This is the interview I did with Kim Stanley Robinson to accompany my review of 2312. The interview and review were first published in Bull Spec 8/9, Spring 2013.
One of the first things I noticed about 2312, even before I got to the acknowledgements at the back, was the influence of John Dos Passos. What made you choose to write the novel in this way?
A couple of years earlier I was writing an introduction to John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, and I decided to read Dos Passos’s USA trilogy to understand better how Brunner had used him. I had owned an edition of USA for over 30 years without actually reading it, just looking at the elaborate table of contents and skipping around. When I read it I was really impressed, I think it is one of the great American novels, and really good at conveying a sense of the whole of American society in the 1920s. I could see why Brunner has adapted the format to his uses, and said so in my introduction (to the Centipede Press edition of Stand On Zanzibar).
Then soon after that I began working on 2312, which began as the idea for the central romance, between a mercurial character from Mercury and a saturnine character from Saturn. Given what I wanted, this made necessary the fairly far future (for me) and the whole solar system being occupied. Then it began to seem to me that the stronger the setting was, the stronger the central story would be, so I needed to be able to put a lot of information into the text, but I didn’t want to go on at great length, or use methods I had used before. The Dos Passos method was fresh in my mind and I saw how each of his strands could be adapted to a future version of that strand, so to speak. At that point I committed myself to trying it as a method, because it isn’t really something to be done halfway; you’re either in or out. Once I was in, it blossomed for me, because it was a pleasure to do the various types of writing involved, and I felt the braiding of different kinds of writing could provide variety and pleasure for the reader as well.
As you say, Dos Passos was brilliant at conveying the whole shape of his society. Instinctively, it would seem easier to use that method to portray an entirely fictional society, but I wonder if that is indeed the case. Or whether, starting along this route means that you have to think more about how your society is shaped and how it works, so that you end up putting in more than you might otherwise do.
I think the form itself does call out for more information about the society than an ordinary narrative would be able to hold, so this when applied to an entirely fictional society is both a problem and an opportunity; you do have to think about things you might not usually have to, but the form allows you to talk about them without seeming completely extravagant. This has been the problem of the utopia all along, in that when you try to tell a story about characters that, in itself, reveals the whole society, you get the notorious guided tour chapters, in which the newcomer gets led around and shown things: “Here is our wastewater treatment plant, best in the world!” Or else you get plots that somehow involve the whole society, such that the wastewater treatment plant has to be saved from sabotage or the like. Or then again you can focus on plot and slip social information in by way of little snippets tucked into the flow. Often there is some combination of these put to use in sf novels, certainly I have done them all at one time or another, usually in a mix. But the Dos Passos form pulls the snippets out and makes them specific types of prose poems with their own rules, which frees up the story to tell just itself, in Dos Passos’ case often with real speed and momentum. With his formal structure, both the plot and the setting can function well in a more articulated, back-and-forth way.
And I wondered whether the technique, the Dos Passos method, actually had an effect on the story you had previously devised. That is, did the way you chose to tell the story change the story you were telling? And if so, how?
Yes, I think it did. For each of the Dos Passos strands I tried to think of an equivalent for the year 2312, so that what are newspaper articles in Dos Passos become my extracts, chopped out of some discourse not fully described, like the internet or cloud, but it occurred to me that some of it should be coming from years well after 2312, looking back at it as an historic era. Then his Camera Eye sections were stream of consciousness passages, often based quite closely on Dos Passos’ own experiences in life, functioning as one individual life in a much larger social setting. Ironically, his use of the name Camera Eye is exactly backwards to contemporary writing workshop uses of the term, where it means third person narration with no one’s thoughts reported; in U.S.A., the Camera Eye is instead an interiorized stream of consciousness, as in Virginia Woolf. So, in my case I had to think, who should I give that interior view to? And it occurred to me that it should be from inside one of the quantum computers. Then working further on that (what should the qube do or see or think?) led me to much of my qube plot. I’m not sure I would have articulated it the way I did, or even made it as important, if it weren’t for the formal opportunity that the Camera Eye sections gave me.
Also, the named passages in U.S.A., those chapters titled by a character’s name, are the heart of the book and its plot, and different characters come and go through the trilogy, there are about thirty I’d guess, and it’s impressive how all their stories wrap up into one big knot at the end of the trilogy. But for me what mattered was that these characters are mostly seen from outside, in workshopping “camera eye point of view,” and they thus seem to experience their lives like pinballs in a pinball machine, buffeted by events, often surprised, out of control. I wanted to give my novel some of that quality, and did it mostly in the chapters describing Kiran on Venus. Again, the desire to fill a form gave me the chance to expand that part of the story, to create that feel.
You clearly enjoyed the technical challenge of writing like this. Was it a one-off, or would you consider doing something similar again?
I think it is a one-off, in terms of the full Dos Passos method. It’s only suitable for very particular needs, and as I move on to other stories it’s hard to imagine the need recurring. The novel I’ve finished since 2312, called Shaman, has a completely different form. As did Galileo’s Dream before it. So I hope to continue to have “form follow function” as is always best. But I will say, the real pleasure of doing 2312 in that way, opened my eyes again to the importance of form in the novel. It’s something I’ve always been interested in, but now more than ever.
The future sections of Galileo’s Dream seem to take us to much the same future, seeing many of the same places in the same way. Is there a connection between the books?
No, I think of them as completely separate, including their future histories. They do both take place in the solar system, but the only place treated in some detail in both books is Io, as far as I recall, although Io is treated more realistically in 2312 than in Galileo’s Dream, as the latter is a kind of Renaissance fantasia in its far future sections. It also has time travel issues that lead to many-worlds problems and paradoxes, all best treated as a fantasia, I think. Meanwhile 2312 is much more realist and near-future, and its history is less desperate than the main line history in Galileo’s Dream.
Your ‘excerpts’ cover an awful lot of territory, from biology to astrophysics, from technology to politics. How much did you draw or extrapolate from existing sources, and how much did you simply make up?
It varies widely, depending on the topic, but I guess I would say almost all of that material begins in current realities of research, then there are extrapolations, then in some cases a shift again into completely making things up. My hope was that sliding across the spectrum like that would make it difficult to tell where the real stuff stopped and the made-up stuff began. This is standard sf practice. Also, I wanted there to be some things asserted that are counter to what we think we know now; not that I doubt any particular “known” thing of now, but just to give the sense that over 300 years, some of the things we think we know now are going to be overthrown, surprising us but seeming normal to them.
To give some specific examples, getting smaller and thus longer-lived is not supported by what we know now, nor is it clear that gender-related hormones affect longevity. Also, there’s nothing we know now that supports the idea that humans will always have to spend some time on Earth to stay healthy; I suspect it may be true, but we have no evidence to speak of either way. So the spacers’ need for sabbaticals is made up. The quantum computers are based on what the people working on quantum computers say might be possible, but there’s very little successful work to support their speculations. On the other hand, the planetary bodies are as described in the text, including the braided rings of Saturn, brought to us by Cassini; and the physics of the various spaceships, and even terraforming methods, are as described in the literature.
So I guess I would say it is the usual science fictional slurry of fact, speculation, and pure fiction.
I’m curious about the “extracts”, precisely because they give the flavour that you know what goes on in the gaps, as it were. Did you actually write more, even entire essays, and then cut them down? Or did they always start and end in mid-sentence the way they appear in the book?
Yes, at first I was writing little essays out in their entirety, but then as I began to see the shape of things, I could see there was going to be too much of that mode, and also it was just straight expository writing, adequate and clear, hopefully, but not exactly flying as such. I began to save files and experiment with chopping things down to their essences, and at some point, a kind of a diffuse “ah ha” moment that may have covered a week or two, I got it that I could play the game of chopping things down to their barest essences while also suggesting what had been chopped. Then suddenly it was a prose poem, also a game of “you know what comes next here, I don’t have to say it” that could make it playful and full of little jokes, quite a few keyed to people who have read a lot of sf. Having realized that, I stopped writing out the little essays and just starting rearranging my notes, making up fragments from scratch, etc.
You say that fudging the line between what is real and what is made up is standard sf practice, but it isn’t usually presented this way. Or is this something you might normally do in the background of writing a book, and the only thing that is different here is that it is brought into the text itself?
I think so. I think most innovations or new things in sf stories, the novum as Suvin put it, are the end result of a process of extrapolation from something that is going on now, so we start in the present and work out into our imagined futures, and the tendril back to the present is still there, and can be sensed as such by the reader when contemplating the present. In a way the two can collapse together, and the sf novum serve as a metaphor for the already-existing thing. So, in my extracts some fragments are simply my descriptions of things happening right now, then other fragments have the extrapolated novum which can be quite weird. So maybe this method does expose the whole tendril of thought more than usual.
In fact, how do you go about writing a book that is structured like this, when so much is made up of things like lists and incomplete quotations from technical works and so on?
It was a lot of fun, complicated but interesting. Even drafting the story took a big sheet of paper roll, with diagrams in different colors, names, boxes, arrows; this is something I’ve been doing for my books since The Years of Rice and Salt. I like to be able to see the stranding. Then when I committed to the Dos Passos format, I had to start making lists; lists of lists, even. Then I made more diagrams to try to see the structure of the book, and weave the strands together. Logistics of the story line had to be reshaped to fit the needs of the plot, etc. It was a bit more elaborate than some novels of mine, but not completely unusual either. Plotting a novel often seems to have a bit of crossword-puzzle building involved, making things match up and cross properly, etc.
The proportion of what you might call background description and information compared to the plot is unusually high. So which came first, the story or the setting?
The idea for the story came first, but the idea as such required as full a setting as I could get in there, as I said above.
Music seems to play a bigger part in this novel than in anything since, I think, Memory of Whiteness. How important was music for you in writing the book?
As with all my novels, I listen to music while writing, and I choose the music carefully and for me it becomes the novel’s soundtrack, and that is hugely important to me, while not being something that can be conveyed to readers very well. But it’s true that the characters in 2312 have a more intense involvement with music than in many of my books, and I thought it was important to try to convey that by being specific. It seemed to me a good thing to have both Wahram and Swan be musical people, each in their own ways. It’s one of the things they have in common.
I detect a relish in the way you describe the world. Would you like to live in the future you have created here? And, indeed, do you think such relish is important in getting across the sensual quality of a lived future?
Yes, I put a lot of things I loved into this novel, thinking that would be important to make it more fun to read. To a certain extent it might be compensatory; I live in a kind of landscape degree zero (not counting my garden) when I’m at home, and I don’t bodysurf anymore, etc. etc. So I do love to write landscapes, and sports, and art. I think this quality of pleasure is good for novels, and to a certain extent they are things I have done myself and so I can write out of my own sensory experience and not just from my book knowledge. So I look for those topics, and try to keep a balance.
One thing that I think might give this book a feeling of me relishing things is that I was relishing the method itself, the ability of the Dos Passos form to take on a lot of things and still keep the story moving. The opportunity to do some prose poems and some slashing, cut to the point things, stopping the moment information is conveyed, etc.
The situation on Earth in the novel is not good, and I’m pretty sure I would always want to stay on Earth, so I don’t know; it’s a big world, and really in a lot of ways this is a future I think would be interesting to live in, yes. But it would be better to live in a world where everyone was doing well.
When you write near-ish future sf set out and about in the solar system, there is always the issue of terraforming, an issue that is as central to the Mars trilogy as it is to this novel. You seem to end up accepting a catastrophic approach, smashing comets or moons into planets. Wouldn’t that be too costly in terms of energy and resources to be really viable?
To do terraforming like this you would need a much greater command of energy and resources than we have now, but not in ways that take it completely out of the realm of future engineering; no laws of physics are broken. I am a follower here, I write terraforming scenarios that I have learned from the literature, almost always, although I smoosh them together in my own ways, and play around with them a little. They seem to require self-replicating factories, and often fusion power, immense lasers, space elevators, etc. etc.; serious engineering challenges. The first thoughts about terraforming in the scientific community, rather than in sf, came out of the Sagan-era crowd and Sagan himself, contemplating Venus and Mars; it’s been substantially a British field of thought, as far as I can tell, in that it’s greatly influenced by Freeman Dyson, Paul Birch, Martyn Fogg, and many at the British Interplanetary Society, inspired by Clarke and Stapledon. The American wing has been centered around the Mars Underground group from Colorado, now dispersed but still active. Because it’s so theoretical it tends to be a scientist’s hobby, as with most of the starship scientific literature.
So these are the people I read to think about these things, but for my own purposes, terraforming has been great for the reasons I outlined above about sf methods; we are already “terraforming Earth” in certain ways that distort the meaning of the term, but distort it in very suggestive ways. So when I write about terraforming other planetary bodies it is always also a way of talking about what we do to Earth.
Linked to that, of course, is the moral issue. This book is filled with images of a Terran ecology in space, from the gardens on Terminator to the habitats filled with wildlife and plants. Is there an argument for remaking space in our image?
I think it’s okay to spread Terran life around this solar system, if we can, and if we determine that nothing is already living there. In the sense described in my Mars books, I am mostly a Green. Those rocks out there are dead and don’t appreciate their beauty. And there are a lot of them. And many are not ever going to be occupied. No one is going to be terraforming Io. Even Luna is probably not doable. Now if there is a tent arcology the size of Luxembourg up there on the moon, I don’t think any harm is done. Same even with terraforming Venus (so unlikely) or putting a city on tracks around Mercury, etc. Mars feels different because it has such an Earthly look already, it seems to have its own integrity as a rock with weather, but I don’t know; for me Mars remains permanently confusing. And life may be down in the regolith there already, which makes it even more problematic. Anyway, these actions don’t strike me as imperialistic, as the rocks don’t care, nor are they even anthropocentric really. It would just be life doing its thing.
Of course, the habitats, space arks, have an important role in the plot. I found myself cheering at the key moment when the animals come raining down, but then found myself asking, hang on, does that work? Would that work? Does it make sense? I’m not sure, and my doubts may not matter, but do you see this as a serious possibility, or is it a dramatic counterpoint to the sort of catastrophic terraforming proposed for Venus and Mars?
It works as an image. I hope it is one of the main images to be retained out of 2312. I also think it works in simple physical terms, if you have the right reentry vehicles, and the animals themselves. It isn’t that different than landing the reentry vehicles we use now. And I’ve always loved the potential uses of aerogels.
As for what would then happen if the animals rained down, yikes it would be crazy. It might be utter disaster, or more likely a patchwork of disaster and other outcomes. The book tries to stay true to that, in that later extracts are in great disagreement about what happened.
And yes, dramatic counterpoint; especially to the attack on Terminator, just in terms of image and pattern.
One of the issues at the core of this novel, as I read it, is the exhaustion of Earth, the using-up of our environment. That’s one reason I asked about how nice it would be to live in this future, because your various space environments are clearly developing towards the colour and richness we are used to on Earth, while your future Earth is distinctly unwelcoming. This is very clearly a long-standing concern of your, so do you have a didactic purpose when writing?
I would hope that the Earth portrayed in the novel is both thoroughly trashed and quite awesomely beautiful and productive still, and still and always the center of the human story. The space settlements are refugia, helping to get humanity back to a better relationship to Earth; this is one of the main justifications for the terraria, along with their intrinsic interest as art works and city-states. They should remind one of national parks or other areas of Earth we treat as special and beyond harm. But we have to recognize that no place on Earth is beyond harm, so that national parks or refugia are not enough; we have to have a total system that treats the Earth as the indispensable life support system that it is, for humanity and the rest of life.
So, yes, this is a long-standing feeling in me, and I do have a didactic purpose when writing, but it comes from wanting to write novels. Novels are made of words, and words have meanings and meanings are meaningful. So there can’t be any such thing as a novel without meaning. Of course there are questions of balance in all these things. The main thing for me is to try to write novels that give pleasure. Then the question becomes, what gives pleasure?