“The Realism of Our Time:” Kim Stanley Robinson and the Science Fiction of Now

How are we using the present to imagine possibilities of the future?

Pondering this question, renowned science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson visited the Institute to participate in a panel and served as the final judge in the 3 Minute Futures sci-fi writing contest co-organized by WID, the Center for the Humanities and the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge. Read the winning entries and watch video of the panel.

Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson is a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author best known for his Mars Trilogy. His most recent book Shaman explores the political and cultural dynamics of society during the Ice Age, before the invention of writing. 

During his visit, Robinson discussed science fiction’s ability to mold collective awareness and how counterfactual futures may influence decisions we make today.

You’ve said science fiction reveals many truths — and fears — of today. How does the genre achieve that?

Kim Stanley Robinson: For me, science fiction is really the realism of our time. It is the best way to describe the way life feels right now, and that is really what fiction is about — not just the facts of the situation, but how they feel to live them. I have been saying this for many years, but we live together in a science fiction novel that we are all co-authoring. And as such, it becomes the form where we can capture this sense of acceleration of history, the changing technologies year by year, the uncertainty of what that means for our lived experience and what we can do in the future.

What I think science fiction is doing and how it operates is that it has two things going on at once. So it’s like 3D glasses in a movie theater. On the one hand, through one lens, you are talking about the present right now, how it feels, and the science fictional elements of the story are simply symbols. It’s like symbolic poetry, where if you talk about robots, you’re really talking about working people; if you’re talking about vampires, you’re really talking about the financial industry; and it goes on and on like that. Then on the other hand, you really are still trying to talk about the future, too, so that it isn’t just metaphor, but also prediction and prophesy, which is an ancient and powerful form of story telling. Decisions in the present moment share various futures, including what we might do to get from future to the other, or how to avoid one or the other.

Based on the final entries you read for the contest, what areas seem to inhabit our conscience as a society?

The 15 finalists were interesting and provocative, and very many of them were essentially social satire, taking some trend that is happening in the current day and doing a reduction ad absurdum — [the idea that] if this goes on, it will turn into something monstrous or hilarious; or both at once. And some of the very best stories that I thought were the prize winners followed this line of logic, much like Jonathan Swift and his Modest Proposal — they’re quite funny, but sometimes in disturbing ways.

Photo of the Imagining Possible Futures panel with Kim Stanley Robinson by Nathan Jandl
Kim Stanley Robinson (center) discusses the role of science fiction in society with other experts at the panel discussion “Imagining Possible Futures.”

Science fiction is always about how the present feels, and in that sense, it’s always right. So now how does the future feel? In our present moment, people are expressing their fears and their hopes, and there are a lot of fears. People have a lot of economic uncertainty now. They aren’t sure if they can keep a middle class life by doing the things their parents did, so that is a primary fear that may be feeding into a lot of dystopian fiction. There are also a lot of new technologies that look to be helpful and yet problematic, or are flat out invasive of personal liberties, so that you can no longer assume that you have a private life anymore. Between the Internet and drones and surveillance, that element of modern technology is obviously worrying people a lot.

The contest focused on “hard” science fiction, or being plausible based on today’s technology. How did that element factor into entries?

There is a strand of science fiction that tries to say that this really could happen, and maybe even soon, by concentrating on current technologies that are being developed that seem to be making rapid progress. So the Internet is a perfect example. Drones are another great example, and these are already here, but what they might become is not quite clear. And so that is where science fiction can tell us things. The winners and the finalists for this contest were scientifically literate people because they found things going on right now.

This was the case for the top winner, where the writer depicted a program to wreck people’s relationships and offer them an instant cure of a new relationship all within the same three-minute ad. It’s quite hilarious because it had this basis in reality and an extrapolation of something that’s already going on. And the same is true of the second-place winner with the vat-grown meat. It just gets spookier than you can imagine. These are excellent examples of how science fiction can help to orient us to our reality.

“Science fiction is always about how the present feels, and in that sense, it’s always right.”

— Kim Stanley Robinson

How can research institutes and universities create a richer understanding of what science and science fiction have to offer?

Like your institute, there are these interdisciplinary spaces I like where people are brought together to discuss the areas of their expertise with people who have different expertise, so they can begin to make connections that would have otherwise not been made. Because we are living in a complex world, one of the things you need is reductionism of science. Yes, you set up the different disciplines and you go deep in those disciplines. If you’re a chemist, you focus on chemistry and really learn chemistry right down to its fundamentals; same with all the other standard academic disciplines. But after reduction come synthesis, analysis and synthesis. When you put it back together, you’re finding things out you wouldn’t have found out if you stayed siloed in your own discipline.

Universities have been too bound by departmental logic, and people have been deep, but narrow, and what you need is to still be deep but to connect at the top, after you have plunged the depths of your own discipline to connect at the top to other people who know what they’re doing, and make something bigger out of the collaboration involved.

Unless you have places like this, you don’t have a good dialogue going on. And I know this because science fiction does that job in literary terms, but it needs to be more than one English major like me sitting in his chair in Davis, Calif., making all these connections. What you need is experts coming from their different areas of expertise to discuss these things together in groups. What they come up with is often surprising, but can’t be predicted.

Interview conducted and edited by Marianne Spoon

Video produced by Christian Inouye