GDP looks more and more like a 500 year parenthesis fuelled by it being the first in the technological revolution, but that gap is closing). So it will come as no surprise that, after New York 2140 in 2017, KSR's next novel will focus on China and close space (moon) colonization!



In the meantime: No matter what, climate change is happening. It's all a matter of us accepting reality, and adapt and change as a consequence.

This is Kim Stanley Robinson's keynote speech for the 2015 Bioneers Annual Conference (from October 2015). Climate change, science and politics, social organization and laws, history and utopia: in 20 minutes, you have a powerful, convincing, and -- also judging by the cheers and applause from the crowd -- very energizing condensation of everything KSR!

The coming century requires that we rethink and restructure our relationship with our planet to avoid endangering the integrity of the biosphere and risking the end of human civilization. This means reforming our economic system, which uses a market and trade system that systemically under-prices and degrades both people and the natural world. How can we change that, and what would it look like if we did? One of the great visionary science fiction writers of our era will draw from his decades of work and thinking on this question to sketch a utopian but deeply informed and cogent scenario of a new economy for the coming decades. Introduction by J. P. Harpignies, National Bioneers Conference Associate Producer.

Another essential KSR resource is this one-hour conversation with him for The Conversation podcast. The discussion is very wide-ranging, tackling economic, scientific, ecological, social, cognitive, anthropological, and more, themes.



Some additional links to panels and interviews:

An extended version of the Bioneers speech above can be found here, at Utopian Dreaming: 50 Years of Imagined Futures in California and at UCSC (from November 2015). KSR talks about utopian novels, and how they tried to envision the transition from the world of today into a utopian future, for example his own Pacific Edge, or Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (which saw the Pacific coast states seceding from the United States and forming their own ecological utopia), which celebrated its 40th anniversary. He goes on to imagine an updated close-future history involving student debt, banking assets, private/public ownership and social movements!

Here's a short interview around the event.

"It's been 35 years since the Reagan and Thatcher conservative regimes and the effect has been bad environmentally and socially. But I think there are good things too." Grim dystopian visions make for more dramatic movies, he said, and utopian ones are more low-key. "There's always going to be hope," he said. "It's always stubborn and persistent, even if it's more subtle."

And a blog post about another event around the same time.

Another podcast with KSR tackling environmental and sustainability issues comes from Generation Anthropocene, from the Smithsonian magazine.

Climate One hosted an event on the emerging genre of Cli-Fi, discussing with KSR and Jason Mark, editor of the Earth Island Journal. The audio recording of the event and transcript are online (Edit: also at PRX).

There used to be bumper stickers that said keep the U.S. out of Ecotopia. And there are things were just being done in an environmentally conscious way with the best technology of the 1970’s and it was a very inspirational book.  It changed people's lives, it changed their thinking.  I think what it was, was the ‘60s generation was growing up in thinking how do I live my ideals how do I take care of my kids? So you get these Ecotopian thinking.  But then the ‘80s came and Ecotopia didn't know about the ‘80s.  It didn't know about the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution and the incredible amount of the growth of globalization and late capitalism. So now Ecotopia looks a little bit quaint.  But on the other hand the ideas are still very strong and the book should have a nice 40th anniversary.

[Interstellar] I really disliked it.  [...] it was as if the filmmakers were saying if -- since this is a science fiction movie we can be stupid and get away with it because it's just science fiction.  And so I was offended by it because science fiction is actually a very intellectually powerful genre and it doesn't have a whole lot of patience for stupidity.  So this is like a kind of 1930’s power fantasy movie and we’re well past that now, we’re 80 years past that kind of thinking. [...]  I thought WALL-E was a masterpiece.

[Writing and reading books] For a while there you're living other people's lives, you're paying attention to it with an empathy.  [..] People are very sophisticated that and they even are pretty good at giving the political orientation of the work of art that you can unpack all that stuff you can decode it very quickly.  But it's also put into everything else that you experienced, and then it becomes one more datum you've lived one more life.  That's the magic of art.  You’ve managed to pack in one more of your 10,000 lives by reading another book, by seeing another film.

[Science of climate change] I've had this impression that the scientific community has been shocked.  That around 2002 they raised their hand, they said folks, world, the biosphere is burning down something needs to be done.  And they were ignored.  And capitalism just rolled on saying we need profits, we need shareholder value [...] And now I think in the last five years or so you’ve see more and more scientists and more and more scientific organizations trying to make something more vigorous than raising their hand at the back of the room and saying we've got a problem.  It's an ongoing situation and it would be interesting to see what happens.

[GMOs] I think when people are objecting to against GMO foods is not that the foods have been manipulated, the plants have been manipulated, but that the seeds and the genes are then owned by a company.  So what you're objecting to is not science but capitalism.  And this happens a lot.  A lot of anti-science, especially from the left, in America is an objection to ownership of the public good and so it’s an objection to capitalism not an objection to science. And if you de-strand those two you begin to see this big cosmic battle, at least I do, in which the science is a force for trying to understand the world and make it more comfortable and better balanced with nature and capitalism is strip mining for private profit of the one percent as it’s practiced now and it's basically been its historical role all along.

[The world since 2008] Anybody making more than $100,000 a year is actually going into unhappy land rather than happy land according to scientific studies, so nobody needs to complain about this.  It's a perfect plan, it’s something we can all do.  It’s a political program right?  And it’s now within the window of acceptable discourse.  If I said this 10 years ago you would say, oh my god these hippie science-fiction writers, you know, they’re just so crazy and it is true, but now it's within the window of acceptable discourse.

Another of KSR's novels trying to imagine the transition from today to a near-future environmentally-friendly tomorrow is Green Earth (the omnibus of the Science in the Capital trilogy). Written during the Bush Jr. years and envisioning who would come next, it has suddenly become relevant again. In this letter to readers (written before the elections...), KSR talks about the process of updating his trilogy into one volume:

Looking back at this novel ten years later, I am pleased at how it holds up.  Of course with the passage of time it has become a very weird mix of historical novel, contemporary realist fiction, and near-future science fiction, plus a healthy dose of political fantasy.  I hope this melange of temporalities adds to its interest as a reading experience now, as readers play the game of seeing what was wrong and what was right, what has already happened and what is happening now, and what may still come.  That’s always part of the entertainment with near-future science fiction; as with certain wines, there’s an aftermath when the taste of the vintage can improve.

I’m hoping that the passage of a decade has made this novel interesting in new ways.  I think it still catches some of how Washington works, and how it feels to live an ordinary American life in our era.

With the advantage of hindsight I could see better what it  needed, and as we have learned so much more about climate change, quite a few passages that once brought the news, didn’t any more.   Also, in trying to be true to the way we live now, I wrote a lot of indoor scenes.  As I condensed it I noticed that the outdoor scenes could be left untouched, but many indoor scenes could be squished with happy results.  Same with our lives!  Ultimately I cut about fifteen percent; the exercise was good for me, and for the book.  Many, many thanks to Jane Johnson and Anne Groell for giving the chance to do it.

In this interview for Slate.com, KSR talks about geoengineering and how it was featured in his fiction

 “It’s so new,” he told me, that we feel “we’re sure to fuck it up.”  The aura of fatalism that hovers around climate change more generally further illuminates this popular skepticism. While we are, as Robinson put it, “just now coming to grips with the climate change problem more generally,” those who have long paid attention often fear that we’ve already gone too far to pull back from the brink. In this regard, the very plausibility of geoengineering may be its undoing. We need a miracle if we want to make a real difference, the thinking goes, but there’s nothing especially miraculous about most geoengineering proposals. To the contrary, most of them comprise large-scale applications of basic scientific principles and processes, meaning that for many they tend to feel inadequate at best. In this regard, Robinson noted, geoengineering proposals may also pose a moral hazard, since they potentially pull focus from more difficult endeavors like promoting universal decarbonization.

KSR and NASA scientist Chris McKay were featured in the documentary "BLUESPACE" by director Ian Cheney, which premiered in November 2015. See the trailer here.

Kim Stanley Robinson was the judge in the New Scientist's 2014 Pitch Us a Movie Competition. The winner was Matt Wilkinson -- but no news since then.

He’ll be working on The Sky Runner, his science fiction story set on, or rather under Europa, with help from a room full of writers and industry professionals including Christopher Priest, Liz Jensen and Louis Savy.

KSR supported the crowdfunding campaing for Mars Trac by donating autographed copies of his books.

Building on Mars with Mars Trac, the Open Source Construction Rover
A multi-disciplinary group at Arizona State University adapting Open Source Ecology's LifeTrac vehicle for Mars.
"Thanks for supporting open hardware on the space frontier! Stan 2013"

In 2014, KSR discussed the life and writings of John Muir at a lecture series on Environments in Motion: Understanding and Protecting Our Planet, at Muir College (UCSD). Muir's writings about Sierra glaciers, which changed the prevailing scientific notion, were characterized by a rare combination of technical precision and spiritual passion. Muir founded the Sierra Club and and was one of the world’s first environmentalists. He undoubtedly influenced Roosevelt’s decision to create a system of national parks. Stan:

“I love the Sierras and spend a lot of time hiking there. Many of the descriptions in the books of my Mars Trilogy are taken directly from my experience in the Sierras.”

The Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop is held annually (six weeks, summer) at the University of California San Diego since 1968; KSR has been both a student and an instructor. KSR is the Clarion Foundation Vice President. The workshop became an affiliate program within UCSD's Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, created in 2013, an integrated research center where engineering, medicine, and the arts, sciences, and humanities explore the basis of imagination. The workshop almost closed shop because of lack of funding but it continues to exist via fundraising; most recently thanks to a large donation.

KSR lists his 10 favourite science fiction novels for Barnes & Noble (in order):

  • Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon
  • Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
  • The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
  • Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
  • Sarah Canary, by Karen Fowler
  • The Bridge, by Iain Banks
  • The Book of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe (Nightside of the Long Sun, Lake of the Long Sun, Calde of the Long Sun, Exodus from the Long Sun)
  • The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller

But because these top 10 lists are impossible, he offers 10 more!

And two interviews behind paywalls:


That's all for now! As a suprising 2016 wraps up, we look forward to a 2017 that promises to be filled with reasons to stand up for building a utopian future. KSR's New York 2140 comes out on March 21st.
29 Nov 2016

An Antarctican passage

Submitted by Kimon

No matter what, climate change is happening. It's all a matter of us accepting reality, and adapt and change as a consequence.

Climate change is happening. This knowledge is a result of a multitude of findings from countless researchers, each correcting and conjecturing and confirming and building on top of the previous one. In short, science.

Recently, more findings have lent more support towards one theory concerning the past of Antarctica and its ice sheets. Readers of KSR's novel Antarctica will be interested to read about the argument and find echoes of arguments in the novel: dynamicists vs stabilists. Science in the making.

From a Washington Post article on these findings:

So began a storied debate over this rock formation, dubbed the “Sirius Group” after Mount Sirius, one of the range’s many peaks. It was between the “dynamicists,” on the one hand, and the “stabilists” on the other. The dynamicists argued that the enormous ice sheet of East Antarctica had dramatically collapsed in the Pliocene, bringing the ocean far closer in to the Transantarctic range, and that subsequent upthrusts of the Earth and re-advances of glaciers had then transported the diatoms from the seafloor to great heights. No way, countered the stabilists: The ice sheet had stayed intact, but powerful winds had swept the diatoms all the way from the distant sea surface and into the mountains.

New computer simulation [...] suggests that large parts of East Antarctica can indeed collapse, and moreover, can do so in conditions not too dissimilar from those we’re creating today with all of our greenhouse gas emissions.
[...] Scherer notes that this new scenario doesn’t really proclaim either the dynamicists or the stabilists the victors. Rather, it merges their perspectives. His view is clearly reliant on a substantial amount of dynamics, but it also doesn’t suggest that the East Antarctica ice retreated nearly as far back as earlier proposals did. Nor does it use glacial processes to move the deposited diatoms. Rather, it borrows the stabilist idea of windblown transport, albeit only after ice has retreated and land has risen in its wake.

[...] “The paper is a great example of how much (paleo)climate modeling has improved in the last decade(s), particularly in the last few years,” said Simone Galeotti, an Antarctic researcher at the Università degli Studi di Urbino in Italy, by email.

The original Nature Communications article: "Windblown Pliocene diatoms and East Antarctic Ice Sheet retreat". Image on top from the article, simulated Warm Pliocene Antarctic ice-sheet configuration during warm austral summer.

So, things went smoother than what the novel Antarctica had quipped about! From Chapter 5:

"And so the stabilists were convinced, and they recanted, " Wade said, to more hoots of laughter.
"Of course not, " Misha said, grinning and refilling their mugs with Drambuie. "That isn't how it works, of course. No one is ever convinced of anything. "
"So how do new ideas take hold?"
"The old scientists die, " Misha said, kicking Michelson as an example.

Some other Antarctica news of interest:

Finally, below is a pin-up drawing of Val from Antarctica in the secret underwater lake. It was done by Lee Moyer for the 2014 Clarion Calendar, which raised money through crowdfunding two years ago! In an interview with Clarion, KSR explained the scene:

The permanent station at the South Pole supplies its water by drilling down into the ice under the station (which is two miles deep) and then putting a heating element down the hole and melting an area into a spherical lake of water that they then pump up as needed. They have also melted shafts up to a kilometer deep in order to drop lines of sensors down into the ice to help them detect neutrinos; they use the Earth and the Antarctica ice cap as their neutrino creation and capture device (they are measuring neutrinos coming through the Earth from the north).

So there is good ice melting technology at Pole, and also a very active and rambunctious local culture among the service personnel who keep the station running for the scientists. I put these two facts together to imagine an unauthorized and secret icy water slide combined with a subglacial cave heated to hot tub status, known only to an inner circle of Antarcticans. This is without a doubt the science fiction invention in my books that I am most often asked the question, "Is it really there?  Does it really exist?" I can only say, I don't know.

All this is interesting since this November, Kim Stanley Robinson was again in Antarctica, twenty years after first exploring that continent with the NSF Artists & Writers Program!

20 Oct 2016

There Is No Planet B!

Submitted by Kimon

"Our Generation Ships Will Sink" is the title of the essay Kim Stanley Robinson wrote to accompany the release of Aurora, at Boing Boing, his "defense" that interstellar travel is much more difficult than popular culture and most science fiction makes it out to be.

Should we stop telling the story?

Maybe not. One of the best novels in the history of world literature, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, a seven-volume saga telling the story of a starship voyage and the inhabitation of a new planetary system, finesses all these problems in ways that allow huge enjoyment of the story it tells. The novel justifies the entertaining of the idea, no doubt about it.

But when we consider how we should behave now, we should keep in mind that the idea that if we wreck Earth we will have somewhere else to go, is simply false. That needs to be kept in mind, to set a proper value on our one and only planet, so that a moral hazard is not created that allows us to get sloppy with our caretaking of it.

There is no Planet B! Earth is our only possible home!

He goes on detailing the many serious physical, biological, ecological, sociological, and psychological problems that might force us to focus on Earth instead, or as well.

There has been a lot of buzz around Elon Musk's recent announcement of Space X's space transportation plans that would turn humanity into an interplanetary species -- and all in a timeline very close to our present, actually close to the colonization timeline of the Mars trilogy! (the First Hundred land in 2027) There have been previous announcements, and it remains to be seen whether Space X's plans will really make a difference in the same speed that they have been innovating recently.

As could be expected, KSR was reached for comment. In an interview with Bloomberg, he tries to explain why he thinks the SpaceX Mars colonization plans -- as opposed to a model more closely resembling public-funded scientific outposts like the ones found in Antartica -- might be too ambitious.

It’s 2024. Musk figures everything out and gets funding. He builds his rocket, and 100 people take off. Several months later, they land (somehow) and have to get to work remaking a planet.
I have to note, first, that this scenario is not believable, which makes it a hard exercise to think about further. Mars will never be a single-person or single-company effort. It will be multi-national and take lots of money and lots of years.

Musk’s plan is sort of the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his backyard, combined with the Wernher von Braun plan, as described in the Disney TV programs of the 1950s. A fun, new story.

What is the optimal distribution of skills among 100 people who could each afford $200,000 to $500,000 a seat for such a high-risk endeavor?
They would not pay to get in but would be selected and trained, as any astronauts are and need to be.

Has SpaceX vested authority in someone—or a group—to run Mars?
It wouldn’t be SpaceX deciding these things. 

Who’s in charge?
This would be an uneasy mix of legal rule from earth, following the Outer Space Treaty and the regulations of the organizing bodies involved (NASA, the UN, and whoever else) and local decisions made ad hoc by direct democracy.

Everyone wants sustainability and sustainable development. But it’s hard to define on earth.
Sustainability is quite definable and rests on bio-physical parameters and balances that can be measured and described. It’s an ecological equation of sorts, big but not impossibly complex. It tends to be messed up by what is often called economics.

What needs to happen for the Mars colony to live sustainably and give humanity the lifeboat Musk envisions?
It’s important to say that the idea of Mars as a lifeboat is wrong, in both a practical and a moral sense.

There is no Planet B, and it’s very likely that we require the conditions here on earth for our long-term health. When you don’t take these new biological discoveries into your imagined future, you are doing bad science fiction.

In a culture so rife with scientism and wish fulfillment, a culture that's still coming to grips with the massive crisis of climate change, a culture that's inflicting a sixth mass-extinction event on earth and itself, it’s important to try to pull your science fiction into the present, to make it a useful tool of human thought, a matter of serious planning as well as thrilling entertainment.

This is why Musk’s science fiction story needs some updating, some real imagination using current findings from biology and ecology.

He is not the only one with reservations. It's about funding, and new science. Indeed, new information on the lack of nitrogen, the presence of poisonous perchlorates (and the tough-to-disprove possibility that there's microbial life there) certainly brake the pace with which Mars could be colonized or terraformed -- which is a completely different task compared to just landing there. Further thoughts on the timeline of Mars colonization in the "Are We Alone?" podcast from 2015: "Mars-struck", from Astrobiology Magazine (direct mp3 link). Mars One was another Mars colonization project, and Robinson had also commented on it when interviewed about it in 2015.

...And colonizing Mars is nothing compared to the complexity of interstellar colonization! The feasibility or infeasibility of interstellar space travel for our mortal biological coils, the uniqueness of spaceship Earth and the necessity to make sure our civilizational development will become compatible with the life and climate that birthed it: these are some of the themes developed in Aurora-related interviews.

Aurora does incite debate. From this discussion between KSR and Paolo Bacigalupi (The Water Knife) and from an article/podcast in NPR -- tied interview with Andy Weir (The Martian) and Neal Stephenson (Seveneves).

"Aurora," has received a wide variety of responses "including some really, really angry ones."

my working principle was, 'What would it really be like?' So no hyperspace. No warp drive. No magical thing that isn't going to really happen to get us there

From an interview with Space.com:

The solar system is our neighborhood, and going into space itself, exploring the solar system, is actually part of planetary maintenance, you might say. I have a huge enthusiasm for the space program when it comes down to the solar system and exploring it for the health of Terran [Earth] civilization. It's all part of a larger argument to try and figure out what we should be doing right now, what's important.

There are a lot of people, even powerful, influential people, who seem to think that the goal of humanity is to spread itself. I want this book to make people think really hard about — maybe there's only one planet where humanity can do well, and we're already on it.

Much more in this online chat at io9 (reporting here), on interstellar civilization, Jackie's starship, the Singularity, Ship the Narrator:

If we could go, I think it would be a good thing to do. I’m just thinking that the distances are too great, the times are too long, we are looking more and more like planetary expressions, life as a planetary expression. I’m still very interested in inhabiting Mars, but this may take thousands of years, because of perchlorates and nitrogen lack, things we didn’t know when I wrote my Mars books. The stars, meanwhile, are much much farther away, we couldn’t go back to Earth for a sabbatical and get what we need there (assuming we need anything, which I admit is an assumption). So I wanted to make that point, which I do think returns our focus to Earth. Whatever becomes possible to later generations, it won’t happen without a healthy and sustainable civilization on Earth. Space offers no bolt hole or escape hatch, that just won’t work. Not even Mars!

I don’t think that going to the stars is absolutely impossible. It’s not in the category of time travel or faster-than-light travel. It just strikes me as much more difficult than we’ve usually been thinking. Possibly a project for the year 5000 when we’ve got everything on Earth and in the solar system well in hand. All the problems I’ve brought up in AURORA might be solvable over the long, long haul.

Possibly it would be best to send a terrarium, but it would go even slower, and the added length of time might overwhelm the benefits of the greater size. It would be a cost-benefit analysis, and possibly a solution for the year 5000 or something.

This interview with Public Books on Aurora goes further into the education system and sustainability:

Health, broadly regarded, means keeping the whole biosphere healthy, because we’re so interpenetrated with it. Something like the Leopoldian land ethic seems to emerge: what’s good is what’s good for the land. You’re happy when you’re healthy, and you’re only healthy when the biosphere is healthy (meaning all the other humans as part of that). That’s a kind of ethics, and then you have a politics and a guide to action. You have a project, and people need a project.

I sense that in asserting that humanity can’t inhabit the galaxy, much less the universe, and may only ever be healthy here on Earth, I’ve suggested a limitation that rubs some people the wrong way. They like to think of humans as transcendent, and once a religious afterlife is removed from consideration, the species going cosmic is the secular replacement for that religious yearning.

Some more audio interviews on the themes touched upon by Aurora:

  • The Planetary Society's radio show here (direct mp3 link)
  • The Verge's ESP here
  • ABC (Australia)'s Books and Arts here
  • Also from ABC, Outward Bound on humanity and staying sane in space! Podcast here (direct mp3 link) and article version here
  • Bonus: KSR describes his "top shelf" in music, as soundtrack to his writing: Clifford Brown, Astor Piazzolla, Steve Howe, Ludwig van Beethoven, Van Morrison!
  • Also, a short video recording from an Aurora reading and Q&A at the Sacramento Public Library, on Facebook.

Finally: This science fiction author's qualifications were sufficient that he was a reviewer for a Nature article on exoplanets! The paper/article, "Temperate Earth-sized planets transiting a nearby ultracool dwarf star", discusses findings of planets barely 40 light-years away (further than Aurora's 12 light-years, but still close in the grander scheme of things).

You can read the opening chapter of Aurora, along with some appropriate stock photos, on The Verge.

Next: Antarctica, China and Ecotopia.

Photo: SpaceX; not the Ares.


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