SP: As a science fiction writer, do you have a particular mission to imagine what our future might be like? Is that part of your job?
KSR: Yes, I think that’s central to the job. What science fiction is good at is doing scenarios. Science fiction may never predict what is really going to happen in the future because that’s too hard. Strange things, contingent things happen that can’t be predicted, but we can see trajectories. And at this moment, we can see futures that are complete catastrophes where we cause a mass extinction event, we cook the planet, 90% of humanity dies because we run out of food or we think we’re going to run out of food and then we fight over it. In other words, complete catastrophe. On the other hand, there’s another scenario where we get hold of our technologies, our social systems and our sense of law and justice and we make a kind of utopia — a positive future where we’re sustainable over the long haul. We could live on Earth in a permaculture that’s beautiful. From this moment in history, both scenarios are completely conceivable.
SP: Yet if we look at popular culture, dystopian and apocalyptic stories are everywhere. We don’t see many positive visions of the future.
KSR: I’ve always been involved with the positive visions of the future, so I would stubbornly insist that science fiction in general, and my work in particular, is about what could happen if we did things right. But right now, dystopia is big. It’s good for movies because there are a lot of car crashes and things blowing up.
SP: Is it a problem that we have so many negative visions of the future?
Fear is a very intense and dramatic emotion. Hope is more fragile, but it’s very stubborn and persistent.
KSR: Dystopias express our fears and utopias express our hopes. Fear is a very intense and dramatic emotion. Hope is more fragile, but it’s very stubborn and persistent. Hope is inherent in us getting up and eating breakfast every day. In the 1950s young people were thinking, “I’m going to live on the moon. I will go to Neptune.” Today it’s The Hunger Games, which is a very important science fiction story. I like that it’s science fiction, not fantasy. It’s not Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. It’s a very surrealistic and unsustainable future, but it’s a vision of the fears of young people. They’re pitting us against each other and we have to hang together because there’s a rich elite, an oligarchy, that’s simply eating our lives for their own entertainment. So there’s a profound psychological and emotional truth in The Hunger Games.
There’s a feeling of fear and political apprehension that late global capitalism is not fair. My Mars books — although they’re not as famous and haven’t been turned into movies — are quite popular because they’re saying we could make a decent and beautiful civilization. I’ve been noticing with great pleasure that my Mars trilogy is selling better now than it ever has.
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Kim Stanley Robinson is an American writer of science fiction