Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Novels of Kim Stanley Robinson

The Novels of Kim Stanley Robinson

In my opinion Kim Stanley Robinson, like many SF writers, is at his best at the novella length.  Most of my favorite KSR stories, then, such as "Black Air", "The Lucky Strike", and "Green Mars", are novellas.  In addition, many of the novels I list below are either fixups of novellas, expansions of novellas, include as their best part novella-length sections, or can be seen to consist of series of novellas. Indeed, a common mode for Robinson is the travelogue, which readily breaks down into story-shaped chunks -- see here The Memory of Whiteness, the Mars novels, and 2312 at least. Robinson's other main mode is Utopian -- even though a few of his books might look more like dystopias, there's always a streak of (somewhat technocratic, usually socialist) optimism to be found. And books like Blue Mars, Pacific Edge, 2312, arguably the closing of The Years of Rice and Salt, seem pretty straightforwardly utopian.

Robinson is a notoriously political writer, and a committed socialist. I'm not a socialist, and I find his political writing interesting and provocative -- but I can also see his thumb pretty heavily on the scales time and time again. Naturally, he's also fascinated by economics. He's one of those writers who loves explaing -- loves telling as opposed to showing. And he does it pretty well. For all the interest in politics, however, the single theme that most links his work in environmentalism, and a search for ways to live lightly on the Earth -- or on Mars, or in other habitats. Granted that this is a political subject as well, it seems even more central than socialism to KSR's work.

The summary presented below should be taken with some grains of salt. In 2002, when I posted the first version of this at rec.arts.sf-written, I had read everything KSR had written except The Years of Rice and Salt, which had just been published. Since then my novel reading has slowed a great deal, and there are several KSR novels I haven't read.

Icehenge (1984)

His first published novel (unless The Wild Shore edged it out), fixup of three novellas, the first and third of which, "To Leave a Mark" and "On the North Pole of Pluto", were published separately.  I'm pretty sure "To Leave a Mark" is the first story by KSR that made an impression on me, in its 1982 F&SF publication.  I think it's a wonderful story, with a typical KSR hero: noble but vaguely clueless.  The middle section is one of his first workings out of his Martian ideas, in this case featuring a noble Socialist Mars.  The final section qualifies the novel as one of the relatively few significant SF novels set in part on Pluto.  (Have Space Ship Will Travel is another, of course.  Other nominations?)

The Memory of Whiteness (1985)

Based on an earlier Orbit novella, "In Pierson's Orchestra".  It's pretty much a travelogue, featuring a genius future musician visiting much of the solar system.  Enjoyable but not really very good.  I seem to recall Algis Budrys claiming in his review that it was a first novel that didn't get published until later novels (particularly The Wild Shore) enhanced his reputation.

The Wild Shore (1984)
The Gold Coast (1988)
Pacific Edge (1990)

This is three novels set in different alternate futures, the first somewhat dystopian (post-Nuclear holocaust, anyway), the second pretty much the present of the 1980s writ large, the third a very Green utopia.  The main characters and some subsidiary characters are apparently versions of each other, as well.  I enjoyed all three books, though Pacific Edge is the weakest for typical Utopian reasons -- you sense that the author has not tested his fuzzy but nice nice ideas hard enough against real human nature, not to mention, Pete [rasfw regular Pete McCutchen] will doubtless remind me, the laws of economics.  The best part of the first book is a long -- well, novella length -- paean/screed/lament to the U.S. by an old man who remembers it before the bombs.  The second features a major character in the defense industry.  I read it on the plane, travelling to a meeting with subcontractors while trying to work up a proposal for one of the projects I was working on -- I realized then that my job in 20 years (were I to choose that career path - I didn't) could be similar to the protagonist's Dad's job.  Dad was by far the best, smartest, most real, character in The Gold Coast, and I thought his character and his job were really well done.

By and large these three books haven't dated well.  They were pretty hot stuff when they came out. (Indeed, The Wild Shore was famously the "humanist" candidate for that year's novel awards, with the "cyberpunk" candidate, Neuromancer, beating it out.)  But to my mind they read now as very much books of the 80s.  Still very much worth reading, mind you, and as the age and the '80sish nature seems less cloying (as we forget that decade), I think they are aging back into significance.

Escape From Kathmandu (1989)

Fixup of four novellas about yetis and Nepal and Mount Everest.  (KSR is a rock climber, and his stories, like but unlike M. John Harrison's, often feature mountain climbing or rock climbing.)  These stories are comic, and pretty successful madcap fun.  Three of them first appeared in Asimov's, the fourth ("The Kingdom Underground") appears only in this book, as far as I know.

A Short Sharp Shock (1990)

Really a very long novella, but it shows up on list list because it has been published as a book, both by Mark V. Ziesing, and by Bantam when they were doing those cool lower-price slimline paperbacks.  It was also in Asimov's, and it was part of a Tor Double.  Pretty good experimentalish thing about a guy who comes to on a planet featuring a single equator circling continent.

Red Mars (1992)
Green Mars (1994)
Blue Mars (1996)

I am apparently one of the few people on rasfw who will admit to liking these books. They get regularly bashed for two main reasons -- some silly science, and some silly politics and economics.  Fair enough on both counts, but in my opinion the successes of the books outweight the shortcomings.  The third complaint is that they are talky and sometimes boring.  They are talky -- either you like that sort of thing or you don't.  And they do get boring -- they are three long books, there are longeurs -- as I've said before, I'd be very happy if he had cut every single section with that silly French guy, Michel Duval.  But with all those reservations, they also display a wonderfully ambitious, and ultimately successful and utopian technological future; a glorious new world in the terraformed Mars (and I am unreservedly Green in my political sentiments relative to this book); and there is in amongst the talk some really neat action and setpieces. 

Oh and by the way this can easily be regarded as a very long series of novellas, as the books are divided into fairly self-contained novella length sections, alternated POV characters.  A couple of these sections were separately published in Asimov's.

Each novel won a major award: Green and Blue won Hugos, Red the Nebula.  (Red also won the BSFA Award, and Green and Blue each won Locus Awards.)  I'm pretty sure no other series has managed this. [Well, until N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth!]

There is a sort of coda to the series, a story collection called The Martians, which includes stories that might be set in the Mars of the trilogy, as well as some set in alternate versions of that Mars, including a sad one in which the terraforming doesn't take. This book includes a couple of precursor stories, sort of beta-versions, related much in the way Vinge's "The Blabber" is related to A Fire Upon the Deep.  The best of these by far is "Green Mars", still probably my favorite of all KSR's stories, another mountain-climbing story, this one about climbing Olympus Mons, natch.  (Has anyone thought of doing an anthology of "climbing Olympus Mons" stories?  It'd be easy to fill a book.)

My review of Blue Mars.

Antartica (1997)

Wags immediately suggested that this book should be called White Mars, though Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose soon appropriated that title.  For some reason I've never got around to this book.  Reviews were mixed. The book is set at an Antarctic research station, and seems to be focussed on sustainable living, modeled, I suppose, by efforts to live sensibly in the harsh conditions of Antarctica.

The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)

Naturally, the novel is structured as a series of ten long novellas. It's an ambitious alternate history novel. The point of divergence is the Black Death in 14th Century Europe: in this timeline nearly everyone in Europe died of the plague. This leaves the world stage free for a centuries long struggle between a mostly Buddhist or Confucian China, and an Islamic Middle East and Africa, with Europe and Christianity no factor at all. Robinson's interest is in the nature of history, and in the possible evolution of these religions, and their associated social and political structures, without the pressure of Christianity and European Colonialism. Fortunately he avoids the sillier games of alternate history: here we see no cameos by famous men of our timeline in altered circumstances, nor do we see the "find the point of divergence" game played.

Here is my SF Site review: The Years of Rice and Salt.


Forty Signs of Rain (2004)
Fifty Degrees Below (2005)
Sixty Days and Counting (2007)
Green Earth (2015)

This is really another trilogy. Green Earth is an abridged and revised -- or, you might say, organically remixed -- combination of the original three books. I've only read Forty Signs of Rain, which I thought interesting and pretty good. It's about a science wonk named Frank Wanderwal, working for the NSF and advocating legislation to mitigate the effects of global warming, as well as several other characters, including a senator, Phil Chase, who was a character in Antarctica. This book climazes with a superstorm hitting DC. The second book seems to follow Frank Vanderwal through an attempt to adopt a paleolithic lifestyle, as well as accelerating political and scientific efforts to deal with climate change. The third book features Phil Chase becoming President, and further mitigation efforts.

Galileo's Dream (2009)

I haven't read this one -- I have a copy, and it looks worthwile. It seems to be told on parallel tracks, one about Galileo's life, the other in far future on the Galilean moons of Jupiter. I think I'd like it!

2312 (2012)

Another Solar System travelogue, which could describe The Memory of Whiteness, Blue Mars, and even Icehenge. It opens with the funeral of a resident of  Terminator, a city on Mercury that follows the terminator, natch. (See KSR's story "Mercurial".) The grandaughter of one of the dead  woman begins travelling through the system, Terminator is destroyed and the destruction is investigated, and the granddaughter ends up involved in a project to "rewild" the Earth. So besides being a travelogue it's again about how to live lightly on the Earth (or anywhere) -- which you could argue is the theme of almost every one of KSR's novels. I liked it quite a bit. General reactions were more mixed, but it did win the Nebula Award for Best Novel. 

Shaman (2013)

Ways to make Rich Horton not want to read a book -- call it Shaman. Totally unfair, I know, but that title really didn't interest me. It's set in the Ice Age (other unfair reasons I won't read a book -- it's set in the Ice Age!), so, like most of Robinson's recent books, it involves humans trying to live in severe climate conditions. Might be a really good book, but it's not my thing.

Aurora (2015)

Another novel I haven't read. I really should get to it. It's about a generation ship arriving at another planet, and focusses on the real difficulties such an expedition would encounter.

New York 2140 (2017)

Another novel of climate change. New York in 2140 is a new Venice of sorts, due to rising sea levels. The story follows several characters (all living, to one degree or another, in a single communally organized building) as the world takes further economic/political steps towards a more livable future, and as New Yorkers adjust to their new reality, even while it is further perturbed by another major storm> I liked it a lot -- it was my choice for the Hugo, narrowly over two other excellent books including the actual winner.

My review of New York 2140.

Red Moon (2018)

Thriller set mostly on the Moon, as colonized by the Chinese. Reviews have been decidedly mixed, tending to the negative. Still, it looks interesting, and it also looks like it features KSR indulging some of his weaknesses a bit too much.

No comments:

Post a Comment