FROM THE DESK OF KIM STANLEY ROBINSON
Writing a realist novel in the form of science fiction is the best way to capture the way our time feels. We live these days in a rush of technological change so intense that our sense of the present moment includes a tremendous sensation of historical velocity. But toward what? The potential trajectories range from a string of disasters creating a mass extinction event, to a emerging civilization of balance and prosperity for all the species on the planet. With that broad a spread of possibility, how can we get a proper orientation to history, and figure out what to do right now?
I revert to how I began: we write science fiction, mapping out all the possible futures; this helps us to evaluate our current options, and then we act. It’s a powerful working method, really just a version of what we all do all the time. We are always writing our own individual science fiction scenarios, ranging from dystopian fears to utopian hopes.
However, in all the possible collective futures we can now foresee, there is one trajectory that we are cast in so firmly that there is no escaping it: to one degree or another, we are going to be dealing with climate change. And that fact will affect everything else.
This at least was my working theory as I began my climate trilogy at the start of this century. Once we got unequivocal evidence that dangerous climate change was already under way, how would we act? And could we formulate a good response? One such good response was the story I wanted to tell, and over the next five years I wrote the three parts of what became the Science in the Capital Trilogy that came out as Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting.
Looking back at this novel ten years later, I am pleased at how it holds up. Of course with the passage of time it has become a very weird mix of historical novel, contemporary realist fiction, and near-future science fiction, plus a healthy dose of political fantasy. I hope this melange of temporalities adds to its interest as a reading experience now, as readers play the game of seeing what was wrong and what was right, what has already happened and what is happening now, and what may still come. That’s always part of the entertainment with near-future science fiction; as with certain wines, there’s an aftermath when the taste of the vintage can improve.
So I’m hoping that the passage of a decade has made this novel interesting in new ways. I think it still catches some of how Washington works, and how it feels to live an ordinary American life in our era. Of course one of my characters ends up living in a treehouse, but that’s the political fantasy part of it: these kinds of thing happen in utopian black comedy. On the other hand, we are all under surveillance, and have to find ways to keep this country a democracy. These things are also in the story, and are as important there as they are in our lives. This realism makes for a novel that I hope will remind readers of the great Trollope title The Way We Live Now. To tell the truth, I don’t see many novels these days that even try to describe that. So I’m proud of that aspect of it.
Also, I have helped it by compressing it to the new single-volume version called Green Earth. With the advantage of hindsight I could see better what it needed, and as we have learned so much more about climate change, quite a few passages that once brought the news, didn’t any more. Also, in trying to be true to the way we live now, I wrote a lot of indoor scenes. As I condensed it I noticed that the outdoor scenes could be left untouched, but many indoor scenes could be squished with happy results. Same with our lives! Ultimately I cut about fifteen percent; the exercise was good for me, and for the book. Many, many thanks to Jane Johnson and Anne Groell for giving the chance to do it.
In terms of updating the novel, I mainly added new names that have enriched our lexicon in the last few years. “Atmospheric river” is a great name for what used to be called the pineapple express; the new name describes exactly what it looks like from space. We in California are hoping to get hit by one this winter, even if some flooding results: we need the water, being in a historically bad drought, like the one depicted in Sixty Days and Counting.
“Polar vortex” is another great new name. These vortexes will become more frequent as the Arctic ice goes away, the disappearance that begins my novel, and is described in the scene where Phil Chase announces his presidential ambitions. Just as Forty Signs of Rain describes an atmospheric river hitting California, Fifty Degrees Below describes a polar vortex hitting the East Coast. So I inserted these vivid new names with pleasure.
As for “superstorms,” a less good new name coined after Hurricane Sandy, I described one of those too. We recently just missed another one, in September of 2015; the hurricane involved veered to sea at the last minute, so South Carolina got more than it could handle, but Washington DC was spared. When a superstorm hits our nation’s capital, it will wreak major havoc and be very big news. You will have read about it already, here in Green Earth.
As for all the social and political elements of the novel, we continue to live them. Surveillance, citizenship, work, democracy, family, the search for meaning: we will keep juggling all these aspects of our daily lives, and in that tumultuous and often joyful process, I urge you to think of the Green in my title as a verb. It’s the way we live now.
Kim Stanley Robinson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. He is the author of more than twenty books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed Science in the Capital Trilogy.