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Robinson, Kim Stanley

Entry updated 6 May 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1952-    ) US author who began writing sf stories with "Coming Back to Dixieland" and "In Pierson's Orchestra", both published in Orbit 18 (anth 1975) edited by Damon Knight. He initially published solely in shorter forms, releasing about ten stories before gaining his PhD in English at the University of California in 1982, studying under Fredric Jameson. In revised form, his thesis was later published as The Novels of Philip K. Dick (1984); thoroughly researched, at ease with the protocols of academic writing while at the same time showing an acute understanding of 1950s sf, it remains a useful study of Philip K Dick's thorny oeuvre, though the flood of work on Dick has superseded it in some respects.

Robinson became widely known with the publication of his first novel, The Wild Shore (1984), released as one of Terry Carr's Ace Specials, which won a Locus Award, and which initiates the Three Californias sequence set in three versions of Orange County on the Pacific coast just south of Los Angeles (see California). The sequence is notable for the ambition and width of the tripartite Thought Experiment it unfolds, drawing upon Futures Studies in general, and in particular upon the literatures of Utopia and Dystopia, each narrative being gravely consistent throughout with the Hard SF requirement that any Technology-driven or -enabled change be soundly argued. The Wild Shore lucidly examines the sentimentalized kind of American sf Pastoral typically set in a seemingly secure Keep-like enclave after an almost universal catastrophe has transformed the world into a Ruined Earth. Sheltered from the full Disaster, Orange County has become an enclave whose inhabitants nostalgically espouse a re-established American hegemony, but whose smug ignorance of the world outside is ultimately self-defeating. In The Gold Coast (1988), Orange County several decades hence is seen through the lens of Dystopia; a similar array of characters – similarly related to one another – must grapple with an alternate Near Future outcome: in this case – whose historical line from the present requires only the most rudimentary extrapolation – a polluted, corrupt, desperately overcrowded California suffers from profound Ecological degradation. Under a third set of names, essentially the same characters find themselves, in Pacific Edge (1990), which won a John W Campbell Memorial Award, breathing the air of Utopia. In this world Orange County has benefited from restrictions on corporate size and strict controls over land use and Pollution. Although the novel shows the near impossibility of imagining a living utopia (that everyone plays softball pretty constantly may not be an entirely convincing synecdoche of a wholesome lifestyle), a sense of earned freshness and relief permeates its pages. As a whole, the three versions of the same story comprise a structurally adventurous and searching Thought Experiment, one that seems never to have been attempted earlier, nor since.

Robinson's other early novels are varyingly successful. Icehenge (fixup 1984) strikingly conflates three incompatible readings of the significance of an artefact found on Pluto (see Outer Planets), exploring a range of issues from epistemology to the nature of historical tradition. The Memory of Whiteness: A Scientific Romance (1985) less successfully attempts to suggest analogues between Music theory and the structure of the Universe (see Cosmology), while at the same time conducting its musician hero – typical of Robinson's protagonists, he is an almost constantly active character – on a Fantastic Voyage through the solar system, starting with the Outer Planets and moving inwards, where Space Habitats proliferate; the narrative dynamics of the tale are perhaps too decorously muted, in accordance with the distanced and distancing Scientific Romance perspectives involved. Escape from Kathmandu (1988 chap), later expanded as Escape from Kathmandu (coll of linked stories 1989), set in a stress-ridden mystical Nepal, amusingly and more relaxedly exploits Robinson's own experience as a mountaineer. A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) carries its athletic and ultimately clear-eyed protagonist into a soul-defining trek across an endless sea-girt peninsula which is freely symbolic of death, or of the nature of life, or simply of the path a person must follow to fill out a human span.

Shorter forms have never seemed fully roomy enough for the comfortable expounding of Robinson's premises about the worlds in store, though some of this work is undeniably successful. Earlier stories appear in The Planet on the Table (coll 1986), The Blind Geometer (1986 chap; with one story added, coll 1989 dos) – a later but lesser magazine version (August 1987 Asimov's) won the 1987 Nebula for Best Novella – and A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions (coll 1991 chap; exp vt Remaking History 1991; incorporating The Planet on the Table, further exp as omni 1994). Later shorter work has been variously assembled; the most useful titles are probably Vinland the Dream and Other Stories (coll 2002) and The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (coll 2010).

Of much greater significance was the second of Robinson's three series to date, all of these series being deeply ambitious attempts to argue the future as a cognitively sound extrapolation from human history (see History in SF). The Mars trilogy is prefigured by a draft preview of the arguments of the novels to come in the form of Green Mars (September 1985 Asimov's; 1988 chap dos), which treats Mars as a realistic habitat for the human species, but is otherwise unconnected to the trilogy itself: Red Mars (1992), which won the 1993 Nebula; Green Mars (1993), which won the 1994 Hugo; and Blue Mars (1996), which again won a Hugo in 1997, plus the Locus Award. The narrative unpacks in detail a Future History during the course of which the human settlers of Mars gain political independence of Earth (a full constitution is provided in the text) while engaging in a debate over the ethics and practicalities involved in Terraforming the planet. With suitable cognitive caution, the cast (and the sequence) comes down on the side of planetary transformation. Faced with a long (and sometimes dogged) presentation of complex arguments – all based on thorough research into the science and Technology of Terraforming, and into the physical nature of Mars itself – Robinson has shaped his tale around the experiences over time (a longevity drug proves helpful here, as well as other effects of some moderate Genetic Engineering) of some of the First Hundred colonists, who reappear from volume to volume over the 200 years of the story arc; the resulting sense of continuity is, quite deliberately, diluted, as though to sidestep a certain sweet-tooth for the transhuman (see Transcendence) that Robinson shares with many writers of Hard SF. The Martians (coll 1999) assembles tales that fit into the interstices of the larger enterprise.

Two singletons followed the central Mars tales. Antarctica (1997), transparently based on the author's own experiences in Antarctica, is a Near Future tale most interesting for its description of living on (and trekking across) the continent. The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), which won the Locus Award, is an Alternate History whose Jonbar Point is a fifteenth-century Black Death, a Pandemic whose effects are far more savage than in our world, and which essentially eliminates Western Europe as an engine of history. In the absence of Christian Europe, the history of the next 700 years focuses variously on lands dominated by Islam, on India, and upon immense China. With a clear didactic intent, Robinson creates parallels between this history and our own: Inventions and scientific advances are co-ordinated with ours, and a similar (though ultimately very different) Great War haunts the later pages of the long text. The main protagonists live mortal lives but after their posthumous souls are purified in an Equipoisal bardo (a Buddhist concept for the place where souls await rebirth), they continue new lives, not quite remembering their previous incarnations. Some of the didactic contrivances are forced; but the abiding sense of the tale is of reverence for the constant rebirth and re-affirmation of lives passed in the interstices of the lessons told, lifetime after lifetime passed in the regions of rice and salt, that comprise, in the end, all that matters.

Robinson's third trilogy – the Capital Code sequence comprising Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005) and Sixty Days and Counting (2007) – again faces the Near Future directly, in this case at a point when Climate Change has begun – it would seem undeniably – to transform the world as the Gulf Stream fails, Washington is drowned, and weather patterns worldwide become hugely turbulent. The sequence focuses on America, on American Politics, on right-wing American Climate Change Denial, and ultimately on some radical Technological fixes for what seems to be an irreversible series of Disasters. There is no clear sense that the solutions offered here will work – even if the American government manages to attempt to implement them – but Robinson's perpetually active protagonists struggle on: hoping to make the story of technological fix come true.

In several further singletons, Robinson offers distinctly different angles of vision. Galileo's Dream (2009) complexly suggests that our world is in fact an Alternate History, the Jonbar Point for which is the Catholic Inquisition's failure to burn Galileo at the stake, so that he lives out his life in house arrest, squabbling furiously and creating new discourse with the rest of Europe. In the "real" world, his death has inflamed and radicalized much of Europe, causing an intolerant narrowness of vision, a frozenness in the human enterprise climaxing in the appalling Utopias that dominate the moons of Jupiter; the plot turns on the successful efforts of a team from the "real" world to keep Galileo alive. 2312 (2012) returns to a panoptic vision of the Solar System, again complexly reconfigured. The traumas attending Earth's transaction of the twenty-first century seem to have generated an empowered, though perhaps unusually athletic, interplanetary civilization; threats to this dynamic comity are duly met; the novel won a Nebula award.

Shaman (2013), which is both Prehistoric SF and Bildungsroman, follows the growth to maturity, 32,000 BCE, of young Loon, who evolves into the profoundly inspired artist (see Arts) responsible for some of the paradigmatic images only discovered in the Chauvet cave in France as recently as 1996. Robinson's sense of the haunting modernity of Loon's mind is fully in accord with twenty-first century investigations of this aspect of the human condition, as summarized (for instance) in Ice Age Art: The Arrival of the Modern Mind (2013) by Jill Cook. Aurora (2015), an inventive Generation Starship novel that comes late in the history of that topos, carries 2,000 passengers/inhabitants towards the Tau Ceti system; narrated by the ship's AI, the tale focuses upon life-histories, which are intricately interwoven into expositions (see Infodump, a procedure to which Robinson is prone but has increasingly mastered) of circumstances familiar to the form: Communication problems with Earth, and matters of Ecology, Evolution and Politics. Underlying doubts about the prospects for Homo sapiens are darkened in the distant Near Future New York 2140 (2017) (see New York), set in a world devastated by Climate Change, which is responsible for a fifty-foot rise in the ocean level, radically transforming the low-lying metropolis. The complex tale deploys a large cast, articulated through eight interacting subplots, who all reside in the same skyscraper. The portrait achieved of the times to come is realistic. Set three decades into the Near Future, during a period of Chinese dominance on the Moon, Red Moon (2018) ostensibly unpacks in terms of the to-ing and fro-ing of its attractive young protagonists, but more than usual in his previous work – whose protagonists tended to be intrinsic to the working out of the Thought Experiment "proposal" of the text in question – they serve as occasions for ruminative explorations of the meaning of the world to come, rather in the manner of the Scientific Romance; this is all the more true with the Thought Experiment at the heart of The Ministry for the Future (2020), the foreboding Futures Studies tone of its arguments over how to save the planet contrasting at points, deliberately, with a vision of the Near Future as an arena for the endgame of Homo sapiens (see End of the World).

In a somewhat contrived 1980s attempt to contrast him to Cyberpunk writers, Robinson was described as a Humanist; it proved to be a distinction without content, and the controversy created is now part of the History of SF. Though it might be possible to call him a Hard SF Humanist, what in fact most characterizes the growing reach and power of his work is its cogent analysis and its disposal of such category thinking. In some form or another, Robinson's career has consistently adhered to an overriding cognitive imperative: the argument that Homo species will not thrive unless humane Utopias can be created out of the increasingly disaster-prone real world, an argument intimately married to a conviction that unless we manage against heavy odds to make the world significantly better, we are almost certainly doomed to make it worse; Robinson's more recent works more and more starkly confront this choice. [JC]

see also: Ace Books; Asimov's Science Fiction; Definitions of SF; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Mathematics; Messiahs; Nanotechnology; Nuclear Energy; Philip K Dick Award; Robert A Heinlein Award; Seiun Award; Slingshot Ending; Space Elevator.

Kim Stanley Robinson

born Waukegan, Illinois: 23 March 1952



Three Californias

  • The Wild Shore (New York: Ace Books, 1984) [Three Californias: in the publisher's third Science Fiction Special series: pb/Andrea Baruffi]
  • The Gold Coast (New York: Tor, 1988) [Three Californias: hb/Bruce Jensen]
  • Pacific Edge (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990) [Three Californias: hb/Lee Gibbons]
    • Three Californias (New York: Tor Essentials, 2020) [omni of the above three: Three Californias: pb/Jamie Stafford-Hill]


  • Green Mars (New York: Tor, 1988) [novella: chap: dos: first appeared September 1985 Asimov's: Mars: pb/Vincent Di Fate]
  • Red Mars (London: HarperCollins, 1992) [volume one of central trilogy: Mars: hb/Mel Grant]
  • Green Mars (London: HarperCollins, 1993) [volume two of central trilogy: no connection with Green Mars above: Mars: hb/Peter Elson]
  • Blue Mars (London: HarperCollins, 1996) [volume three of central trilogy: Mars: hb/Peter Elson]
  • The Martians (London: HarperCollins, 1999) [coll: Mars: hb/Peter Elson]

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