The champion of speculative climate fiction reflects on his relationship to cities past, present and future
by HAYDEN HIGGINS
KIM Stanley Robinson is an unlikely champion for American cities in the 21st century. Robinson, a Hugo winner for science
fiction, most recently wrote “The High Sierra”, a memoir of a life on the trail. A child of the Southern California suburbs and their postwar boom, he now lives in the agricultural university town of Davis, California.
Writing from pastoral Davis, Robinson has nonetheless set much of his fiction in striking, memorable cities. These include the city of Burroughs, a marvel of terraforming, in the “Mars Trilogy”; and Terminator, which rotates on a track around Mercury, in “2312”. Closer to home, he’s also written about the flooded, titular metropolis in “New York 2140”; Zurich in “The Ministry for the Future”; and Washington, DC, in “Green Earth”.
These settings and the conflicts their residents face are suggestive for our own urban age: How do we live among strangers? How do we move and relate to new places? How do we adapt to climate change, and house everyone, all at once?
Set predominantly in DC, “Green Earth” is most often mentioned as an early example of climate fiction, a genre which Robinson helped to invent. It’s worth talking about the less speculative aspects of Green Earth — and DC, and cities in general — because in Robinson’s work, a conference or bureaucracy is as likely to unlock a plot twist as the introduc- tion of some new technological gizmo.
For a left-leaning author who’s written from the perspective of revolutionaries, he also believes liberation can come in part from partaking in and reconfiguring state power.
Bloomberg CityLab spoke with Robinson about Washington, housing, working for the government and how he has processed his relationship to place through fiction. This inter-view has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What has been your relationship with cities?
[I grew up in] Orange County: orange groves-slash-suburbia. And precisely not a city, because it had no downtown. It wasn’t interesting in any urban way. Then I lived in Davis, a tiny little college town, as if a Midwestern college town had been airlifted into the Central Valley. I knew San Francisco as a visitor. It still strikes me as one of the great cities in the world.
We were in Zurich [from 1984 to 1988] for my wife Lisa’s postdoc at ETH [Eidgenössis- che Technische Hochschule]. What a wonderful city that is: A compact city, beautiful and well-designed and easy for urban life. Filled with culture. I love Zurich very much.
When we moved to DC, DC seemed like a mess. The weather was bad: Steamy hot summers and cold dreary winters…it seemed like the worst of both the South and the North.
Q: That ambivalence shows up in “Green Earth”. Did that come from your experience?
There were aspects I liked. There were many aspects I didn’t like; it seemed to me that it didn’t have the urban advantages of San Francisco, Zurich, or London, which I had visited. It was kind of suburban, it wasn’t suburban enough, it was a weird mix; it was hard to come to grips with that.
DC is strange, with the height limit, the physical layout, the demographics, the river, the weather. As great as the Great Falls of the Potomac are, there’s the matter of landscape, being in a crappy little corner of a swamp that both states didn’t want.
I love the restaurants and the public, national part of Washington, DC. I used to run while pushing a stroller on the Mall. You can do that loop a couple of times and have a rather gigantic run. Everything is so interesting, and the big monuments make things look closer than they are. There’s much to like.
But ultimately, [in 1991] when Lisa got a job back in California at my request, I was happy to leave. Ten years passed, or more. I started writing “Green Earth” in, say, 2004 to 2006.
That is when I found Washington DC — thinking about it retrospectively, visiting it, on the hunt to write my novel better.
Q: What was your sense of DC coming back to the US from abroad?
I experienced it as an international city. Everybody comes to Washington, DC. One thing that struck me very powerfully, is: It’s the capital of the world. The United States of America has some kind of soft financial world empire.
When you come to DC, that is in the air. The neighbourhood I was in [had] a whole bunch of Persians — Iranians who had left when the Shah fell. They came to DC, and so did [people from] every other country on Earth, [wherever they were] in trouble and needed representation in the world capitol.
The good side is that you can eat beautifully, from almost every cuisine on Earth. A sense of weirdness is either the downside, or just a point of interest.
What is it like to be in some kind of science fictional, imperial state that’s pretending not to be, or has all kinds of hypocrisy? But also, you know, people come to the US for a reason! It’s some kind of bizarre experiment where everybody in the world moves here, and then sees what happens.
Q: Like Edgardo in “Green Earth”, who’s escaped from the coup in Argentina and come to America with bitterness, but maybe hope, too.
Edgardo was an important part of that book. I like him.
What I like about DC is that there is kind of an electricity in the air, a human electricity. You walk the streets, you see people from all over the world.
To go to the world capital and settle there is a statement. It’s an attempt to wrest control of one’s fate. You see that also with the Black population, I think like any other refugee population, and DC as one place to go in the Great Migration.
Q: Reacting to “Green Earth’s” balance of plot inside and outside political Washington, LA Review of Books said, “By taking Washinton, DC, seriously as a functional community rather than an aberration, Robinson challenges a knee-jerk reaction among many Americans.” Some of the characters that help the city come alive are these guys sleeping out in Rock Creek Park.
The Davis frisbee golf park that I play in, the homeless people who live there, I have known them for 20 years. This is superficial but extensive, in that I have seen them age faster than me, watched them live their lives. Through conversations I’ve got a sense of individual characters.
I threw every one of those people into Rock Creek Park. I’m confident about [“Green Earth” characters] Zeno and Fedpage and Chessman because I took them right out of life.
And indeed, there’s another short story, “Down and Out in the Year 2000”! That’s a DC story most intently about the poor people of colour hanging out at the chess tables at Dupont Circle.
I wanted to write about that. It was an intense dive into trying to comprehend people who were not me. I’m proud of that story.
Q: “Green Earth” gives a positive example of how federal bureaucrats can change the world. Did that come from life?
Lisa is the model for Anna Quibbler. She’s worked for EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], FDA [Federal Drug Administration] and US Geological Survey, with the bulk of her career at USGS [US Geological Survey].
I myself got a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to go to Antarctica in ‘95, after we’d left DC. I was back in DC often in the years following that to serve on juries at the NSF that decided the subsequent artists and writers go to Antarctica.
So, I saw NSF from the inside. NSF is small but powerful, because it’s giving out so much money to fundamental research.
Many scientists are full-blown intellectuals who have intense cultural interests. They’re somewhat stove-piped into their scientific specialty by necessity. But then some are interested in everything!
I’ve watched these agencies at work now for 40 years. And nobody writes about them as being crucial world actors!
Q: Bureaucrats can move the world.
You don’t have anybody with magical powers, and you don’t have revolutionary masses that are gonna come charging in and demand and overthrow everything.
As a kind of American leftist, I’m always for government over business, and for public over private. This is what being an American leftist has meant to me: “The government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth.” This is Lincoln’s great formulation. It’s a utopian short story only 18 words long.
As a family member of people doing that kind of government work, I admire them. It’s good to have heroes and protagonists in your novels with human qualities that are actually realistic, and not blown up to that next level of fiction where the protagonists are somewhat larger than life.
Q: The big stories in cities over the past decade include housing affordability, climate and density, which are all anticipated in “Green Earth”. Anna Quibler works out that single-family housing just won’t work from an environmental perspective.
California’s housing crisis right now is terrible. Suburbia is the culprit, cities are the solution.
You need a space you can call your own. It needs to be functional. It doesn’t need to be a mini-mansion, as with the idea that a suburban house on a quarter-acre is like an English castle and you are a lord.
It’s not just the carbon footprint. It’s the isolation of it into the nuclear family, the lack of collegiality and sociability.
The English showed after the war how you can build public housing and people will live in it quite happily — public housing like we’re seeing in Vienna, handsome and socially constructed and well-designed.
Public housing [should give] everybody the right to a roof over their head, no matter their circumstances. A lot of people can’t hold it together to make enough money to put a roof over their head at night, and then they go crazy. It’s destructive of mental health because you don’t have dignity.
So [some] homeless people have mental illness because they’re homeless. It’s a chicken and egg problem in both ways. It’s bad.
So public housing, this is obvious. And also densification.
Q: What influenced your views on these questions?
When Lisa and I moved back to Davis after leaving DC, we ended up in Village Homes, which is suburban, but it’s different. It’s concerned with energy issues. It imitates the villages of Europe.
There aren’t fences. Everybody owns the land together; you own your own house, but then everything else in this village is owned by all of us together with nano-government. I certainly know my neighbours, and in a way that in no way does ordinary suburbia allow you to.
Q: “Pacific Edge” (1990) has a plot that’s basically about trying to stop an office park from being built. That scans on first glance as NIMBY (not in my backyard), but that’s not where your work goes at all.
I had just begun, and I was artificially forcing myself to write a utopian novel. And ever since then, I’ve been trying to rethink the obvious problems that were revealed in my thinking by “Pacific Edge” itself. Even there, though, they had group homes. They were converting suburbia into giant group homes.
When we came into Village Homes, I was quite startled, because it looks like the society in “Pacific Edge”. That is because they both come out of the ‘80s. And they both are insufficient to the task.
They’re better than ordinary suburbia of the post-war period, but they’re nowhere near as good as public housing, densification, public transport — in short, cities.
Humans like being together. Here’s the truth: Everybody moves to cities, not just because of their jobs but because of their sociability.
I don’t want to have anybody think that I think I’m having new thoughts here. I’m just trying to express a movement I see going on that I give my approval to.
Maybe I’m somewhat of a utopian about cities because I live in such a teeny one. The big ones are thrilling. Often I marvel, “Are there enough hours in the history of the universe to account for the building of New York itself?” Well, apparently so.
That thrill is a sense of being impressed by civilisation, which is precisely the word that means people of cities. Civilisation is impressive. It’s a work of art. It’s an act of cooperation, of altruism and visionary.
Q: That altruism or cooperation takes work, though.
It’s easy to get discouraged and say, “I’m just going to retreat to private life,” which would be the house and home, the nuclear family, whatever. Well, that retreat is only a fantasy. You’re still deeply embroiled with other people. And you can either acknowledge that and try to act on it or not.
The actual level of cooperation in society, under the radar, is pretty damned high. Keep that in mind whenever you get discouraged. — Bloomberg