Stories about a better future can help break the dominance of the story that says you’re screwed, says legendary science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson
By Sally Adee
The drowned city on the cover of your book New York 2140 may mislead people that it’s a dystopian climate change book. But it’s fun, a tale of driving stakes into vampire capitalists – the super wealthy who don’t even generate wealth.
I’ve always written utopian science fiction. The story to tell now is utopian science fiction jammed into near-future history. To avoid an environmental crash, we need an economic solution. I wanted to show people coming together in an accidental collective to do good things – financiers, reality stars, Silicon Valley people. There’s a revolution at the end, but it’s by no means the end of the problems, it’s the first step.
The kind of sci-fi one reads does seem to be important. Is there, for example, a relationship between engineers and writers, with writers creating imaginary worlds and engineers making them?
I think that’s real. I know my Mars trilogy inspired young people to be geologists, or go to Mars. Science fiction also provides inspiration to get into science. Scientists are idealistic. What gives life meaning beyond making a buck? Science. It’s a higher calling. And it’s a response to our basic curiosity, our desire to make things better.
Does that mean writers should avoid creating dystopias?
I don’t agree with writers telling other writers what they should do. Anyway, dystopia isn’t new: it’s a version of satire, an Ancient Greek form. It’s a warning. But there can be flavours of dystopia, characterised by the epoch. In the 1980s, for example, cyberpunk claimed to be the great expression of American science fiction. I was always a great enemy.
Why did you dislike cyberpunk?
It was basically saying finance always wins. All you can do is go onto the mean streets, find your corner, pretend you’re in a film noir and give up. I thought it was capitulationist, nostalgia for the cynicism of the 1940s. I wrote utopian-scientific stuff, saying no, it’s way more interesting, there are lots of possibilities.
Aren’t we living in a dystopia now?
Here’s the dilemma. Capitalism is the system we have agreed to live by. Its rules, while being legal and not involving anyone being evil or cheating, are nevertheless destroying the world. So we need to change the rules.
In 2140, two of your characters, both programmers, try to overthrow the system.
Is that what you’re talking about?
No. They represent the Silicon Valley dream of a tech solution – if only we could just hack the system. As if, like graffiti, you can paint over the problem and make it go away. But if the laws stay the same, you can’t hack them. If the fundamental rules are bad, you need to change them. To do that, you need political economics.
What is political economics?
It’s the idea that politics and economics are melded together into one power trip running the world. It’s a field most universities don’t have any more, and it combines economics and politics with sociology and anthropology.
It’s weak now because there’s no money thrown into it so the most sophisticated theorists go into the trivial pursuits of economics rather than deeper questions of political economics. No economist is going to talk about changing the fundamental rules. That’s why we need political economics: it is post-capitalism.
Could it help us claw back our society from vampire capitalists?
It’s interesting to look at what happened after the 2008 financial crash. People stopped paying their bills because they couldn’t afford them, and finance crashed. That showed us something very intriguing: in theory, you can pop the bubble of finance any time you want, by everybody agreeing to go on a payment strike. This is essentially the plot of 2140.
Surely after every bubble, the 1 per cent tell the same story of shortages and terrorists to pit us against each other while they take 99 per cent. How do we fight back?
That is the story they’re trying to get us to believe. The one thing the 1 per cent can do is buy the storytelling apparatus, the major media, and they have.
Why is ownership of the media so important?
We understand the world through a master story we tell ourselves, that’s our ideology. Everybody has an ideology. If you didn’t have one, you would be disabled, somehow. The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci said that people obey the dominant powers of their time – without guns in their faces – by way of stories. This hegemony, or dominance, is created by ideology, including those master narratives.
Is this another reason why the kind of stories we tell right now matter?
It’s important what story you tell about the future. Stories that say the future can be better because people are smart, because they want democracy, because, ultimately, people rule and banks don’t, can be self-fulfilling. They give people actions to help break the story that says they are screwed because international finance is way more powerful.
This sounds like you have a blueprint to save Earth?
There are some blueprints right now. Basic minimum income for one. Or employee-owned cooperatives such as Mondragon, the Spanish workers’ cooperative federation. To me, Mondragon is important because it’s a form of post-capitalism that already exists, is legal and runs a multi-billion economy for 200,000 people in the Basque part of Spain. It could work anywhere.
Are you comfortable being the guy who pulls the world towards a plausible, not dystopian, future?
Yes. It’s a little bizarre. I have definitely done the hard work. I have taken the utopian road, the scientific road and ground out stories where it isn’t obvious why they should be fun to read. Most of my novels, I think, are actually fun because I’m doing realism in a way the world needs.
As for anyone picking up the mantle, there’s a group of young writers who call themselves solar punk, and what they’re trying is all about adaptation.
Brexit, identity politics, attempts to divide people… Do you still believe in the utopia of people working together?
This is one of those tests of history. The next century or so will tell whether people can get it together. Because occasionally things happen that are quite shockingly positive.