What Could Happen If We Did Things Right: An Interview With Kim Stanley Robinson, Author Of Aurora
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Is Kim Stanley Robinson our greatest political writer? That was the provocative question posed recently by a critic in The New Yorker. Science fiction writers rarely get that kind of serious attention, but Robinson’s visionary experiments in imagining a more just society have always been part of his fictional universe. In fact, he got his Ph.D. in English studying under the renowned Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson. The idea of utopia may seem discredited in today’s world, but not to Robinson. He believes we need more utopian thinking to create a better future.
And the future is where he takes us in his new novel Aurora. Set in the 26th century, it’s the story of a space voyage to colonize planets outside our Solar System. Robinson writes in the tradition of “hard science fiction,” using only existing or plausible technology for his interstellar journey. As much as he geeks out on the mechanics of space travel, his real interest is how people would handle a very long voyage trapped inside a starship. His futuristic themes won’t surprise longtime fans of Robinson, who’s best known for his Mars trilogy, published in the 1990s. To read KSR is to wonder how our species might survive and even thrive in the centuries ahead.
The author stopped by my radio studio before giving the keynote speech at a local science fiction conference. We talked about the existential angst of life on a starship, the future of artificial intelligence and the aesthetics of space travel. Our conversation will air on Public Radio International’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. You can subscribe to the TTBOOK podcast here.
Steve Paulson: How would you describe the story in Aurora?
Kim Stanley Robinson: It’s the story of humanity trying to go to other star systems. This may be an ancient idea, but for sure it’s a 19th century idea. The Russian space scientist Tsiolkovsky said Earth is humanity’s cradle but you’re not meant to stay in your cradle forever. This idea has been part of science fiction ever since — that humanity will spread through the stars, or at least through this galaxy.
SP: It’s a long way to travel to another star.
KSR: It is a long way. And the idea of going to the stars is getting not easier, but more difficult. So I decided to explore the difficulties. I tried to think about whether it’s really possible at all, or if we’re condemned — if you want to put it that way — to stay in this Solar System.
SP: What star are your space voyagers trying to get to?
KSR: Tau Ceti, which has often been the destination for science fiction voyagers. Ursula Le Guin’s Dispossessed takes place around Tau Ceti, and so does Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun. It’s about 12 light-years away. We now know it has three or four big planets the size of a small Neptune or a large Earth. They’ve got the mass of about five Earths. That’s too heavy for humans to be on, but those planets could have moons about the size of Earth. So it becomes the nearest viable target. Alpha Centauri, which is just four light-years away, only has tiny planets that are closer than Mercury is to our sun, so they won’t be habitable.
SP: Your story is set 500 years into the future. It takes a long time to get to this star.
KSR: Yes. My working principle was, what would it really be like? So no hyperspace, no warp drive, no magical thing about what isn’t really going to happen to get us there. That means sub-lightyear speeds. So I postulated that we could get spaceships going to about one-tenth the speed of light, which is extraordinarily fast. Then the problem becomes slowing down. You have to carry enough fuel to slow yourself down if you’ve accelerated to that kind of speed. The mass of the decelerant fuel will be about 90% of the weight of your ship. As you’re approaching your target, you have to get back down to the speed at which you can orbit your destination. The physics of this is a huge problem.
SP: You’re talking about a multi-generational voyage that will take a couple hundred years. That’s a fascinating idea. The people who start out will be dead by the time the starship gets there.
KSR: I guessed it would take four or five generations — say, 200 years. This is not my original idea. The multi-generational starship is an old science fiction idea started by Robert Heinlein and there may even be earlier precursors. One always finds forgotten precursors for every science fiction idea. Heinlein wrote Universe around 1940, Brian Aldiss wrote a book called Starship in 1958, and Gene Wolfe wrote a very great starship narrative in the 1990s, The Book of the Long Sun. So it’s not an original idea to me; it’s sort of a sub-genre within science fiction.
SP: But the whole idea of a project that takes generations is something we don’t do anymore. People did that when they built the pyramids in Egypt or the great cathedrals in Europe. I can’t think of a current project that will take generations to complete.
So it turned into a bit of a prison novel.
KSR: You really have to think of it as a mobile island or a vast zoo. It isn’t even a project so much as a city that you’ve shot off into space, and when the city gets to its destination, the people unpack themselves into the new place. You’re right, it could be compared to building the cathedrals. And it’s interesting to think about the people born on the starship who didn’t make the choice to be there. So it turned into a bit of a prison novel.
SP: Because you’re trapped there. You’re in this confined space for your whole life.
KSR: And for two or three generations, you’re born on the ship and you die on the ship. You’re just in between the stars. So it’s very existential. There are some wonderful thought stimulants to thinking about a starship as a closed ecology.
SP: How big is the starship in your story?
KSR: There’s something like a hundred kilometers of interior space.
SP: So this is big!
KSR: Yeah, two rings. You could imagine them as cylinders that have been linked until they make a circle, so twelve cylinders per circle. You’ve got 24 cylinders and each has a different Earth ecology in it and each one of them is about five kilometers long. It’s pretty big, but you need that much space to be viable at all because you have to take along a Noah’s Ark worth of genetic material, or else it isn’t going to work.
SP: What do you have to bring along?
KSR: You would want as much of everything as you can bring, but you certainly need a big bacterial load. You need to bring along a lot of soil. You need a lot of what would be effectively unidentified bacteria; you just need a big hunk of earth. And then all the animals that you can fit that would survive. Each one of these cylinders would be like a little zoo or aviary.
SP: As you were imagining this voyage, which part was most interesting to you? Was it the science — trying to figure out technically how we could get there? Or was it the personal dynamics of how people would get along when they’re trapped in space for so long?
KSR: I think it would be the latter. I’m an English major. The wing of science fiction that’s discussed this idea has been the physics guys, the hard SF guys. They’ve been concerned with propulsion, navigation, with slowing down, with all the things you would use physics to comprehend. But I’ve been thinking about the problem ecologically, sociologically, psychologically. These elements haven’t been fully explored and you get a new story when you explore them. It’s a rather awful story, which leads to some peculiar narrative choices.
SP: Why is it awful?
KSR: Because they’re trapped and the spaceship is a trillion times smaller than Earth’s surface. Even though it’s big, it’s small. And we didn’t evolve to live in one of these things. It’s like you spend your whole life in a Motel Six.
SP: Put that way, it does sound pretty awful.
KSR: Better than a prison, but you can’t get out. You can’t choose to do something else. I don’t think we’re meant for that even though we live in rooms all the time in modern society. I think the reason people volunteer for things like Mars One is they’re thinking, “How is that different from my ordinary life? I sit in a room in front of my laptop all day long. If I’m going to Mars, it’s more interesting.”
SP: Mars One is the project that’s trying to engineer one-way trips to Mars. You know you’re not going to come back. Frankly, it sounds like a suicide mission, and yet tens of thousands of people have signed up for this mission.
KSR: Yes, but they’ve made a category error. Their imaginations have not managed to catch up to the situation. They are in some kind of boring life and they want excitement. Maybe they’re young, maybe they’re worried about their economic prospects, maybe they want something different. They imagine it would be exciting if they got to Mars. But it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said travel is stupid; wherever you go, you’re still stuck with yourself. I went to the South Pole once. I was only there for a week and it was the most boring place in Antarctica because we couldn’t really leave the rooms without getting into space suits.
SP: Is extended space travel like going to Antarctica?
KSR: It’s the best analogy you can get, especially for Mars. You would get to a landscape that’s beautiful and sublime and scientifically interesting and mind-boggling. Antarctica is all those things and so would Mars be. But I notice that nobody in the United States cares about what the Antarcticans are doing every November and December. There are a couple thousand people down there having a blast. If the same thing happened on Mars, it would be like, “Oh, cool. Some scientists are doing cool things,” but then you go back to your real life and you don’t care.
SP: So even though you write about these long space voyages, you wouldn’t want to be part of one?
KSR: Not at all. But I’ve only written about long space voyages once — in this book, Aurora.
SP: You also wrote a whole series of books about Mars. You still have to get there.
KSR: But there’s an important distinction. You can get to Mars in a year’s travel and then live there your whole life. And you’re on a planet, which has gravity and landscape. You can terraform it. It’s like a gardening project or building a cathedral. I think terraforming Mars is viable. Going to the stars, however, is completely different because you would be traveling in a spaceship for several generations where you’re in a room, not on a planet. It’s been such a techie thing in science fiction. But people haven’t de-stranded those two ideas. They said, “Well, if we can go to Mars, we can go to Tau Ceti.” It doesn’t follow. It’s not the same kind of effort.
SP: Would it be interesting to travel just through our own Solar System?
KSR: Yes, this Solar System is our neighborhood. We can get around it in human time scales. We can visit the moons of Saturn. We can visit Triton, the moon of Neptune. There are hundreds of thousands of asteroids on which we could set up bases. The moons of all the big planets are great. The four big moons of Jupiter — we couldn’t be on Io because it’s too radioactive or too impacted by the radio waves of Jupiter itself — but by and large, the Solar System is fascinating.
SP: Yet I imagine a lot of people would say, “Yeah, there’s a lot of cool stuff out there, but it’s all dead.”
KSR: Well, we have questions about Mars, Europa, Ganymede and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Wherever there’s liquid water in the Solar System, it might be dead or alive. It might be bacterially alive. It might have life that started independently. It might be cousin life that was blasted off of Mars on meteorites and landed on Earth and other places. We don’t know yet. And if it is dead, it’s still beautiful and interesting, so these would be sites of scientific interest. Antarctica is pretty dead, but we still go there.
SP: I’ve heard it’s incredibly beautiful.
I think Earth is the one and only crucial place for humanity. It will always be our only home.
KSR: It’s very beautiful. I think if you’re standing on the surface of Europa, looking around the ice-scape and looking up at Saturn in the sky overhead, it’s also going to be beautiful. I’m not sure if it’s beautiful enough to drive a gigantic effort to get there. The robots going there now are already a tremendous exploration for humanity. The photos sent back to us are a gigantic gift and a beautiful thing to look at. So humans going there will always be a kind of research project that a few scientists do. I’m not saying that the rest of the Solar System is crucial to us. I think Earth is the one and only crucial place for humanity. It will always be our only home.
SP: I wonder if we would develop a different sense of beauty if we went out into the Solar System. When we think of natural beauty, we tend to think of gorgeous landscapes like mountains or deserts. But out in the Solar System, on another planet or a moon, would our experience of awe and wonder be different?
KSR: You can go back to the 18th century when mountains were not regarded as beautiful. Edmund Burke and the other philosophers talked about the sublime. So the beautiful has to do with shapeliness and symmetry and with the human face and figure. Through the Middle Ages, mountains were seen as horrible wastelands where God had forgotten what to do. Then in the Romantic period, they became sublime, where you have not quite beauty but a combination of beauty and terror. Your senses are telling you, “This is dangerous,” and your rational mind is saying, “No, I’m on a ledge, but I’ve got a railing. It looks dangerous, but it’s not.” You get this thrilling sensation that is not beauty but is the sublime. The Solar System is a very sublime place.
SP: Because you could die at any moment if your oxygen support system goes out.
KSR: Exactly. It’s like being in a submarine or even in scuba gear — the feeling of being meters under the surface, with a machine keeping you alive and bubbles going up, as you’re looking at a coral reef. That’s sublimity. There’s an element of terror that’s suppressed because your rational mind is saying it’s okay. When you fly in an airplane and look down 30,000 feet to the surface of the earth, that’s the feeling of the sublime, even if you’re looking down at a beautiful landscape. But people can’t bear to look because after a while you’re thinking, “Boy, this machine sure has to work.”
SP: If you think long and hard about this…
KSR: You might never fly again.
SP: One thing that’s so interesting about your novel Aurora is that most of it is narrated by the ship itself. What was the idea here?
KSR: I do like the idea that my narrators are also characters, that they’re not me. I’m not interested in myself. I like to tell other people’s stories, so I don’t do memoir. I do novels. And for three or four novels now, it’s been an important game to me to imagine the narrators’ voices being different from mine. So Shaman’s was the Third Wind, this mystical spirit that knew the Paleolithic inside and out. That wasn’t me. And Cartophilus, the time traveler, tells Galileo’s story.
…a novel is not a natural act. It’s an art form that’s been built up over centuries and doesn’t have a good algorithm.
In Aurora, it made sense for the ship to need really powerful artificial intelligence, like a quantum computer. And once you get to quantum computers, you’ve got processing speeds that are equal to the processing speeds of human brains. But the methodologies would be completely different. They’d be algorithms that we programmed. Maybe it wouldn’t have consciousness, but when you get that much processing speed, who’s to say what consciousness really is? So I made the narrator out of this starship’s AI system. And he — she, it — has been instructed by the chief engineer to keep a narrative account of the voyage. When you think about it, writing novels is strange. We can tell most stories to each other in about 500 words, so a novel is not a natural act. It’s an art form that’s been built up over centuries and doesn’t have a good algorithm.
SP: I recently interviewed Stephen Wolfram, the computer theorist and software developer, and asked if he thought some future computer could write a great novel. He said yes.
KSR: Wolfram’s very important in theorizing what computers can do because he’s made a breakdown of activities from the simple to the complex. And at full complexity, the human brain or any other thinking machine that can get to that fourth level of complexity should be able to do it.
SP: So in the future, you think a computer or artificial intelligence system could write a modern “Ulysses”?
KSR: Well, this is an interesting question. At that point you would need a quantum computer. It would need to read a whole bunch of novels and try to abstract the rules of storytelling and then give it a shot. In my novel, the first chapter the computer writes is 18th century literature. It’s what we would call “camera-eye point of view.” It doesn’t guess what people are thinking; how can it? It just reports what it sees like a Hemingway short story. As the novel goes on, chapter by chapter, the computer is recapitulating the history of the novel, and by the end of the last chapter narrated by the computer, you’re getting full-on stream of consciousness. It’s kind of like Ulysses or Virginia Woolf where you’re inside the mind, although it’s the mind of the computer itself. The last chapter is in a kind of “flow state” of the computer’s thinking.
SP: At that point, does the computer have emotions?
KSR: It wonders about that. The computer can’t be sure. Actually, we’re all trapped in our own consciousness. What are other people thinking? What are other people feeling? You have to work by analogy to your own internal states. The computer only has access to its own internal states.
SP: Does the future of AI and technology more generally excite you?
KSR: Yes, AI in particular. I used to scoff at it. I’m a recent convert to the idea that AI computing is interesting. Mainly, it’s just an adding machine that can go really, really fast. There are no internal states. They’re not thinking. However, quantum computers push it to a new level. It isn’t clear yet that we can actually make quantum computers, so this is the speculative part. It might be science fiction that completely falls apart. There was science fiction about easy space travel, but that’s not going to work. There was science fiction about all of us living 10,000 years. That might or might not work, but it’s way speculative. Quantum computing is still in that category because you get all the weirdness of quantum mechanics. There are certain algorithms that might take a classical computer 20 billion years, while a quantum computer would take 20 minutes. But those are for very particular tasks, like factoring a thousand-digit number. We don’t know yet whether more complex tasks will be something that a quantum computer can handle better than a regular computer. But the potential for stupendous processing power, like a human brain’s processing power, seems to be there.
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.
SP: Does our society need positive visions of the future? Do we need people to create scenarios of how things could go well?
If science fiction doesn’t provide those stories, people find them somewhere else. So Steve Jobs is a science fiction story we want.
KSR: Oh, yes. Ever since Thomas More’s Utopia, we’ve always had it. Edward Bellamy wrote a book called Looking Backward: 2000–1887. The progressive political movement that changed things around the time of Teddy Roosevelt came out of this novel. When people had to reconstruct the world’s social order after World War II, they turned to H.G. Wells and A Modern Utopia and Men Like Gods. We always need utopias. These days, people are fascinated by Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. It’s like those geeky 1950s science fiction stories where a kid in his backyard makes a rocket that goes to the moon. Now it’s in his garage, where he makes a computer that changes everything. We love these stories because they’re hopeful and they suggest that we could seize history and change it for the better. If science fiction doesn’t provide those stories, people find them somewhere else. So Steve Jobs is a science fiction story we want.