The West Coast of Utopia: Kim Stanley Robinson and the Science Fiction of Hope

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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 to the moons of Jupiter. Now, I realize that SF may not be your taste. Ordinarily, it's not mine either: I hate funny names and dislike spending time on any planet with more than one moon. But Robinson is something different. Whether he's imagining 8th-century Mongolia, present-day Washington, D.C., or 22nd-century Mars, his fiction is a kind of laboratory in which he explores utopia in all its grandeur and fragility.

"Anyone can do a dystopia these days," he once said, "but utopias are hard and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, 'We did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better.' Some kind of narrative vision of what we're trying for as a civilization."

He offers one such vision in his jaunty new novel, 2312 (Orbit), which begins with what appears to be a happy time for humankind's outer-space diaspora. Mars has been successfully colonized but is acting a bit like a gated community. Mercury has a huge glassed-in capital city, Terminator, built on wheels that roll it out of the sun's murderous rays. Even human beings are getting transformed. The heroine, Swan Er Hong, is a performance artist, yet that may be the most normal thing about her. She's bisexual and bi-gendered and converses with "Pauline," a quantum computer planted beneath her skin. When Terminator is hit by a terrorist attack, Swan launches a quest to find out who did it, an investigation that eventually carries her from Venus to "a sad place"--Earth. Ecologically ravaged, run by corporations, torn by the abyss between the rich and the poor, our planet is exporting its crises to our whole galaxy.

Like all of Robinson's work, 2312 is shot through with ideas--from the malleable nature of gender to the excitement of "rewilding" the earth by bringing back vanished animals that have been kept alive in outer-space terraria. Underlying it all is the awareness that, even in a 24th-century world bursting with scientific and technological transformations, people cannot escape the patterns of history we're living through right now. Robinson reminds us that every possible future has its seed planted in the contested soil of the past. …