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Kim Stanley Robinson

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Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson (born March 23, 1952) is an American science fiction writer, probably best known for his award-winning Mars Trilogy. He has been widely acclaimed by readers and critics since the beginning of his career, and is considered by many to be one of the finest living writers of science fiction or of any genre. His work delves into ecological and sociological themes regularly, and many of his novels appear to be the direct result of his own scientific fascinations, such as the 15 years of research and lifelong fascination with Mars which culminated in his most famous work.

Robinson's work has led critics to label his work as "literary science fiction", however he has always rejected such labels--he simply calls it science fiction. Robinson proudly defends the genre for which he is a passionate advocate. Indeed, the quality of his characterisation, a common failing in science fiction, has resulted in notice from far broader communities than science fiction generally receives.

Contents

Biography

Kim Stanley Robinson was born in Waukegan, Illinois. He studied in Califonia. In 1974 he received a B.A. in literature (University of California, San Diego). At Boston University he gained a M.A. in English in 1975. Robinson received a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, San Diego in 1982. His doctoral thesis The Novels of Philip K. Dick was published in 1984.

Robinson is an enthusiastic mountain climber, and this has clearly had a strong influence over several of his works, most notably Antarctica, Mars Trilogy, Green Mars (a short story found in The Martians) and Forty Signs of Rain.

In 1982 he married Lisa Howland Nowell, an environmental chemist. They have two sons. Robinson has lived in California, Washington, DC, and Switzerland (during the 1980s). He now lives in Davis, California.

Important works

Three Californias Trilogy

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Cover of The Gold Coast

Main article: Three Californias Trilogy

This trilogy is also referred to as the Orange County trilogy, and is the first of Robinson's important works. The component books are titled The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990). It is not a trilogy in the traditional sense; rather than telling a single story, the books present three very different yet equally possible future worlds. All three are set in California in the near future.

The Wild Shore portrays a California struggling to return to civilisation after having been crippled, along with the rest of America, by a nuclear war. The Gold Coast portrays an overindustralised California increasingly obsessed with and dependent on technology and torn apart by the struggles between arms manufacturers and terrorists, while Pacific Edge presents a California in which ecologically sane, manageable practices have become the norm and the scars of the past are slowly being healed.

Though they initially appear unconnected, the three books actually work together to present a unified statement. The first shows humanity crippled by a lack of technology, the second humanity swamped and almost completely dehumanised by too much technology (along with the attendant environmental damage) and the third a workable, livable compromise between the two.

The Mars Trilogy

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Cover of Red Mars

Main article: The Mars Trilogy

This trilogy is Robinson's most well known work. It is an extended work of hard science fiction dealing with the first settlement of Mars by a group of scientists and engineers. Its three volumes are Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, the titles of which mark the changes which the red planet undergoes over the course of the story. The tale begins with the first colonists leaving Earth for Mars in 2027, and covers the next 200 years of future history. By the conclusion of the story Mars is heavily populated and terraformed, with a flourishing and complex political and social dimension.

There are many threads woven together in the Mars Trilogy. Science, sociology and politics are all covered in great detail, evolving realistically over the course of the narrative. Robinson's fascination with science and technology is clear, though he balances this skillfully with a strong streak of humanity. The characters are rich and engaging, a rare feat in science fiction, hard science fiction especially. Robinson's personal interests, including ecological sustainabitiy, sexual dimorphism and scientific method come through strongly, though never taking on the form of didactic lecturing. His passion for mountain climbing also shows through clearly, though it is worked into the narrative much more elegantly than in some of his later novels.

Antarctica

Main article: Antarctica

Antarctica (1997) follows very heavily in the footsteps of the Mars trilogy, and covers much of the same ground despite the differences in setting. It is set on the icy continent of the title, much closer to the present day, but evokes many of the same themes, dealing as it does with scientists in an isolated environment, the effect which this has on their personalities and interactions. It even evokes the same sense of beauty and wonder at a bleak, hostile environment.

As with all of Robinson's latter work, ecological sustainability is a major theme in Antarctica. Much of the action is catalysed by the impending expiration of the Antarctic Treaty and the threat of invasion and despoiling of the near-pristine environment by corporate interests.

The Martians

Main article: The Martians

The Martians is a collection of short stories set in the same world as the Mars Trilogy. They occur before, during and after the events of the book, some expanding on existing characters and others introducing new ones. It also includes the Constitution of Mars and poetry written 'in character' by a citizen of Mars. It is a useful companion piece to the original trilogy, though some have criticised it as an attempt by Robinson to capitalise or 'cash in' on previous success.

The Years of Rice and Salt

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Cover of The Years of Rice and Salt

Main article: The Years of Rice and Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt is an epic work of alternate history dealing with a world in which the Black Plague wiped out Europe entirely, leaving the continent free for Asian expansion. It covers ten generations of history, focusing on the successive reincarnations of the same few characters as they pass through varying genders, social classes and (in one notable example) species.

The Years of Rice and Salt features Muslim, Chinese and Hindu culture and philosophy. Not only because of the long time scale, but because of its realistic-utopian elements, and the frequent reflections about human nature The Years of Rice and Salt resembles the Mars books, brought to earth. This is a sweeping, epic tale, a bold attempt to contain the entire history of a world into a single volume. At times the reader may find the format frustrating, as they are permitted only a brief glimpse at each stage of the world before the narrative sweeps them on to the next. Nevertheless, the scope alone makes this novel a powerful and important achievement.

Other novels

  • Icehenge (1984) tells the story of the discovery of a monument identical to Stonehenge found carved from ice on Pluto, and the subsequenct investigation into its origin. The setting of this novel bears strong resemblances to that of the Mars trilogy, albeit with darker, more dystopean undertones.
  • The Memory of Whiteness (1985) deals with a fantastic, unique musical instrument, and the trials faced by its newest master as he tours the solar system.
  • A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) one of Robinson's few fantasy stories, dealing with an amnesiac man travelling through a mysterious land in pursuit of a woman who features in his first memories.

Robinson's most recent work, Forty Signs of Rain (2004) has been billed as the first volume of a near-future trilogy, known as the "Science in the Capital" series, exploring the consequences of global warming. The second novel, to be released in the United States in October, 2005, will be titled "Fifty Degrees Below".

Short stories

His first short stories began appearing in 1976. Most are collected in The Planet on the Table (1986), Remaking History (1991) and Vinland the Dream (2001). Three longer, humorous stories featuring American expatriates in Nepal are collected in Escape from Kathmandu (1989). The Martians (1999) (discussed above) further explores the world of The Mars Trilogy.

Non-fiction

Robinson's doctoral thesis was on the novels of Philip K Dick (1984). A hardcover version was published by UMI Research Press.

Robinson edited and wrote the introduction to the anthology Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias (1994).

Major themes

Ecological Sustainability

Virtually all of Robinson's novels have an ecological component; it is undoubtedly his primary theme. The Orange County Trilogy is about the way in which the technological intersects with the natural, highlighting the importance of keeping the two in balance. In the Mars Trilogy, one of the principle divisions among the population of Mars is based upon dissenting views on terraforming; whether or not the seemingly barren Martian landscape has the same ecological or spiritual value of a living ecosphere like Earth's is heavily debated. Forty Signs of Rain is entirely ecologically themed, taking as it does global warming for its principal theme.

Economic and Social Justice

Robinson's work often explores alternatives to modern capitalist society. In the Mars Trilogy, it is argued that capitalism is an outgrowth of feudalism which could be replaced in the future by a more democratic economic system. Worker-ownership and cooperatives figure prominently in Green Mars and Blue Mars as a replacement for traditional corporations. The Orange County Trilogy explores similar arrangements; Pacific Edge includes the idea of attacking the legal framework behind corporate domination to promote social egalitarianism.

The environmental and economic/social themes in Robinson's books stand in marked contrast to the Libertarian streak prevalent in much of science fiction (Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle being prominent examples) and his work has been called "the most successful attempt to reach a mass audience with an anti-capitalist utopian vision since Ursula K. Le Guin's 1974 novel, The Dispossessed." [1] (http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2001summer/robinson.shtml)

Criticisms

Robinson's writings explore political ideas which contain many elements of socialism and green politics, as well as many alternative lifestyles (including ones where non-monogamous relationships are commonplace). Some reviewers (including, for instance, some readers at Amazon.com) have criticized these aspects of the books by claiming that they represent "Marxist and Green propaganda". Other reviewers have categorized such people as wanting to read "Young Christian Republicans Go To Mars", and have suggested that the point of science fiction is to explore new ideas.

However, it can be argued that the Mars trilogy reflects a theme common in most SF: "What if?". It throws many different cultures and beliefs into one harsh space, and watches as they react to their environment, to each other and to the new technologies that infuse their everyday lives. The books suggest that there is not any one theme, one ideology, one belief nor one culture that can shape the colonisation of Mars — instead, it is a new fusion of all of the above which can make a human Mars work.

Prizes

Robinson won Hugos for Green Mars and Blue Mars, Nebulas for Red Mars and "The Blind Geometer" (1986), a World Fantasy Award for "Black Air" (1983), and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Pacific Edge.The Memory of Whiteness was awarded the Locus Award.

External links

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