Visions of Paradise

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Kim Stanley Robinson

Anybody reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s first published stories in 1975 knew immediately that he was equally comfortable in both the science fiction pulp tradition and the literary tradition. His stories straddled both genres, concentrating on characterization and mood, but were also well-plotted with strong science fictional bases and sense of wonder.

"Venice Drowned" was a look at life in the fabled city at a future time when the seas had risen to swallow it. "Black Air" told the story of the Spanish Armada from the point of view of a young boy able to sense the impending death of other people. "The Lucky Strike" was an alternate history story of the dropping of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima.

The story that most resembled core science fiction was "Green Mars," a tale of colonization, politics, and mountain climbing. The story belonged fully in the science fiction tradition, yet was as strongly literate as all of Robinson's works.

In 1984 Robinson’s first novel The Wild Shore was released as the first of the revived Ace Science Fiction Specials edited by Terry Carr. A rite of passage novel, it was set in a near-future California struggling to recover from a limited nuclear attack against the United States. The novel had the misfortune to be released in the same year as William Gibson’s groundbreaking Neuromancer, denying it of much of the attention it deserved.

That same year Robinson released Icehenge, a science fiction mystery involving space exploration and the discovery of strange structures at the edge of the solar system.

Not content to fit into any mold Robinson stretched his talents with his next two novels. The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge were both near future novels set in California, but they were philosophical opposites, the first being a realistic dystopia while the latter was a hopeful utopia.

The greatest acclaim came for Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, a trilogy examining the colonization and terraforming of the red planet. Rich in both characterization and political intrigue, the first two novels in the series received awards for Best Novel in the same year. The trilogy was followed by a collection The Martians, stories which filled in gaps of the trilogy itself.

Next came two stand-alone novels. Antarctica told a story similar to the Mars Trilogy in miniature about near-future colonization of Earth’s frozen continent. The Days of Rice and Salt took as its premise that the Black Plague wiped out nearly 100% of Europe’s population, so that the history of the past 500 years was dominated by Islam, India, and China instead of by Western Europe. The novel was strongly influenced by the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.

Robinson then released a near-future trilogy about the conflicts between science and politics in dealing with the impending ecological crisis. Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting combined the best aspects of Robinson’s political insights (strong element of both his Mars Trilogy and Antarctica), characterization, and ecological thriller.

For readers who enjoy the more literary end of the science fiction spectrum, as well as an interest in history, Kim Stanley Robinson is truly one of the genre’s giants.


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