Review of Kim Stanley Robinson
Robert Markley. Kim Stanley Robinson. University of Illinois Press, 2019. Modern Masters of Science Fiction. Paperback. 248 pg. $25.00. ISBN 9780252084584.
Robert Markley’s Kim Stanley Robinson is a wonderfully crafted and targeted introduction to one of the most significant writers in 20th century science fiction. Robinson’s works of fiction depicting climate, interstellar travel, planetary politics, Martian terraforming, and utopic visions have been a vital backdrop in science fiction over the last 40 years which are only becoming more relevant today. Markley’s work in categorizing Robinson’s contributions to science fiction is the perfect volume both for an amateur who is new to Robinson and is unsure where to start, and for well-versed academics pursuing research within this field. Kim Stanley Robinson is neither a chronological index of Robinson’s work, nor is it a biography but rather a panning camera which zooms in and out to tastefully pull apart the key themes, messages, and lessons within Robinson’s major works. Robert Markley is a professor of English at the University of Illinois and is well equipped to write on Robinson, both with his friendship with the author as well as his shared interests. Markley has several publications in the field of climate change, science fiction, and the environment. These include “Ecological Footprints: Crusoe’s Island and Other Alien Environments,” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction; “Literature, Climate, and Time: Between History and Story,” in Climate and Literature; and “Nation and Environment in Britain, 1660-1705,” in Emergent Nation: Early Modern British Literature in Transition, 1660–1714 and represent a small sample of his larger canon of work and themes closely connected to Robinson’s own interests. In the Introduction, Markley examines the threads of ecological, utopian, and Buddhist threads in Robinson’s works. Markley’s volume balances deep literary analysis with a personal and engaging exploration of Robinson and his work. He devotes close analysis to Robinson’s works, treating them with the same weight he has given to other great works of literature such as Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674), whilst still emphasizing the impact of family, background, and connection to the land have had on Robinson’s fiction. This focused exploration reveals an extensive understanding of Robinson’s work and highlights why Robinson is truly a modern Master of Science Fiction.
Markley’s chapters are categorized by key works, with Chapter One being devoted to Robinson’s short fiction and Years of Rice and Salt (2002). Chapter Two and Three focus on the Three Californias Trilogy (1984-90) (which explores different visions of California) and the Mars trilogy (1992-96) respectively. Chapter Four defines Robinson’s Cli-fi through the Capital Trilogy (2004-07), an insightful exploration into this vital theme of ecology within Robinson’s canon. Chapter Five looks at four of Robinson’s novels, from both earlier and later in his career, which critique the familiar motif and celebration of intergalactic travel, unpacking the political and ecological conflicts Earth must face. Finally, Chapter Six looks at Robinson’s most recent works, Aurora (2015) and NY2140 (2017).
Chapter Six neatly tracks the direction of Robinson’s most contemporary works, focusing on two alternate futures for mankind. In Aurora, the ship narrates the lives of intergalactic explorers looking for their new home. The work problematizes and critiques the space fantasies so often explored in science fiction and asks questions about the nature of AI, environmentalism, and the problems of long-term ship life. NY2140 is a story from the perspective of a collection of different characters who try to survive in a highly capitalistic and flawed new society which has become a water-logged New York. The work is highly critical of our current passivity to climate change with a key character, the “citizen,” an unnamed everyman who berates previous generations for doing next to nothing to prevent the disasters of the new Anthropocene. Rather than producing a depressing pessimistic piece, Robinson offers hope through his depictions of people working together, sharing kindness and love, and dismantling capitalistic and selfish structures, remembering that it is vital that we take care of our environment.
Markley’s Kim Stanley Robinson is an affordable and vital exploration into the life, works, and impact of Robinson’s fiction. In the Introduction, Markley identifies the words “utopia,” “explore,” and “reframe” as key words which might arise if a word search were done on the book. In addition, I would like to add “ecology”; whilst politics, space exploration, sociology and science are key themes, Robinson (and Markley) remind us that mother nature always bats last. Robinson’s utopias and works over the last forty years are only becoming more and more relevant. Utopias are sometimes considered as pure fantasies, too removed from current situations. However, Robinson’s Utopias are grounded survival guides for a real-world future, which are only becoming more relevant today. Robinson reminds us the need and demand for skilled and ethically charged writers to create them.
Whether one is researching cli-fi or science fiction and wants to explore deeply the themes of Robinson’s works, or whether one is new to the author and unsure where to start, Markley’s introduction is both comprehensive and accessible.
The literary critic Wayne Booth states that we often “underestimate the extent to which we absorb the values of what we read” and that fiction can shape our ethics and understanding of the world (41). In a similar vein, Robinson believes that we as a society are all writing our own science fiction novel, collaborating together when we read his works. If this is the case, then what better work to mimic than one which promotes ecological conservation and community, and seeks to question capitalistic tropes.
Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. The University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Tara B. M. Smith is a PhD student at the University of Sydney’s Department of Studies of Religion, Australia. Her PhD thesis explores the significance of Science Fiction in understanding the future and the way the genre is relevant and impacts cultural, social, religious and environmental landscapes. Tara’s interests include conspiracy theories, cli-fi, New Religious Movements, comparative religion and literature portrayals of the environment.