Monday, March 12, 2007

The anti-Crichton

Via an email, I belately became aware of this short Salon profile of Kim Stanley Robinson, and his latest trilogy.

There has been a lot of development since the first book in the triology came out in 2004, and the profile speaks of how that effects the reading of Robinson's work.

What does this mean for a science fiction writer exploring the question of how humanity will confront the challenge of climate change? For starters, it results in all three novels becoming so tightly coupled to current circumstances that as I read them I felt as if I was inhabiting some weird limbo land in which it was impossible to distinguish between what Robinson was reporting and what he was prophesying. The climax of "Forty Days of Rain" is a huge storm that floods Washington, D.C., and changes, once and for all, the political calculus of climate change. By the time the novel came out in paperback the next year, Hurricane Katrina was in full effect. Even if we can't directly connect the destructive force of Katrina with rising temperatures, the symbolic power of the disaster is undeniable.

That tight coupling also raises the question of whether the trilogy should even be considered science fiction. Robinson has always focused on ecological themes in his work, and has always made scientists and engineers his main characters. But in the past, he took us to destinations that are clearly out of this world, such as Mars, or so exotic to our daily lives -- Antarctica -- as to be substantially fantastic. This time around, the scientists are at work at the National Science Foundation, holding meetings, reviewing grant proposals, jumping ship from academia to biotech start-ups and back again -- all while hard at work figuring out what can be done to give humanity a chance to survive its own mess. That's hardly science fiction! That was the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference that I attended two weeks ago, where I amused myself by figuring out which of the panel members I listened to matched best with Robinson's characters.

Sounds like Robinson knows his science, and is not affraid to use it in his writing.

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