Thursday, May 28, 2015

Visions of the future with Kim Stanley Robinson

Article published in The California Tech on 27 May 2015.

Visions of the future with Kim Stanley Robinson

Casey Handmer

Last month I sat down for an interview with celebrated Californian science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson to explore his thoughts and visions of the future.

Casey Handmer How do you describe what you do? Why do you write science fiction?

Kim Stanley Robinson I write science fiction as a kind of realism, in most of my books. I do that because I think science fiction is the best literary form for realist art in our era.

CH While your 20 or so novels have been very well received, the most surprising thing about exploring them is that their style is less uniform and more experimental?

KSR  The narrator for most of [my latest novel,] Aurora, is an artificial intelligence that is running the starship. So that computer has to learn to write a novel. It runs through the history of English prose and novel techniques, starting with primitive realism. Finally, in the interstellar medium at the end of the novel there's just a stream of consciousness of the artificial intelligence. It was so much fun to write.

CH Your Mars trilogy is still remarkably scientifically accurate, despite being published more than 20 years ago. Nevertheless, about those windmills in Red Mars

KSR The first edition was full of errors ― I made about 300 corrections. After the 18th printing of Red Mars in paperback, there's a set of corrections listed at the end that have to fit the pages like a crossword puzzle, to keep the pages the same length.

CH Haha, I think "after the 18th printing" is the perfect answer to the pedants. It's art, you know. At some point you say, "I'm telling a story." I tell stories all the time. You don't tell exactly what happened. You take key things and relate the narrative, that's the important part.

KSR But with science fiction, you want to keep from throwing people out of it, or else people can get annoyed. Readers fall into a dream state of reading, but if they get cast out of it because of something being wrong, they can get angry, or amused, at the author. It splits according to the character of the reader.

CH I appreciate the effort to get the technical detail right; it's a colossal pain. Your work is rightly renowned for its attention to detail and very hard science fiction attributes. Why do you see technical accuracy as a necessary part of the craft?

KSR As an example, abandoning Earth [in the 2014 film Interstellar] is somewhat of a moral hazard. The general population is bad on these issues, in terms of what is possible and what is not. Science fiction has this general danger, because many people say, "Oh, that must be possible" because it got written up.

CH That's interesting; so science fiction authors have a social responsibility to build a realistic future world?

KSR It's very common for physicists to say that [because of future ecological disaster] 90% of humans will die. It's an absurd thing to say because it creates a general distrust and hatred of science. It's also a science fiction statement. When people say science fiction statements as though they were solidly scientific statements, like the nature of a physical law, then they're in the nature of a hoax which can be a dangerous hoax.

CH So sea levels will rise 15 feet over a decade, or a century?

KSR I know what you're saying, but we will adapt. We have to, just like we breathe. We are primates, we have done it all along. I object to the political program where [we] just give up, keep burning carbon because we like it, or we can't stop. It's defeatism, a pseudo-philosophy, a pseudo-realism.

CH Well, even if only a tiny fraction of humans will ever be able to leave the Earth, what is your view on human colonization of space?

KSR I like the idea of going to the moon; I like asteroids. And obviously, I like the idea of Mars. Whatever works, as far as I'm concerned. More is better; let's do it all. Robotic exploration, such as at JPL, is fine too. This idea that manned space exploration will save civilization and it has to be humans colonizing space and blah blah blah, the Wild West metaphor, all that is terribly lame thinking.

CH Seems more likely to be analogous to the Soviet expansion through the tundra.

KSR Good luck with that!

CH Technological and very expensive. But possible. So, what's next for you in terms of writing?

KSR I'm getting close to being done!

CH You set out a program 30 years ago?

KSR No, I just don't want to repeat myself. I'm interested to do all the subgenres of science fiction and make one significant contribution to each of the ones that I like. I've done an alternative history, I've done the solar system, I've done the planetary colonization, I've done time travel, I've done the prehistoric novel. I always thought that was a really important subgenre of science fiction because of archaeology, sociobiology and evolution. That was Shaman, my most recently published novel. And Aurora is what I have to say about going to the stars.

CH You need warp drive or lots of antimatter. The speeds and energies involved ― there are certain physical limits which are hard to get away from.

KSR I don't think it's going to work, but fortunately there's more to Aurora than that!

CH It seems like a long shot with any current or projected technology. But we don't know enough to see far enough to know that it will always be impossible.

KSR Technology is a challenge which is a physics thing. There's a tendency for physicists to talk about physics and all other things in terms of physics, which everything ultimately comes down to. But the problems for interstellar travel for humans are biological, sociological, ecological, and psychological. On all these levels, it's in terrible, terrible trouble.

CH We are just thinking meat ― it's too many orders of magnitude beyond our ancestral activities. More locally, though, for the first time in the history of the universe, as far as we know, humans have enough industrial capacity and coordination to colonize other planets. Do you think we'll be able to colonize Mars before something else goes seriously wrong?

KSR The best analogy for Mars is not the New World, so colonization is not the right word. A better analogy is Antarctica, so yes, we can set up scientific stations there, similar to McMurdo and other Antarctic stations, any time we decide to pay to do it, with the years of work needed also. We are definitely robust enough to do that, and JPL would be a big leader, as it has been. But colonization implies many people, and therefore terraforming, really, to make that place livable. So that's a 10,000-year project, maybe, worth doing when we have a stable civilization here on Earth. Worth thinking about now, too. The long perspective is often useful.

CH One consistent theme of your work has been an exploration of post-capitalist societies. Post-capitalism as a term sounds a lot stranger than it should be, but people aren't often thinking about a future system. In your view, what are the key strengths and weaknesses of capitalism as a system?

KSR Its strength is that it is a legal system and as such can in theory be modified for the better by legislating different laws. This is an advance over the sheer force and nepotism of feudal and earlier economics. It has another strength that is at the same time a weakness, which is that it crowdsources human desires to make prices for goods and services, so that what people want tends to create prices in a market.

CH What's wrong with that?

KSR The problem is people can want impossible things ― possible for individuals maybe, but impossible for group and planet over time. Thus we systemically underprice most commodities and services because the pressure of supply and demand favors buyers over sellers. The worst underpricing involves natural resources, externalized in accounting but not reality, and human labor, which is scared into cheap misery. But as these are the two most important resources, pricing both at predatory dumping prices…

CH Predatory dumping?

KSR Charging less than it costs to make to drive competitors out of business, means that we live in a multi-generational Ponzi scheme, and it's the generations to come who will take the hit. That hit is starting now. Another weakness is the way the laws of capitalism unconsciously reproduce laws of gravity such that accumulated capital has more power to accumulate than smaller masses of it. So the rich get richer and the poor poorer, as demonstrated by [Thomas] Piketty, though also recognized in [other, older economic systems].

CH Caltech students do not have much political power, but they are at the forefront of technological innovation. We've already seen some examples of IT-leveraged economic innovation, such as Uber, Airbnb, bitcoin, etc., that have circumvented or short-circuited our largely moribund legislature. Some wildly successful Silicon Valley companies have succeeded mostly in enriching themselves, but the capacity still exists for the next generation of engineers to have a prominent voice in the future they design and build for the rest of us. Do you think it's possible for a less wasteful, less greedy economic model to outcompete capitalism on its own turf?

KSR Yes to that last, except with this cavil: capital can try to buy the legislatures that make the laws that run capitalism, in which case, any other system will be handicapped because the rules make the game. So the question becomes, "Is democracy real, or does accumulated capital, or oligarchy, run our governments?" This is the battle being fought in our political life now, everywhere.

CH Can the dreams of post-capitalist America left be realized through technology rather than policy?

KSR More generally, how can we price goods and services if we decide that the market systemically underprices things and is destroying the biosphere and human lives?  Especially when there is currently no central planning system that could work to replace the market? This to me is the big "technological" question, and I do think it's a scientific question in systems design involving feedbacks of all kinds, as well as a political question.

CH Where does Caltech fit in this?

KSR So it is not outside the Caltech purview by any means to be asking, "How can we realistically change the global system to something more sustainable?" and then regard [capitalist] economics not as a field itself but rather a meta-field, a very big and important social science that can benefit from rigorous studies from the hard science angles. The Caltech political economists can do a projective project of designing stepwise reforms to a sustainable post-capitalism. I imagine something like first anti-austerity, back to Keynesian macroeconomics. Then social democracy, Scandinavian style. Then socialism, meaning public utility districts in USA-speak. Then some X system that we can only call post-capitalism at this point, because it doesn't exist yet; but it needs to be sustainable, and just.

CH Well that's certainly thought-provoking stuff! Thank you for your time, and perhaps we'll see you hiking in the Sierras.