The Man Who Fell for Earth

The New Yorker has called him “one of the most important political writers working in America today.” Time magazine has called him a hero of the environment. But it’s being a science fiction author that has landed Kim Stanley Robinson on the global literary map and The New York Times bestseller list. At a time when the debate on climate change is heating up once again, a new book by the Davis novelist and ecological champion examines a future in which we’re grappling with the mistakes of our past.

llustration by Leif Jones

The science fiction novelist has landed. He has returned from an alien landscape. Flush with the experience, he is eager to share tales of severe Tweather conditions, makeshift human settlements, and epic scientific exploration.

The author in question is longtime Davis resident Kim Stanley Robinson, best known for his “Mars Trilogy” of novels—Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996)—which imagined the terraforming of the Red Planet into something habitable. Several of his books are currently being developed for the screen, including those very chronicles of Martian eminent domain. The New York Times, on whose bestseller list he has appeared, has said that he is “widely regarded as one of the best living science fiction novelists.”

Robinson’s novels have been translated into two dozen languages, his science-based fiction having earned him attention well beyond the sci-fi section of your favorite local or online bookstore. Time magazine has labeled Robinson one of its “Heroes of the Environment” for his ongoing, concerted, multifaceted promotion of the issues associated with climate change. The New Yorker has called him “one of the most important political writers working in America today.”

Over the years since the 1984 publication of his first novel, The Wild Shore, Robinson has won numerous major literary awards for science fiction, including the Locus, the Nebula and the John W. Campbell—as well as perhaps the highest in the field, the Hugo, which he received for the second and final volumes in his Mars series. He’s written most of his books in Davis, where he has lived—aside from temporary stints in Switzerland and Washington, D.C.—since 1978.

As for the alien landscape from which Robinson has returned, it is closer to home than Mars, but only slightly friendlier to human visitation.

* * * * *

Robinson is back from a trip to Antarctica—yes, Antarctica, home to that southernmost of poles. He was there on assignment for Smithsonian magazine to write about zoologist Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s experience during the “Worst Journey in the World,” the infamous 1910-1913 expedition to Antarctica led by Robert Falcon Scott. These days approaching Antarctica is a bit like climbing Mount Everest—the edgework of early pioneers like Scott and Ernest Shackleton is long past, the approach now well trod, but once you arrive the environs are not much more welcoming.

Robinson, on this December afternoon, has taken a seat inside Mishka’s cafe on 2nd Street in Davis and begun to describe his recent trek. Mishka’s was his suggestion. “It’s an independent,” he says. “It roasts its own coffee and has good jazz over the sound system.”

To get to Antarctica, he explains, first you fly to New Zealand, and then you catch a military transport plane, in this case a massive Boeing C-17, the rest of the way. For Robinson the final destination was the research station on McMurdo Sound. Despite being named after a mid-1800s British navy officer, McMurdo is American property.

“It’s not grotesquely cold,” says Robinson, in by all accounts an act of stiff-lipped understatement. “Also, the National Science Foundation provides the ultimate in cold-weather gear: a big jacket, long pants and bunny boots.” The latter is the local Antarctica vernacular for a particular brand of oversized, lace-up, highly insulated footwear.

Author Kim Stanley Robinson in downtown Davis in December 2016 (Photo by Max Whittaker)

The visit was not Robinson’s first time on Antarctica. He was previously there just over 20 years ago, back in 1995, to research a novel. The result was Antarctica (1997), in his words “a near-future adventure set down there, with an eco-terrorist plot.” It was the first book he published after completing his Mars series.

The continent has changed quite a bit in the intervening decades. News of melting ice makes headlines regularly, almost as often as do the heated politics surrounding the issue of climate change. Some things, though, have not changed at all. “The historic huts looked the same,” says Robinson, “and you saw some of the same faces. A lot of the young tattooed people came up to me and said, ‘I’m down here because I read your book.’ ”

That warm welcome at McMurdo on this trip was clearly rewarding for him. It is evident in his voice. Robinson, born in 1952, has a strong jaw and warm eyes. In his brown collared shirt and matching light sweater, he looks more professorial than do the actual professors seated at the cafe. He talks like a Ph.D.—he has one himself, in English, from UC San Diego, following a master’s at Boston University—unspooling facts and theories in paragraph-length detail. But when he delves into the trip, there is extra buoyancy to his already energized speech.

“I never have had quite that response,” he says, “you know, to a book, where people take action and just do it.” This strong reception by youthful Antarctica residents to one of Robinson’s decades-old fictions exemplifies the kind of momentum—climatic, political, philosophical—that the novels by this pleasantly gregarious yet studious man can, in fact, unleash. No doubt with the election of Donald Trump as president, there will be even more appetite for Robinson’s informed vision.

The visit was not Robinson’s first time on Antarctica. … “The historic huts looked the same,” he says, “and you saw some of the same faces. A lot of the young tattooed people came up to me and said, ‘I’m down here because I read your book.’ ”

Visiting Antarctica every few decades provides Robinson with a tangible sense of the interplanetary stories he is prone to imagine. “It feels alien,” he says of the polar landscape. “There’s an old book from the 1980s, Easy Travel to Other Planets. That always comes to my mind, even though that’s a novel about dolphins. It’s a great [description] for what Antarctica is. It’s probably strangest up on the polar cap, in terms of surrealistic alien quality. It is an ice planet. You know that there’s no place else like it.”

That said, many science fiction storytellers, given a gentle nudge, will happily explain that they are, in fact, writing not about the future or an alternate reality or an alien species. They are simply employing science fiction tropes to discuss the present, or more broadly the human condition—be it racial tension in The Planet of the Apes, or totalitarianism in George Orwell’s 1984.

Certainly, Robinson is no less concerned with the present than are his peers, and the question of defining humanness pervades his work. In the novel 2312 (set in the year of its title, precisely 300 years after its 2012 publication), humans have colonized the most distant outposts of our solar system, their bodies and cultures adapting to alien environments and technological dependencies. Like all his books, 2312 triggers brain-tingling questions: What do we share when Earth is a distant memory? Heck, what happens when the diverging anatomies of human splinter groups become sexually incompatible? In his subsequent novel, Shaman (2013), which takes place during the Ice Age, some 30-plus millennia ago, Robinson ponders the nature of family bonds among our distant genetic ancestors.

His newest book is New York 2140, due out March 14, nine days shy of his 65th birthday. Despite the title’s futuristic dateline, the book feels quite proximate, especially in contrast to its immediate predecessor, the novel Aurora. That book, published in 2015, told the story of a “generation ship” crossing vast expanses of space—in other words, of a spaceship whose pilots at launch are several generations removed from the descendants who eventually might arrive at the intended destination.

Back on Earth for New York 2140, Robinson set out to write a sprawling story of the city, with numerous characters and viewpoints, a richly researched economic conspiracy, and extrapolative grace notes about the role of technology in daily life. The gee-whiz gadgetry in New York 2140 ranges from airborne video celebrities to pedestrian bridges between skyscrapers and all manner of high-stakes computer hacking. The book packs the grand drama of big-league business intrigue with the interpersonal details of mating rituals amid urban calamity.

But before Robinson could do all of that, first he had to sink Manhattan.

* * * * *

In commercial publishing terms, New York 2140 is a financial thriller. It’s economic in subject, not in scope (at over 600 pages long, in scope it is anything but economical), and told in a cyclical style from the point of view of a variety of characters. Each chapter focuses on a specific individual, their collective fates slowly overlapping as the narrative proceeds.

And it is all told in the context of a New York City that is partially underwater. In the century-plus between the book’s time and our time not one but two monumental phases of rising sea levels have turned Lower Manhattan into a mega-Venice, more easily traversed by boat than foot. Old buildings in Chelsea are rotting to their cores, while young adventurers hunt for submerged, if not outright buried, treasure.

Among the waterlogged locale’s denizens is that aerial celebrity, Amelia, a photogenic do-gooder with a penchant for showing some skin while enacting forced migrations, such as relocating polar bears to Antarctica when the Arctic has more in common with North America. There is Franklin, a successful financier who is unlucky in love, and Charlotte, a civil rights lawyer who finds herself leveraging a failed relationship for political gain. They and many other 2140 characters reside in the same structure, the old MetLife clock tower building on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, though at the start of the novel few of them even know each other.

If the menagerie sounds like one of Charles Dickens’ character-stuffed stories, that is not an accident. “It’s the same structure that Dickens uses in Bleak House,” Robinson says. He is referring in particular to how only Franklin’s chapters are penned in the first person, and also to the varying perspectives that inform the book. Like Bleak House, New York 2140 has a large financial entanglement at its center. Will the inhabitants of 5 Madison Avenue, which is no longer home to an insurance company and is instead a massive domestic co-op, fend off a buyout offer? That question turns out to be the key to a deeper intrigue about the economic markets.

Robinson singles out Isaac Asimov, regarded by many as one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, as a strong influence (“What I like is that Asimov was very [well] read, a kind of polymath and he was politically liberal”), and novelist John Dos Passos is a frequent touchstone. But while fiction informs Robinson’s own work, his deployment of facts distinguishes it. Like all Robinson’s books, New York 2140 is the result of research. He had decades of climate change knowledge to draw from, so the main work for this book was learning about New York and those markets.

Robinson’s new book imagines a post-flood Manhattan in the year 2140.For research on the city, he walked its streets, consumed its history and scaled its structures. “I spent a night in the old MetLife building,” he says, speaking of what is now the Edition hotel, “and one of the customer relations people showed me everything from the very top of the steeple to the bottom of the basement. I felt like I knew the building.” Like another of the book’s characters (the oldest of the bunch, a Mr. Hexter), Robinson fed on maps, in particular those in the book Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. That book happens to be the work of Eric W. Sanderson, who coincidentally got his Ph.D. in ecology at UC Davis in the late 1990s. Robinson’s book also quotes Lyn Lofland, retired chair of UCD’s sociology department. Much like the MetLife dwellers in New York 2140 learning mid-novel that they live in the same massive building, Robinson was unaware of Lofland being a longtime Davis resident. He had simply come upon her writing in that book about Manhattan.

For the economics of New York 2140, the book also has the Davis community to thank, in particular Mario Biagioli, the Italian-born head of the university’s Center for Science and Innovation Studies. “We often meet right here,” says Robinson, meaning Mishka’s cafe, “and I can ask him anything. He’s like a tutor, my personal Oxford don: ‘Mario, tell me about global finance.’ ” The two met in 2008 when Biagioli, a Galileo scholar, then at Harvard, came to visit Davis to give a lecture. “His student Colin Milburn, now a professor in the English department, and another friend on campus, [anthropology professor] Joe Dumit knew I was working on a Galileo novel, so they invited me to join them and Mario at Cafe Bernardo.” Biagioli went on to be an advisor on Robinson’s 2009 book Galileo’s Dream. “After I wrote my Galileo book,” says Robinson, “he moved here. So it’s like a miracle. And we’ve been buds ever since.”

“I think he is a little too generous,” says Biagioli of Robinson’s “tutor” designation. “One of the interesting things about Stan is that he does a huge amount of research.” (“Stan” is how everyone from Robinson’s publisher to his friends refer to the novelist. “I requested the [name] change when starting second grade to be more like Stan Musial,” Robinson says. “I too was a left-handed first baseman.”) “That’s something I noticed when he sent me the Galileo manuscript. You could tell he had read a lot and got the picture,” Biagioli adds. “He had an unusual sense of Galileo that he was able to develop by reading historians’ works, and he does that all the time.”

Robinson himself taught various courses at Davis between 1982 and 1985, including freshman composition and classes on science fiction, and he appreciates the benefits of college-town life. “It’s been very easy in Davis to avoid traffic and to get a lot of work done,” he says, “and also to develop a small-town collection of acquaintances and professional helpers.”

Robinson has lectured for numerous governmental and research organizations over the years (from the Yolo Land Trust to SpaceX and Google), but he has only engaged in politics actively once. “I tried to [fight] UC Davis when they were trying to turn some of their agricultural research fields into their own private faculty suburb [in 2004],” he recounts. “That was painful and made me late on my books. I’ve decided that really I’m best off writing my books and making them be political activism.”

In conversation the novelist differs little from his novels. He moves easily, rapidly and smoothly from the micro-mechanics of storytelling to epochal scale, from first dates to building infrastructure, from chase scenes to a systems analysis of governmental bureaucracy.

What makes New York 2140 so compelling is its close-up view of life after the flood. While informed by climate change, it takes place after the effects have long since and undeniably unfolded. Not just life but love—along with greed and pettiness, and all the other messy stuff of daily existence—continues.

“Life goes on. People who are alive don’t worry too much about the dead, or about the mistakes of the dead,” Robinson says. “I don’t want to make you think that I’m complacent. I think that people will be coping, and they’ll never stop coping. They’ll never give up and just lie down and say, ‘This is terrible.’ ”

* * * * *

There is a delightful fact of pure chance to Kim Stanley Robinson’s biography. He was born in Waukegan, Illinois, the exact same spot as Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, that other great collection of stories about the colonization of the Red Planet, as well as Fahrenheit 451, and other science fiction classics. There are 32 years between Bradbury and Robinson, and many more miles. For while Robinson is an Illinoisan by birth, he is a Californian by every other measure.

“My dad, after he finished a bachelor’s degree in engineering at Illinois Tech, got a job with Hughes Aircraft out in Southern California,” Robinson says. And so it was that young Stan moved to the Golden State with his family when he was just 3 years old.

Raised by his engineer father and a piano teacher mother, Robinson played trumpet as a child and describes his younger self as a methodical reader, having worked his way through the library “from A to Z,” as he puts it. He pursued an academic career up to the brink of his 30s, by which time he had moved to Davis. “I took a leave of absence from my grad work at UCSD,” he says. “That was 1978.”

Robinson’s ’90s “Mars Trilogy” rocketed the Davis novelist to sci-fi stardom.

Robinson now has grown kids of his own, two young men in their 20s, whom he raised with his wife Lisa Nowell, an environmental chemist. The two met through the Davis Aquatic Masters swim club in 1980. “She’s at the U.S. Geological Survey, part of their National Water-Quality Assessment [Program]’s national synthesis team, which has its home in the geology building of Sac State. She often works on the fate of pesticides in surface and ground water,” Robinson says. The family car is suitably climate-friendly. “We recently bought a Prius,” he mentions, geeking out on the details. “We have photovoltaic panels [at home] on our roof that make more electricity than we use, so by buying this plug-in we can—at least in the theory if not the actual electrons—direct some of the excess electricity we generate into our car. It feels good, and the car is pretty great in other ways too.”

California weighs heavily on Robinson’s writing. That first novel of his, The Wild Shore, published in 1984, imagined a regional predicament not unlike New York 2140. But as a product of the 1980s, the overwhelming threat from which society recovers is nuclear, not environmental. The Wild Shore turned out to be the first of a trilogy about potential California destinies. It was followed in 1988 by The Gold Coast, and then in 1990 by The Pacific Edge. While the three books read together as a whole, they do not share a timeline. They are different visions of our future.

Part of what stands out about Robinson, says author Karen Joy Fowler, is his fortitude. “When I first met him, he told me what his next seven books were going to be,” she says. “he stuck to the plan. I watched him write them, one after the other.”

If anyone has seen how Robinson spins these futures, it is fellow novelist Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club and a two-time Nebula Award winner herself. She lived in Davis for many years before moving to Santa Cruz in 2007 after her husband’s retirement from SMUD. She shares anecdotes of writing side by side with Robinson at Bogey’s Books, which was on E Street, just around the corner from Mishka’s, before it was shuttered in 2008. “They kept chairs for us right in front of the science fiction section, and sometimes they made us biscotti,” she says. “We were enormously spoiled.”

Part of what stands out about Robinson, says Fowler, is his fortitude. “When I first met him, he told me what his next seven books were going to be,” she says. “Even more astonishingly, he stuck to the plan. I watched him write them, one after the other.”

In Robinson’s telling, it was the result of mutual support: “Karen and I would put the laptops up and face each other and write together and we would police each other. We did that for about five years.”

More important to Fowler, though, than Robinson’s output is his outlook. “He is one of our great political writers,” she says, echoing The New Yorker’s depiction, “and also one of our great writers of the West. His attention to landscape and to terraforming on other planets—and the anti-terraforming we do here at home through development, drilling, polluting—is colored powerfully by the fact that he is and always has been a Californian.” She is charting a course from the West Coast to Mars, mapping how California’s history of environmentalism and rapid growth provides a blueprint for space exploration and planetary settlements.

Robinson is far from alone in this California-futurist scenario. Among other state notables, Robert Heinlein wrote from Santa Cruz, Ray Bradbury from Los Angeles, and Philip K. Dick (on whose works movies like Blade Runner and Total Recall were based and about whom Robinson wrote his Ph.D. thesis) from Berkeley. William Gibson’s near-future stories often are set or visit here, because here is where the future happens.

As with Fowler, Robinson also provided Jonathan Lethem, an acclaimed California-based novelist himself (Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude), a model for being a productive writer. Early in Lethem’s career, before publishing his first novel in 1994, he found himself at a party with Robinson at the home of one of science fiction’s most widely revered figures, Ursula K. Le Guin, best known for her Earthsea books. “It was a really magical brunch,” says Lethem of the rare and rarified occasion, sitting among many accomplished authors. “It was like a scene from a Bergman film, this beautiful table in the countryside. Time disappeared, and I was just soaking up the atmosphere. And at some point Stan was suddenly arranging to leave.”

Lethem could not believe anyone would miss out on such an opportunity. “[Stan] said he needed to write that day because he was writing a novel and he never missed a day when he was writing a novel,” Lethem recalls. “I was just gobsmacked. That’s what you do. There were just no exceptions for him. When you’re working, you work.”

* * * * *

With Antarctica behind him, Robinson has his sights set on a new alien landscape. The next destination is both earthbound and yet, at least to his English-language readers, quite distant. Robinson’s destination is none other than China.

He has been visiting Beijing of late to gather intelligence for his next book. He wrote about China previously in The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), which explored an alternate timeline where China and other non-Western nations and cultures, rather than Europe, set the cultural and racial tones for the course of human history. (Incidentally, Davis and Sacramento made indirect appearances in that novel, in references to a Central Valley farm college and The Great Flood of 1862.) As with New York 2140, the as-yet-untitled China book will look ahead, pondering what current trajectories might yield. And while it will have China as a setting, Robinson promises that it will also take readers well out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Robinson (left) celebrates science fiction legend Ray Bradbury’s 83rd birthday in August 2003 in Pasadena with actress Angie Dickinson (right) and "Star Trek" star Nichelle Nichols. (Stefano Paltera/AP Photo)

And as always, climate change is on his mind. “I was just in Beijing on a ‘bad air day.’ Air quality was at 450 on a scale where 300 is like, ‘Stay indoors!’ So I saw one of the most polluted places on Earth in one of the most crowded countries on Earth,” Robinson says. “It’s daunting but we’ve got to just do everything that we can and try to minimize loss of species. The apocalyptic vibe in the climate change movement is because people are so scared by what looks pretty damn bad, but so many good things are happening, too. I have been fighting this fight as a public intellectual, as a novelist and someone giving talk after talk after talk, since about 2002. I’ve seen huge changes in public acceptance. The speed at which clean technologies are being taken up is doubling, and that quickly makes huge differences.”

At this stage of the research and writing process, Robinson marvels at the mass—in human scale, and also historical—that defines China. “One out of every seven people on Earth is Chinese,” he says, “and they have a sense of themselves and of a 5,000-year history that is intense. Now there’s a huge amount of confidence and money, and technological expertise—and a population crisis, because their replacement rate is one of the lowest in the world. So they’ve got huge problems, but they’re vibrant.”

And China, in Robinson’s view, is something else as well: “They are the ‘other,’ ” he says, with emphasis, much as he used the word “alien” to describe Antarctica. “It’s like looking through the mirror. On one hand, they’re exactly like us, just people. On the other hand, as far as an ‘other culture’ to America, the big other? It’s China.”

And what comes after the China book? Reminded of what his old writing mate Fowler said about how when they first started working together he had his next seven books all planned out, Robinson replies, “That was kind of true, but I’ve run out. The funnel has emptied and there’s nothing filling it at the top. I’m fully confident that something will come up after the China book, but I don’t know what it is. I just have some vague ideas.”

Apparently the future is, for once, as unknown to the famed science fiction author as it is to his readers. S