It was such an honour to speak with Kim Stanley Robinson for this final episode of Season One of Sowing the Seeds of Change.

Stan is described by the New Yorker as “generally acknowledged as one of the greatest living science-fiction writers.” He has many fans, including at least two of my guests from this first season of Sowing the Seeds of Change, Rich Bartlett and Bill McKibben. His highly entertaining novels tend to revolve around ecological, cultural, economic and political themes, always handled with lightness, ease and elegance. He has a PhD from UC San Diego, and lives in Davis, California.

Stan has published twenty-two novels and numerous short stories, and is about to publish his first memoir, but is probably best known for his Mars trilogy, which is how I first came to his work, when a friend, tech podcaster Leo Laporte, gave me an ipod fully loaded with audiobooks, including the Mars books. I became a confirmed fan, and was introduced to Stan by a mutual friend in 2012, although we have yet to meet in person – but we’re working on it.

In this conversation we talk about the art of writing, technology, oceans, mountains, Buddhism, mental health and the search for meaning, environmental economics, equality, leverage points and the fractal nature of change, and, of course, the future.


Stan’s favourite quote:

Walter Benjamin: “Overcome difficulties by multiplying them.”



Finding the little leverage points that an ordinary person might bring to bear, they have their moment of agency. And it can be decisive in a fractal way, up or down the system.

I used to lose a lot of sleep over not knowing what I’m doing in this story. That’s okay. You just keep weaving. And at the end of it, the reader is going to be generous. And that’s the beautiful thing – a novel only exists when the reader has read it, and brought their own experiences to it. In their head, they’re imagining these things. And the beautiful part about that is that the generosity of the reader can lift the various inadequacies of your sentences by their own creative efforts.  

[Fellow science fiction writer, Iain Banks] said, you are making the very common mistake of thinking that a science fiction writer knows something about the future. And this got a big laugh, because of course, we think of science fiction writers as being specialists in the future. But nobody can know the future. And what I do now is remind people that everybody is a science fiction writer, and they do it for their own life. And it has to do with imagination and planning. 

In human affairs, there’s a lot of chance and accident, luck, contingency, and you do what you can to ride that wave. But the wave is filled with unexpected breaks, reefs, problems.  

The other part of science fiction that’s very powerful is a lot of these images out of the future are metaphors for the way that we feel right now. So there’s a combined effect in science fiction. On the one hand, yeah, it’s a future that could happen. Let’s think about it. On the other hand, I feel like I’m turning into a robot, I already am a cyborg. Time is accelerating. There’s a conspiracy of time travellers from the future that are messing with me. These are all metaphors for the way that we feel already. 

I think of my novels as my political action in the world. 

I’m relatively transparent as American leftist, trying to describe more solidarity, more collective futures, public over private. It’s obvious that the dice are loaded in my stories, but they still need to entertain. 

Every novel has a political message in it, some of them are just saying, the status quo is eternal, don’t question the system, etc. And I don’t like those kind of novels. 

Go ahead 100 years, and look back at now. And they are going to be saying, we were idiots. We were self-absorbed, narcissistic fools that were casting the world into an emergency mass extinction event, and they didn’t change their behaviours fast enough. The judgment on us will be very heavy… Here’s where science fiction can be a very useful mental operation. Just imagine what we’re going to look like to the generations to come. And that might be a little spur in the butt to change behaviours now, 

[If I was king of the world] I would choose to immediately set a floor and a ceiling on human wealth, like one to 10 ratio. This is sometimes called the wage ratio. So the one has to be adequacy. Everybody is at adequacy. And you can define them very simply: food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, electricity, all there in adequate amounts, so you’re not living in fear, nor in misery. So that’s the floor, then the ceiling is 10 times that.

If your enterprise makes more than a million dollars, then you get to designate which public service that gets paid to or whatever. It’s taxes, it’s not yours, it’s society’s. One to 10. It’s simple, it’s easy to remember, and 10 times adequacy is extraordinary luxury.  

We’re very good at imagining that [natural disaster] won’t happen to us, it will happen to someone else. This is useful in an evolutionary sense, because we have enough dangers, and you need to be able to function. And so part of the way that you allow yourself to function is to say, well, that won’t happen to me. And clearly, that’s very imaginative because eventually something’s going to get you. For society imagining how to deal with climate change, it might be that we’re more powerful at imagining than we are at good risk assessment. 

I love this concept of cognitive errors. And it’s very important to remind ourselves and everybody that we’re talking about errors that are like optical illusions. In other words, they’re endemic and even when you know they’re happening to you, you can’t escape them. 

You need the emotions. So then what emotions do you choose? Well, charity. Solidarity with other people, imagining that the other is just like you. These are imaginative emotional gestures, that person’s feeling the same way I am. 

I like Zen Buddhism, because it has that same impulse: chop wood, carry water, remember the world is sacred. I find it so useful. 

I am also very impressed by existentialism as a philosophy. There’s no meaning. The universe happened. We’re in it. We’re conscious. Wow. 

So then how do you create meaning? Well, you make up the stories, you create it yourself by making a project for yourself. 

People without projects are in trouble, just as people without meaning in their life are in trouble. And in the United States, they’re talking about this despair as different from depression, deaths of despair. It’s one of the leading causes of death in young people in the United States. And of course fentanyl and the other opioids have been part of that. Sometimes it happens by accident. But deaths of despair are real all across this world. People are not only emiserated physically and their prospects are terrible, but also they have no meaning. 

Capitalism only goes for the highest rate of return. That’s its law. That’s an algorithm that it follows. Irrespective of the consequences of that. So highest rate of return, if we follow that law only, we are doomed to fail in our fight for dealing with climate change. And in our fight for justice. Capitalism is bad at both of those. But it’s the world system right now.  

It’s a problem of getting paid to do the right things rather than the wrong things and therefore, finessing or overwhelming the law of the highest rate of return, the love of profit, a lot of shareholder value, to go for good carbon work is more valuable.

Even just the view of the night sky, being out in wilderness, you shrink to a dot and the consciousness of that is interesting, and indeed, a beautiful experience. I think is a good orientation to the real.




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