4 Nov 2014

End of September 2014, a group of people passionate about wilderness and writing gathered to ascend and name a peak in the Sierra Nevada of California "Mount Thoreau" -- after the famous 19th century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, writer of Walden and such essays as Civil Disobedience and Life Without Principle. Very appropriately, this peak is opposite Mount Emerson -- after Thoreau's close friend and intellectual sparring partner Ralph Waldo Emerson! This is an unofficial name, as this does not follow USGS procedures -- and so a little act of civil disobedience -- but it was a moment to collectively live in the wild and remember Thoreau.

Kim Stanley Robinson was among them -- also poet and writer Gary Snyder, Tom Killion (whose woodblock print of the Sierra illustrates Robinson's collection of Rexroth poems Rexroth in the Sierras), writer Paul Park, and other friends of Robinson's, about 20 total. Robinson wrote an extensive piece on the event, the experience and generally on Thoreau: The Actual World, "Mount Thoreau" and the naming of things in the wilderness. You can read it here, along with photos from Christopher Woodcock and others. Some extracts:

[...] nothing up there is named after Henry David Thoreau, the great American nature writer, the man whose books inspired John Muir and helped create the preservation movement that saved the Sierra Nevada as wilderness. This seemed an oversight, a mistake, a little crime. And an opportunity. Because there is already a Mount Emerson up there, named by John Muir himself, after a trip to the area in 1873. [...] Peak 12,691 is somewhat lower than Mount Emerson, but much more gnarly and interesting; the two peaks have much the same relationship that Emerson and Thoreau had, not just in size and aspect but in position, being close to each other but separated by a huge gulf of air. [...]

Once you give up on the idea of sleeping during a night in the mountains, it can be very restful. If it is clear and not too windy, I dispense with a tent and sleep out. At 11,000 feet above sea level, the stars are simply incredible. I watch them, don’t try to sleep, and thus often sleep pretty well. Awake or asleep, in tent or out, a mountainous peace fills me. [...]

We were also continuing a long tradition of meeting in the Sierra to celebrate its art. In the early Sierra Club summer trips, John Muir or Ansel Adams might tell a story by the fire or Cedric Wright play his violin. Here we were doing it again, awake in the dark and the wind. The feeling of that moment resists expression, has no name. It was the kind of party even Thoreau might have liked.

[...] in this case I think the honor of the name is worth the loss of the unnamed. Emerson and Thoreau were friends, and together they changed us. Now their two peaks form a gate like the Pillars of Hercules, marking a way into a certain kind of American reality, as well as a bit of Sierra backcountry. In wildness is the preservation of the world.

The event was also covered by the New York Times, including an audio report!

(Photo: "Mount Thoreau" from the north, by Kim Stanley Robinson)

19 Sep 2014

From the recent LonCon3 in August comes Kim Stanley Robinson's latest talk, "Time in the Novel". An exploration of literary techniques and of how different writers have written time passing, from the super-slow Proust to the super-fast Stapledon, addressing Virginia Woolf's and Olaf Stapledon's correspondence, the "show, don't tell" convention, the García Márquez revolution, the literary experiments of Virginia Woolf, William Golding and Patrick O'Brian, and the time passing per page metric, this is a massively enjoyable lecture from a lover of literature!

Credit goes to:

Lecture by Kim Stanley Robinson at LonCon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, Literature Talk 1477, Thu 14.08.2014 19:00 BST in Capital Suite 14, recorded by Martin Stricker http://www.martin-stricker.de/ for the Phonothek of the Science Fiction Club Germany e. V. http://www.sfcd.eu/

You can download a recording of the lecture [here] -- this is a KSR.info + SFCD exclusive!


Image credit: Book cover design for Virginia Woolf's "To The Lighthouse" by Melanie Smith

26 Jul 2014

While the Worldcon is on -- and there are various KSR happenings there, more later! -- here is some more material to get your teeth and brains on!

In the previous update I was mentioning "The Future Is Here" festival by the Smithsonian magazine. Along with everybody else's, KSR's talk is now online: "Humanity in the Solar System". Watch Stan guide you through the solar system, à la 2312!

In an interesting interview for Nautilus by astrobioligist David Grinspoon -- and some great KSR & 2312 illustrations by Kyle T. Webster! --  KSR goes over our main challenges as a civilization today and long-term alternatives that have been described in science fiction and in his 2312.

We need a global economic system that is designed specifically for sustainability. We already have a global economic system in the form of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Together, their agreements make up a comprehensive system. But right now, this system cheats future generations by systematically underpricing the true costs of our exploitation of the biosphere. It sets the prices of the Earth’s natural resources by establishing what is basically the aggregation of supplies and demands. But this process is biased toward pricing things lower and lower, because of pressure from buyers and the need for sellers to stay in business. As a result, sellers sell their products for less than they cost to make, which should lead to bankruptcy for the seller, but it doesn’t because parts of the costs have been shifted onto future generations to pay. When practiced systematically it becomes a kind of multi-generational Ponzi scheme, and leads to the mass extinction event of the early Anthropocene, which we have already started.

[...] we have to alter the system we already have, because like an animal with evolutionary constraints, we can’t change everything and start from scratch. But what we could do is reconstruct regulations on the existing global economic system. For this, we would need to wrench capitalism so that the global rules of the World Bank, etc., required ecological sustainability as their main criterion. That way, prices would shift to match their true costs.

[...] In my novel, 2312, the economy is in some ways a funhouse mirror portrayal of our world. One of the civilizations—called the Mondragon after the Basque city in Spain that runs its economy as a set of nested co-ops—provides for everyone’s basic needs as a kind of public utility district service. Then there is a more free-market capitalist world of exchange of luxuries; these arrangements are loosely grouped as “above and beyonds.” That’s one image of a possible future, sustainable economy. However, if you include all the civilizations on Earth and in space in 2312, there remains a steep inequality gradient with most of the poor on Earth.

The format of 2312, with the different types of narration mixed in small chapters, comes from John Dos Passos' "USA Trilogy". Robinson talks about the novelty of Dos Passos' approach and how he managed to give a comprehensive view of 1920s-30s USA in a short interview for To The Best Of Our Knowledge.

KSR wrote an excellent article on Isaac Asimov's predictions for the future from the 1964 World Fair, so 50 years ago, a very interesting article that looks back at the science fiction of the time, the expectations for the future of a generation or two ago, how all that compares to today, and also interestingly what have been the successes of the predictions, the consistently reliable trends of our societies.

What did Asimov fail to see in the future? Many things, inevitably; but he did not miss the biggest problem that would be facing us in 2014, which is building a sustainable civilization. That is his article’s greatest achievement.

[...] he describes the Malthusian scenario of unchecked population growth resulting in a super-crowded “World Manhattan,” but he notes immediately that this scenario (which in his Foundation series was the city-planet Trantor) is ecologically impossible

[...] he writes, “there will, therefore, be a worldwide propaganda drive in favor of birth control by rational and humane methods,” and he predicts that by 2014 we will have “lowered the birth rate.”

To an extent these things have happened, and yet this is one of the great unsolved issues of our time.  The human population is still rising at a rate of about 75 million people every year, and this is adding to the immense pressure we are putting on the Earth’s biosphere, our irreplaceable support system. So as Asimov pointed out, all is not rosy.

[...] He speaks of boredom as a result of this unemployment, because he is assuming that the postwar social security system will continue to give unemployed people economic support. He fails to imagine the breakdown of the postwar social contract, and a global economy where unemployment leads not just to boredom but to desperation and misery.  He fails to imagine a society as brutal as we have become.

[...] Maybe that’s my prediction for the World’s Fair (“the world is fair”) of 2064.  We’ll have different machines, we’ll have medical advances, a warmer and wilder climate, immense environmental stresses, more people (about 9.5 billion).  Will we have universal women’s rights?  Will we have full employment?  We’d better!  It’ll be that or catastophe.

Kim Stanley Robinson's introduction to "The Very Best of Gene Wolfe", titled "A Story" (a very 5HC-type title), is now online at the New York Review of Science Fiction. This can only be found in the rare "Very Best Of", not in the more widely available "Best Of", and is even a corrected/edited version of that "Very Best Of"! Some favourite extracts below:

A genius in Wolfe: and if there are any fellow postmodern materialists reading this and groaning at the idea of there being anything unusual inside an artist or anyone else, anything beyond the workings of the brain, I will agree immediately, but point out that the latest news from brain science makes it clearer and clearer that saying “only the brain” is not much of a delimiting statement. The brain is not a clockwork, nor a steam engine, nor a binary or digital computer, nor any of the machines we conceptualize it to be with our simple metaphors based on our own feeble handiwork, as if the brain could only be as complex as something we ourselves could make. Very much not the case. The brain is a kind of pocket universe. The mind is huge, and consciousness a small part of it. The unconscious may well be inhabited by “subroutines,” as the computer people would have it, processes that may actually be more like characters. Maybe they are like Jungian archetypes—a shadow seems likely, perhaps an anima or animus—but who knows. Very probably the brain consists of organizations even stranger and more various than that. It may be a kind of library of stories all telling themselves at once. And by way of stories written down, one unconscious mind communicates with other unconscious minds.

[...] I have been coming at Wolfe’s stories from a variety of angles here, like the magpies in my back yard banging on the black walnuts on the ground to break them open. The magpies are not getting very far, but it’s March, and they are persistent. With these stories, no matter what angle you take on them, no matter how hard you whack them, they stay whole and unexplained. I suppose that suggests we have come to the moment to try to speak about what these stories mean: but no. I decline. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it would be hard. To do justice to that project would require some kind of ongoing Talmudic wiki that considered each story in turn, by itself and in relation to others. I have no doubt the Wolfeish community has already begun this discussion and will continue with it for ages to come. It is also true that sometimes the meaning of any given story is perfectly straightforward; in the later dialogues particularly, characters sometimes try to say things about life that are as plain and wise and interesting as you could want.

But more often it isn’t that simple. Wolfe’s meanings are complex. That’s part of his point, I take it: life is complex. There are values in life, these stories say, there is good and bad, and all kinds of other values, but they are not often simple to tease out or apply. Indeed it’s precisely where these matters are not simple that Wolfe is interested and finds his stories.

[...] I am proud to know him even a little, and speaking with full confidence for the science fiction community, which is like a small town scattered over the face of the earth and across time too, I’ll say: we are proud of Gene Wolfe. We have published him, we read him with joy, we celebrate him; we will always have reason to be proud of that. Gene shows that literature can be everything, a game, a mystery, a religion, a dive into the deepest depths. Read on and see what I mean and rejoice. Life means something.

In another short radio interview, KSR and an astrobiologist discuss Frank Herbert's "Dune" in the SciFri Book Club. Hear about the classic novel's ecological themes, the 1960s cultural revolution, the parallels to the oil industry, and more.

Finally, something not covered before: Robinson contributed to Jeff VanderMeer's "Wonderbook", "The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction", a most amazing and creative endeavour mixing essays, visual aids and lots of humour in an unconventional publication for a writing companion! Head over to this table of contents and illustrations, this interview of VanderMeer and this fuller table of contents to marvel at it. Robinson's essay is between those of Nick Mamatas and Ursula K. LeGuin. An excerpt of Robinsons' essay can be found here:

“Thoughts on Exposition” by Kim Stanley Robinson

Am I advocating a return to the Encyclopedia Galactica? Yes. Its entries were always (at least potentially) bits of Stapledonian prose poetry, soaring like phoenixes out of their stories. Face it: sometimes the world is more interesting than we are. Even if the interest is always human interest.

So: “The door dilated”? That’s now the story’s title. We’ll jettison the long-forgotten plot (I bet it had danger and a chase) and focus on what always mattered: that door. We begin with the door’s manufacturing and installation instructions, badly translated from an unknown language. Next a Wikipedia article about it, apparently mangled in a fierce editing war that left certain ambiguities. Technical details about the door’s pupil mechanism (or, as it turns out, organism, for most are made from vat-grown squid siphons) are followed by a discussion of the door’s uses, maintenance problems, operating quirks, and notable breakdowns. We learn that dilating doors are installed where the air pressure on one side of the door is higher than on the other, but there is not the space to install a sliding door. An ordinary door between such pressure differentials either won’t open or opens much too fast, both dangerous; in fact, some people got killed by a conventional door opening too fast, including a person with the same last name as the dilating door’s inventor. But there have also been cases where dilating doors killed people, sometimes in malfunctions not explained in the accident investigations. Graphs and charts display information about these cases. What’s going on here? Will the reader have to evaluate the data in a forensic process, and imagine what happened? Yes. Because that’s how stories always work.

(Illustration on top by Kyle T. Webster)

15 Jul 2014

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, Shaman, has now been released in paperback by Orbit!

What's it about? In just three paragraphs, you have it from Stan himself in this little piece for Kindle Amazon.

"When a five thousand year-old body emerged from a glacier in the Alps in 1991, it immediately became one of the greatest finds in archeological history, because all the dead man’s gear had been frozen and preserved with him. [...] I thought  He was just like me."

Stan and Ursula K Le Guin (do I need to introduce her?) finally did a first event together after knowing each other for nearly 40 years! In February, the Spring Creek Project sponsored a symposium entitled "Transformation Without Apocalypse: How to Live Well on an Altered Planet", at Oregon State University. Stan and Ursula read from their own work and from each other's work, with passages from 2312, Shaman and poems. This is a historic appearance, very heartwarming, although the atmosphere in the room can't be felt through that video alone I suppose.

More videos of older events have surfaced too. Stan participated in the Arizona State University Origins project, with the Great Debate Transcending Our Origins: Violence, Humanity, and the Future. He was on the panel "The Future: From Medicine and Synthetic Biology to Machine Intelligence" along with scientists and notable experts Richard Dawkins, Craig Venter, Esther Dyson, Eric Horvitz, George Poste and Randolph Nesse discussing the future of new biomedical and robotic technologies and their impact on humanity. The whole panel video was posted on the internet, you can watch it here: Part 1 & Part 2. Stan's 7-min pitch of how we could live fuller liveshas been posted separately, it's a concentration of many of the ideas he has been putting forward in recent years:

So: Laws and "software" of how we run our societies as technologies. Constitutions as science fiction concepts. "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth" as a science fiction short story (future tense). Those are some ideas! In a related interview for Decode DC, "What can Mars teach us about politics on Earth?" (direct audio), Robinson discusses these ideas and others that he has developed throughout his career -- for example the citizens' duma in Blue Mars.

In October 2013, Stan and social media professor McKenzie Wark did a discussion at Eugene Lang College in New York. Stan read from Shaman and they discussed in depth the thoughts behind the book, how we used to live, what technologies we developed, Neanderthals, and of course taking it from there and on to 2312 and our future, and also on writing SF and "speculative realism" and on readers of SF and fantasy. Part 1 here; Part 2 is audience Q&A. The sound on the video is not that good.

Additionally, McKenzie Wark interviewed Stan for the Los Angeles Review of Books: "A Functional Form Has Its Own Beauty". A great interview, some selected parts:

Finally, somebody asks the sex question! -- an aspect of 2312 I felt was not discussed enough:

I feel I’ve been taught a lot about gender by science fiction, including books by Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, and others, and also by the science-fiction community, which has a flourishing LGBT component, pretty well integrated with the rest of it. Also I was very struck by my own experiences as a “Mr. Mom” when I did the home parenting for our two children, especially when they were infants and toddlers. I wanted to write about that again, as I did in the Science In the Capital trilogy, but from a different angle, to express the feeling that grew in me that gender as feeling is labile and not related to bodies per se.

A great description of how essentially all of his novels work:

I’ve been much influenced by Bahktin’s image of the novel as polyvocal, what he calls a heteroglossia (another great word!), so that it isn’t so much the novelist as a single visionary but rather something more like an old-time telephone switchboard operator, plugging in different voices and then orchestrating the flow of that chorus, so to speak. So you get chances for different points of view to speak or argue in dialogues or larger discussions, and the plots themselves also express these arguments in actions.   

On writing a lot about everyday habits:

As for changing one’s habits, that is so mysterious. Again from Proust; there is the moment when you are cast into a new situation and have to change habits, and I think it was Beckett in his slim book on Proust who spoke of these moments as the true existential exposure, the naked times when you are alive without the protection of your habits, and have to think what to do moment by moment, actually decide, until you settle into (I think Beckett called it exfoliating) into a new set of habits and are somewhat protected again from that existential nakedness. This seems right to me, this is how it has felt for me, and I am very interested to try to write these moments, and present these moments as central to a plot.

On the scientific "vs" the religious world views:

Not only in Shaman but in the rest of my science fiction, I’ve been interested to cross all these ways of knowing, to think about  science as a kind of religious activity, and definitely as a secretly hegemonic culture within our other various cultures, while at the same time thinking about Buddhism or art as versions of scientific thinking, or some other permanently valid way of looking at things. The permanent necessity of philosophy and art, basically, so that we can decide what to do — that isn’t a question science takes on or wants to take on.

Often in my novels all these aspects are mashed together in the characters’ lives, and in the plots.

On using words like Coriolis and katabatic a lot (I love how McKenzie Wark has spotted this!):

I like to use words out of the sciences that particularize physical processes (or generalize them) in ways ordinary language doesn’t usually. In fact many of these words are simply Greek or Latin, or mash-ups of the two languages, but they suggest a scientific precision that strikes me as both writerly (like, say, Joyce) and also comic, in the sense of Mr. Spock explaining his Spocklike thinking. Hippocampus, de-intensification, hierarchicalization, etc., etc., it goes on and on and is both funny and sharp, and musical too, in ways I like.

Finally, the calendar on the left has been updated with summer and fall events, including a European tour for the Worldcon in August and more! There's also a 2015 event -- more on that later.

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!


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