In this week’s PW we review Kim Stanley Robinson’s mindblowing new novel, 2312. If you can’t wait until May to have your solar system rocked, check out Susan de Guardiola’s Q&A with KSR, also in this week’s issue. To whet your appetite, here are the Qs and As we couldn’t fit in the magazine.
SDG: What led you to depict mercurial Mercurian Swan and saturnine Saturnian Wahram as embodying their planets’ supposed astrological characteristics?
KSR: I think it began when I read a very nice review of my previous novel, Galileo’s Dream, by the British writer Adam Roberts, who mentioned that I appeared to be a little too fond of the ancient Greek character system of the four temperaments, as it keeps showing up in my books. This is true and it made me laugh, and I thought, Okay, well, maybe I’ll just have to shift from the four temperaments to the astrological character system, very much going from bad to worse. Probably this was a perverse reaction, but the thing is I really do like these old character systems, all very rickety and speculative (including the Freudian and Jungian ones), but all trying to get at something real in human variability. So it began with a laugh, I suppose, but over time it began to seem like a good idea, because all couples are odd couples—so unlikely, so apparently mismatched—how do they happen, how can it work? And of course love and partnership are two of the main things the novel is made to explore.
SDG: What drew you to the “collage” structure?
KSR: The book was clearly going to have a big information load, and as I was planning it, Jerad Walters of Centipede Press asked me to write introductions for new editions of John Brunner’s novels Stand On Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, classics from 1968 and 1973. I agreed to do that, and rediscovered the way Brunner had portrayed a complex global culture, which was by adapting the technique invented by John Dos Passos for his great U.S.A. trilogy of the 1930s. So I finally actually read the Dos Passos trilogy, which had been sitting on my shelf for thirty years, and I was amazed at how good it is—truly one of the great American novels. I decided to follow Brunner’s example and adapt the Dos Passos method, which in essence is a weave or collage of different kinds of writing, including songs, newspaper articles, stream-of-consciousness passages, impressionist pocket biographies of famous Americans, and so on. My lists, extracts, planet biographies, and quantum walks are my variations on the Dos Passos technique.
I’ve always liked lists, and I hope that the lists in 2312 will be seen as a new way to handle exposition, in effect squishing it down to something like word association games, or prose poems.
SDG: Swan’s career straddles both art and science. How do you perceive the relationship between the two fields, and its importance, now and in the future?
KSR: For me, art in our time is strongest when it is aware of science, includes science, is inspired by science, or is about science. On the linguistic level, the new words coined by scientists to describe their new discoveries form a giant growing lexicon that means English is simply bursting with new possibilities, resembling the Elizabethan age in that respect. Then conceptually, science is creating new stories to tell, by deluging us with new information and potentialities. In this deluge we need art to do its usual job of sorting things out, by giving things their human dimension and by exploring how they might feel and what they might mean. So to me the arts and the sciences are completely intertwined. Maybe that’s always been true, but now more than ever.
For some artists working today, art has already left the galleries and the museums, and since I was thinking about world-making as an art form, this “making art everywhere” was really suggestive. The landscape art of Andy Goldsworthy, and the performance art of Marina Abramovic, were particularly important to my book, so much so that in 2312 their names have turned into nouns for their particular genres.
SDG: Any suggestions for readers interested in pursuing some of the non-fictional elements behind your worldbuilding?
KSR: There’s so much out there now, it’s difficult to pick out particular works. I do think everyone would benefit from reading Science News, it’s just a few pages every other week, but it’s an excellent ongoing education in all the sciences, and we all could use that.
NASA remains a great source of material about our solar system, and really in all these various fields there is a lot of good information—everywhere but in economics, where the pickings remain slim. If you try to think “what comes next?” which I often try to do, there is a gaping absence—even though since the crash of 2008 we have all been staring at this absence, wondering what it means and what we will do as it becomes increasingly evident that capitalism is not sustainable. We will have to change, but how? No one knows. It’s probably a good topic for a science fiction novel.
Don’t miss the rest of the interview in this week’s issue of PW.