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?