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The New Utopians

Kim Stanley Robinson and the novelists who want to build a better future through science fiction.

How will the world end? Take your pick among an array of near-future catastrophes: rising sea levels, overpopulation, mass extinction of species, nuclear proliferation, uncontainable viruses, not to mention more fanciful but alarmingly plausible scenarios like a giant asteroid or superintelligent computers run amok. The prophets of doom are unusually loud in our time, and almost every vision of the future, whether by sober ecologists or wild-eyed science fiction writers, carries with it the stench of despair. The collapse of civilization has become its own narrative cliché.

But dark predictions have always had a sunny counterpart—the dream of a better world. Just as heaven and hell are complementary destinations, so are utopia and dystopia rivalrous siblings, each offering radically different outcomes, but both concerned with the idea of how humanity can shape its common destiny. The first utopias offered a revolutionary idea: The social order, as it exists, is neither inevitable nor the best we can hope for. Thomas More’s 1516 tour of an ideal island state called Utopia gave the genre its name, an idea later refined by Francis Bacon in the New Atlantis (1627), in which lost sailors discover an island where the inhabitants have perfected the scientific method. Catastrophe, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was ordained from above; sickness, plague, famine, these were out of the control of man. Utopia was a place of perfect social control, where the weather always behaved itself.

Countering these hopes were the satirical responses of more pessimistic writers like Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver’s Travels (1726) can be read as an early warning about false utopias. Brook Farm was a notorious mid-nineteenth-century experiment in communal living that some of America’s leading writers, including Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne, tried and failed to establish in the 1840s. (Hawthorne’s disillusionment with the experience, and his general scorn for hare-brained utopianism, was recorded in his 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance.) Yet if utopia is easy to mock, it remains a central inspiration for social activism. Countless practical reform movements have taken heart from utopian imaginings. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) was a central text to Progressive-era America, just as H.G. Wells furthered socialism with the creation of a fictional world state in his 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come.

In contemporary culture, utopia has all but disappeared from our imaginative map while dystopias proliferate. The social order is no longer broken down by a failure of the political imagination, but by catastrophic climate events that deliver a new interval of geologic time: a dry or frozen planet beset by anarchy, population decline, even new speciation. Sometime after 1972, a global thermonuclear war leads to the desertification of the Earth, the near extinction of our species, and the rise of the Planet of the Apes (as well as seven sequels). Since 1979, Mad Max and his merry crew have fought for what little gasoline and water is left in a landscape of parched, desolate highways. In novel after novel, written with her characteristic gingery wit, Margaret Atwood has given us bad news about the ways in which humanity can mess up our collective destiny, whether it be the eugenic theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale—her response to the rise of the religious right in the 1980s—or the genetic engineering gone awry in the MaddAddam trilogy. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t spell out the exact nature of the catastrophe that wrecks the world of his bleak 2006 novel The Road, but the barren, ashen landscape of the novel feels post-nuclear. In the 2013 film Snowpiercer, a train runs on an infinite loop over a flash-frozen Earth, its inhabitants trapped in a closed ecosystem ruled by martial law.

Climate change, so difficult to grapple with because it requires the cooperation of nations across the globe, points to how our environmental problems are fused with the narrowing of our political options. The end of history, much heralded by Francis Fukuyama, has been accompanied not by a flourishing of democracy but by plutocratic-friendly gridlock that prevents any political action that challenges the interests of entrenched wealth. The enemy of utopia isn’t dystopia, but oligarchy. The cultural critic Fredric Jameson summed up the dilemma of our epoch when he quipped that someone once said, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Amid the crowded field of artists crying doom and gloom, the science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson has been an anomalous figure in the genre for almost 30 years. He’s made it his life’s work to write books that keep alive the idea that humanity can create a better future for itself. Robinson writes in the rigorous subgenre of hard science fiction, which requires respect for known natural laws rather than flights of fancy. In his books, the scientists are heroes: His Mars is not an alien planet, but a landscape to be terraformed into radical new farms; his Antarctica is a landscape for environmental research and eco-sabotage; and government grants, if applied for, can often save the world. Robinson’s work illustrates both the promise and peril of radical optimism, as well as the habits of ordinary people in extraordinary landscapes. 

“Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines,” Robinson told science fiction short story writer Terry Bisson in 2009. “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.”

The author of 17 novels and numerous short stories, Robinson wrote his doctoral thesis on the novels of Philip K. Dick at U.C. San Diego under Jameson’s guidance. A native of Southern California, Robinson’s first trilogy, Three Californias, depicts three versions of a near-future Orange County. In the first volume, The Wild Shore (1984), the United States has been destroyed by nuclear war; the other two volumes present different variations of California’s future and follow the attempts of politicians and scientists to rebuild a green infrastructure over the next 80 years. Between 1992 and 1996, he published his Mars trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, in which scientists colonize, establish agriculture, and fundamentally alter the planet’s atmosphere to make it inhabitable for humans, and just in time—the Antarctic ice sheet has melted, and a torrent of illegal immigrants are making their way for Mars.

Robinson’s decidedly left-wing slant on science fiction puts him at odds with the right-wing tradition of hard science fiction that often seems dominant, at least in the United States. While Europe has a rich legacy of socialist science fiction that runs from H.G. Wells to Olaf Stapledon to China Miéville, the United States has been more comfortable with libertarian science fiction that imagines space colonization as the next frontier for the free market. This is particularly true of the engineering-oriented can-do tech tradition that was codified in the 1930s and 1940s by John W. Campbell’s magazine Astounding Science-Fiction. Campbell’s most influential protégé, Robert Heinlein, started as a socialist, but by the 1950s was writing novels that extolled militarism (Starship Troopers) and imagined space colonies becoming free-market utopias governed by the code of TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, the battle cry of a lunar colony rebellion in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress). Heinlein inspired a library full of imitators such as Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and Newt Gingrich, who have used the genre to argue for hard right politics.

Being a utopian science fiction writer can be lonely. Robinson calls his set, along with Bisson, whose work combines dark humor and environmentalism, and Ursula K. Le Guin, an icon of feminist and environmental utopias, “a study group more than a school.” Yet there is evidence that Robinson’s style of utopian science fiction might be finding resonance with other writers who have grown tired of the end of the world.

In the summer of 2003, a report on climate change commissioned by the then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, was revealed to have had references to the effects of global warming removed by White House staff. “Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment,” was replaced with the following: “The complexity of the Earth system and the interconnections among its components make it a scientific challenge to document change, diagnose its causes, and develop useful projections of how natural variability and human actions may affect the global environment in the future.” The next year, Robinson published Forty Signs of Rain, the first book in what would come to be known as the Science in the Capital trilogy, in which the president, a Republican climate change denier, squashes any efforts to deal with mounting evidence of global warming.

The trilogy is being reissued as a set for the first time this year, a time capsule of very recent history. The Bush administration’s multiyear campaign to undermine the EPA and offer its own narrative of the negligible effects of climate change was exposed by Rolling Stone in 2007. Time magazine, in 2008, named Robinson a “Hero of the Environment” and the “foremost practitioner of literary utopias.” The horror and hope of the Science in the Capital trilogy returns at a moment we finally may be getting our act together on global warming.

By reissuing the trilogy in a slightly abridged one-volume edition titled Green Earth, Robinson has had a chance to reflect on how his predictions look in the light of unfolding history. As he told The Coode Street Podcast earlier this year, the polar vortex-induced freezing he described in the second book of the series has already hit the East Coast of the United States the last two winters. “Things have gotten even uglier in some regards,” he noted, “but on the other hand, since 2008 nobody believes in capitalism in the way they used to … denial of climate change per se is pretty much going away, but the political fight over what to do about it is going to be very intense.”

If political paralysis and ideological obtuseness are the villains of the trilogy, the novels have an unexpected hero: the bureaucrats of the National Science Foundation. The core action of the trilogy is the way the members of the NSF become politicized, then figure out ways to challenge denialist politics and form alliances with groups ranging from the Pentagon to the insurance industry to save the West Coast as a storm system threatens to drown California. In the second book, Fifty Degrees Below (2005), the Gulf Stream stalls, plunging the East Coast into a deep freeze. But the enemy remains a government unwilling to listen to its scientists. In the final book, Sixty Days and Counting (2007), a new president in the mold of Al Gore takes office, and saving the world looks a lot like an ecological New Deal. The West Antarctic ice sheet has collapsed, but the Gulf Stream has been jumpstarted with millions of tons of salt, the White House installs solar panels, genetically modified lichen absorb carbon in Siberia, and, in a stunning climax, an ecologically devastated China switches over to clean energy. As literary critic Adam Trexler noted in his 2015 study Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, Robinson is “moving beyond the problem of the truth of climate science to think about how science might become part of a utopian political mobilization.” 

Robinson, in effect, sees science itself as a kind of utopia: a collaborative, cooperative, international, disinterested attempt to understand the world and make it a better place. He doesn’t deny that, in practice, science might be corrupted by everything from petty rivalry to cupidity, but the act of doing science carries with it values that need to be broadened out and made a part of political life. Robinson, usually a merely efficient writer in the mode of Isaac Asimov, goes into special reverie when describing scientists lost in the act of thinking.

Frank dug into the substantive part of the proposal. The algorithm set was one Pierzinski had been working on even back in his dissertation. Chemical mechanics of protein creation as a sort of natural algorithm, in effect. Frank considered the idea, operation by operation. This was his real expertise; this was what had interested him from childhood, when the puzzles solved had been simple ciphers. He had always loved this work, and now perhaps more than ever, offering as it did a complete escape from consciousness of himself. Why he might want to make that escape remained moot; howsoever it might be, when he came back he felt refreshed, as if finally he had been in a good place.

That “good place” of pure research is the core of Robinson’s utopianism. As he told literary critic McKenzie Wark, “I remain an advocate of science as a method of understanding, a set of institutions and practices, a philosophy of action, a utopian politics.” 

Here we see one limit of Robinson’s utopianism: The Science in the Capital trilogy becomes a call for a technocratic revolt, albeit one that aligns itself with broader social movements. (In Forty Signs of Rain, the members of the NSF work with Buddhist monks who live on an island threatened by drowning.) Still, the delight in science as a basis for politics is a minority pursuit. Even if the scientists do help mitigate and minimize climate change in the interests of all humanity, the core experience of being in a community of knowers is shared by the few. Science in the Capital is a wonderful guide for how the climate problem might be addressed, but it underplays the role that grassroots activism by nonscientists will have to play.

In this regard, the trilogy offers a much narrower utopia than the ecological communitarian society Robinson created in his earlier novel, Pacific Edge (1990), the concluding volume in the Three Californias trilogy, where every member of the community participates in lengthy political meetings (which, to be sure, is not everyone’s cup of tea, let alone ideal of a perfect society). Perhaps the sheer scale of the climate problem makes the type of community described in Pacific Edge no longer feasible, so even Robinson’s utopianism has to give ground.

In the tradition of Rousseau, Robinson wants to forge a link between the modern and the primitive: Utopia means, in part, recovering the archaic energies of the past. He sees science as compatible with primitivism because the scientist has the natural disinterested curiosity of humans in the state of nature. In Robinson’s novel Red Mars (1992), a scientist reflects on life in a space colony:

This arrangement resembles the prehistoric way to live, and it therefore feels right to us, because our brains recognize it from three million years of practicing it. In essence our brains grew to their current configuration in response to the realities of that life. So as a result people grow powerfully attached to that kind of life, when they get a chance to live it. It allows you to concentrate your attention on the real work, which means everything that is done to stay alive, or make things, or satisfy one’s curiosity, or play. That is utopia … especially for primitives and scientists, which is to say everybody. So a scientific research station is actually a little model of prehistoric utopia, carved out of the transnational money economy by clever primates who want to live well.

The “prehistoric utopia” Robinson describes is enthralling to read about, but, like the technocratic revolt of the Science in the Capital trilogy, is something for the few, not the many. Robinson’s utopia is enticing to dream about, but not fully a place you’d want to move into.

Curiously, Robinson’s utopianism is linked to a persistent imagination of disaster: The push for action comes from a climate catastrophe (floods, freakish snowstorms) that forces rivals to come together. The Science in the Capital trilogy was published over three years that redefined natural disaster for the new century: Hurricane Katrina highlighted the need for federal government aid in the summer of 2005, and Al Gore gave the world a frightening lesson about carbon dioxide emissions in An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. But based on real-world events, one might doubt whether disasters have quite the politically benign effect that Robinson foresees. While many of the residents of Louisiana post-Katrina and New York post-Sandy helped each other in the face of disaster, the political system remained as deadlocked and divided as ever. In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans political elites used the situation not to bring people together, but as a form of providential slum clearance, with the poor African American communities that were dispersed not welcomed back, resulting in a considerably whiter city. Nor did Hurricane Sandy bring Americans together. In fact, 67 Republicans, including prominent figures, like Representative Paul Ryan, voted against disaster relief funding. Future climate disasters will be just as likely to lead to battles over scarce resources as to cooperation.

As utopian as he is, even Robinson is aware that, at best, we can only hope to mitigate climate change and adapt to it, and there’s a real possibility that humanity won’t get its act together to solve core problems. In his recent novel 2312 (2012), he offered a vision of the next 300 years in which parts of humanity build wondrous space colonies (some go body surfing on the rings of Saturn) while the home planet languishes in environmental degradation. As Robinson explained to The Coode Street Podcast in 2011, “The Earth could be quite a jungly planet with a much higher sea level, and it does not necessarily mean that we couldn’t inhabit space because our technological powers are growing so fast. One of the few things we won’t be able to do is save the Earth from this next century’s warming, that may be beyond us. But other terraforming projects where you can slam comets into the planet might be possible.” To paraphrase Jameson once again, the lesson of 2312 is that it is easier to terraform Venus than to reach an international climate accord. Even the most splendid utopian imagination has its limits. 

Robinson’s attempt to keep the flame of Utopia alive in a despairing era has made him a lonely figure. But suddenly, in the last few years, a new literary genre has emerged that hopes to revive ecological utopianism. Rallying under the banner “solarpunk,” a ragtag band of freelance futurists and science fiction writers have argued that we have an obligation to imagine positive futures where plausible technologies give us practical green solutions.

“Imagine a sustainable world, driven by clean and renewable energy,” reads the introduction to Solarpunk (2012), a Brazilian anthology of solarpunk literature whose opening lines were roughly translated in an Australian article in 2014. “Now imagine large space sailboats driven by solar radiation, production of biofuels via nanotechnology, the advent of photosynthetic humans, and, as there is no perfect society, even terrorism against corrupt businesses and governments. Welcome to the bright green world of solarpunk.” A mix of green technology, economic ideology, sociology, science fiction, architecture, and even fashion, solarpunk remains more of an aspirational mindset and lifestyle than a cultural movement, but the popularity of the term speaks to a hunger for an alternative to the apocalypse. “It’s hard out here for futurists under 30,” declares one manifesto. “We’re solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair.”

Solarpunk is still a new genre, more a call to arms than a substantial body of literature. Still, in the Tumblr posts and stories that have been written so far, a few recurring themes emerge. Solarpunk writers are interested in how an ecologically balanced post-scarcity sustainable future will look and feel to ordinary people. A very popular Tumblr post by the visual artist Olivia Louise, published in 2014, served as a major spark to the solarpunk movement, because it made explicit that the goal was an aesthetically pleasing habitable future. Louise called for “a plausible near-future sci-fi genre, which I like to imagine as based on updated Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Edwardian aesthetics, combined with a green and renewable energy movement to create a world in which children grow up being taught about building electronic tech, as well as food gardening and other skills, and people have come back around to appreciating artisans and craftspeople, from stonemasons and smithies, to dress makers and jewelers, and everyone in between.” This vision is a call back to the Victorian dreams of William Morris (who wrote his own utopia, News From Nowhere, in 1890), John Ruskin, and the members of the Arts and Crafts movement who hoped to humanize industrialism. Carrying forward and advancing the kind of utopianism that runs from Morris to Robinson, and now solarpunk, is a heartening sign that the dream of a better tomorrow is still possible, even in the face of the apocalypse. To build a better future we have to first imagine it.