“The revulsion against geoengineering has to be rethought,” Robinson told HuffPost. “If a hundred million people die in one heat wave, and the government of India says we’re going to imitate a volcanic explosion and throw dust into the air to block out the sun, are we going to tell them they can’t?”
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of America’s leading science fiction writers & bestselling leftist writers. Robinson is also a proponent of utopias, and vehemently opposed to dystopias:
“These days I tend to think of dystopias as being fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent, because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through.”
KSR (Kim Stanley Robinson), then, is not afraid of engineering new futures. Justin Reynolds characterized Robinson’s work in the New Socialist as, “The construction of utopia is an engineering project without a completion date.” Robinson’s guide on this engineering project is science:
As a leftist, I think there is a bad tendency among some leftists to conflate science with capitalism. They are not the same. I am against capitalism, I am for science. What we need is science guided by its own scientific methods when doing the science ― then guided by a leftist tilt toward justice and sustainability when it’s put to use. We need to choose to put science, technology, engineering and medicine to good human and biosphere work, rather than let it be bought to serve profit for the few most wealthy.
Robinson’s interest in science leads him to cast scientist, programmers, and other wonks as protagonists frequently: The Mars Trilogy follows the struggle of 100 scientists selected by the international community to start a scientific settlement of Mars, New York 2140 has a wide cast characters including coders, a banker, a lawyer, and a detective, while the Science in the Capital Trilogy follows a cast of ‘progressive DC insiders’ and scientists as they take power and fight climate change:
“I wrote those books [the Science in the Capital trilogy] before Obama himself even began to run for office, so my novel exists as a utopian wish from out of the darkest of the Bush years. I’m sure it was a wish shared by many. Still, someone like Obama or my fictional Chase (who resembles McCain with Obamalike values, or perhaps a mutating set of values that shifts leftward as he works in office) was not at all inevitable after Bush.”
KSR’s argument that the US government may be used in anti-capitalist ways was questioned by the interviewers from the journal Polygraph:
“Polygraph: The history of American democracy, for example, is only sporadically encouraging as a form of governmental praxis in opposition to capitalist imperatives.
Robinson: I’m not so sure of that. Maybe it’s done the best it could against a truly powerful system—I wonder about that when I look at alternative forms of resistance to capitalism and how well they have done. The social democracies of northern Europe might be models of the next steps toward even better democracies.”
Because this is a ‘democracy,’ Robinson frequently argues for ‘education,’ particularly if it is ‘scientific.’ Through education, ‘we’ will learn the ‘truth’ and ‘make better decisions.’
“If democracy is enacted and a majority of the electorate wants to do good things—which majority should be possible to gather, or else just how good are we as educators and persuaders, and how good is our cause?—then good things could follow. This is where science comes in, as the ultimate educational system and persuasive method, also as a method for helping decide what causes are good.”
(same interview) Robinson’s belief that we live in a ‘democracy’ where ‘we’ have all contributed to the decisions culminating in our present crisis leads him to:
“In that sense the Anthropocene is a kind of biospheric dystopia coming into being every day, partly because of the daily activities of the bourgeois consumers of dystopian literature and film, so that there is a nightmarish recursive realism involved in the project: not just Things are bad, but also We are responsible for making them bad.”
“Anthropocene” was a term coined to describe the new ‘geological epoch’ where ‘human activity has geological consequences.’ The above quote is from an essay he wrote in 2019 for Commune Magazine. I point this out because the term ‘Anthropocene’ has been criticized from the left for years, including frequent Jacobin contributor Benjamin Kunkel:
An Anthropocene that begins ten thousand years ago sheds no light on the ecological dynamic of recent centuries; modern Anthropocenes – usually conceived as more or less coeval with mercantile, industrial or postwar capitalism – either ignore the specific origins of the period or, at best, acknowledge but fail to analyse them. A concept attractive in the first place for its periodising potential thereby forfeits meaningful historical content. Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture.’
Robinson’s fiction, then, is perhaps best summed up by Adam Rogers in Wired “people doing the hard work of building consensus policies.” Robinson might be the world’s most ambitious policy wonk. His utopias, like the utopias of liberals, are often exclusionary. Justin Reynolds, again in the New Socialist, notes “And everyone is welcome – provided they have the money” in a review of Robinson’s latest novel Red Moon.
One of the most memorable scenes in the Mars Trilogy, to me, was when one of the members of the first 100 scientists, Frank, defused a riot of the workers. The workers on Mars had come to Mars either to make some fast money mining on mars or they had come to Mars as a result of deteriorating conditions on Earth. As Robinson writes it, as a result of the influx of immigration to Mars, the conditions on Mars deteriorated from overcrowding:
“In any case, UNOMA police teams had arrived on the scene and found the attackers gone, and the tents in a turmoil. They had sealed the two tents, then denied permission for those inside to leave. The inhabitants had concluded they were prisoners, and enraged by this injustice they had burst out of their locks and destroyed the piste running through their stations with welders, and several people on both sides had been killed. The UNOMA police had sent in massive reinforcements, and the workers inside the two tents were more trapped than ever.
Enraged and disgusted, Frank went down again to deal with it in person…
UNOMA, in Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, is the United Nations organization responsible for overseeing the scientific expedition to Mars, the transnational corporations that follow to extract resources, and the various nations that try to colonize Mars. UNOMA, like the UN itself, is often relatively powerless.
The crowd inside the tent looked ugly indeed on the monitors, but he banged on their passage lock door and finally was let in, into a crush of angry young men and women. He walked through the inner lock door and breathed hot stale air. So many people were shouting he could make nothing out, but the ones in front recognized him and were clearly surprised to see him there. A couple of them cheered.
“All right! I’m here!” he shouted. “Who speaks for you?”
They had no spokesperson. He swore viciously. “What kind of fools are you? You’d better learn to operate the system, or you’ll be in bags like this one forever. Bags like this or else bodybags.”
The crowd murmured and swore at him angrily, but some were taken aback. “Those so-called police were in on it too!” one of them said loudly.
“Maybe so,” Chalmers said, “but it was corporate troops that attacked you, not some random Japanese on a rampage. You should have been able to tell the difference, you should have bothered to find out! As it is you played into their hands, and the UNOMA police were happy to go along, they’re on the other side right now, at least some of them. But the national armies are shifting over to your side! So you’ve got to learn to cooperate with them, you’ve got to figure out who your allies are, and act accordingly! I don’t know why there are so few people on this planet capable of doing that. It’s like the passage from Earth scrambles the brain or something.”
Some laughed a startled laugh. Frank asked them about conditions in the tents. They had the same complaints as the others had, and again he could anticipate, and say it for them. Then he described the result of his trip to Clarke. “I got a moratorium on emigration, and that means more than just time to build more towns. It means the start of a new phase between the U.S. and the U.N. They finally figured it out in Washington that the U.N. is working for the transnationals, and so they need to enforce the treaty themselves. It’s in Washington’s best interest, and they’re the only ones that’ll do it. The treaty is part of the battle now, the battle between people and the transnationals. You’re in that battle and you’ve been attacked, and you have to figure out who to attack back, and how to connect up with your allies!”
They were looking grim at this, which showed sense, and Frank said, “Eventually we’re going to win, you know. There’s more of us than them.”
So much for the carrot, such as it was. As for the stick, that was always easy with people as powerless as these. “Look, if the national governments can’t calm things down quick, if there’s more unrest here and things start coming apart, they’ll say the hell with it— let the transnats solve their labor problems themselves, they’ll be more efficient at it. And you know what that means for you.”
“We’re sick of this!” one man shouted.
“Of course you are,” he said. He pointed a finger. “So do you have a plan to bring it to an end, or not?”
It took a while to rachet them into agreement. Disarm, cooperate, organize, petition the American government for help, for justice. Put themselves in his hands, in effect. Of course it took a while. And along the way he had to promise to address every complaint, to solve every injustice, to right every wrong. It was ridiculous, obscene; but he pursed his lips and did it. He gave them advice in media relations and arbitration technique, he told them how to organize cells and committees, to elect leaders. They were so ignorant! Young men and women, educated very carefully to be apolitical, to be technicians who thought they disliked politics, making them putty in the hands of their rulers, just like always. It was appalling how stupid they were, really, and he could not help lashing into them.
He left to cheers.
(Again, this is from the first of Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, Red Mars.)
The above scene is meant to be read as an example of Frank’s cynical political practices. However, when I was reading the above scene, I began to feel like I was on the wrong side: The Mars Trilogy follows the first 100 as they become power brokers for various factions on Mars. All of KSR’s characters are powerful people. Mars is a utopia in his Mars Trilogy, but Earth, where most of humanity lives, goes to shit.
“As they ate they watched the news from Earth on a bar TV. Really it had gotten to be almost too much to watch. Canada and Norway were joining the plan to enforce population-growth slowdown. No one would say population control, of course, it was a forbidden phrase in politics, but that’s what it was in fact, and it was turning into the tragedy of the commons all over again: if one country ignored the U.N. resolutions, then nearby countries were howling for fear of being overwhelmed. Another monkey fear, but there it was. Meanwhile Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Azania, the United States, Canada, and Switzerland had all proclaimed immigration illegal, while India was growing by 8 percent a year. Famine would solve that, as it would in a lot of countries.”
(Robinson, Red Mars)
In the Mars Trilogy, the characters are literally above this horrendous apocalypse on Earth, while in another of his books, New York 2140, the characters are literally above the effects of climate change in the skyscrapers of New York, a new Venice.
Robinson’s disdain for dystopias, then, is contradictory. Today’s dystopian & post-apocalyptic novels can be read as the stories of survival in the parts of the world KSR destroys in the news updates his scientist characters watch. (There’s a parallel with how Robinson treats ‘the rest of the world’ and zombie novels that often will casually note something like ‘Brazil went dark less than 12 hours after the first reported case of zombie virus.’) Afrofuturism, for instance, is often framed as survival. NK Jemisin tweeted “Call it Afrofuturism if you want, or don’t. It didn’t start there. We — the black diaspora — been doing it since we got here. Centuries of myths made, not just to preserve our personhood, but our literal survival.” Robinson’s dismissal of dystopias is in many ways a refusal to acknowledge the totality of worlds he himself builds, and a refusal to think about what survival means in them.
But there is a deeper reason for this. Marxists have argued that the proletariat are the revolutionary class; anarchists have argued the lumpenproletariat or peasants are the revolutionary class; after the 60s, writers like Chela Sandoval argued that women & people of color are the revolutionary class. Kim Stanley Robinson, though, argues science is revolutionary:
So we are entering a zone of history where the struggle between science and capitalism for dominance of our culture—which I think has been clear all along, but which many do not see or agree is the situation—may become explicit and open. I hope so; this is a scientific culture as well as a capitalist culture, and I’ve been arguing for years that the utopian ethics and politics buried in the scientific method makes science the equivalent of the most powerful leftist politics we have ever had. Now the climate crisis may make that much more obvious to everyone.
The interviewers pointed out that leftist critics ‘like the Frankfurt School & Michel Foucault’ have been very critical of science. Robinson responded with:
“For me, it is Manichean and a way of sorting out the information of the world: I see it as Science vs. Capitalism. I think there is a historical basis and theoretical framework to support this view.
The critics you mention (Foucault and the Frankfurt School) were formidable theorists, but the most recent and sophisticated findings at this interface come out of science studies. You need to include in the discussion Bruno Latour, also Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway, and Bachelard, Bourdieu, Shapin, Biagioli, really that whole community that, since Kuhn, has been trying to study science as one human system among others.”
There are many problems with Robinson’s answer. First, and I’ve already eluded to this, but race, gender, and class are not really addressed. Further even if we accept, say, Bruno Latour’s defense of science from critics like Foucault, there is still the problem of science’s history. (The history of science cannot really be addressed because that would mean addressing race, class, and gender.) Even if we accept that the scientific method is flawless, it still maybe misapplied towards unjust ends, as it has historically.
Even if we cannot contend with climate change without science, there is still the issue that without science there would be no climate change. Much like the media’s rush to now portray themselves as the ‘defenders of truth’ against Trump, science’s rush to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change deflects from its culpability in creating the situation we now face. In the case of the scientists fighting climate change (unlike the media), I do not think this is intentional, but the culpability remains.
Alexis Gumbs, in the introduction to work of speculative fiction M Archive, invites us to think about what comes after science, what comes after all the ways we ‘have been knowing the world:’
In other words, this speculative documentary work is written from and with the perspective of a researcher, a post-scientist sorting artifacts after the end of the world. This is you beyond you. After and with the consequences of fracking past peak oil. After and with the defunding of the humanities. After and with the removal of people of color from the cities they built. After and with Audre Lorde. After and with Toni Cade Bambara. After and with Barbara Christian. After and with Nellie McKay. After and with June Jordan. After and with Cheryll Y. Greene. After and with Gloria Naylor. After and with Jayne Cortez. After and with Lucille Clifton. After and with Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. After and with the Combahee River Collective. After and with clean water. After and with handwriting. After and with a multitude of small and large present apocalypses. After the end of the world as we know it. After the ways we have been knowing the world.
Fredric Jameson characterized KSR’s Mars Trilogy as “the conflict of all possible Utopias, and the arguments about the nature and desirability of Utopia as such, which move to the center of attention.” Despite the debates in the trilogy, Robinson never wades into longstanding left debates about science or about who or what the revolutionary class is. Further, in containing only the debates around utopias, Robinson excludes those who have traditionally been excluded from utopias: People of color, LGBTQA people, and disabled folks.
All of this brings us back to the geoengineering quote I lead with: Robinson’s defense of geoengineering is a good example of the kind of utopian socialism Marx critiqued in The Poverty of Philosophy: “The socialists want the workers to leave the old society alone, the better to be able to enter the new society which they have prepared for them with so much foresight.” Participation & solidarity are two of the keys to left politics historically, but they are rarely featured in Robinson’s works (one exception is the final book in the Orange County Trilogy). One of Robinson’s other defenses is to say ‘we should read more scientists.’
One of the scientists Robinson said we should read, is Steven Rose. Steven Rose with his wife Hilary Rose wrote this in their book Genes, Cells, and Brains:
Science – knowledge about the physical and biological world – was once seen as independent of the society and culture within and as part of which it was generated. Marx and Engels themselves both saw science as a progressive force within society and at the same time recognised the knowledge it produced as reflecting the interests and ideology of the capitalist class. This analysis was taken up with enthusiasm in the infant Soviet Union, and in 1931 Boris Hessen, a member of the Soviet delegation to the International Congress of the History of Science in London, electrified a new generation of young scientists already radicalised by the suffering inflicted on the working classes by the Depression with a challenge to one of the cornerstones of modern physics. His paper ‘The Socio-economic Roots of Newton’s Principia’, argued that this most arcane of mathematical treatises and the physics it formalised developed in response to the needs of the rising seventeenth-century mercantilist capitalism.
Among those inspired by Hessen was the crystallographer and polymath Desmond Bernal, whose Social Functions of Science, published in 1939, became the foundational text for the social relations of science movement. Bernal believed that science was in itself socially progressive but had been perverted within the capitalist mode of production. A true science for the working classes – a proletarian science, and one which fully liberated its potential – could only be realised within socialism.
Kim Stanley Robinson once lamented “Fucking Iain Banks died and Ursula died, and I’m like the last utopian.” Maybe utopia should die with him.