Tag Archives: Kim Stanley Robinson

2312, Kim Stanley Robinson

<em class="BookTitle">2312</em>, Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2012, 576 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-09812-0

I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half doing things other than reading voraciously, and as a result I’m not as up-to-date on the state of written Science-Fiction as I used to be.  Gone are the days when I could read a just-published book and justifiably call it one of the year’s best: Now I’m not even keeping up with the slate of Hugo-nominated novels.  Years ago, I would have read Robinson’s 2312 within a week of publication: Now, I’m belatedly coming to it after it winning the Nebula and being on the Hugo short-list.  But then again, years ago I would have given it unqualified praise.  Now, with a bit of perspective, I have a few doubts to share.

The good news, without any doubt, is that 2312 showcases Robinson in heavy-duty Science Fiction futurism mode, harkening back (sometimes ironically) to Robinson’s Mars trilogy.  It’s the kind of sweeping mid-future tour of the Solar System that makes up the core of the written SF genre, and yet seems so rare nowadays.  It’s a vision of the future that’s big and grand and optimistic and filled with complexities.  It’s a big fat novel designed to show ideas –there’s a plot somewhere in the novel, but it’s not nearly as important as seeing our protagonists experience life circa 2312.

Our protagonist is Swan, an impulsive artist/ecodesigner who gets involved in a system-wide investigation following the death of her grandmother and an attack on her Mercurian home-city.  She soon comes to spend a lot of time with Fitz Wahram, a cool diplomat who is in many ways opposite to her personality.  This fire-and-ice romance ends up being one of the book’s plot driver, the other being the quest to unearth a conspiracy designed at taking over the various political entities of the Solar System. 

But reading 2312 for the plot (or the strangely off-putting characters) is a bit of a waste when the novel seems to be built around experiential set-pieces.  The novel is structured as a series of episodes as Swan makes her way throughout the Solar System, living life to its fullest by taking advantage of the various opportunities offered to her.  She hears opera on Mercury, surfs Saturn’s ice-rings, drops animals over the Canadian wilderness, and runs with the wolves within traveling asteroids.  There are a lot of big ideas on display along the way (some of them recycled and updated from previous Robinson works, such as the roving city of Terminator), facilitated by the explicit encyclopedic passages that are an essential chunk of the structure of the novel. (Thanks, John Dos Passos!)

For seasoned SF fans and Robinson enthusiasts, it’s hard to read the book without missing the various shout-outs to classic SF works dropped without ceremony in the text itself.  There’s a self-referential bit of plotting in that for a writer best known for his Mars trilogy, Robinson never allows his system-spanning plot to go on Mars except at the very ending of the novel, once the conflicts and contradictions have been resolved.  Anyone familiar with Robinson’s work will also see that the characters’ hobbies (in particular their tendency to go trekking in the wilderness at the slightest opportunity) seems to be a direct extension of the author’s interests.

You can see what kind of reception this core-genre SF book may receive.  Seasoned old-school Science Fiction fans are likely to love this book.  It feels like an updated and beefed-up version of the kind of plot-light futuristic travelogues that Arthur C. Clarke did so well thirty years ago, or the kind of solar-system tour of wonders that John Varley attempted in his heyday.  It’s a kind of SF that feels familiar, comfortable and positively inspiring after the genre’s recent fascination with the apocalypse in all of its forms.  I have no qualms to state that I loved most of 2312 and wish that they would be many more SF novels in the same vein.  Robinson can be a frustratingly uneven writer, but this novel is one of his good ones.

On the other hand…

Reading the online chatter about the book has been both illuminating and exasperating.  For every bad review where the reader approached the book antagonistically, there has been comments reminding me that Robinson’s aims with 2312 are centered at a fairly narrow group of core-SF readers.  Info-dumps are features for the kind of readers Robinson is writing for, but I can see why more casual readers may be put off.  Heck, Robinson’s interests aren’t exactly mine, and when his characters go out of their way to enjoy pastimes typical of wealthy educated left-leaning upper-middle-class Californians, it’s hard not to feel left out or, worse, feel that this shiny view of the future doesn’t necessarily reflect everyone else’s.

This idea ties into the “irrefragable Africa” passage that so rightfully annoyed and enraged some readers.  To sum up the controversy: In the middle of a Solar System bustling with activity, Robinson’s protagonist goes to Earth (where things are usually bad, as the planet staggers under the impact of global climate change and entrenched political/economic systems), and then to Africa where she finds herself stymied by a continent that seemingly refuses help from well-meaning richer people.  She leaves in frustration, concluding that Africa is forever doomed to act against its own self-interest despite the righteous intervention of people who (from the protagonist’s perspective) know much better.

It’s hard to know where to begin in taking down this small piece of the novel.  Perhaps by pointing out the terrible legacy of colonialism and then the neo-colonialism that took its place?  Perhaps by pointing out that this vision of a self-defeating Africa ignores the real and tangible progress being made continent-wide for the past few decades?  Perhaps by reminding first-world readers that their hopes and aspirations should not be imposed on a continent?  Robinson gets half-points for mulling that all of Earth in 2312 is just as self-defeating, but he should understand that he’s writing at a time where SF’s shortcomings in matters of class, inclusiveness, racism and sexism are under intense scrutiny.  Any slip-up is likely to be criticized, let alone a spectacularly dumb passage like this one, which feels like a rich Californian punching down at a less-privileged target. 

This, in turn, easily leads to a contemplation of the current state of the Science Fiction genre.  I have an awful suspicion that 2312 may be one of the last big hurrah of the genre at it used to exist, in particularly the WASP Southern-California school of SF as it shined most brightly in the 1970s and 1980s.  Writers such as Bear, Benford, Brin, Niven and Robinson: save for Robinson, who has earned some general literary renown, most of those writers aren’t the dominant voices they used to be.  Science Fiction is changing profoundly and rapidly, shattering in a million pieces that reflect the increasing diversity of its authorship and audience.  We should be welcoming this change for the better SF it brings, but at the same time it’s becoming obvious that some of the older guard is having trouble keeping up. 

2312 wouldn’t have earned half the disappointed comments it got had it not explicitly positioned itself at the cutting edge.  It’s supposed to be as inclusive a vision of the future as it can be (and for his slip-ups, Robinson has at least presented a joyously polymorphous future when it comes to gender and sexual preferences), meaning that it invites non-inclusiveness criticism by default.  I may think that Robinson has done a pretty good job –but then again I’m pretty close to Robinson’s demographic profile.  It may take another kind of writer to write about a future that acknowledges and celebrates a greater audience.  And as I read less and less SF, it dawns on me that it may take another kind of reader to best appreciate it.

Sixty Days and Counting, Kim Stanley Robinson

<em class="BookTitle">Sixty Days and Counting</em>, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 2007, 388 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-80313-6

Little about Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy has been conventional so far, so it fits that the third volume, Sixty Days and Counting, also defies usual trilogy protocols. Mind you, it fits the subject: Critic John Clute often talks about the challenges of fiction in representing today’s “unstoryable” concepts that cannot have clearly-defined heroes and dramatic climaxes (such as environmentalism). This book puts the notion to the test, and though it may bore readers looking for more excitement, it does manage to remain true to its ideals.

By the time thir third volume begins, the flashy battles have been won: Pro-environment Phil Chase is the President of the United States, the NSA has gained enough favor with him to be able to lead the massive new governmental programs required to deal with global warming, and the Gulf Stream has been rebooted thanks to a massive saline injection. In another context, this would mean the end of the story. Here, though, there are still plenty of small issues to consider. Frank Vanderwal is still brain-damaged and unable to make decisions, which gets more and more dangerous as a shadowy group sets its sights on him. Meanwhile, Charlie Quibbler returns to political life, leaving behind his son, who may still be affected by the influence of the Khembali monks.

On a conventional plot level, only Frank’s struggles with brain damage, his lifestyle, his dangerous girlfriend and her unsavory, all-powerful ex-associates keep things moving. Frank struggles with decision-making following his assault in the previous book, but by the time he decides to have an operation that may solve the issue, he’s fighting for his life, chasing down covert agents and trying to uncover the identity of those who try to manipulate US elections. But even he can’t do it alone, and the ultimate resolution of that plot line is another one of Robinson’s attempts to defy expectations. Frank is a hero for how he reacts more than what he does. (Amusingly, the novel’s best moments are just as counter-intuitive: A moment in which Charlie verbally eviscerates World Bank representatives is a highlight, while an assassination attempt is completely under-played.)

But chases and special agents all seem a bit silly given the series’ continuing reliance on domesticity, utopianism and the scientific method as plot drivers. Neither of those elements can be achieved with dramatic gestures and extraordinary heroes: they are built day after day, with an accumulation of small actions. And so Sixty Days and Counting (which refers to the grace period after a presidential inauguration) is a novel of phase transition, as Robinson suggests a way to turn the country around towards a better society. Heady stuff: readers interested in Robinson’s liberal politics are sure to appreciate the blueprint for change.

The flip side of that argument, of course, is that readers looking for stronger dramatic plot drivers are going to be sorely disappointed. If people were still expecting something different this far ahead in the series, it’s too late to change course. Sixty Days and Counting is a logical follow-up in the course of Robinson’s career and a piece that echoes a good chunk of the author’s work so far, from the utopianism of Pacific Edge to the political musings of the Mars series, to the environmental message of Antarctica and the Buddhist themes of The Years of Rice and Salt. Readers who didn’t like any of that, well, should know that there’s another book that they’re not going to like…

As for me, I continue to be surprised at how much I enjoyed the series even if it does a lot of things in ways that I shouldn’t enjoy. Granted, I tend to be more generous toward Robinson’s work that other readers (though not early on, nor always: I tried reading A Short Sharp Shock recently, and it practically fell from my uninterested hands.), so you may adjust expectations accordingly. I’m constantly on the lookout for true science-fiction and this series really does stick close to the ideals of fiction about science, even if in doing so, it risks short-changing its fictional interest. On issues such as global warming, unstoryable by definition, that may be the only defensible choice.

Fifty Degrees Below, Kim Stanley Robinson

<em class="BookTitle">Fifty Degrees Below</em>, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 2005, 405 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-553-80312-3

Many things change yet stay the same in Kim Stanley Robinson’s second entry in his “Science in the Capital” trilogy, but this isn’t a problem as much as it’s a statement about Robinson’s extraordinary abilities as a writer. The first volume spent most of its duration setting up subplots before flooding Washington DC in a climax of biblical proportion. This time, the plot is in motion and things start happening right away. Global warming has reached runaway velocity, and temperatures soon hit titular record lows as the good folks at the NSF do their best to find ways to terraform Earth back to a semblance of equilibrium.

While Forty Signs of Rain spent time going back and forth between Anne Quibler, her husband Charlie and their friend Frank Vanderwall. Fifty Degrees Below is almost all told from Frank’s viewpoint, a strange choice given the particularities of Frank’s view of the world. Educated in evolutionary biology, Frank keeps seeing the world in terms of primate socialization mechanisms, and it’s that outlook on life that leads him to adopt a consciously homeless lifestyle early in the novel as the housing crisis in Washington reaches acute level during the capital’s reconstruction. Spending his time between the office, his van, the gym and the park where he eventually builds a secluded treehouse, Frank joyously (“Ooop!”) reverts back to an optimodal life, a choice that will eventually have serious consequences are the temperature falls and the rest of his life heats up. Because Frank has found the beautiful woman he was chasing in the first volume… and she turns out to be a deep-secret agent with personal problems that soon become indistinguishable from national security. And that’s without counting the attractive presence of Diane, Frank’s boss at the NSA…

But if the novel revolves around Frank, the world doesn’t and it keeps disintegrating. Khembali, the fictitious country introduced in the first volume, predictably disappears under the waves, and an audacious plan is hatched to reboot the Gulf Stream via a salt dumping scheme of epic magnitude. The tone of the novel changes a bit, introducing enough gadgets to push it a few more years in the future, and enough cloak-and-dagger thriller plotting to send things in a more conventional direction after the refreshingly free-form first volume.

It all comes together thanks to Robinson’s usually excellent prose. The novel spends so much time in Frank’s primally satisfied brain that the very narration comes to reflect that emotion. We grin as Frank finds his true human potential, doing science even as he communes with nature. Ooooop! But at the same time, his romantic escapades are heart-wrenching, and we can’t help but be concerned whenever truly bad things start happening to him.

Yet this is also the story of a planet in peril, and Fifty Degrees Below keeps the balance in mind as it tackles global action and a new activist role for science. NSF, under Diane’s hard-driven leadership, starts meddling in political activities, establishing “Permaculture” as its ultimate goal even as it proposes a “Scientific Virtual Candidate” before rallying to Phil Chase’s campaign.

Once again, Robinson is able to strike narrative sparks from material that would have been unbearably dry in anyone else’s hands. Robinson’s progressive politics find explicit expression, and the novel’s readability remains exceptional event as it stays away from conventional plot mechanics. It ends with a political victory, a damaged hero, a planet in the balance and gathering clouds: Phil Chase has powerful enemies out there, and Frank’s messing with one of them in very personal ways.

All good fodder for Sixty Days and Counting, the final volume in the trilogy. This has been an unusual, but satisfying series so far: the conclusion should be more of the same.

Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson

<em class="BookTitle">Forty Signs of Rain</em>, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 2004, 358 pages, C$37.00 hc, ISBN 0-553-80311-5

I have already written about my constant admiration of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work before, and things won’t change with this review of Forty Signs of Rain, a unique novel of science-fiction that conventionally shouldn’t work as well as it does, yet holds its own as a superbly entertaining work of fiction.

Robinson, of course, rarely settles for conventional narratives. So when he decides to tackle the subject of global warming (after first glancing at the subject in Blue Mars), he does so by using the best-informed protagonists he could think of: the scientists at work in Washington at the intersection of science and politics. The novel begins as global warming is starting to have its first catastrophic impacts. Meanwhile, a young iconoclastic scientist named Frank Vanderwal is fed up with the bureaucracy and cautiousness of the National Science Foundation where he is finishing his one-year term. His colleague, Anne Quibbler, is busy balancing the demands of motherhood with those of a career even as her husband, Charlie Quibbler, is a stay-at-home dad who moonlights as a scientific advisor to an influent senator. (This senator, Phil Chase, is carried over from Antarctica, but so slightly as to be imperceptible to those who haven’t read Robinson’s previous book.)

These three viewpoint on the issue having been established in all of their rock-climbing, breast-feeding, telecommuting banality, Robinson does not immediately jumps to the chase. Nearly half of Forty Signs of Rain passes before the first shapes of the overarching plot appear. This is a novel of characters, of good ordinary people engaged in science and all of its messy complexity. The inner workings of the NSF are carefully described (usually by Frank, who can’t stand it any more), while the interface between science and politics is probed. This is not the time for heroics, but for careful action. This is also science-fiction as it’s too rarely written: as an exploration of the facets of science as it’s conducted today in the real world.

In doing so, Robinson also slyly attacks one of the hoariest clichés of bad SF: the mad scientist. The characters in Forty Signs of Rain are morally outstanding citizens who feel a moral and ethical need to contribute to society by their expertise. Their goal is a better world for all; their means are a conscience and the elements of the scientific method. With this uplifting novel, Robinson reclaims some much-needed credibility for the SF label in its purest sense, even if the science-fictional elements of the book are slight and subtle.

Besides a few gadgets here and there, only the ending of the book stands as a bit of extrapolation. Yet the biggest irony of Forty Signs of Rain does happens late in the book, as the climax of the story is set in rain-drenched Washington, as a flood of biblical proportions cover the entire capital in meters of sludge and water. What was pure Science Fiction in 2004 turned out to be the unpleasant portent of the real-life flooding of New Orleans barely a year later. Validation of Robinson’s carefully researched novel never seemed more ominous.

But these thematic elements would be wasted without Robinson’s usually delightful prose, which delves so deep into the character’s inner landscape as to reflect their emotional states. The writing occasionally takes on a quality halfway between internal monologue and typical third-person narration, blending a poetry of science with mundane everyday concerns. Just wait until you read the scene where a squirming child interrupts a head-to-head meeting with the president.

Ultimately, it’s this blend of domesticity, sweeping thematic concerns and good old-fashioned political issues that makes Forty Signs of Rain such an unlikely page-turner. For a book in which little actually happens, it’s a delight-a-page experience. Fans of Robinson’s brainier previous work will be absolutely fulfilled by this latest work. Best of all, though, is the feeling that the real story is about to begin in the follow-up, Fifty Degrees Below.

Pacific Edge, Kim Stanley Robinson

<em class="BookTitle">Pacific Edge</em>, Kim Stanley Robinson

Tor, 1990, 326 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-85097-2

Compulsive readers like myself often end up focusing on volume more than retention. Too many books! Not enough time! Trying to remember specific details of a story weeks after reading it can be a struggle. Fortunately, the best novels rise above this limitation: The mark of a good book can be how well it sticks in mind, fighting its memory pointers against so many forgettable titles.

And so it is that as I revise this, weeks after reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, I still have vivid memories of it. Which is curious, since this is not a conventionally action-packed novel. Taking place in a pleasant near-future where humanity has largely managed to find balance with nature, this is the third novel in Robinson’s “Three California” triptych. After post-nuclear (The Wild Shore) and overheating-dystopian (The Gold Coast) scenarios, Robinson tackles the old “there is no drama in utopia” nonsense by showing us how love and pride can still matter at a time of peace and abundance.

Like its predecessors, Pacific Edge follows the adventures of a none-too-bright young man living in Orange County, along with his friends and family. It also features an older “Tom Barnard” to coach our protagonist and a shadow narrative that stands halfway outside the novel as counterpoint and explanation.

Plot-wise, Pacific Edge is chiefly concerned about environmental issues and sentimental matters. Our characters live in a sustainable community, so ecological issues constantly hover above their heads as vital elements of their lives. Half of the novel’s plot strands revolve around the protagonist discovering and fighting against a corporate takeover of water rights, a battle that earns him the enmity of several powerful opponents. To complicate matter further, romantic complications arise when an old flame takes an interest in him after leaving an influential member of the city council who is also part of the takeover. This may be utopia, but there are still important issues to get passionate about.

Fans of Robinson’s writing will be delighted to read his usually skillful prose, which navigates a tough path between plot, characterization, political speculation and sweeping description. Robinson takes risks that would destroy a story in the hand of lesser writers, and the result is just as compulsively readable as his other books. The particularity of Pacific Edge is how it’s set in a future where the fate of the planet is never in doubt. This is a local story, taking place between a few participants, where baseball games, bicycle rides, community projects and ersatz families carry much importance. The way Robinson holds our interest with those comparatively small stakes is astonishing.

In fact, some of the best moments of the book are nothing but characters experiencing their own world. The book opens with a radiant sequence in which the protagonist of the book cycles down a mountain, feeling as if nothing bad can happen: “Man! What a day!”. At the other end of the story, the same protagonist laughing after realizing that “he was without a doubt the unhappiest person in the world.” [P.326] Small moments, but exactly the kind of writing to stick in mind for a while.

I may prefer The Gold Coast for its manic narration and its sense of redemption, but Pacific Edge seems to be the strongest volume in Robinson’s triptych. Eighteen years after publication, it’s still relatively unique in that it touches upon environmental issues without too much preaching, tackles emotional issues not often found elsewhere in Science Fiction and presents such a sense of utter serenity that even being the unhappiest person in that world seems preferable to many happy lives in this one.

It doesn’t take much more to wonder where all the utopias have gone, and whether we’ll ever build one of our own. Humans born when this novel was published are now able to vote, but it hasn’t aged a wink since then. Great books do more than stick in mind: they keep their own relevance even as the years go by.

The Gold Coast, Kim Stanley Robinson

Tor, 1988, 389 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-55239-3

The United States stuck in a series of small wars, everyone terrified of terrorists, commercial sprawl taking over parks and natural preserves, California mired in gridlock sixteen hours a day, defence industries becoming all-powerful, teenagers swapping meaningless sex and designer drugs. Sounds like today’s world?

Too bad, because Kim Stanley Robinson wrote it as a dystopia twenty years ago.

The second volume in his “three Californias” trilogy of alternate futures, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast isn’t meant to be a fun or glorious place: The portrait of the world it portrays is one of a hothouse running out of control. Stress is destroying people from within, society has gone trigger-happy in several non-metaphorical fashions, there is no end in sight and hope is dim. As the novel unfolds, it’s unclear whether something big is about to happen, or if -worse- nothing ever will.

A young man named Jim McPherson is the nexus of the story, but The Gold Coast goes beyond him to present a kaleidoscopic view of the world in which he lives. The viewpoint regularly shifts to his family, his friends, and the people that they encounter along the way. Along the way, Robinson’s prose acquires a choppy, manic quality that reflects the way the world is over-revving. McPherson think of himself as a poet, but what he does is chop up word fragments and think it’s art. Nothing in his life is working: He’s not too bright, not too skillful, not too close to his father. His friends are his only source of happiness, and even that is being generous since no one can understand what he’s up to. When he gets the chance to help a small home-grown terrorist group, it’s a welcome distraction more than a political statement.

Meanwhile, Jim’s overworked father is being pressured by his manager to lead a crucial weapon development effort for his corporation. An honest engineer, he finds himself trapped between complex rules of Pentagon weapon procurement and a boss that consciously flirts with psychopathology. Despite a superior product and honest estimates, he is soon hanging on to a losing bid.

None of this sounds particularly promising on paper. It’s not even particularly heavy in SF concepts. But in Robinson’s hands, it quickly becomes compelling material. Pentagon bureaucracy has never been more mesmerizing. Slice-of-life plotting has seldom been more engaging. Even as The Gold Coast threatens to leave without delivering a story, the portrait of the world created by Robinson and the way he describes what happens to his characters is enough to make us care. There’s actually a certain perverse elegance in the way he sets up a portrait so intensely nihilistic that the ending, when it does shift the status quo for a few characters, comes as a welcome surprise. It’s not made of earth-shattering insights (in a crooked game, the only way to win is to walk away), but it’s a ray of hope in a novel that didn’t seem predisposed to them.

There’s a good deal of echoing material to be found between this novel and The Wild Shore, Robinson’s previous “Three California” book. “Uncle Tom” is clearly meant to stem from the same person as the Tom in the previous novel, though in a different alternate world. Both novels show a willingness to avoid the easy clichés of dystopia, even allowing characters to find a measure of happiness in terrible environments.

Meanwhile, Robinson scholars will note that the young McPherson shares a number of similarities with the author himself. As we discover who writes the long historical interludes about Orange County’s urbanization, the links become apparent.

It may be too easy to find parallels between the novel and the way this world has turned since 1988. Sharp-eyes readers will note that the Cold War is alive and well in the book, and that some pieces of slang (such as “allies”) don’t fit well. But that’s missing the point: as we’re sliding into 2008, the world of The Gold Coast remains immediately understandable to us, and what it has to say about it remain just as relevant to us today. The Gold Coast has weathered the past two decades admirably well. Too well, actually.

The Wild Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson

Ace, 1984, 371 pages, C$2.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-88870-4

As an avid reader, I obsess about things that are completely meaningless to the rest of the world. I wonder, for instance, about how tastes change over time. About how genre familiarity destroys some books and enhances others. About how it’s possible to be unimpressed by an author, only to re-discover him years later with surprise and pleasure. Even if my tastes have remained largely unchanged over time (sometimes to my dismay), authors like Kim Stanley Robinson give me reason to hope that I’m become a better reader.

I wasn’t overly impressed, eleven years ago, with his first short story collection The Planet on the Table. But as the years went on, I found more and more to like in his fiction, until he became a standby in my list of authors to buy on sight. I don’t think I would have appreciated The Wild Shore as much ten years ago; I may even like it more in another ten. Who knows what else I’ll know by then?

For instance, The Wild Shore is best appreciated with a knowledge of post-apocalyptic fiction. Here, a nuclear attack has devastated the United States sixty years prior to the events of the novel, plunging the country in a primitive collection of city-states carefully monitored by foreign powers. We eventually discover that the lack of advanced technology is not an accident: bad things from space tend to happen to anyone who attempts to re-develop advanced technology on American soil. The Japanese keep patrols on the west coast to make sure that things stay under control.

This state of affairs soon proves unbearable to young Henry, who emerges from a generally content childhood in Orange County, California, with ideas on how to fight foreign influence. Dragged in an emerging war between neighbouring cities and the Japanese overseers, Henry sees a bit of the world, undergoes a number of adventures and grows up a bit. There’s not much more to the plot, but it’s competently portrayed.

The Wild Shore remains Kim Stanley Robinson’s first novel and structurally it’s not quite as tight as it could be. Among other annoyances, the novel includes several chapters of a travelogue by an American travelling around the world, which take away from Henry’s tale. The attack that destroyed America isn’t particularly believable (3000 suitcase nukes?!?), and some passages rely heavily on coincidence, such as Henry’s unbelievable luck in meeting his friends after a nautical odyssey.

But the book is more interesting when it’s measured against so much of the nuclear post-apocalyptic sub-genre that formed such a part of SF in the seventies and eighties. In The Wild Shore, the American nationalists who want to rebuild America to its former glory are misguided. Indeed, the first surprise of the book is in seeing how pleasant Henry’s life seems to be. This first volume is meant as the “post-apocalyptic” element of the trilogy, but things aren’t always as bleak at they appear.

(The quarantine of the United States by other countries is seen as a necessary evil, and that particular idea finds a justified resonance in Robinson’s follow-up volume The Gold Coast. Among other things, Robinson has intended The Wild Shore to be part of an unusual trilogy: Three views of the future, set in California’s Orange County, more or less independent from one another. )

In terms of prose, though, it’s easy to recognize in this first novel the same prose style (not entirely dispassionate, not entirely exempt from showy cleverness) that would follow during most of Robinson’s career. The Wild Shore is hardly a perfect novel, and the nuclear theme may not be entirely credible today, but it’s a fine book and a good portrait of the author as a budding utopian. I’m glad I read it today rather than years ago, and I’m looking forward to the day where I’ll be able to re-read it with even greater pleasure.

[March 2008: And now I know something I didn’t when I read The Wild Shore: its kinship with Jack London’s “The Scarlet Plague” (1912). Thanks to Donald Alexandre for pointing out the parallels at an ICFA presentation.]

The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam, 2002, 658 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10920-0

The rarest novels are those that ultimately make you doubt that they were, in fact, written by a single human. The Years of Rice and Salt is a bit like that; a story so big, so ambitious and so convincing it’s hard to imagine one single person coming up with all of this stuff. It’s not a terribly entertaining novel, but it’s a very impressive one.

It starts with a a very big bang: In the fourteenth century of the Christian Calendar, an Arab expedition in Europe finds the continent empty of human life. The Black Plague has passed, and instead of killing one in three, it has felled more than 99% of the population. In one stoke, Christianity has become a historical curiosity, leaving the planet to other civilizations.

It’s an ambitious conceit, and Robinson finds a way to tell us what happens for the next centuries without necessarily abandoning his protagonists. Through reincarnation, our two main characters, K. (Kyu, Katima, Kheim, Khalid, etc.) and B. (Bold, Bistami, Butterfly, Bahram, etc.) witness the gradual evolution of this new world, so totally unlike ours. Though they seldom remember their previous incarnations, K and B keep the same personalities: K is aggressive, adventurous and driven whereas B is cautious, quiet and fatalistic. Other minor characters (from A. to Z, one could say) also pop up here and there again and again; a character guide might be necessary to keep up with all their incarnations.

But through the story of K and B, Robinson also tells the story of civilization, each advance propelled by Ks, but shored up and integrated by Bs. The alternate universe in The Years of Rice and Salt isn’t necessarily better or worse than ours, being peopled with humans just as ours is. But the sweep of this imagined history is awe-inspiring. From alternate technological developments to a decades-long World War to a very different “North America”, Robinson delivers such a staggering achievement that readers might blink once or twice before the magnitude of the effort.

The recognition of such ambition does a lot to compensate for some of the weaker parts of the book. Not every section is equally compelling, and so it is that such sections as “The Alchemist” (a beautifully-written segment about the alternate birth of modern science thanks to a charlatan turned scientist) and “Nsara” (Feminism triumphant) are far more interesting than the rest of the book. Robinson really gets cooking whenever he can marry sweeping historical currents to personal struggles. Alas, whole sections of the book seem perfunctory at best. We’ll read them in order to get to the next part.

There is a similarity between this novel and Robinson’s own Mars Trilogy, mostly in terms of political argumentation (which is not as vigorous here, mind you) and historical sweep. In terms of writing, however, The Years of Rice and Salt is uneven, sometimes deliberately so: Parts of the books are written in different styles, with occasional digressions by the narrator, side notes, poetry excerpts and other superficial differences.

Students and scholars will probably analyze this novel to death over the next few years; sympathies and best wishes on those working on their essays! Certainly, this novel contains enough material to keep everyone busy: the mix of religious, political, scientific and historical material is provocative. Even Robinson’s closing argument on the ever-progressing nature of the human race just happened to mesh with this reviewer’s musings. At a time (in this particular universe) where Islam and Christianity are looking for ways to understand each other, this can only help.

Stuffed with interesting ideas and one of the most ambitious premises in a while, The Years of Rice and Salt might not be as immediately compelling as Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, but it certainly contains enough material to reward patient readers. Subsequent reads might even help unlock some of the book’s deeper themes. It’s such a big book that it’s hard to believe that one author could write it at all. Even if that writer happens to be Kim Stanley Robinson.

The Martians, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 1999, 336 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-80117-1

All fans of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, please stand up and be counted. Now allow me to explain how the very number of you standing up constitutes an irresistible moneymaking opportunity.

By Science-Fiction standards, the Mars trilogy was an enormously successful work, both popularly, critically and financially. All the books of the series won either the Hugo or the Nebula award and the paperback editions of the book are all well into further printings. All books were bestsellers and have already attained something akin to classical status.

Which, of course, makes it irresistible for both publisher and author to milk out an little “extra”. The Martians is the first such extra, a 336-pages book that brings together several short pieces related to the Mars trilogy. You’ll find here a few short stories, essays, vignettes, poems…

The book starts with “Michel in Antarctica”, a pre-history of the Mars trilogy that ultimately veers in alternate history. This particular parallel world is further explored in “Michel in Provence”, though -unfortunately- no more.

Other pieces bring back the characters of the trilogy, often illuminating earlier actions, or simply presenting maybe outtakes from the original text. So we get “Maya and Desmond”, “Coyote Makes Trouble”, “Jackie on Zo”, “Keeping the Flame”, “Coyote Remembers” and “Sax Moments”.

The Martians reprints two of Robinson’s pre-Red Mars Mars stories, “Exploring Fossil Canyon” and the lengthy novella “Green Mars”. Both of these stories are part of an alternate mini-cycle further explored here with “Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars” (a slight, but fun story about Martian baseball), “What Matters” and “A Martian Romance”.

There are also a few unconnected short stories here and there, including “Saving Noctis Dam”, “Sexual Dismorphism” and “Enough is as Good as a Feast”. We get twice as many unconnected vignettes, some evocative and some decidedly less so.

There are also a few pieces commenting on the trilogy, whether it’s “The Constitution of Mars” (annotated), “The Sountrack”, selected poems (including one called “A Report on the First Recorded Case of Areophagy”) and a final poignant piece titled “Purple Mars”, where Robinson may describe his last day of work on the Mars trilogy.

The result is both more and less of what we expected. On one hand, it is a worthwhile companion to the Mars trilogy, presenting more of what made the trilogy so popular. On the other hand, it doesn’t present what would have been interesting to see in a companion volume: Non-fiction essays on the conception, the writing, the revision of the series. Original plans. Maps and drafts. More substantial side-stories. As such, it almost approaches the “let’s dump cut scenes in the marketplace” approach.

But really, The Martians couldn’t be anything but a disappointment for fans of the trilogy, knowing that this is pretty much the last of what Robinson has to say about the place. As such, it’s a fitting -if uneven- tribute. Non-fans already suspect that they shouldn’t begin here, but fans should be advised that The Martians is a decent sideshow to the main event.

Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam, 1998, 511 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10063-7

Kim Stanley Robinson has done it again.

If you loved the Mars trilogy, you will like Antarctica. If you thought Robinson paid too much attention to detail in his trilogy, you will feel the same way with Antarctica. If you liked the political theory in all Mars books, there more of it in Antarctica. If you like his newly-matured stylistic techniques exhibited in the martian trilogy, rest assured that he’s doing much of the same thing here. In short, Antarctica is one of the most obvious follow-up possible to the Mars trilogy. Fans as well as non-fans will find what they expect here.

Antarctica is a cold, vast, lonely place. One of this planet’s last frontiers (it was only explored at the beginning of this century), it remains, even today, quite mysterious. Far from being a vast plain of eternal ice, Antarctica proves itself a varied, fascinating continent.

In his latest novel, Kim Stanley Robinson tells us about the Antarctica. It’s a book best compared to lengthy travelogues written by explorers: Not much of a plot, but a wealth of details.

In 1995, Robinson went to Antarctica courtesy of the National Science Foundation, as part of the U.S. Antarctic Program’s Artists and Writer’s Programs. It obviously shows. Whatever tax dollars were spent in order for Mr. Robinson to spend some time down under, they were well-invested. The resulting book is a solid testimony of the beauty of the continent.

Even though it’s marketed under the mainstream Bantam logo (not the Bantam Spectra SF imprint), Antarctica is straight science-fiction. Not only because it takes place sometime in the early twenty-first century but mostly because it espouses and deals with the themes dearest to SF: the nature of scientific change, the effect of technology on humans and the environment. It’s as if Robinson applies the talent he has sharpened in SF to a problem that’s almost contemporary. The result is awe-inspiring.

Antarctica contains some technological gadgets, some sociological innovations but many digressions about the history of Antarctica and the human presence on this decidedly difficult continent. Robinson effectively creates and sustain a mystique about Antarctica through historical digressions and carefully selected vignettes. We’re not there, but we get the sights without the frostbite.

Characters are well-handled. Although the usual “visitor” character is kept suitably under-developed (a must if he is to be the reader’s fictional surrogate), the two other main protagonist are well-sketched, and elicit our sympathy. The assortment of secondary characters is also developed with great care. There are no outright villains, Antarctica being formidable enough as opponent.

The fiction content of the novel is less impressive. The story doesn’t revv up until half the book has passed, and then mostly resolves itself in barely more than 150 pages, leaving characters around for almost another hundred pages. This is where fans and non-fans of Robinson will diverge opinions: Fans simply don’t care because they like what they’re reading anyway while non fans won’t care because, effectively, they don’t care. Caveat lector, or so to speak.

Antarctica is a good follow-up to the Mars trilogy. Of exceptionally worthy docu-fictive value, it will please those who like this kind of stuff. Robinson really makes Antarctica come alive in his novel. Well-written if thin plot-wise, it’s nevertheless one dense, satisfying read. Try not to miss it.

The Mars Trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 1992-1996, ???? pages, C$???.?? hc, ISBN Various

Red Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1993, 519 pages, ISBN 0-553-09204-9
Green Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1994, 535 pages, ISBN 0-553-09640-0
Blue Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1996, 609 pages, ISBN 0-553-10144-7

In the early nineties, a spate of books about Mars began to appear on the market. After being relatively ignored by SF writers since the first half of the century (when Edgar Rice Burrough’s romantic fantasy “Mars” series and Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles first appeared), the fourth planet was once again a ripe ground for extrapolation. Building on the initially-disappointing discoveries of the Viking missions, a new spate of Martian books began to appear, minus the little green men, canals or crystalline cities.

This new breed of books was mostly realistic, and either concerned with the first expeditions to Mars or the use of Mars as a background to realistic adventures. Thus, we had Mars (Ben Bova), Moving Mars (Greg Bear), Climbing Olympus (Kevin J. Anderson), Beachhead (Jack Williamson), Martian Rainbow (Robert L. Forward)…

But the “biggest” entry in this field was made by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. From the beginning, the trilogy prefaced by RM was destined to be a classic. One should only read the pages of lavish praise contained at the front of the paperback copy of RM to be convinced.

What was surprising, however, was the author’s name. A trilogy about the terraformation of Mars had a natural feel to it, almost an obligatory part of the genre… but to have Kim Stanley Robinson write it?

I would have expected Benford to write such a trilogy. Clarke, in his good days. Brin, perhaps. But Kim Stanley Robinson? My previous experiences with his short story collection The Planet on the Table had been underwhelming at best… While the Mars trilogy was getting good reviews all around, I was prepared to be bored.

I acquired RM in 1994, when I bought the CD-ROM “Hugo and Nebula Anthology 1993” This superlative CD, published by Clarinet Inc. (www.clarinet.com), contained all 1993 Hugo-nominated fiction, plus all of the 1993 Nebula-nominated short fiction… It’s an incredible CD: Buy it. I had the intention of reading everything on it, but with my growing stack of (physical) books, and lack of time, and reluctance to read a 500-pages on a computer screen… I stumbled upon a mint trade paperback of GM in May 1995 for a ridiculous price. (Bought it and laughed all the way home.) So there I was, with the two books, and not about to make the same mistake as when I started to read Stephen R. Donaldson’s ‘Gap’ cycle three years before the last volume was published. So I waited. And when BM came out in hardcover, I took a deep breath, went to a trusty library in Orleans that has a permanent 10%-off policy on new hardcovers and plunked down the 32,04$Can. Therein ends the story of how I got the trilogy.

Now, for the wrongness: There, I admit it: I was wrong. The Mars trilogy is one of the best thing I’ve read this year.

A lot of SF books usually deal with a new planet/gadget/concept in two ways: The first, common with “sense of wonder”-type of stories, is about the discovery, the initial rush of ideas that occur to a competent scientist or the adventures of a team of explorers setting foot on a planet for the first time. The second attitude is to use the said gadget as a part of the background. Think of hyperspace: There are stories where the intrepid scientists first stumble upon the hyperdrive, and countless other tales in which characters take a hyperspace liner like we would take the bus. But few stories deal about the various problems a hyperdrive company would have in perfecting its product from prototype to unspectacular piece of machinery. In Martian terms, Bova’s Mars is the discovery story while Bear’s Moving Mars is the backgrounder-type of novel. (Which isn’t true, actually, but let’s not quibble with my piece of reasoning, okay?)

If the reader retains only one thing of the massive 1,700+ pages saga that is contained in these three books, it’s the absolutely stunning display of subject range from Robinson. The Mars trilogy is a masterful virtuoso performance from one of the most talented authors in the English language. (How’s that for a blurb quote?) Robinson tackles on geology, history, environmental sciences, personal dynamics, politics, physics, rigorous scientific extrapolation, sociology… The reader is surprised, delighted and astonished at the sheer amount of meticulously researched detail.

In fact, one is so impressed that it seems almost too restrictive to call the trilogy mere “science-fiction”. At the same time, one also takes comfort in the fact that this sort of grandiose intellectual accomplishment wouldn’t be possible in any other field than SF. (Except, perhaps, classified Pentagon work… ahem.)

There is something in these 1,700+ pages for everyone. Hard-SF readers like me will foam at the mouth reading all the polysyllabic exposition terms. So-called literary aficionados will make small cooing sounds over Robinson’s careful prose. Readers who like a good story will skip the big words and be swept along with the onrushing tide of this epic.

The Mars trilogy begins where Mars left off: The first historical mission is over, but now we’re going back, this time to stay. Red Mars takes the reader from this point to the first Martian revolution. The other books take the story forward.

Red Mars is the best volume of the three. Mostly self-contained (you could stop reading after the first book, but who would want to?) it is the most pyrotechnical volume, and perhaps the most fascinating: SF often postulates that once mankind gets off Earth, it will suddenly become gentler and kinder… Not quite what happens in RM. People fight over power, money, rights, (in)equality. In fact, RM should be read for the simple statement that No, things are not going to be easy if we want to colonize Mars.

I was fascinated by the chapter in RM where the original colonists build the Underwood base. Seen through an engineer’s viewpoint, it’s suitably nuts-and-bolt to satisfy even the most unbelieving reader. Other highlights include the catastrophic effects of the first Martian revolution, again seen through the coolly calculating eyes of Nadia, the Siberian engineer.

Which brings us (clumsily) to the characters. While RM build most on the setting and the initial story, the two subsequent books really kick some dimensions in the characters. I have rarely felt an attachment to fictional constructs as I did at the end of Blue Mars, when I was almost moved to tears over the reconciliation of t
wo major characters. Not every character is as powerfully evocative. Some will be annoying to many readers, but that’s quite intentional. (Since you asked, my favorite characters were Sax (The Scientist), Nadia (The Engineer) and Art (The… er… corporate spy.)

The setting is also exquisitely realized, Mars taking on an almost-real texture. The changes in the planet’s atmosphere are sharply drawn, and also completely convincing. While Robinson takes a few risky assumptions regarding the composition of Mars’ crust, it makes for good fictional material.

The sweep of the events described in the trilogy is impressive, covering more that a hundred years of history. The solar system at the end of the trilogy is completely different from the beginning. This is an epic to relegate mere grandiose stories to a lesser status.

The three books are unequal. The first one is the most readable, as well as being the most exciting. The two others may contain less action, but fully develop the story. The conclusion is a bit disappointing, lacking a sense of grand finale that the series deserve, but at this point, any reader will feel disappointed at the close of such a rewarding trilogy.

As stated before, the scope of Robinson’s intent is impressive. He delivers as entertainment a series of thoughtful reflections on our common future. His extrapolations on the consequences of widespread longevity are -as far as I know- unequaled anywhere else in SF.

Facing such an ambitious intellectual achievement, it would be too easy to trivialize it on the basis of the few errors that Robinson made: One get the feeling that despite the fancy new words and political parties, things haven’t changed much in 100+ years. (This criticism is mostly invalidated by the last volume) Also, Mars seems a bit much like a really big park, where one can get from point A to point B effortlessly. The characters, at times, are like well-developed stereotypes (The Cynic Politician, the Mad Psychologist, the Nutty Scientist, the Unemotional Engineer…) Finally, the advances in robotics depicted are a bit… optimistic, shall I say?

Nevertheless, these are small inevitable imperfections in the magnificent Persian rug that is the Mars trilogy. It is easily one of the most important SF work of the nineties. So powerful, that I fear the terraforming field of SF may live for a looooong time under this series’ shadow.

Only the genuinely patient and inquisitive reader will retain the most from the Mars trilogy. For those with the time, however, it is a series not to be missed.

[June 1998: The Memory of Whiteness (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1985) could have been so much better, especially given what Robinson was able to do with his latter (1992-1996) Mars trilogy. This particular novel describes a far-future solar system tour of a classical orchestra, mixing music and physics. It’s not all bad or boring, but it’s incredibly long in spots: Robinson hadn’t quite mastered the narrative verve he later exhibited in his other works, and the result is an intermittently interesting novel. The Memory of Whiteness is all about music, so readers not familiar with classical composers will feel slightly lost. But the remainder of Robinson’s imagination is good enough that even when you think you’re lost-you’re not. (Especially laudable is the noteworthy effort of describing coherently some very-advanced physics.) Interesting, but imperfect.]