Sunday, December 13, 2015

Kim Stanley Robinson – a giant among men (with some others)!

I am reading fiction for the fun of it. I don't have a lot of professional reading and for the first time in my life I am in very easy walking distance of a branch of a decent public library system. I don't have to plan a trip to the library, I just have to remember when the branch is open.

One of the things that I am reading is science fiction that's strong on presenting future (and past) history. I have in the past read Neil Stephenson, whose work sometimes falls into that category; now I am getting into Kim Stanley Robinson. KSM wrote what I think is the best American utopian SF ever created, the Mars trilogy. I read it a ways back and I enjoyed it tremendously. In the last month or so I have read two large KSM books that rethinks the developments of world history in the early modern and modern eras by creating alternative histories.

One of them is Galileo's Dream which follows Galileo Galilei both through his own life in the 17th century and his quantum-theory-implemented trips to the Galilean moons of Jupiter in the year 3000. There is a tremendous amount of philosophical thinking embedded in this book, as we follow Galileo's life and researches in great detail and the efforts of human colonists in the Jupiter system to encourage and protect and even sacrifice him to make sure that Galileo's thought develops and is disseminated in such a way that humanity benefits from the Scientific Revolution and is not destroyed by it. There is a great deal of discussion of physics, ancient and modern, and more about the politics of the 17th century Vatican than you want to know.

Another KSM book that I am finishing up is the Years of Rice and Salt, which almost reads like a first draft of Galileo's Dream. It is an alternate history based on what might have happened if the Black Death had killed off the people of Western, Eastern and Northern Europe while only diminishing the population of the rest of Eurasia. It is a world where Christianity has been eliminated as a cultural influence, and the major cultures are Chinese, Muslim and Iroquois. Plus Buddhism.

Rice and Salt has a lot of explication but it does not lack human interest. We are given to understand that many of the characters we meet in different eras are reincarnations who meet occasionally in the bardo, the Buddhist hell to talk about how tough it is to make a difference in the earthly life. The characters are interesting in their earthly existence and every once in a while KSM throws in a vivid description of a place or a situation. For instance, here is KSM discussing the lack of trees in the Chinese capital after the tremendous sufferings and dislocations of the Long War (sort of like World Wars I and II, but much longer):

Every tree in the city had been cut down during the Twelve Hard Years, and even now the city was bare of almost all vegetation; the new trees had been planted with spiked fences protecting them, and watchmen to guard them at night, which did not always work; the poor old guards would wake in the mornings to find the fence there but the tree gone, cut at the ground for firewood or pulled out by the roots for sale somewhere else, and for these lost saplings they would weep inconsolably, or even commit suicide.

Do you have to be a historian to like these books? No, KSM sells a lot of books and the readers can't possibly be all historians.

I should mention a third author who has a touch of this alternative history but who actually explores even bigger ideas. Robert Charles Wilson is somebody who I met on my first month in Toronto, back in the early 70s. He is one smart guy and it shows in his fiction. RCW has written a variety of books, but some of the best ones combine a lot of contemplation of the history of the whole universe (sort of like Olaf Stapledon) with individual human characters. If you know Stapledon, you know that's an unusual combination.

1 comment:

  1. Three of my favorite writers. Everything they write is interesting and thought-provoking. I have to admit I didn't finish the Mars trilogy - got bored with the politicking - but I think I will have to give it another try.

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