If any political ideal has taken a drubbing over the past hundred years, it's surely the left's vision of utopia. How far we've fallen from those lofty 19th-century dreams--the classless society, the withering away of the state, the happy news from Nowhere. Merely to mention such hopes nowadays is to call up ghastly images of failure, not merely censors sharpening their scissors and babushkas queuing for bread but Checkpoint Charlie, the Gulag Archipelago, the Great Leap Forward toward the Killing Fields. Even glimpses of utopianism, such as the giddiness unleashed by the election of Barack Obama, now feel destined to end in disappointment if not crushing defeat.
Avatar notwithstanding, pop energy swung decades ago to the side of dystopia, which, rather than asking us to explore political possibilities, urges us to revel in the thrills of oppression--the balefully beautiful neon-lashed high-rises of Blade Runner, the sinister doppelgangers enforcing the illusions of The Matrix, teenagers fighting to the death in The Hunger Games. Although dystopias are supposed to be hellish, these days they're played for kicks--darkly glamorous worlds filled with noirish cops, skateboarding hackers, and sexy-cute Japanese chicks offering designer drugs.
You'll find no such romanticized defeatism in the books of Kim Stanley Robinson. Over the past 35 years, this California-based science-fiction writer has built up a brainy, voluminously honored body of work, from ironic early stories like "The Lucky Strike," in which the bombing of Hiroshima is accidentally averted, to the hugely ambitious 2009 novel, Galileo's Dream, in which the 17th-century physicist travels 1,400 years through time …