Utopianism: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson
by Ariel Kroon, Christina De La Rocha, and Justine Norton-Kertson
When we asked Kim Stanley Robinson to write a short story for Solarpunk
Magazine’s inaugural year we were thrilled just to get a response. After all,
we were just some no name magazine without a single issue yet published
for people to read. We expected the answer we received, which was a no. But it was
a kind and supportive no. We weren’t being blown off, but Robinson doesn’t really
write short stories. Anyone who has held a Kim Stanley Robinson book in their hands
will understand the irony in even making the request. He writes stories that are
masterfully told, and they’re very long stories.
I have no shame in admitting that I squealed like a little kid when the declined
request was quickly followed up by the offer of an interview. After all, how often does
one get to interview a favorite author? Mr. Robinson was a pleasure to work with and
talk to. We can’t thank him enough for the time he gave us, and for being part of the
inaugural issue of Solarpunk Magazine.
SPM: We’ve heard you mention that you write utopian science fiction. Utopia is
a weighted word these days, often slung at unattainable dreams of perfection. This is
far from a charge we’d hurl at your work. How do you define utopian science fiction?
KSR: Science fiction that describes civilizations better than the current one is
utopian. Also, any fiction describing efforts to make a better world are utopian. This
means that a lot of fiction is inherently utopian, because stories about people trying
to make a better world are quite common. Fiction typically says that what we do
matters; that itself is a utopian position.
So, getting back to the more usual definition, it’s very simple—better future
worlds are utopian, worse future worlds are dystopian. Working for a better world
is utopian; letting things get worse is dystopian. Pretending it doesn’t matter is like
shooting yourself in the foot before running a race.
“Slinging” the term utopian, as you put it, meaning using it as a put-down, I presume—implying that it’s a synonym for “unrealistic,” or “too perfect to ever
happen”—that’s always a political attack on trying to make a better world. The
accusation is itself anti-utopian, taking the form of a faked realistic attitude, now
usefully named “capitalist realism.” It’s like buying into Thatcher’s notorious slogan,
“there is no alternative.”
You often see this attack made by people wringing their hands: Oh dear, if only
people could do better, but alas, we can’t, we’re not good enough, etc. These are
typically people benefiting from the way things are now. And even if it only comes
from a desire to be seen as a hard-headed, cynical realist, someone unable to be
fooled by mere hope, etc.—it’s chickenshit.
Better to support the idea of utopia at all times, in all circumstances, as a form
of solidarity with all progressive causes and ideas, and also with all the immiserated
people around the world trying hard to make a better world. Those people are
utopian, so prosperous Westerners should be too.
It’s fair to note that it won’t ever be simple or easy, or final, so that it’s never
about perfection—just improvement. Most people will agree there’s room for
Could things be better? Yes. Might imagining things being better help us to
figure out how to get there? Yes. So there you go.
Your new magazine is utopian. Which is great.
SPM: And, hey! What’s your beef with “punk” and with calling utopian cli-fi
KSR: You punks! Get off my lawn! Give me my cane back! Why do you want an
old man’s cane, are you blind or something? Goddamn punks. Fucking whiners. Make
your own cane. In my day I had to walk ten miles to school, uphill both ways. We
didn’t even have shoes. We didn’t even have legs.
Yes, I come to you from a different time. I am a time traveler from the year
1971, having flown here at the lightning pace of sixty minutes an hour. A voice from
a different time.
My temporal origins no doubt influence my thoughts about names. Names
are important. H.G. Wells (my buddy Herb) called our genre the “scientific romance,”
Hugo Gernsback called it “scientifiction.” Calling it science fiction was a clear upgrade
in terms of naming, although Wells was making a good point about the literary
ancestry of the genre.
Forry Ackerman came up with “sci-fi,” which was a play on “hi-fi,” which came
from the advertising industry’s take on “high fidelity,” a long-forgotten hobby of Playboy readers who thought that certain settings in sound recording sounded more
lively than other settings. Neither “fidelity” nor “fiction” sound like “fi” when you say
the syllable, but we are semper fi to the suggestions of the advertising industry, so
the names stuck.
Sci-fi was taken up by mainstream culture as a putdown of science fiction, so
science fiction fans of course took it on, in the way you do with insults, to own them.
It also became a way to indicate a certain kind of science fiction, very over-the-top
and campy. Some people cringed at the put-down and/or the campiness. For you to
use “sci-fi” now in your question is probably a sign that all these matters are ancient
history and don’t matter in the new dispensation, because the whole world has
become science fiction and you can call the genre anything you like without the
names meaning anything. Maybe.
People who wanted to discuss science fiction and yet remain respectable made
up other names for it, to cover their faux pas in showing interest. Sci-Fi was the
put-down; the upgrade to respectability was “speculative fiction,” perhaps an
invention of Heinlein’s. That was very popular in academia and among the
pretentious. “Structural fabulation,” another name that held on to the sf initials, failed
to launch. A blanket term introduced by John Clute to gather all the non-realisms is
“fantastika”—I like that one better than “speculative culture,” which hearkens back
to the old pretentiousness of speculative fiction. Also, speculate; look it up. Is there
fiction that doesn’t speculate? So it’s like saying fictional fiction. Pretentiousness is
Then came “cyberpunk,” an invention of Gardner Dozois’ to describe the work
of some tough guys writing sf set in the mean streets of Reagan’s America. The punk
part of this referred to punk rock, of course, the work of tough guys making music
on the mean streets of London and New York; the cyber part referred to cybernetics,
a systems theory that might have had something to do with computers. So now it
wasn’t science fiction, it was cyberpunk, which meant you could talk about it and still
Then came “steampunk,” which turned the punk part into a general suffix. Too
bad! Now, just as every American political scandal has to end with gate, new
movements in fantastika have to end with punk.
Punk. Look it up. Not that promising a history, as words go. In its modern usage,
it’s mainly been a fashion statement. Poor me! Poor fucking me! And they stole my
“Cli-fi” is also bad. The advertising guy who invented the term “hi fi” must be
laughing. Even “climate fiction” is bad, being mostly another way of avoiding having
to say the dread phrase science fiction, which might cause the Mark of Cain to appear on your forehead forever. George Stewart’s Storm is climate fiction, I guess, but the
rest of it is science fiction focused on a certain topic. An important topic, so that it’s
usually not appropriate to object to this name “climate fiction,” but since you asked
about names, I’ll say here I don’t like it.
So—what would be a good name for our shared endeavor? Utopia is good. And
science fiction is very good. It isn’t very accurate, but it is extremely powerful. It’s so
powerful that people try to dodge it, or dilute it.
Why is it powerful? Because science creates this civilization, it’s the real power,
the world of facts. But fiction creates meaning, so it’s the real power, the world of
values. But wait—the fact-value problem is a thing in philosophy, a worry that you
can’t reconcile the two. And yet here’s this literary genre claiming to bridge that gap,
by its very name. Fact values! Impossible, and yet filling up many shelves in bookstores! So presumptuous! So provocative!
Should there be any other names for it? No.
Should there be any modifiers diluting it, such as hard science fiction (as if),
feminist science fiction (yay), literary science fiction (gag), military science fiction
(double gag), etc? No.
Should there be schools within Sci-Fi, splitting it to reduce it? No.
Just take it on. “I write science fiction.”
So: solarpunk. Okay, despite all that I’ve said above, I love you anyway.
Hopepunk too. What I think about the names doesn’t matter. You write utopian
science fiction, you’re working against dystopia, so more power to you. Kick ass using
any name you want.
SPM: We tend to think of you as a storyteller exploring non-dystopian near
futures, not as someone who is trying to convince us of any one particular course of
action. But we’re curious about your thoughts on how much fiction in general—or
sci-fi in particular—tends to explore the cultural space into which we’ve already
arrived versus pushing the envelope outwards a bit, giving us space to move into.
KSR: Science fiction does both. It’s a kind of balancing act, or maybe a double
action that is basic to the genre. When you set a story in the future you inevitably
make a political statement, it’s unavoidable. Theories of history get revealed by the
choices you make for the story, and that means sf is always ideological.
It’s like the 3D glasses people used to put on in movie theaters to see the
images in that false 3D. One lens really is about the future—what it might become,
how we might shape it, etc. In a word, prophecy. The story either calls for a certain
future or denounces it.
The other lens is metaphor. It’s a symbolic description of the current moment,
as your question suggests. Time seems to be speeding up. I feel like I’m becoming a
robot. The world is a construct. I am a cyborg. All these metaphorical statements are
sf stories, and all the stories are metaphorical for the way things feel now. That makes
sf a powerful poetry, as well as prophecy.
So it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. The best sf is both prophecy and
metaphor, and this works pretty often, because the present is changing so fast that
things feel different every couple of years. The shadow of the future is cast on the
present like a dark cloud. This is why I call science fiction the realism of our time,
because we really are in a sci-fi world, so it feels right as an art form. It has
stupendous power, but it’s like a big heavy sword—you have to know how to fence,
and you have to be strong and bold. You have to understand how it works.
SPM: In your more recent books, you explore the ways in which people and
groups of people adapt to, ameliorate the effects of, and try to solve climate change.
Dare we ask if you think we’ll actually take a good crack at it, much less have some
measure of success?
KSR: We’ll take a good crack at it, but this may not be enough because of all the
climate change already baked in. Also there will be many people actively working to
make things worse. So it will be a wicked battle, and if the effort to cope with climate
change fails, we’re in for a mass extinction event that will hammer civilization. So the
stakes couldn’t be higher, and the range of possible futures couldn’t be broader. One
good thing: many people recognize the danger.
So I don’t know. But also, your question is naïve, or faux-naïve. As Iain Banks
once said: “you are making the very common error of imagining that a science fiction
writer knows something about the future.” You and your readers know everything I
know; my books are performances of already-existing news, orchestrated or
choreographed to make a story.
So in asking me my opinion of how things will go, you must know that I’m just
like anyone else—I have no idea. No one does. It all depends on what we do in the
2020s. What we do in the 2020s will set tracks in one direction or other that will
be very hard to shift after that. If we head off in a wrong direction (meaning the one
we’ve been on so far), any course correction will get harder and harder. If we shift direction in the 2020s, it will get progressively easier to get back into balance with the
biosphere. Thus the wide range of possible futures, from utopian to dystopian. We’ll
find out what happens after we’ve done it.
SPM: We read an interview with you in Time Magazine in which you said that a
TV series based on your recent book, The Ministry for the Future, is in the works. Are
there any more details you can reveal to us at this point?
KSR: “In the works” is putting it too strongly. I don’t think I said it that way.
Interest has been shown, an option has been signed, a good writer is working on it
with a good producer and a good studio. All very exciting. But it’s not cast or
greenlighted, or filmed, or on the screen, so that kind of extra excitement is not yet
warranted. But my fingers are crossed for sure, because this is a very good group, and
I can tell they want it to happen. So we’ll see.
SPM: Do you have any advice for current and future climate authors, artists,
KSR: Yes I do. What a surprise, eh?
I’d say, identify as a utopian science fiction writer (see above for why), but write
any story idea that comes to you that seems like a good one. Don’t identify as a
climate author, you’re not the Weather Channel. Climate change will naturally
dominate near-future science fiction stories as a kind of over-determining factor, but
other stories will occur to you that have nothing to do with that, and they’ll be good
stories. Not every story has to be about climate, or any other important thing.
Short stories are actually a very tough and demanding art form, like sestinas, or
fugues. They can’t take on huge topics too directly or they turn sentimental, or turn
into novels, or both. Stories have to be carefully designed for the loads they can carry.
Say the idea is like a frisbee—you can throw it a long way, but not to the moon. Say
it’s like a refrigerator—you can only move it an inch, but hopefully that inch moves it
onto the reader’s toe, and they feel it. So you need to feel that sense of proportion
between form and content.
Climate change is too big to experience in full. So you need to look for the local
effects, and the various little moments that a short story can illuminate. I see a lot of
good climate fiction doing this very well, so it isn’t that hard. Indeed climate change is
a great story generator, the stories coming from it are nearly infinite in number,
because they are the real stories of our time.
But climate isn’t the only story generator, and I think you need to stay open to
all kinds of ideas, and not get typecast as a writer who has only one topic. That can
come much later in your career, when your obsessions have become obvious. Before
that, early in your writing life, try everything that occurs to you. This means content—
science fiction, fantasy, domestic realism, all the kinds of fantastika, also historical fiction, very important—there are so many great stories there. Then also form—try
stories and novels, sure, but also poetry and plays, and sketches—these last can be
a really good way of doing stories slyly—also experimental forms, as in those stories
that take the form of an index, or foreword, or whatnot (see Lem, Calvino, Ballard,
Davenport, Ken Schneyer, etc., for these kinds of games). Also, pastiche and parody.
In short, try everything; write a lot; make a list of all the ideas you’ve ever had, and
work on extending that list, then write them all down and see what you get. And have
fun with it.