Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson about his book “The Ministry for the Future”
The Ministry for the Future is the latest novel by legendary science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson. In this interview with Bioneers Senior Producer J.P. Harpignies, Robinson discusses the inspiration for this book: a remarkable vision for climate change over the coming decades. Note: The text below is an edited version of the actual interview.
J.P. HARPIGNIES: Stan, was your most recent book, The Ministry for the Future, a departure for you? The climate series you did was pretty close topically and in time, but somehow this had more of a sense of immediacy and the emotional stakes felt a little higher to me, but perhaps I’m misreading that?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: Ministry is in the same time frame as Green Earth, and it’s even the same as Antarctica, which I wrote back in ’97. But this time I decided to try to go right for the heart of the problem, and I would say that I’ve never done that before, placing a story in the near future, and going right at the main issues facing us, without distancing them in one way or another. Like in Green Earth, they’re dealing with an abrupt climate change, the Gulf Stream stalling, which was something on the table around 2000, but isn’t the main thing that’s going to hammer us; it’s a kind of derivative effect. So Ministry is not dissimilar to those earlier books, but I decided that it was time to put all my cards on the table and go right at it.
JP: You’ve often happily claimed the title of a utopian novelist, and this is definitely utopian in its outcomes to some degree, because we find humanity grappling with this crisis more successfully than it has so far, but it’s really quite Machiavellian in the path to that utopian outcome, which is extremely dark in some ways. Some of the pressure points and the ways that humanity is forced to deal with the issue are extremely, intensely violent. So how did you feel about that, the wrestling between the utopian and Machiavellian elements in the narrative?
STAN: Well, I conceptualized it as being a utopia that you could still believe in, and that made it hard. That made it like a double bind almost, because we’re in such a tough situation now, and it’s not looking good. We’re not on the right course. So I wanted to portray a best-case scenario, but it seems to me that to make it something that the reader can still believe in, starting from now, bad things are going to happen, and there were going to be people impacted so horrifically by the climate disasters coming down on us inevitably. They’re going to be a lot angrier than we more prosperous people are in the developed world, such as here in California.
And so I thought these things are going to happen, and if they are targeted effectively, they might be part of the solution. They might drive history in ways that I’m not comfortable with. I would rather see non-violent resistance and changes in the law, by legal means, by way of democratic action and legislative change, but I think that we’re headed into some decades where there are almost certainly going to be disasters, and then violent reactions to the disasters, so it was a kind of realism, put in there both to share my fears of what’s coming if we don’t react faster than we are, and also to create a kind of plausible feel to if we are going to get to a good place.
My definition of utopia has changed: avoiding the mass extinction event would be a utopian success for this century. Further improvements can come after that, but avoiding the worst might be the best we can do. So this was my intention.
JP: It reminded me a little bit of John Brunner’s 1960s novel The Sheep Look Up that included violent eco-resistance movements and that was really ahead of its time.
STAN: John Brunner’s four novels, Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, The Jagged Orbit, and Shockwave Rider, were amazing volumes, appearing in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Much of what we’re in right now he called out very accurately. He used John Dos Passos’ style of novelization, one that includes multiple points of view and lots of characters talking, which I’ve used here and that I used also in 2312. So Brunner’s very important. Sometimes those books are called the Shockwave Quartet, but I think Stand on Zanzibar is the most famous title of that group. They’re all long enough that it would be hard to put them all in one volume, but they should be a box-set that people look at to remember that the stuff that we’re facing now is not surprising, that 50 years ago the stuff we’re facing now was foreseeable, a known problem that we’ve been dodging for 50 years rather than facing, so that by now it’s gotten that much uglier.
JP: Yeah, even Alexander von Humboldt had early discussions of possible human-induced climate change in 1800, so it’s far from completely new, that’s for sure.
One thing that was fascinating for me was that some of the main vectors of positive change that you selected were unusual. One was India. After a horrible catastrophe, you project a sort of post-Modi progressive India leading the way in many domains. And also central bankers take on a very important role, with the “Carbon Coin” and the “New Monetary Policy.” Those are not what most people would pick as two of the most likely main positive vectors of change.
STAN: Well, with India, I wanted to stick with the trouble that I had inflicted on them in the first scene and not just abandon them. In story terms, it seemed very important to me to say, look, if something that bad happened as I describe it happening in India, because they are one of the places most susceptible to this sort of lethal “wet-bulb 35” heat index event, then I wanted to follow it and stick with it. And there are very many hopeful signs in India, despite Modi, despite the BJP and the RSS. Yes, they, like we in the States, have a very powerful rightwing reactionary nativist political party that is really dangerous, but they’re also a democracy and those guys could get voted out.
And since I published Ministry for the Future, we have seen a general strike in India that is being very poorly reported in the West, where astonishing numbers of people have walked off the job on the same days to object to Modi’s racism and his brutal rightwing approach to the problems that are facing India and the world, so I think the potential for India doing some good things is there, and I wanted to follow that.
Then when it comes to the central banks, we have a financial problem. The good technology that needs to be built and put into place as fast as possible to de-carbonize our economy doesn’t make a profit, and therefore it won’t get done, because we are in the neoliberal late capitalist order where profit rules. If it doesn’t make a profit, it won’t happen, and investments won’t go there, and therefore we are screwed. But we have seen quite spectacular huge monetary quantitative easing events in 2008 and now 2020. And some economists—not me; I don’t think up these things; I’m more a reporter than an idea guy—are talking about carbon quantitative easing, which is all very well, but the central banks would have to believe in it, and they’re not constructed to believe in it. So I have to, in my novel, put them under enormous pressure, political pressure and physical pressure too. I have to make it so that if they’re going to stabilize interest rates, they have to save the world.
So to me it’s a little bit hilarious that these banks, with their very tight monetarist and capitalist purviews, which are just to stabilize money and hopefully help with employment rates, may quickly find themselves in a situation in which saving the biosphere becomes intrinsic to their own crazy little project. So part of the science of this science fiction novel is financial technologies, and I’d done enough work on that in Red Moon and in New York 2140 that I felt capable of grappling with what that might imply in terms of storytelling and in terms of thinking about it.
JP: Another interesting angle on that whole banking aspect of the narrative is that you focus a lot of the novel in Zurich. Have you spent a lot of time in Zurich, because there are some loving, very intimate descriptions of that city?
STAN: Yeah, my wife and I lived there exactly 35 years ago, arriving at the end of 1985, and we spent 1986 and 1987 there. We were young. We didn’t have kids. My wife had a post-doc at the pesticides and waste disposal part of the ETH (note: ETH Zurich is a public research university). It was a very romantic time for us, not that it’s a particularly romantic city, but when you’re young, newly married, no kids, in Europe, you know, it was for me very much the Hemmingway “go to Europe and write your novel” time. Those two years were the first time I was a full-time writer, and I’d never had an opportunity to write about Zurich before at any length, so when I was talking this book over with my editor, he said you need some kind of local anchor, because the narrative is going all around the world. You need to give it a local habitation and a name, so to speak, and I thought of Zurich immediately because of the work that Switzerland has always done in hosting UN-based operations, so it was a great relief to be able to write about Zurich as a character and as a space.
JP: Yeah, I could feel the intimacy: it didn’t feel like you just did some reading about Zurich. It felt more embodied.
STAN: I actually think you couldn’t do what I did there without having lived there. I’ve often written about places I only researched, from Mars on, but to be able to call on those lived memories and literally 35 years later write about it was truly joyful. My wife and I returned there in 2016 after an absence of 30 years, and it was just mind-boggling to go somewhere that you loved that you hadn’t seen for 30 years, and basically your whole life had passed by in seemingly a snap of the fingers, and yet Zurich was much the same. It was a beautiful experience, and I think those feelings about the place got into this book.
JP: Switzerland is, in the book, another one of those positive vectors. There’s something about the Swiss efficiency and that country’s history of being a locus of global institutions that makes it another kind of positive character in the book. I think Switzerland’s a bit underappreciated. I mean, yes, it’s got some troublesome history with all the stashed Nazi gold and some intensely conservative, racist streaks here and there; and they only gave women the right to vote in 1969, but there are also some really interesting aspects to Switzerland. There’s more ancient history there than most people realize, and it was also a very poor country, even in the 19th Century, which has a lot to do with their thriftiness and embrace of banking.
STAN: I appreciate that. I’m very interested in Switzerland. They do have a dark understory of being the bagman for the criminals of the world in their banking. They have some things they have to come to terms with, like many countries do, so it isn’t all sweetness and light. It’s definitely not just a Heidi story, but what I like is that four different cultures are mixed there and interact with each other. And although they do have a rightwing nativist strand, especially in the mountain cantons, by and large, I mean, when you think about it, they are a population of roughly eight million where some three million are from other countries. That’s a gigantic percentage. You would think they’d be even more anti-immigrant than they are, but in fact, the bulk of their thrust as a country is fairly progressive and open to the world.
JP: Another interesting angle in the book is, I thought, the view of China. China’s not a strong vector of positive change the way India or Switzerland is portrayed, but it’s fairly benign. Many contemporary prognosticators tend to project a classic “Thucydides trap” with a likely war between the U.S. and China, the declining and the rising power, but in your book’s scenario the Chinese central banker winds up playing a kind of positive role working with the Mary Robinson-like figure, Mary Murphy. You had to have based her on Mary Robinson, no?
STAN: In fact, I called her Mary Robinson in my first drafts, but I realized that was going to be a little bit too inappropriate, so I changed it to Mary Smith, but my Irish friends said: “You can’t call an Irish person Smith. It’s too English.” And so I said, well, what name should I choose? And they said Murphy, so that’s what I did.
But, yeah, China: I tried to write about China in Red Moon and it kind of crashed my brain. It was too big and complicated to understand. I have an urge to be in sympathy with China. I like its culture. I like its long history. I like Chinese people. I like Chinese poetry. They too have a dark underside, and as a leftist, I have to say the Chinese communist party needs to trust its people more, needs to make sure that political representation is widespread in China. And Mao was better at this in some ways than Xi. It’s a really complicated picture, and they’re doing some awful things, at home and around the world. But if you try to think of it from their point of view, the United States of America has the biggest military on Earth by a gigantic percentage and holds within its borders about 70 to 75 percent of the world’s capital reserves, even though it’s only five percent of the world’s population. So since the fall of the Soviet Union, you can really talk about a single superpower from the ‘90s on ‘til now, and single superpowers don’t like challenges to their supremacy and can get pretty hostile.
China has so many problems. It has a lot of people, but it has a lot of problems. I think it’s just struggling to get out of its own century of humiliation and to continue to get its people out of poverty. In other words, they’re not so doctrinaire. They’re not particularly communist. They’re “crossing the river by feeling the stones,” as Deng Xiaoping put it, and that’s an old Chinese phrase. They did become the working class of the world for a while, developing a huge manufacturing infrastructure. They’ve got 1.4 billion people, one person out of every seven on Earth. So they’re feeling their way forward with ever more sense of confidence and power, and the United States, as a nation state, is hammering on them. And now, 75 percent of Americans don’t like or trust China; 77 percent of Chinese don’t like or trust America. I don’t think that there’s any good reason for this mutual distrust, and that it’s stupid to talk about a new Cold War. I don’t think that China is a country intent on taking over the world. In many ways, in their history, they’ve been the least imperial great power in the history of the world. By and large, China has just does its thing by way of trading with the rest of the world. They have not done like America. They didn’t do like Mongolia, which took them over for a while.
So I don’t think we need to fear China in the way that certain parts of the American machine are trying to make us fear China. It would be better if both sides could ratchet down the tensions and look to solving climate change together as the two big carbon emitters. If China and the U.S. were to make a détente and an agreement to work together in harmony, you could demilitarize a bit, you could work on climate together, you could quit with this nonsense.
But I also feel that China is too big and complex to understand. My Chinese friends, when I gave them drafts of Red Moon, I told them that I don’t understand China, and they said that if you say you understand China, you haven’t been paying attention, because even we don’t understand China and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 10 minutes, and we’re Chinese intellectuals.
JP: Obviously, if you’re Tibetan or Uyghur, China might not seem so benign. One’s view depends upon where one sits.
STAN: It’s been a perpetual issue in China. There’s always been a Muslim West in China, but it used to be quite well integrated. The Han majority in Mao’s time was willing to celebrate its 55 ethnicities in the Chinese borders, so this has gotten worse, and the same with the Tibetans. I have been very involved with the Tibetan cause. It’s another place where China’s just doing things wrong. The fact is that all these big nation states are somewhat monstrous and trying to impose forms of nationalism, which is not a very useful way to go at the world. It’s one of the ways in which Switzerland is kind of a great model: they have four languages and four cultural groups, and they just get over that and cooperate. And so in that sense, many little countries are doing better than the big monster countries.
JP: Yeah. I really admire that aspect of Switzerland because I’m half Belgian and the Belgians linguistically just can’t get along at all. One aspect of Switzerland is that the German-speaking majority, as reactionary as it can be at times, is also fairly generous in some ways. For instance, I learned recently that in art and media policy, in which there is separate German, French, and Italian (and a little bit for the tiny Romansh-speaking population) programming, the budgets allocated to the French and Italian-speaking arts programs and TV stations and media are far in excess of their percentages of the population. The German majority is willing (granted, as long as they mostly control Zurich and the capital flows) to be extremely generous in cultural allocations to help ensure inter-ethnic stability. One wonders if other majorities could emulate this model, if the Han could be far more generous and accepting of the ethnic minorities in China, for example, but of course Switzerland is a tiny little country full of remote mountain valleys.
STAN: But I think it could scale. I think the analogy is good enough, that China ought to pay attention to countries like that and see what can happen when you’re generous to all your minority populations. I believe that the Swiss Germans are still traumatized, and there’s a long cultural memory. There was strong resistance to Hitler among many of them: many shared the idea that we are not Aryan supremacists but liberal European modernists, and it was very important to them as German speakers to distinguish themselves from notions of Aryan supremacy. And they also got wiped out by Napoleon and partially conquered by France back in 1810 or so, so they’re aware that bigger countries can steamroll them and that they need to be ready to resist.
JP: And it goes back even further: their national founding myth with William Tell was a rebellion against Austrian domination.
STAN: Yeah, for a predominantly German-speaking nation, they are impressively, meticulously tolerant of their French, Italian and Romansh minorities.
JP: Some of the positive models you draw upon to imagine a more sustainable future society reminded me a little bit of Huxley’s last novel Island, even though that took place on a much smaller scale. You describe organic regenerative farming, cooperative economics in the style of Mondragon, and so on. And your descriptions of initiatives in Sikkim reminded me a little bit of Helena Norberg-Hodge’s work encouraging local economic development in Ladakh. You also cite Kerala as well, as a model of a well-run “progressive” state in India as another element to draw from.
But then some of the darker elements of the narrative reminded me a little bit of some cyberpunk fiction, especially the use of high-tech by rebellious groups. Terrorists’ uses of drone technology take on a very big role. So, there again there’s a tension between very positive models of a future with effective, humane governance, clean tech, regenerative agriculture on the one hand, but the appropriation of terrifying high-tech/AI-based weapons by violent resistance movements.
STAN: That’s definitely in there. I think that drones are just by their very nature quite dangerous and easily weaponized, but what I wanted to suggest in this book was that we’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation, that we’re in such a dangerous moment that there’s no longer any cause to criticize other solutions that might sound radical or strange. The narcissism of small differences is no longer appropriate, because we might need everything. We might need these small new compact nuclear power plants. We might need some geo-engineering. We might need to sabotage all the coal plants on the planet when we think we can still provide electricity in other ways (because electricity is now a necessity; there are so many people on this planet that we wouldn’t be able to stay alive without gigantic amounts of electricity). So these are problematic questions.
What made me think of this was that we need all hands on deck. Any possible decarbonization and horizontalization of power, any way towards justice and sustainability ought to be put on the table and tried. And I would hope to avoid political violence. I would hope that a book like mine serves as an idea machine to point out that some of these supposed solutions might be very bad and might have a backlash worse than the solution itself while others might be very necessary and need to be attempted and therefore funded as soon as possible.
So I made a novel that is in some ways a bit incoherent. Rereading it after it came out, I was noticing how the decades don’t follow logically one to the next. There’ll be some progress, then there’ll be another depression, or there’ll be five years of world history in a compacted form that don’t naturally follow from the dramatized scenes that just preceded them, etc. Well, I think I did that on purpose. Part of it was out of my control, but partly I think I wanted to create the feel of our real history, which is chaotic. Everything’s happening at once. It could be great or it could be a total disaster, and that range of possibilities is inherently disorienting and destabilizing so in the end, you can just feel confused. At least I do. Like, okay, does that mean that we’ll forge some kind of middle course that muddles through between disaster and prosperity? Well, no, not necessarily. It seems like unless you get it together, all the other options are quite bad. So this is one of the things that I was trying to suggest by a novel that imitated the world’s incoherence.
JP: I definitely want to get to that question of the style of the writing in your novel, which seemed quite different than a lot of your other work, but first you just mentioned geo-engineering, a very controversial topic that is one element of the plot of your book. There are two main types of geo-engineering in the narrative: one is the seeding of sulphur-dioxide in the atmosphere after the India heat catastrophe; and the other one is the pumping of water from underneath glaciers, a sort of re-glacialization. Atmospheric seeding is one approach people have discussed a lot, but I hadn’t heard about that other option. Is that something that’s been discussed in scientific circles? How did you select that particular technology?
STAN: Well, it actually hasn’t been discussed at all. It’s a private communication from a glaciologist acquaintance of mine. I’ve been to Antarctica twice, and the glaciology community is relatively small, so, by the luck of the draw, I have some good contacts among the glaciologists of the universities of this world, and I’m very interested in their work, and one of them was saying to me: ”Look, the plan you sort of suggested at the end of the Green Earth trilogy to pump seawater back up onto the Antarctic ice cap to stabilize sea level: that’s impossible.” And he ran the numbers for me, and indeed it’s too much water. It just shows you how big the oceans are on this planet: a one centimeter rise in sea level would be 3,600 cubic kilometers of water—such a gigantic mass that you couldn’t get the pipelines or the energy, or the area on Antarctica’s ice cap to put that water back up there in any practical way.
The thing to do, he said, would be to try to slow the glaciers down. It’s not that Antarctic ice or Greenland ice is melting outright in the sun and turning into water and running into the sea: what’s happening is that those glaciers are speeding up in their slide down into the ocean, and once they hit the ocean, they melt very quickly. The speeding up—almost a factor of ten– is being lubricated at the bottom. There’s a little bit of melt of the glaciers, and that water drops down moulins, these vertical rivers. Cracks in the ice become conduits for meltwater from the top to get to the bottom of the glacier, at which point they’re on a water slide and they’re moving 10 times faster than they were historically. He said that if you could suck that water out from the bottom of those glaciers, that would be maybe only 30 cubic kilometers of water, which is a lot, but it isn’t 3,600; and then you might be able to slow them back down to their previous speed and help stabilize sea level. I said, “Fabulous! Why haven’t you published?” And he said, “I don’t want to be a geo-engineer. I want to be a glaciologist.”
He was acutely aware of the fact that those climatologists who propose geo-engineering initiatives get involved in intense battles that take over their whole careers. He didn’t want that, he wanted to stay on the glaciers and to be a glaciologist, and he said, “Look, Stan, this is your role; the science fiction writer should be writing this, not me.” So I said, “I can use the idea?” And he said, “Please, please. Put the idea out there.” So in effect, this is a new idea, and I checked it with other glaciologists. Some of them said it would completely depend on the configuration of the rock bottom underneath each glacier. Is it a canyon or is it a big sloping plain? But there certainly are a lot of glaciers that would be good candidates for this, that you would probably be able to slow down by this sort of method, but it would be a massive undertaking.
Now solar radiation management, which is the most famous geo-engineering technique, has been proposed and attacked. A lot of people hate the idea of solar radiation management. I don’t think it’s rational to hate it. I think you imitate a volcanic eruption like Pinatubo’s – this is how people usually talk about it. Pinatubo erupted in 1991 in the Philippines. Temperatures were depressed by about a degree or two Celsius globally on average for about five years, and then the dust settled out of the atmosphere and we’re back to where we were before. Nobody proposes it as a single, silver-bullet solution to our problems. Everybody studying it proposes it as an emergency. If you get to those temperatures that are killing people outright, you might want to do it. You’re not going to create a Snowpiercer effect. That’s not physically possible. You could try it to see whether it dings the monsoon, which is one of the major fears about it. Five years later you would know and the effect would be over. You’d either say: “Let’s do it again; that was a cheap fix and we’ll give it some time.” Or you’d say: “Oops, bad idea; we’ll never do that again.”
I think there’s an irrationality on the environmentalist left, which is where I live – I’m a leftist and environmentalist, and I think if you’re a leftist, you ought to be an environmentalist; and if you’re an environmentalist, you ought to be a leftist. But in that crowd there’s an intense aversion to even discussing any geo-engineering ideas.
JP: Well, there is a legitimate fear that the fossil fuel industry covertly and overtly will use geo-engineering as an excuse to delay de-carbonizing. They like to promote techno utopian ideas that we can use technological means to transcend the climate crisis, so why bother stopping to burn fossil fuels. That’s the fear.
STAN: I understand that completely. That’s the moral hazard argument, but what I’m saying now is that that’s an argument from 10 or 15 years ago. Now we are in an all-hands-on-deck situation, and if we were to geo-engineer, the requirement to de-carbonize as fast as possible wouldn’t go away. First you de-carbonize, and if people are dying en masse because of heat levels rising too high, maybe you try some of these emergency geo-engineering methods. They are not a silver bullet fix, a get-out-of-jail-free card. None of the serious scientists studying these approaches think that geo-engineering would allow us to go on doing what we’re doing.
JP: Another technology that becomes very important in your book is the AI-guided “pebble mob” bomb, a sort of more advanced octave of M.A.D. (mutually assured destruction). You sort of create a situation in which war becomes almost impossible at a high level. It’s certainly scientifically sound in its conception, but it serves a bit as a deus ex machina because the impossibility of most war creates the conditions for a more viable future.
STAN:The pebble mobs is a kind of a trick out of my novel 2312, and I’m pleased to say that my great colleague, Iain Banks, was very envious that I had thought of it first, because it’s kind of an Iain Banksian thing, of AI intelligence taking over. And for sure, if you were using the entire solar system as your range, and you wanted a whole bunch of kilogram sized meteorites to arrive at the same place at the same time, you would need super computers of the utmost order, quantum computers. But on Earth, if you wanted a hundred drones to end up at the same spot at the same time, I think we could do that now.
And I think that actually modern warfare is so effective offensively that we are in a kind of tactical mutual assured destruction already, even without pebble mobs of drones all coalescing in the last moment of their hit. Putin bragged that the Russians had hypersonic missiles that could go 7,000 miles an hour and would render any defenses obsolete. It turns out that those are on Putin’s wish list and they’re probably vaporware, but I think a bunch of drones coalescing at once, although it is my science fiction idea, I don’t think it’s very far off the mark of reality. A bunch of drones could easily coalesce right in the take-off pattern of an airplane or right at the bridge of any ship in the Navy. Navies in particular are sitting ducks. I think they are likely to be obsolete from a military standpoint. The United States in particular could afford to stand down and quit with the ridiculous Pentagon budget and try to spend some of that money on decarbonization projects, which parts of the military could play a major role in.
JP: Obama used the military for the Ebola intervention in West Africa, so, while they are a tiny fraction of the Pentagon budget so far, there are indeed examples of benign uses of military power that could be models for peaceful and “green” uses of the military machine.
STAN: I think that may happen more because despite some flash points in the Middle East, India and Pakistan, or China and India, the dangers of war tend to outweigh the benefits to the actors involved. There is likely to continue to be more asymmetrical terrorism, private groups attempting to inflict damage on much larger militaries, but I think actual formal wars between one military and another are going to be very rare going forward.
JP: I wanted to go back to the style of your book, which you started to discuss earlier. When I first read it, to be brutally honest, I thought: “This is a bit more disjointed than Stan’s usual work.” But then I began to feel that there was something almost experimental in the writing. For one thing, the multiple, shifting narrative perspectives don’t just include several of the main characters and multiple unidentified people from around the globe but other-than-human voices as well. You have a passage in which a photon discusses its experiences, just to cite one example. And there are moments that are sort of didactic or pedagogic interludes that step back from the flow of the narrative.
So while those frequent narrative shifts felt a little off-putting while I was working my way through the book, in the end I sensed that, as you mentioned earlier, the style of the text mirrored the torturous conundrums our species is facing, the severity, complexity and sheer immensity of the climate crisis, but it was definitely a different experience than what I usually feel when reading a KSR book. Almost always in your novels, one can feel your mastery throughout. Even when multiple characters take turns narrating a story, your authorial control is never in doubt, very much like in a Kubrick film, but this felt a little different.
STAN: It’s true that I haven’t ever written anything in this kind of form before. Maybe the closest was 2312, using the Dos Passos narrative format. In this case, the eyewitness accounts were a crucial discovery for me. The eyewitness account is a genre of its own, not the same as a novel, because eyewitness accounts are usually made years later, and people are being interviewed about what they saw in some crux moment in history, and they judge it. They judge it for the effect the incident had both on history and on their own subsequent lives. I began to read collections of eyewitness accounts, from, say, spring 1945 in Germany, or May ’68 in France, or the Armenian genocide, etc. I read accounts from around a dozen critical moments in history, and I began to see the format. And I thought that’s what I needed: I need eyewitness accounts from all over the world from crux moments over the next 30 years.
But a novel also has to be fun. We read novels for entertainment. And education can be very entertaining, but nevertheless I know that my books sometimes have this kind of castor oil reputation, that they’re good for you but not necessarily that much fun. It’s not quite fair because I work on fun as much as any novelist I know; it’s just that my topics are strange. In this case, what fun I could find, given how grim much of the material was, was in the play of forms. There are riddles, eyewitness accounts, dialogues, meeting notes, and then at the core, the ordinary novel, which is maybe about novella length, the story of Mary and Frank. There are 106 chapters, but when you start a new chapter as a reader, you have no idea where it’s going to be on Earth, or who’s going to be talking, or what the format’s going to be. Within a paragraph or two, you get oriented. It’s not like it’s very mysterious, but there’s a game going on there of periodically blowing up the continuity and delivering gigantic surprises.
You spoke of Kubrick. In movie terms, it’s the montage or even the equivalent of multiple screens, but luckily the novel is just one sentence at a time. You can’t really do multiple screens, but you can do montage. So that was where I was finding my fun, along with the Zurich setting. That was really fun for me. But the game of forms became the way that this novel was still a novel that one could enjoy as a novel.
Now a lot of people have very fixed opinions about what a novel should be, and this one has blown their brains out as being too weird to enjoy. There’s nothing I can do about that. There are many ordinary novels, and they can go read those. This one is an experimental novel, and to some readers experimental novels are just called that because they’ve too weird and difficult, but in this case, I had to write it this way.
JP: You’re prolific enough that even if some of your fans don’t want to follow you in this particular path, which would be a shame, you’ll most likely have another novel out in a year or two, but I really hope readers give it a chance because original ideas are ultimately what’s most stimulating, to me at least.
STAN: Aristotle and Brecht are both very good on this, that you should never make a distinction between education and entertainment, that the two are very tightly intertwined and interchangeable. So that’s not really the problem. It turns out that many people are very devoted to closure. In Ministry of the Future I have a grab bag of disparate forms, a kind of slurry of forms. Well, many people like to have a sense of continuity in a narrative voice that is a little more coherent, but that’s okay. I have to try a lot of different things.
And my actual fans, which is maybe a smaller crowd than you might imagine, they are used to me doing different things in different books, so they are perfectly happy with this book. When I wrote Aurora, people were saying: “Oh my gosh, the narrator is an artificial intelligence, and that’s a natural mode for Stan. He had no problem whatsoever faking that because all of his novels feel like a computer AI wrote them.” And so I realized that I have a reputation as being a little bizarre or maybe a little obsessed as a novelist and that I’ve got quirks. And so this is fine. I’m at novel number 20. There’s nowhere for me to hide. My habits are clear. My sentences are always KSR sentences, as they say. There’s nothing I can do about it. And so I have a great affection for my fans because they like what I’m up to, but I know some consider me weird.
JP: I wouldn’t call you weird compared to, say, Philip K. Dick. There are far weirder sci-fi writers than you.
STAN: Well, nobody’s weirder than Phil Dick; he’s the ultimate, but he’s weird in content. When it comes to form, he’s a very good novelist, and what he does is third person limited from about four different characters. And I’ve followed Phil Dick’s form most of my career. The typical Dick novel is about 20 dramatized scenes, and they come from about four or five radically distinct points of view, and that’s how you get his magical three-dimensionality, but he’s always writing like a bat out of hell. He writes like a commercial fiction writer of the 1950s because that’s what he was. The weirdness is all in the content, the reality breakdown that is at the center of his plots.
But as to how my work is perceived, I’ve become reconciled. There are 10,000 novels published a year, every year, so to stick out, you have to be unusual and peculiar, and I can’t help it anyway, so I’m perfectly happy, and the book has been getting a good reception. Even the people who are thrown off by it seem to be unsettled by it in useful ways.
JP: Yeah, it’s gotten good reviews well beyond the world of sci-fi, in such places as The Guardian, so I think some of the leading progressive press is taking you seriously as a thinker about the climate crisis, which they should, of course.
I wanted to say one thing about Aurora. I’m somewhat of a neo-Luddite. I don’t even have a cell phone, but I was actually really moved by the relationship in Aurora between the super computer and the woman who was the matriarch of that journey, and how she took it upon herself to prepare the machine to see future problems generations hence long after she would be dead. It was almost like she was raising a child on some level. I was actually very touched by that, so I had the opposite reaction to your writing like an automaton.
STAN: I must say that I quite enjoyed writing from the point of view of an artificial intelligence, because that’s your classic camera eye point of view, in workshop terms. We would talk about the camera eye point of view where the narrator doesn’t know what the characters are thinking, and can only report appearances. Well, this was the pure product of a camera eye point of view. And also, Aurora was kind of a prison novel in some senses. And so there, again, the fun came out of formal considerations on my part. Once the computer was telling the story, I was having way more fun than I was when I had a conventional narrator. So I had to rewrite every sentence when I had that discovery, but that was a good thing because it made the novel that much more interesting, I think.
JP: I also loved how Aurora completely deconstructed the idea that we’re ever going to live in other star systems. I thought it offered the ultimate destruction of that ridiculous idea.
STAN: Well, thank you, and of course that is what generated the intense anger against the novel from that part of the science fiction community or the space cadet community that feels humanity has to go to the stars or else we’re failures. They really hated that book, but that was okay too, because I wanted them to hate the book. If they had liked it, I would have made a mistake.
JP: Of course, the quality of one’s work is often defined both by who one’s enemies are and who one’s friends are. Stan, this was great, but is there anything you want to say in closing before we wrap up?
STAN: Well just to close, I want to say thanks to Bioneers for all those invitations. The recorded keynote talk I delivered there is one of my best, and I’ve also really valued the party of Bioneers, the meeting of people, the wandering, the space over there, and I hope it comes back. The whole thing about the pandemic is our social lives have been dinged in a really profound way because we are a social primate species, and gathering in groups as at Bioneers is part of the fun of being human. It’s the technological sublime to a certain extent, but it’s also the old-fashioned sublime of a big crowd of people together. So I just want to say thank you, and that I look forward to the reconvening of the physical Bioneers, you know, as soon as possible.
JP: Let’s hope. I miss the embodied world quite a bit myself. Thanks a lot, Stan, and I encourage everyone to read Ministry for the Future and all of Stan’s great books.