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“Kim Stanley Robinson’s Influence on Science Fiction” by Thomas Guettler

Science fiction is deeply rooted with names such as Bradbury, Clarke, and Asimov, just to name a few.  These are the individuals who created new stories with revolutionary ideas and concepts, moving the genre away from the juvenile mindset commonly associated with it.  Their ideas laid the foundation and forged the path for what we know and understand today. 

Sometimes, readers may not give much thought to modern science fiction as having much influence.  The shelves at the bookstore are bulging at the seams with overlapping ideas and concepts.  Many of the original and visionary ideas have been put down in a story and very little new ideas are churned out.  As with any genre of fiction, there are little new ideas that can be created.  What separates these influencers apart is how they can take an idea, and tie it in with modern concepts and challenges, while creating quality characters and stories.

Many writers create science fiction stories, but there few can claim to have lasting influence.  Fast forward a hundred years into the future, many of the stories that are entertaining and fun will be a small piece of our time, probably filed away in some advanced archive.  For the giants of science fiction, their works are lasting and relevant, their legacy secured.  There will never be another Asimov, Herbert, or Heinlein.  What about others?  What about modern writers still crafting new stories?  Are there any that will be added to the elite list of influencers?

Kim Stanley Robinson is a modern science fiction giant.  From the 1980s to his current works, he has won all the major science fiction awards.  Primarily known for his Mars trilogy, his many other works are widely read and respected.  Robinson’s influence focuses on science fiction that is based in reality, taking current political philosophy and incorporating them into the narrative, and crafting stories and characters drawn from modern challenges and issues.

Science Fiction Realism

Many works of fiction contain technology that is never fully explained, and often not based in reality.  The universe is a big place, and even at light speeds, the distances are prohibitive of realistic exploration.  Outside our own stellar backyard, and the distances are simply too vast.  Science fiction writers tend to get around this inherent problem through unexplainable technology, or through hyper-space or wormhole, though we have little understanding of the physics involved.

Some writers, like Robinson, get around this by crafting stories containing science fiction elements, but he tries to explain how things will happen.  In his Mars trilogy, Robinson takes the time to explain how the planet could be transformed, implementing technologies and processes taken from modern scientific theory.  Story elements not just focusing on how a society can transform Mars, but how genetic engineering may provide the means for humans to be able to adapt in a hostile environment.  Robinson does not simply have stories set on terraformed worlds, nor does he implement unrealistic technologies to accomplish this, but asks questions how societies would attempt such engineering feats.  Would terraforming be led by governments that are inherently inefficient and unpredictable, or would corporations lead the way, with eyes set on profit margins?  As any great science fiction writer, Robinson focuses on how a fledging society could undertake such a massive, long-term project.

Many science fiction stories center around the concept of a generational starship.  These stories often focus on either the whole voyage, spanning decades or centuries, or simply a focus point during the voyage.  Most writers never delve into the complexities of such a voyage.  As the ship proceeds, how will the following generations cope with never having been on their ancestral home?  There are many social issues and challenges in such a voyage.  In Aurora, Robinson explores the idea of these, focusing on the social challenges, but also incorporating the challenges of sustaining flight on a biological and technical scale. 

The ship is large, containing multiple biomes, mirroring regions of the earth.  From cold and icy, to warm and arid, all the major regions are represented.  Animals live on board with the intent of allowing them space to roam and maintain healthy, natural populations, and major areas are set aside for crops.  Everything is recycled and put back into the ecosystems.  Extensive 3D printing allows for the crew and passengers to build and innovate along the way. 

In terms of the science and engineering, the crew fight to resolve ever increasing failures of ship systems, falling yields in crops, and even learning developmental issues with newer generations.  As expected, one of the ship heroes is an engineer, who diligently works against the increasing odds to keep the ship operational.  A story of a generational ship is not a new concept in science fiction, but few writers have gone into as much depth and detail in terms of science, engineering, and genetics as Robinson.

Philosophy and Politics

Few things are as controversial as when writers add political slants and philosophical musings into their stories.  Often, these stories come across heavy handed, and turn off readers.  These stories may work well with those of a similar mindset and attitude, but often times they fall short of any significant impact. 

Robinson is not one to shy away from incorporating political themes into his stories.  Many of his stories are critical of modern day capitalism and incorporates strong environmental messages into his works.  Many storylines stem not from humans yearning to explore the solar system or stars, but are often spurned into action due to collapse of social and environmental systems.

Robinson often uses social or environmental collapses as not just a backdrop, but focuses on how humans can endure and move forward.  In 2140, Robinson focuses on the effects of climate change on New York City, whose residents work together to survive, not relying on government and social institutions that failed.  How can these people exist and survive in such an environment?  What can we learn from this scenario?  Robinson explores these questions in many of his works.

As with any great science fiction writer, Robinson makes arguments for systems he agrees with, but most importantly asks questions.  Regardless of how the reader thinks, common themes in most of his works are thought provoking.  Some writers will just preach a certain mindset, but fail to provide context and methods for how things will be in the future.

Stories Based on Current Challenges

Many science fiction stories are rooted in problems that exist at the time of the writing, and how the characters live and exist in these settings.  For writers in the 1950s and 1960s, the threat of Communism raged, and many concepts were included in contemporary writings.  Robinson focuses on many current challenges.  He argues for common stewardship, not ownership of the environment.  Not surprising, terraforming is a common technology and theme in his works.  If the Earth fails due to social, economic, or environmental collapses, groups of humans would strive to create a new Earth, hopefully with lessons learned from generations of human failures. 

With any great writer, the setting is not the focus of the story, only the catalyst.  Robinson is not successful because he incorporates politics into his stories, nor is he successful because he understands enough of the science involved.  He is successful because of his strong characters, building off current challenges.  Readers of his novels relate to this.

Readers know and understand that the economy is important to our way of life.  Readers also understand that the environment is important to our well-being and health.  Throughout his works, Robinson uses protagonists who are strong in science and engineering.  The idea that scientists are the heroes strikes a chord with many readers.  These characters are the heroes, using their knowledge and discoveries to influence policy and social direction.  Over the past decade, scientists and climatologists have struggled to tell their story, regardless of how much data they present.  More and more people turn to pseudo-science over the actual scientists who have data to back up their claims.

A Great Influence

Kim Stanley Robinson is not just one of the more prolific writers of our time, but is one of the key influences in science fiction.  The golden age of science fiction is long gone.  There will never be a time when seemingly every story contained revolutionary ideas and themes.  Few writers will ever match the influence of the writers in this age.

Robinson has taken existing concepts, and applied modern science, social, and environmental twists to them.  When reading his works, readers can see the relevance of current ideas and challenges, even though humans are traveling through the solar system and visiting other stars.  Readers understand the characters’ motivation for action, and whether or not they agree with his politics and philosophy, can see how these emerging societies work and succeed. 

Writers dreamt of flying into space, and landing on the moon.  At one time these were science fiction concepts, now a reality.  Two hundred years from now, major parts of Robinson’s work will be reality.  Most stories today will not survive relevancy.  They may be well written, and fun to read, but they have little to offer in terms of realism, nor they offer a practical view of the future.  Robinson’s influence goes beyond just a writer of science fiction novels.  For generations, his work will be studied and read.  Not just because of a good quality science fiction story, but his in depth and thoughtful views on philosophy and realism.   His influence will be lasting for years to come.

Article by:  Thomas Guettler

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