20 Oct 2016

There Is No Planet B!

Submitted by Kimon

"Our Generation Ships Will Sink" is the title of the essay Kim Stanley Robinson wrote to accompany the release of Aurora, at Boing Boing, his "defense" that interstellar travel is much more difficult than popular culture and most science fiction makes it out to be.

Should we stop telling the story?

Maybe not. One of the best novels in the history of world literature, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, a seven-volume saga telling the story of a starship voyage and the inhabitation of a new planetary system, finesses all these problems in ways that allow huge enjoyment of the story it tells. The novel justifies the entertaining of the idea, no doubt about it.

But when we consider how we should behave now, we should keep in mind that the idea that if we wreck Earth we will have somewhere else to go, is simply false. That needs to be kept in mind, to set a proper value on our one and only planet, so that a moral hazard is not created that allows us to get sloppy with our caretaking of it.

There is no Planet B! Earth is our only possible home!

He goes on detailing the many serious physical, biological, ecological, sociological, and psychological problems that might force us to focus on Earth instead, or as well.

There has been a lot of buzz around Elon Musk's recent announcement of Space X's space transportation plans that would turn humanity into an interplanetary species -- and all in a timeline very close to our present, actually close to the colonization timeline of the Mars trilogy! (the First Hundred land in 2027) There have been previous announcements, and it remains to be seen whether Space X's plans will really make a difference in the same speed that they have been innovating recently.

As could be expected, KSR was reached for comment. In an interview with Bloomberg, he tries to explain why he thinks the SpaceX Mars colonization plans -- as opposed to a model more closely resembling public-funded scientific outposts like the ones found in Antartica -- might be too ambitious.

It’s 2024. Musk figures everything out and gets funding. He builds his rocket, and 100 people take off. Several months later, they land (somehow) and have to get to work remaking a planet.
I have to note, first, that this scenario is not believable, which makes it a hard exercise to think about further. Mars will never be a single-person or single-company effort. It will be multi-national and take lots of money and lots of years.

Musk’s plan is sort of the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his backyard, combined with the Wernher von Braun plan, as described in the Disney TV programs of the 1950s. A fun, new story.

What is the optimal distribution of skills among 100 people who could each afford $200,000 to $500,000 a seat for such a high-risk endeavor?
They would not pay to get in but would be selected and trained, as any astronauts are and need to be.

Has SpaceX vested authority in someone—or a group—to run Mars?
It wouldn’t be SpaceX deciding these things. 

Who’s in charge?
This would be an uneasy mix of legal rule from earth, following the Outer Space Treaty and the regulations of the organizing bodies involved (NASA, the UN, and whoever else) and local decisions made ad hoc by direct democracy.

Everyone wants sustainability and sustainable development. But it’s hard to define on earth.
Sustainability is quite definable and rests on bio-physical parameters and balances that can be measured and described. It’s an ecological equation of sorts, big but not impossibly complex. It tends to be messed up by what is often called economics.

What needs to happen for the Mars colony to live sustainably and give humanity the lifeboat Musk envisions?
It’s important to say that the idea of Mars as a lifeboat is wrong, in both a practical and a moral sense.

There is no Planet B, and it’s very likely that we require the conditions here on earth for our long-term health. When you don’t take these new biological discoveries into your imagined future, you are doing bad science fiction.

In a culture so rife with scientism and wish fulfillment, a culture that's still coming to grips with the massive crisis of climate change, a culture that's inflicting a sixth mass-extinction event on earth and itself, it’s important to try to pull your science fiction into the present, to make it a useful tool of human thought, a matter of serious planning as well as thrilling entertainment.

This is why Musk’s science fiction story needs some updating, some real imagination using current findings from biology and ecology.

He is not the only one with reservations. It's about funding, and new science. Indeed, new information on the lack of nitrogen, the presence of poisonous perchlorates (and the tough-to-disprove possibility that there's microbial life there) certainly brake the pace with which Mars could be colonized or terraformed -- which is a completely different task compared to just landing there. Further thoughts on the timeline of Mars colonization in the "Are We Alone?" podcast from 2015: "Mars-struck", from Astrobiology Magazine (direct mp3 link). Mars One was another Mars colonization project, and Robinson had also commented on it when interviewed about it in 2015.

...And colonizing Mars is nothing compared to the complexity of interstellar colonization! The feasibility or infeasibility of interstellar space travel for our mortal biological coils, the uniqueness of spaceship Earth and the necessity to make sure our civilizational development will become compatible with the life and climate that birthed it: these are some of the themes developed in Aurora-related interviews.

Aurora does incite debate. From this discussion between KSR and Paolo Bacigalupi (The Water Knife) and from an article/podcast in NPR -- tied interview with Andy Weir (The Martian) and Neal Stephenson (Seveneves).

"Aurora," has received a wide variety of responses "including some really, really angry ones."

my working principle was, 'What would it really be like?' So no hyperspace. No warp drive. No magical thing that isn't going to really happen to get us there

From an interview with Space.com:

The solar system is our neighborhood, and going into space itself, exploring the solar system, is actually part of planetary maintenance, you might say. I have a huge enthusiasm for the space program when it comes down to the solar system and exploring it for the health of Terran [Earth] civilization. It's all part of a larger argument to try and figure out what we should be doing right now, what's important.

There are a lot of people, even powerful, influential people, who seem to think that the goal of humanity is to spread itself. I want this book to make people think really hard about — maybe there's only one planet where humanity can do well, and we're already on it.

Much more in this online chat at io9 (reporting here), on interstellar civilization, Jackie's starship, the Singularity, Ship the Narrator:

If we could go, I think it would be a good thing to do. I’m just thinking that the distances are too great, the times are too long, we are looking more and more like planetary expressions, life as a planetary expression. I’m still very interested in inhabiting Mars, but this may take thousands of years, because of perchlorates and nitrogen lack, things we didn’t know when I wrote my Mars books. The stars, meanwhile, are much much farther away, we couldn’t go back to Earth for a sabbatical and get what we need there (assuming we need anything, which I admit is an assumption). So I wanted to make that point, which I do think returns our focus to Earth. Whatever becomes possible to later generations, it won’t happen without a healthy and sustainable civilization on Earth. Space offers no bolt hole or escape hatch, that just won’t work. Not even Mars!

I don’t think that going to the stars is absolutely impossible. It’s not in the category of time travel or faster-than-light travel. It just strikes me as much more difficult than we’ve usually been thinking. Possibly a project for the year 5000 when we’ve got everything on Earth and in the solar system well in hand. All the problems I’ve brought up in AURORA might be solvable over the long, long haul.

Possibly it would be best to send a terrarium, but it would go even slower, and the added length of time might overwhelm the benefits of the greater size. It would be a cost-benefit analysis, and possibly a solution for the year 5000 or something.

This interview with Public Books on Aurora goes further into the education system and sustainability:

Health, broadly regarded, means keeping the whole biosphere healthy, because we’re so interpenetrated with it. Something like the Leopoldian land ethic seems to emerge: what’s good is what’s good for the land. You’re happy when you’re healthy, and you’re only healthy when the biosphere is healthy (meaning all the other humans as part of that). That’s a kind of ethics, and then you have a politics and a guide to action. You have a project, and people need a project.

I sense that in asserting that humanity can’t inhabit the galaxy, much less the universe, and may only ever be healthy here on Earth, I’ve suggested a limitation that rubs some people the wrong way. They like to think of humans as transcendent, and once a religious afterlife is removed from consideration, the species going cosmic is the secular replacement for that religious yearning.

Some more audio interviews on the themes touched upon by Aurora:

  • The Planetary Society's radio show here (direct mp3 link)
  • The Verge's ESP here
  • ABC (Australia)'s Books and Arts here
  • Also from ABC, Outward Bound on humanity and staying sane in space! Podcast here (direct mp3 link) and article version here
  • Bonus: KSR describes his "top shelf" in music, as soundtrack to his writing: Clifford Brown, Astor Piazzolla, Steve Howe, Ludwig van Beethoven, Van Morrison!
  • Also, a short video recording from an Aurora reading and Q&A at the Sacramento Public Library, on Facebook.

Finally: This science fiction author's qualifications were sufficient that he was a reviewer for a Nature article on exoplanets! The paper/article, "Temperate Earth-sized planets transiting a nearby ultracool dwarf star", discusses findings of planets barely 40 light-years away (further than Aurora's 12 light-years, but still close in the grander scheme of things).

You can read the opening chapter of Aurora, along with some appropriate stock photos, on The Verge.

Next: Antarctica, China and Ecotopia.

Photo: SpaceX; not the Ares.

30 Sep 2016

The cover for Kim Stanley Robinson's next novel, New York 2140, has been revealed! With art by Stephan Martiniere.

"NY2140" will be published on March 21 2017 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook), for the USA -- March 23 for UK and Australia. The paperback is already scheduled for February 13 2018. 480 pages.

A new vision of the future from Kim Stanley Robinson, the New York Times bestselling author of science fiction masterworks such as the Mars trilogy, 2312, and Aurora.
The waters rose, submerging New York City.
But the residents adapted and it remained the bustling, vibrant metropolis it had always been. Though changed forever.
Every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island.
Through the eyes of the varied inhabitants of one building Kim Stanley Robinson shows us how one of our great cities will change with the rising tides.
And how we too will change.


In more news:


  • "Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction" is the result of the short story contest organized by the Imagination and Climate Futures Institute of the Arizona State University, from 2015/2016. It features twelve stories along with a foreword by the contest judge, Kim Stanley Robinson, and an interview with fellow climate fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi. It is entirely available for download for free at their website!
  • KSR wrote the introduction to "Stories for Chip: A tribute to Samuel R. Delany", a short story collection tribute to one of his favorite writers (Dhalgren, among others)
  • In conjunction with WisCon 39 in 2015 (the Society for the Furtherance & Study of Fantasy & Science Fiction's annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin), "Metamorphosis" was published, with stories by Guests of Honor Alaya Dawn Johnson and Kim Stanley Robinson (The Lunatics and Zürich), as well as interviews with the authors
  • Anti-Oedipus Press has published a new edition of the long novella A Short, Sharp Shock. A beautiful edition for a wild fantasy unique in KSR's work, with a beautiful cover representing the spine of land in the middle of the endless sea! (see below)

Originally published in 1990, A Short, Sharp Shock remains a singular work in his canon that engages his interests in the evironment and plumbs the absurdities of the human condition while charting unique narrative terrain. This anti-oedipal edition includes an insightful introduction by esteemed science fiction scholar and critic Robert Crossley as well as a study guide, both of which encourage readers to explore the literary prowess that makes this novel a rare gem of twentieth century American literature. 



  • Heyne has published translations of KSR's recent novels into German: 2312, "Schamane" (Shaman) and Aurora (out November 14 2016)
  • Minotauro has published translations into Spanish (Spain): 2312Aurora


Also, audio adaptations of KSR's short stories:

Awards: Aurora was a finalist for the 2016 Locus Award for Best novel -- however, it lost to Ann Leckie's Ancillary Mercy.


For Aurora:

And a review in comics form! Comic Crits, by John -- he also did 2312 and Galileo's Dream.

Also a review for Green Earth: Los Angeles Review of Books: Weather Permitting, by Rebecca Evans

11 Apr 2016

After Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson's next novel will be "New York 2140" -- to be published in hardback and ebook (and audiobook?) by Orbit Books on March 21, 2017! Paperback for February 13, 2018.

That is still a long way away... but to wait, we have the official synopsis:

A new vision of the future of New York City in the 22nd century, a flooded, but vibrant metropolis, from Kim Stanley Robinson, the New York Times bestselling author of science fiction masterworks such as the Mars trilogy, 2312, and Aurora.

The waters rose, submerging New York City.

But the residents adapted and it remained the bustling, vibrant metropolis it had always been. Though changed forever.

Every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island.

Through the eyes of the varied inhabitants of one building, Kim Stanley Robinson shows us how one of our great cities will change with the rising tides.

And how we too will change.

A Venice-like future New York City, flooded because of climate change, was already featured in 2312. Here it becomes the setting of the entire novel, which will deal with the nuts and bolts of how to address and how to adapt to climate change -- technologically, financially, legally, socially -- as well as giving us a glimpse into what day to day life will feel like in that future society.

(Image: A future flooded NYC in Syfy's The Expanse)

7 Jan 2016

Kim Stanley Robinson Wins 2016 Robert A. Heinlein Award

Full press release from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society:

    Kim Stanley Robinson, science fiction author, is the 2016 winner of the Robert A. Heinlein Award. The award is bestowed for outstanding published works in science fiction and technical writings that inspire the human exploration of space. This award is in recognition of Mr. Robinson's body of work including 19 novels, including his groundbreaking Mars novels, and over 40 short stories.

    The award will be presented on Friday, May 27, 2016 at opening ceremonies during Balticon 50, the 50th Maryland Regional Science Fiction Convention. Balticon and the Robert A. Heinlein Award are both managed and sponsored by The Baltimore Science Fiction Society. A grant from the Heinlein Society funds a third of the costs associated with the award.

    The Robert A. Heinlein Award is a sterling silver medallion bearing the image of Robert A. Heinlein, as depicted by artist Arlin Robbins. The medallion is matched with a red-white-blue lanyard. In addition, the winner receives two lapel pins for use when a large medallion is impractical, and a plaque describing the award, suitable for home or office wall display. 

    The Robert A. Heinlein Award selection committee consists of science fiction writers and was founded by Dr. Yoji Kondo, a long-time friend of Robert and Virginia Heinlein. Members of the original committee were approved by Virginia Heinlein. The current Chairman of the Selection Committee is Michael F. Flynn.

    Virginia Heinlein authorized multiple awards in memory of her husband, including the Heinlein Prize, which is fully funded by Virginia Heinlein's estate, and a National Space Society award for volunteer projects.

    More information on the Robert A. Heinlein Award, including past winners, can be found at http://www.bsfs.org/bsfsheinlein.htm.

    Kim Stanley Robinson does not maintain an official web page, but more information on his work can be found at http://www.kimstanleyrobinson.info

     Mr. Robinson lives in the state of California, USA.

More information on Balticon can be found at www.balticon.org.

Congratulations to Stan!

31 Dec 2015

As 2015, the year of "AURORA", closes, Kim Stanley Robinson offers his reader a short story -- fully available at Tor.com here.

"Oral Argument" is a transcript of a hearing at the US Supreme Court on patent laws that allows us to get a glimpse of a very green future.

This is one of the few short stories of Robinson's as of late -- he mostly concentrates on novels; see the list of short stories here. This publication is like a 2005 one-page story, "Prometheus Unbound, At Last", which was published in a magazine (Nature) and not in a "conventional" SF&F magazine or collection.

The image by Wesley Allsbrook used to promote the story, the bronze bull at Manhattan covered in moss, algae and all kinds of growing things, could be seen as a teaser to Kim Stanley Robinson's next novel coming in 2016! It will take place in a future with severe climate change and sea level rise, in a Venice-like half-submerged Manhattan. Stay tuned for more, and merry post-solstice festivities!


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