The West Coast of Utopia: Kim Stanley Robinson and the Science Fiction of Hope

If any political ideal has taken a drubbing over the past hundred years, it’s surely the left’s vision of utopia. How far we’ve fallen from those lofty 19th-century dreams—the classless society, the withering away of the state, the happy news from Nowhere. Merely to mention such hopes nowadays is to call up ghastly images of failure, not merely censors sharpening their scissors and babushkas queuing for bread but Checkpoint Charlie, the Gulag Archipelago, the Great Leap Forward toward the Killing Fields. Even glimpses of utopianism, such as the giddiness unleashed by the election of Barack Obama, now feel destined to end in disappointment if not crushing defeat.

Avatar not withstanding, pop energy swung decades ago to the side of dystopia, which, rather than asking us to explore political possibilities, urges us to revel in the thrills of oppression—the balefully beautiful neon-lashed high-rises of Blade Runner, the sinister doppelgangers enforcing the illusions of The Matrix, teenagers fighting to the death in The Hunger Games. Although dystopias are supposed to be hellish, these days they’re played for kicks—darkly glamorous worlds filled with nourish cops, skateboarding hackers, and sexy-cute Japanese chicks offering designer drugs.

You’ll find no such romanticized defeatism in the books of Kim Stanley Robinson. Over the past 35 years this California-based science –fiction writer has built up a brainy voluminously honored body of work, from the iconic early stories like “The Lucky Strike,” in which the bombing of Hiroshima is accidentally averted, to the hugely ambitious 2009 novel, Galileo’s Dream, in which the 17th-century physicist travels 1,400 years through time to the moons of Jupiter. Now I realize that SF may not be your taste. Ordinarily it’s not mine either: I hate funny names and dislike spending time on any planet with more than one moon. But Robinson is something different. Whether he’s imagining 8th-century Mongolia, present-day Washington, D.C., or 22nd-century Mars, his fiction is a kind of laboratory in which he explores utopia in all its grandeur and fragility.

“Anyone can do a dystopia these days,” he once said, “but utopias are hard and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, ‘We did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better.’ Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization.”

He offers one such vision in his jaunty new novel, 2312 (Orbit), which begins with what appears to be a happy time for humankind’s outer-space diaspora. Mars has been successfully colonized but is acting a bit like a gated community. Mercury has a huge glassed-in capital city, Terminator, built on wheels that roll it out of the sun’s murderous rays. Even human beings are getting transformed. The heroine, Swan Er Hong, is a performance artist, yet that may be the most normal thing about her. She’s bisexual and bi-gendered and converses with “Pauline,” a quantum computer planted beneath her skin. When Terminator is hit by a terrorist attack, Swan launches a quest to find out who did it, an investigation that eventually carries her from Venus to “a sad place”—Earth. Ecologically ravaged, run by corporations, torn by the abyss between the rich and the poor, our planet is exporting its crises to our whole galaxy.

Like all of Robinson’s work, 2312 is shot through with ideas—from the malleable nature of gender to the excitement of “rewilding” the earth by bringing back vanished animals that have been kept alive in outer-space terraria. Underlying it all is the awareness that, even in a 24th-century world bursting with scientific and technological transformations, people cannot escape the patterns of history we’re living through right now. Robinson reminds us that every possible future has its seed planted in the contested soil of the past.

The same is true, of course, of writers. Robinson grew up hiking and surfing in Orange County during the glorious 1950s-1960s governorship of Pat Brown, and like historian Kevin Starr, he views that era in California as offering something close to a workingman’s paradise: “I grew up in utopia,” says his fictional alter ego in the sunny 1990 novel Pacific Edge. Yet even as Robinson writes rapturously of orange groves, pristine hillsides, and the colorful “gem sand” that washes up after big storms, he knows that he spent his childhood in what he calls a “pocket utopia,” an idyllic place that’s idyllic largely because some other place is not. The OC, after all, once belonged to Native American tribes wiped out in the name of civilization.

Robinson’s ability to see his childhood home from more than one angle takes vivid form in his terrific early trilogy, Three Californias, whose heartfelt freshness makes it my favorite of his works and the ideal introduction to his writing. In a kind of intellectual Cubism, each book offers a different portrait of Orange County: a post-apocalyptic landscape in The Wild Shore (1984), an overdeveloped and militarized “autopia” in The Gold Coast (1988)—emotionally, the most autobiographical of Robinson’s fictions—and a human-scale, softball-playing utopia in Pacific Edge.

It’s in this trilogy that Robinson lays out his abiding themes: the devouring nature of capitalism, the splendors of the natural environment, the need for individuals to move beyond defeatism and act politically. In a touch that might strike East Coast readers as the purest California, Robinson inflects his politics with ideas taken from Buddhism and Native American culture (for him, the beatified missionary Junipero Serra is one of history’s villains). All this might make him sound like just another old hippie, yet Robinson, a practiced outdoorsman married to an environmental chemist, is not one to embrace intellectual fuzziness. His work is steeped in science, which now, more than ever, he thinks a distinctive form of leftism.


One of science fiction’s virtues is its ability to expand our frame of reference, liberating us from ways of seeing that have become so habitual they seem natural. Where a supposedly serious TV show like Parenthood remains unquestioningly mired in America’s middle-class certainties—it’s all about its characters individual psychologies and problems—the less vaunted Battlestar Galactica puts those certainties at issue. It uses the strangeness of space-ship life and alien species to explore what it means to be human. There’s a similarly revelatory estrangement at work in Robinson’s most acclaimed work the colorfully titled Mars Trilogy—Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996)—an epic saga about Earth’s colonization of the Red Planet. Because we have no ready-made conceptions of Mars, Robinson is free to show us the long, slow process of establishing a new civilization. Over the course of 200 years and almost 2,000 pages, we watch humankind arrive, build settlements, and begin a process known as “terraforming”—the modifying of Mars’s landscape, temperature, atmosphere, and ecology in order to make it as habitable as Earth. Robinson has always been obsessed by the process of material development—whether in the OC or on even stranger planets—and he chronicles the colonists’ feats of science and engineering with an attention to physical detail worth of Frank Norris; Robinson’s Mars makes most other outer-space colonies seem flimsy, even whimsical.

Each of the trilogy’s main characters embodies a different philosophical approach, and their arguments play out an extraterrestrial version of our own unresolved questions: What should be privately owned and what shouldn’t? How much should we alter the natural environment? Should the original settlers have greater authority than the immigrants who arrive later? What of those who were born on Mars—are they more truly Martian than those born on Earth? The Mars Trilogy shows us the obduracy of both Martian rock and human contradiction.

Here it should be admitted that plowing through Robinson’s books can itself take some work. Not a born storyteller, he has a weakness for wan love stories, a fondness for manly high jinks, and a bit too much faith in physical description—I confess to occasional skimming. Then again, what makes Robinson so good is that he’s not trying to write conventionally thrilling genre novels. Like Don DeLillo and Jean-Luc Godard, he cares less about gripping drama (big events happen, as it were, offscreen) than confronting us with ideas and images most writers ignore. His books are laced with non-narrative interpellations—snippets from future encyclopedias, potted histories of Orange County, quotations from Emerson, scientific theories—which, like his futuristic settings, aim to take us outside mere action where we can think about what action might mean.

He does just that in his monumental The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). Spanning the 14th to 21st centuries the novel is a massive and sophisticated elaboration Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, an alternative history in which the Japanese take over the West Coast after winning World War II. Here, Robinson conjures a world in which the Black Death wipes out European civilization in the 13000s, rewriting history on a grand scale: Instead of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam become the dominant religions; instead of Western Europe, southern India invents the modern; and instead of being wiped out, Native American survive the discovery of America—by Asians.

Robinson also finds a new way of depicting personal development. In a daring narrative gambit, he anchors his storytelling in Buddhist ideas of the soul. The book’s heroes are a small number of men and women who, over the course of seven centuries, keep being reincarnated—as slaves and scientists, alchemists and kings, explorers and philosophers and unhappy wives. Each time they die, they meet again in what Tibetan Buddhists call the bardo, an intermediate state between lives. Aware they will be thrown back into a new life, they attempt, often fruitlessly, to learn from past ones. Knowledge doesn’t come quickly, yet like Bill Murray’s selfish weatherman in Groundhog Day, they gradually learn to live more wisely and to help their world progress.

As usual with Robinson’s novels, The Years of Rice and Salt bends toward a utopian ending, yet it leaves us not with a final impression of triumph but an awareness of how much hard, agonizing effort, both personal and social, goes into making even a modestly decent world. In emphasizing the necessity for struggle, Robinson carries on the tradition of those leftist utopians who weren’t, after all, the deluded fools that most on the right seem to think. They knew that history is tricky.

During the horrors of Nazi Germany, the great Marxist philosopher Ernst Block wrote: “This is not a time to be without wishes.” He knew that any successful political movement must begin with some idea of utopia. Robinson would agree, I think, but he also knows that utopia is not the fulfillment of a wish. Nor is it an end point or the moment when history stops. It’s an eternally ongoing project, an unending battle fraught with detours and setbacks, in which we all-too-limited human beings must, as he writes in the final lines of Galileo’s Dream, put our shoulders to whatever wheel history sets before us and together try to “crab sideways toward the good.”

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