How Science Fiction Works

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From Public Books:

World-renowned science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson is a world builder beyond compare. His political acumen makes his speculations feel alive in the present—as well as laying out a not-so-radiant future. He is the author of more than 20 novels and the repeat winner of most major speculative fiction prizes; his celebrated trilogies include Three Californias, Science in the Capitol, and (beloved in my household) the Mars Trilogy: Red, Green, and Blue.

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John Plotz (JP): You have said that science fiction is the realism of our times. How do people hear that statement today? Do they just hear the word COVID and automatically start thinking about dystopia?

Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR): People sometimes think that science fiction is about predicting the future, but that isn’t true. Since predicting the future is impossible, that would be a high bar for science fiction to have to get over. It would always be failing. And in that sense it always is failing. But science fiction is more of a modeling exercise, or a way of thinking.

Another thing I’ve been saying for a long time is something slightly different: We’re in a science fiction novel now, which we are all cowriting together. What do I mean? That we’re all science fiction writers because of a mental habit everybody has that has nothing to do with the genre. Instead, it has to do with planning and decision making, and how people feel about their life projects. For example, you have hopes and then you plan to fulfill them by doing things in the present: that’s utopian thinking. Meanwhile, you have middle-of-the-night fears that everything is falling apart, that it’s not going to work. And that’s dystopian thinking.

So there’s nothing special going on in science fiction thinking. It’s something that we’re all doing all the time.

And world civilization right now is teetering on the brink: it could go well, but it also could go badly. That’s a felt reality for everybody. So in that sense also, science fiction is the realism of our time. Utopia and dystopia are both possible, and both staring us in the face.

Let’s say you want to write a novel about what it feels like right now, here in 2020. You can’t avoid including the planet. It’s not going to be about an individual wandering around in their consciousness of themselves, which modernist novels often depict. Now there’s the individual and society, and also society and the planet. And these are very much science fictional relationships—especially that last one.

JP: When you think of those as science fictional relationships, where do you place other speculative genres, such as fantasy or horror? Do they sit alongside science fiction—in terms of its “realism”—or are they subsets?

KSR: No, they’re not subsets, more like a clustering. John Clute, who wrote the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and a big part of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, has a good term that he’s taken from Polish: fantastikaFantastika is anything that is not domestic realism. That could be horror, fantasy, science fiction, the occult, alternative histories, and others.

Among those, I’m interested mostly in science fiction. Which, being set in the future, has a historical relationship that runs back to the present moment.

Fantasy doesn’t have that history. It’s not set in the future. It doesn’t run back to our present in a causal chain.

So the moment I say that, you can bring up fantasies in which Coleridge runs into ghosts, or about time traveling, or whatever. Still, as a first cut, it’s a useful definition. But definitions are always a little troublesome.

Link to the rest at Public Books

5 thoughts on “How Science Fiction Works”

  1. I’ve only read one KSR novel (New York 2140), and that was for my research when planning to write my NYC saga in the opposite direction: NEW YORK 1609.

    Honestly, I couldn’t finish New York 2140. Too boring, too repetitive. Too long! (, he says, looking over at his 578-page omnibus opus ;-).

    As I’m now swimming and authoring in the SciFi/Time Travel/AltHistory rivers, I may give him another shot. Where’re my goggles?

    • Sorry that I’ve come late to this discussion. My mac glitched on the last update and I was forced to upgrade to Catalina with the loss of all my great 32bit software. I was faced ultimately with no choice. Now I need to buy Adobe Pro 2020. Shudder! It has taken days of shouting at the screen to get this far, but I’m much better now.

      The new Robinson book is coming out in a few weeks:

      The Ministry for the Future: A Novel

      – The thing to remember about his stuff, is that he starts with an impossible premise, then using the rules of SF[1], follows it to the end.

      It is not fair to ask him how he got the AI construction equipment to Mars in the first place[2], or how Green Earth can possibly proceed a full year after the Arctic ice is all gone[3]. You simply ignore that impossible moment and run with it.

      [1] Science Fiction is about change, relentless, unstoppable change.

      [2] Opportunity

      [3] The Coming Ice Age
      Betty Friedan

  2. And that’s Dr Robinson (PhD English, UC San Diego, 1982) to you “high literary fiction” types who aspire to someday complete an MFA while looking down your noses at speculative fiction…

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