In the current issue of CounterPunch magazine (volume 23, number 1 [March 2016]), I have an interview with radical sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards and the author of more than twenty books, including the Mars trilogy, Forty Signs of Rain, The Years of Rice and Salt, 2312, and Aurora. We discuss political philosophy, religion, history, existentialism, commitment, ecology, and nature, among other things. An excerpt follows below; the interview in full can be accessed by purchasing the issue or subscribing regularly to CounterPunch.
JSC: Many of your works deal centrally with history, whether actual, alternate, or speculative-futural. In The Years of Rice and Salt , you present several different compelling interpretations of human and natural history: for example, the image of a rising gyre, “dharma history,” or “Burmese history”—“meaning any history that believed there was progress toward some goal making itself manifest in the world,” or “Bodhisattva history,” which “suggested that there were enlightened cultures that had sprung ahead somehow, and then gone back to the rest and worked to bring them forward—early China, Travancore, the Hodenosaunee, the Japanese diaspora, Iran—all these cultures had been proposed as possible examples of this pattern […].” In Aurora (2015), moreover, you mention the idea of history being parabolic, cyclical—as in Hindu cosmology—or as resembling a sine wave or an S-curve. It would seem to me that we are at the apex of the parabola, or just after it on the downward curve, such that we must somehow invert it, transforming it more into an S-curve shape. Which view(s) of history do you think best represent(s) the history of humanity?
KSR: I like thinking about historiography, and the various patterns or shapes that people have ascribed to history so far, but as we don’t have any counter-examples to what’s happened, and the entire sequence of world history seems quite contingent and non-repetitive, even non-patterned, I think we can only regard these theories as highly fanciful, and use them as ways to suggest how to act now.
I like Marx’s basic pattern or sequence of capital accumulation and class warfare, and Arrighi’s elaboration of it, describing capitalism’s expanse from Genoa to Holland to Britain to America. I also like Hayden White’s analysis suggesting that all theories of history fit with suspicious accuracy a few extremely basic narrative patterns from literature (going right back to oral storytelling of the paleolithic). This makes all historical patterns look suspect, as being stories we like to tell ourselves, and very simple stories at that.
Various trajectories of technology, culture, and the planet itself all mesh together into what we call history, so a shape for history itself is very hard to see. Still it is probably worth trying, as a way of organizing our political hopes and purposes. It could be said that the attempt to do history at all is itself a utopian project, as we try to organize our efforts in the present. One utopian shape to history is the rising gyre; things cycle, as with Arrighi’s capitalism, but at each turn of the cycle, it gets bigger or moves into in a different modality. Another is the logistic curve, the S curve, repeated upward in stepwise fashion as we marshall new abilities and get better at enacting global civilization. Often I think of history as a pursuit is just another kind of fiction, a genre — a good genre, including lots of summarization and analysis as compared to dramatization, an emphasis I like. More than most fiction, this genre makes an attempt to fit with what really happened in the past, which is hopeless in some ways, but valiant. Thus a kind of realism, and all realisms are always artificial, but interesting. So history is a great genre of literature, a cousin to novels.
JSC: There are also clear existential-psychological dimensions to your novels. In The Years of Rice and Salt, you portray Khalid and Iwang, the drivers of the Samarqand Awakening of science, arguing with the Sufi Bahram in the bardo, or the Tibetan vision of the afterlife, after they had been killed by a resurgent plague. Khalid channels Shakespeare’s Earl of Gloucester: he declares that the gods “kill us for sport” and impugns Bahram for the latter’s devotion to love amidst the power of a world-historical course so indifferent to human happiness, while Bahram in turn stresses that courage underpins love, hope, and the commitment to struggle. Perhaps the existential dimension is most present in Aurora, particularly once the surviving crew reaches Tau Ceti and realizes the dream of settling any of its planets to be illusory. Despair grips the survivors, and many turn to suicide. Thus a cruel fate confronts them: now what, if anything, they ask?
KSR: Existentialism is the best way to express all this. I take it this way: the universe is meaningless, but has cast up the human species by a kind of miraculous accident: here we are, brief dust devils of awareness. The only meaning this cosmic accident has is what we make up for it ourselves. If we can make a meaning, good. But inevitably it’s the creation of mortal and transient creatures, so it’s not easy to see how to make a truly hopeful and inspiring meaning. Trying for one can feel better than not trying; sometimes much better. Even very satisfying. Certainly history, which makes each of us part of a larger story that outlasts us as individuals, is one of these attempts at meaning — as are all the religions. But again, the creation of meaning is another work of fiction-making. Possibly a life of writing novels has made everything (philosophy, religion, history) look like literature to me. Sorry; my religion, I suppose.
Tags: 2312, Arrighi, Aurora, bardo, Bodhisattva history, Britain, Burmese history, capitalism, China, despair, dharma history, Earl of Gloucester, existentialism, Genoa, Haudenosaunee, Hayden White, Hindu cosmology, historiography, history, Hodenosaunee, Holland, Iran, Japan, Kim Stanley Robinson, KSR, Marx, meaning, meaninglessness, Samarqand Awakening, suicide, Tau Ceti, The Years of Rice and Salt, transience, Travancore, utopianism, William Shakespeare