Naturalist John Muir once said: “When it comes to a war between the races, I’m with the bears.” A new book that takes its title from Muir assembles stories about climate change from around the world, including one set in the eastern Sierra.
Go ahead. Call Kim Stanley Robinson a science fiction writer. That won’t insult him. "Science fiction is simply the best realism. It’s the best literature. It’s the best approach for capturing the way today feels," he says.
Robinson is a Californian who believes writers here have sci-fi in their souls. "We are such a science fiction project in California," he says. "I mean this state is a desert, it wouldn’t function without these giant hydrological systems, and it’s really a technological achievement to be able to put 35 million people on this land and have them all semi-comfortable."
During his school years in the 1960s the Orange County native watched cul-de-sacs replace citrus trees. He avoids urban sprawl now; it makes him anxious. Over the years he’s taken respite from the city rambling through the Sierra Nevada range. "You get into a completely different state of consciousness when an hour goes by and you’ve done nothing but walk. And then another hour is going to be like that and then the hour after that," he says. "After a while it changes the way you think and the silence is part of it. Although, that being said, the noise of wind in pine needles is a stupendous choir and one of the more beautiful sounds that there is."
His most famous novels, the Mars trilogy, imagine 200 years of colonization from the year 2027 on. Scientists develop an atmosphere for Mars that allows people to breathe. Engineers work on "terraforming" - making the terrain habitable to humans as Earth collapses.
Robinson says he transplanted eastern Sierra landscapes to the red planet.
"I mean, they’re very open and walkable landscapes so a lot of it is just strolling or ambling. But then to get over the ridges there’s some scrambling, and mostly we try to go into basins that don’t have any trails and see obscure and remote places in the whole range," says Robinson. He counts Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks as some of his favorite terrain.
Even when he’s off planet, Robinson’s concerns are on earth. He believes science fiction can do what all novels once did: sweep through culture to describe a whole society. So Robinson’s not interested in chasing little green men or moving faster than the speed of light. He is interested in explaining us to ourselves. "The point of view of looking back on this moment from the future is immensely clarifying. It’s obviously an imaginative exercise. And since we’re in it now, we could look around and say, well what’s stupid here? And our climate policy is stupid," he says.
Robinson takes a 500-year view on present climate policy. "It’s going to look bad...unless we quickly change the way we’re running our society, essentially swapping out the power system and transportation systems, and decarbonizing them," he says. "What’s interesting is that there’s nothing new that needs to be invented. We have pretty good renewable energy methods and pretty good renewable energy transport systems."
His concern about burning fuels that release carbon, the key thing people do to warm the climate, runs through his work. Robinson’s married to a chemist; he jokes that he’s the art wing to science’s campaign to educate people about climate change. "There is no scientific organization that has ever said, ‘oh, this is not a problem,'" he says. He argues scientists like to communicate in groups best. "And so I think they’re trying to go off like a fire alarm but in their own scientific way, which means that it’s been maybe less loud of a fire alarm than it could have been at first."
His warning surfaces in the trilogy known as “Science in the Capital.” There, he creates a messed up, near-future world in which climate change drives extreme weather. But he says that through his characters, he emphasizes hope against the darkness. "It’s impossible to write realistically without having these dystopian images popup just out of being attentive to what’s real in this world. But I’ve always tried to write positive futures, green futures, environmentally conscious futures, so that means challenges to normal ways of thinking."
Kim Stanley Robinson’s work – including a portion of his trilogy - appears in the recent Verso Books anthology “I’m With the Bears.” Sales from the book benefit the climate policy group, 350.org. Robinson says his next imagined future is a sort of sequel to his Mars books. It’s scheduled for publication next spring.