|Kim Stanley Robinson|
|Interview by Gavin J. Grant|
Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, The Years of Rice and Salt, takes a look at our last 600 years, with the added twist that the Black Death has wiped out 99% of the European population. Into that gap step the Chinese, the Islamic nations, the Indians, and the Native Americans. Robinson is obviously very interested in how history happens, and The Years of Rice and Salt is the perfect forum.
Among Robinson's earlier works are his well-received Mars novels, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and a companion volume, The Martians; three alternate looks at California, The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge; Antarctica; a story suite, Escape from Kathmandu; and a great collection of short stories, Remaking History. He has received many awards, including two Hugos, two Nebulas, the Campbell Memorial Award. We interviewed Robinson -- who lives with his family in idyllic Davis, CA -- by our old mainstay, email.
BookSense.com: When you began The Years of Rice and Salt, did you plan for it to cover hundreds of years?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, that was the idea -- to traverse a history different from ours, starting with the death of the Europeans around 1420, and going past our time by a bit. That's a longer time than a novel usually describes, so I had to make some adjustments -- but I had crossed a long span of time in my Mars books, so I thought it was worth a try.
The structure of the novel is not a traditional Western structure. Did you read a lot of books in translation in preparation for writing this novel?
Well, the structure has some resemblances to our multi-generational sagas -- and the reincarnation novel is apparently a popular genre in Brazil -- so there are some precedents in the West. I did read books in translation, yes, mostly Chinese novels, and some Indian writing, and several books by Islamic feminists. Whatever seemed appropriate. One aspect of this project was that almost anything might become useful if it struck me so.
The novel very much takes the long view of human history. Yet, despite wars as bad -- and worse -- than those in our history, you seem hopeful that, given the opportunity, humans might "take the high road." Looking around at our world at the beginning of the 21st century, are you hopeful that we will make good choices for our future?
Yes, I am hopeful. I think this is the best attitude to take as a matter of policy, even though clearly we are in a tough moment right now. The gross disparity between rich and poor, the severe environmental problems, these need to be addressed, and the sooner the better, because damage is being done that will be very hard for later generations to repair. It means that it really matters what we do. But many people are aware of this, and are devoted to working to make the world a better place, so there is reason for hope.
What action (or effect) do you think will make the most difference in the future? (Such as decreasing CO2 output, or increasing women's education, or...?)
Women's empowerment would be a good one, as it has so many immediate positive side-effects to go along with the positive main effect of more powerful women: lower birthrates, better stewardship of the land, less violence.
Living within our ecological footprint would be a good idea for those of us in the States. Doing something about cars and cows. And so on. It won't be a matter of any one thing, but a shift in how we live across the board.
In The Years of Rice and Salt, there seem to be two types of lives the characters might have: where they are part of the mass of humanity or where they stand out from humanity. Do you believe in the Great Man/Woman theory, or (although this isn't meant to limit the question to a simple axis for answering) do you think that humanity is slowly progressing as a race, no matter what individuals do to help or hinder?
I don't believe in the Great Man/Woman theory, if you mean history being made by such people, with everyone else following along. One of the things I was exploring in my novel was what distinguishes people who later get called "historical actors," how it happens, and if they are different in any particular way. For the most part, I don't think so; the world is simply full of energetic people who will rise to the occasions history gives us. It's more a matter of being at the moment when change is happening. Mostly I think it's very much a collective process, and a bit random who takes the prominent roles in events. Sometimes we get really lucky with the person who happens to be there at the time (such as Abraham Lincoln). Other times not. But I hope my book doesn't really support a reading of Great Man/Woman and then Mass of Humanity.
I do think there is a character type that tends to work toward these leadership roles, people driven to do things by some inner energy, even anger sometimes. But they are many; and who takes any given opportunity is somewhat a matter of chance.
One could discuss this question forever without exhausting it.
A number of smart governance and business ideas in The Years of Rice and Salt come from sources not given much credence in our world. Do you think that Europeans have had a positive or negative effect on the rest of the world in the last five centuries?
Well, a great deal of both, of course. Europe has dominated world history in the last five centuries, and that's a lot of history. It is what it is; everyone knows the basic outlines, for good and ill. Untangling all those strands and identifying what was particularly European, and what was more generally human with Europe manifesting it because they got there first, is very difficult -- and maybe impossible -- but that's part of what my book was trying to do.
Do you expect non-European countries to put themselves more forward and take up more leadership roles in the future?
Yes indeed, I think we are already there. This is one of the great stories of our time, the postcolonial peoples struggling for autonomy and a decent life, and globalization attempting to assert a new economic colonialism that is more subtle but just as controlling. Here again I look to the Chinese as being one of the most interesting cases, and to India and Asia in general.
When you are writing, are you consciously trying to influence the actions of those living now and in the future?
Well, yes, but only indirectly. What I am trying to do directly is to write a good novel. But I think we get our values from the stories we tell each other, so that when you read a good novel, it has some small impact on your actions afterward. So that's the sense in which I try to influence actions.
What part of the novel was the most fun to research and write? Did you travel around the world as you wrote?
I did not travel as I wrote the book, but relied on memories of travels my wife and I took in the 1980s. We didn't go that many places, but I made many of the places we visited settings in the novel, so that there were at least some places I was describing from my own experience. I suppose the most fun parts of the book to research and write were the Chinese sections, because I knew so little about China before, and it was so fascinating. Really, it was all fun to research.
Besides China and Chinese history, was there any facet of the novel that drew you in and became more a part of the novel than you had expected?
Yes, Iran and the Iroquois (the Hodenosaunee). And the bardo.*
Despite the loss of much of the European continent to plague, there seem to be some definite links from the world of The Years of Rice and Salt to our own. How many of the events in the novel happened in our world?
If you mean happened just as described, only a few at the beginning, before the disappearance of the Europeans had its effects. The Hongxi emperor did order the destruction of the giant Chinese treasure fleet built by his father, an odd decision that my characters are involved in; and the material on the Mughal emperor Akbar, in the second chapter, is pretty much as it happened. After that the world described in the novel veers off into its own history, and there are correspondences to things that happened in our world, but nothing the same.
Was there any method of fact-checking for the assumptions that you made about the alternate history in this novel?
None whatsoever! Isn't it wonderful? The only test that can be made is a matter of plausibilities. Each reader can compare what the novel describes to their own sense of what history is and what seems plausible. There is no "correct" alternative possible, because from the same initial conditions many possible histories could arise -- as in this world, and the futures we now contemplate.
Was there anything you wanted to put in, but had to leave out?
Many things, but the book was already long, so let's not talk about them. I do regret cutting a scene in which Dr. Ismail Konstantiniyye travels down east Africa around our year 1820, but not really; it wasn't working right, and people had enough to read as it was.
In the past, you've written novels that have looked forward and speculated about what might happen. What was it about this story that made you set it in the past?
Simply the basic idea of writing an alternative history in which all the Europeans died in the Black Death. What seemed interesting to me about that idea was not jumping straight to the equivalent of the year 2002 and describing a changed world, but actually following the different history as it played itself out, so that we could witness a different discovery of the new world, scientific revolution, social progress, and so on. All these things happening differently cause us to think about why they happened the way they really did. Skipping over that would have been skipping over the most interesting implications of the idea. So it had to be a historical novel.
Do you think it is possible to speculate about the future with any more accuracy now than when Jules Verne did the same 100-plus years ago?
It's not very possible in either time. I suppose now we know better that change takes some time and involves social progress as well as technological innovation, so that there won't be huge changes in short periods -- but then again, maybe there will! Maybe so many things are imminent now that speculating about the future is harder than ever. No way to be sure about this, because the future always remains unknown and unknowable. Our speculation is kind of like weather forecasting without satellite maps or any solid knowledge of climatology. It can be done, but is a bit futile -- if accuracy about the future, checked retroactively, is what you're after. But I think what our speculation in science fiction is about includes more than that. Prophecy is part of it, but also analysis of the present by way of a kind of if-then mental operation that is very similar to planning.
How much input did you have into the book's final design, with its different sections sometimes reflecting the different cultures being written about?
I specified the numbering and internal break systems, which are different in each chapter, reflecting in some small ways the practices of the times and cultures the chapters were about. I got to critique the initial design and some changes were made to better reflect my vision of how it should look. I did my best to ban italics from the book, although I see one or two slipped through despite all efforts through the typesetting phases. We'll fix those later. Anyway, I don't think I had much to do with what you mean when you say book design; just these more general requests, and a chance to critique a first pass which I very much appreciated. Bantam did a good job.
Are you tempted to write more about these characters?
No, not really. It's a very long novel, and a very small cast of characters. They've had their say. That's what makes finishing a novel sad; the characters stop speaking. The only solution is to start a new one. So I'm on to a new group and a new novel.
Near the end of the novel there is a list of biography anthologies. Are any of these books we might know? (Such as 253, by Geoff Ryman?)
Ryman's wonderful 253 did indeed make it across into that world, because I admired it so much; I'm glad you noticed. Most of the rest of those anthologies are made up, except for the older ones, like Plutarch and Liu Xiang, or some of the Tibetan narratives.
What are you reading?
I'm reading Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring, which is very good.
If you worked in a bookshop, what would be on your Staff Picks shelf?
I did work in a bookshop, but it was before the time of Staff Picks; now I'd recommend Penelope Fitzgerald, Patrick O'Brian, Joyce Cary, Cecelia Holland, Flann O'Brien, Virginia Woolf's diary. Many others.
* The bardo is the Bhuddist concept of the afterlife where spirits return to before being born again on Earth.
Kim Stanley Robinson's favorite bookshops:
In Davis: Bogey's Books and The Avid Reader; in Berkeley, Cody's and Moe's.
- Bogey's Books, 223 E St., Davis, CA 757-6127
- The Avid Reader, 617 Second Street Davis, CA 95616 Tel: (530)758-4040
- Cody's Books, 2454 Telegraph Avenue; Berkeley, CA 94704 800-995-1180
- Moe's Books, 2476 Telegraph Avenue Berkeley CA 94704 (510) 849-2087
Author photo by Gloria Robinson.