It seemed to him that he had been destined to suffer
the curse of stage fright, in a world where
performance was all.
—The Memory of Whiteness
The Memory of Whiteness, his 1985 novel of an orchestra's grand tour of a civilized solar system, gives musical performance a major place in human affairs. But actually making his own music publicly is difficult for Robinson since getting so nervous at a recital, at 9 or 10 years of age, that he lost the ability to play a clear tone. "If I had to play the trumpet again in front of even five of my closest friends, it would make me nervous in a way that talking doesn't anymore."
Yet, performance is where it's at, for Robinson. "There's something fun about the notion of a performance that you're never going to see again. I much prefer live theater to the movies, because you've got a human on the spot and it takes their total presence—not just as an image or a voice, but as a complete body and animal. At that moment it's just you there—performer and audience. We lose that in science fiction, which is very literature oriented. A lot of the science fiction community is completely uninterested in readings, for example, and it's sad because they miss a lot of incredible readings. The first time I ever encountered Terry Bisson's 'Bears Discover Fire' was listening to Bisson read it. One of the reasons why that story is, to me, one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written is that I heard it in his voice before I'd ever seen it on the page. It was a great performance." It amazes Robinson that at conventions of 2,000 people, maybe five will consider it entertaining enough to go hear an author read his work. "Blows my mind. But I'm into performance. They're not."
Robinson has found a way to perform, too, even though he is not an actor or a musician. He has used several years of academic experience as a visiting lecturer as a springboard to lecturing widely on science fiction. He visits Georgia Tech and other universities, and science fiction conventions, giving talks on subjects that interest and concern him. He never writes them down. He just shows up with an index card worth of notes and wings it for 45 minutes to an hour, trying to make it entertaining. "So these are also improvisations. There's nothing else I can do that is good enough to entertain people. It's a way of enjoying that part of performance where I don't have to worry about stage fright anymore."
So far, Robinson has given talks on such wide ranging subjects as Philip K. Dick, the New Wave, British science fiction, postmodernism, Utopia, population control, and Samuel R. Delany. He tries to work up a new one for every WorldCon. "I enjoy them, and I think they're valuable for organizing my thinking."
Clarity of expression is the sine qua non of writing for Robinson. "Modernism begins with two enormous, monstrous, great, giant novels: Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and Joyce's Ulysses, and they're sort of polar opposites in a lot of their attributes. I'm very much a Proustian, and very much anti-Joycean. I believe in clarity of expression and the clean line of prose of Proust, as opposed to the murky, stream-of-consciousness style of Joyce, which supposedly imitates the way people think, but I don't think it does. Essentially I come down on the side of classic clarity, and in one's sentences actually stating meaning after meaning after meaning."
...the real and the actual always count
more for Lucy than the theoretical.
—The Gold Coast
While striving for the best in his writing, and giving voice to his highest aspirations, Robinson is thoroughly pragmatic about the business he is in. "It's a team sport, and everybody is in it together to try to sell the maximum number of books."
Team player Robinson feels he has been blessed with most valuable players from the start. There was his mentor, Damon Knight, his first agent, Patrick Delahunt, and wonderful editors. "Everybody has their role in the process. For many years I had the same editor for most of my novels, Beth Meacham at TOR. She's a good friend and a great editor. But now I've cast loose into a sort of free agent situation. It was Lou Aronica who brought me to Bantam and I've had a good, friendly relationship with Jennifer Hershey," his editor on the Mar trilogy.
"The nature of the field is now so fluid and editors and writers move so quickly that now the anchor point for me, in terms of professional contact, is my agent." Ralph Vicinanza, heir to the Delahunt stable of young writers, is Robinson's agent now. "He will be my agent for as long as he wants to stay in the game. I'm extremely lucky to have him. I need his advice badly to negotiate the world of modern publishing, because it's more than any writer out in Davis can learn."
The old man told me when I was done writing
I would understand what happened,
but he was wrong again, the old liar.
—The Wild Shore
With his orchestra in place and his instruments tuned, what has Robinson decided to play?
Although his academic credentials are substantial, Robinson has chosen to write very little criticism, which he feels he's not very well suited for. He also does not believe that, in general, it is a very good use of a fiction writer's time, relative to other things they could be doing, like writing more stories.
One of Robinson's critical essays appeared in "Foundation" magazine in 1987. It was the result of reading and admiring the works of Cecelia Holland, a writer of historical fiction. "She wrote one great science fiction novel, Floating Worlds. I'm a big admirer and collector of her work. At one point I just got so pleased—thrilled—by her work (it was teaching me so much about everything) that I wrote this essay and sent it off to Ian Watson who was editing 'Foundation' along with Edward James. So almost all my criticism (which amounts to four articles) are appreciations. If I get to that degree of enthusiasm where I actually want to tell the world how much fun I'm having reading this person, I'll do it."
Several major themes recur constantly in Robinson's fiction, chief among them being history. The process by which the past is revealed to us, and the difficulties of determining the truth have always held a fascination for Robinson. "When I was reading as a child--and I was not a science fiction reader--historical fiction and reading straight history was one of my main interests. I would get obsessed with Scottish history, or with Napoleon, or with the Renaissance, or the American Civil War. I would get these interests and I would madly read everything about it."
The degree to which he became involved with his readings is clear from Robinson's reaction to his first contact with historical hoax. "One time I got extremely interested in Pre-Columbian visits to America. I was just young enough that I was reading the kind of books in the public library that claimed that there had been maybe 15 visits to America before Columbus, all of them found, the books claimed, in the archeological record. But the Norse were the biggest of them, and it turned out that they were real. Except they weren't quite as real as we thought they were. I was really into the story of the Kensington Stone. Then I read some more serious books on the subject that just dismissed the Kensington Stone, which I firmly believed in, as an obvious hoax. And the shock of that for me as a teenager was a big one."
Robinson has retold this story in his fiction a couple of times, as a way to understand or disperse some of that shock. In his 1991 short story, "Vinland the Dream," he takes the alternative history genre into a new realm by making such a convincing case for all Norse Pre-Columbian sites being hoaxes, that unless you already know about these sites, you could easily be duped by the story. Gregory Benford, noted scientist and author, called Robinson shortly after the story appeared to ask how much of it was true.
Another treatment of this same idea was his second novel, Icehenge, which dealt with mysterious ruins on Pluto.
Initial conditions are never fully known.
The butterfly may be on the wing, it may be crushed underfoot.
You are flying toward Hiroshima.
—"A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions"
The fact of a hoax is not really the central issue in the author's lingering love affair with history. Robinson's stance on the subject of what drives history appears to be somewhere between the personality theory and the sweep of events theory. None of the futures he has created in his fiction hold any great importance for him in terms of being predictions. "I think that real history is going to be simply different than what we can imagine. It's a chaotic system and there are all these events that are going to come and make major impacts on history that we can't predict at all."
A popular image used to illustrate chaos theory is the beat of a butterfly's wings changing the weather. But what moral responsibility does the butterfly have for bringing or preventing the storm? To read Robinson's works (especially the short stories "The Lucky Strike," an alternative history of the bombing of Hiroshima, and "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions," which puts you at the controls) is to see that Robinson concludes that the chaotic nature of history does not diminish but only heightens each person's moral responsibility--that we should all strive to become the butterfly.
Thus one role of the writer (for Robinson's kind of writer, at least) is to paint pictures of different types of futures, and illustrate, "...what we ought to--what I think we ought to work towards, as opposed to what we can try to work away from."
Utopia and dystopia are exactly what Robinson serves up in his California trilogy. His sincere concerns about the fate of humanity, still trapped on this one little ball of dirt, is a theme running through all his work. "Right now the population is five billion. The UN estimates it might go as high as 18 billion. Other people are trying to calculate the carrying capacity of the Earth, and it looks like we are overshooting that capacity, and it just bodes poorly. We're going to overrun our ability to feed ourselves and at that point I fear a kind of 'me first' tribalism. The kind of response that says, “If 50% of humanity is going to die off, then we're going to be part of the 50% that doesn't die'."
Robinson expresses these concerns in the most emotionally involved terms in his fiction. Having a son hasn't changed that, but it might be giving more of an edge to his sense of urgency. "Because you would like to pass along a world in less than disastrous shape. So I've been more focused on these issues. It's harder to put them out of mind."
His concepts of responsibility apply to artists as well. "I have a very strong commitment to art. I live the life of an artist and I believe in it as my own psychic integrity and definition. But it seems to me that something we always have to keep in mind is the social context that we're making our art in." His 1986 short story "Our Town" is a study of just this question. "The sculptors in that society had obviously tried to escape into art. It's like the famous Edgar Allan Poe story, 'The Masque of the Red Death,' where, while the plague is going on, all the rich people retreat to this castle and they have a long party, while outside the culture is dying. Their attempt to just escape from the world and disappear off into their own space, and make art a kind of excuse to ignore what's going on--that was strong in my mind when I wrote 'Our Town'. Art has to be kept in the context of the society that you're in, and used as your political action as well as your own personal expression. Or else it becomes escapism real fast."
Robinson's personal expression can hardly be called escapist. His fiction is among the most thoroughly researched and well informed in the genre. "Yeah, I like getting down to the technical details, and I think it's useful to understand the way things work."
This understanding is achieved through meticulous research, in Robinson's case, and through direct observation in the case of his characters. Almost no one in his books is satisfied until they have gone out and seen and touched what they wish to know about. While this is a wonderful narrative device, simplifying exposition by making it part of the action, it is clear that Robinson prefers knowledge obtained directly, through the senses, to that gotten vicariously through second hand reports. The texture of the real is the best source of truth for Robinson. "I'm not into computer-created realities and games, which I regard as the ostrich with its head in the sand. I'm opposed to making commodities out of natural pleasures. With all the problems we are having, this is the worst time to get involved with expensive toys."
It is perhaps for these reasons that he has mixed feelings about science fiction, which he values as a sort of avant garde act, pulling ostrich heads out of the sand and forcing people to look at what is really happening. "I think it's always engaged in that work. It has the potential for teaching people (I have to believe that). But by and large I think it cheats, in terms of talking about distant planets and time travel, and just keeps skipping out on this next 200 years--and yet that really is the period that to me is the most interesting of all. But you get negative feedback when you write about the near future, in terms of sales."
Yet Robinson has been doing exactly that--and successfully-- bringing the next 200 years to life as he brings a whole planet to life in the Mars trilogy. His research has been unparalleled. While he'd love to visit Mars, just long enough to see for himself some of the mighty landforms he has written of, that's not likely to happen. So he has stood on the shoulders of experts on Mars, to get a closer look, and share the view with his readers.
The Mars in Robinson's books showcases the best current thinking on the planet, a manned mission, survival and terraforming. This is thanks to the help of scientists at the edge of the frontier who were willing to talk to him. Among them are Christopher McKay, planetary scientist and co-winner of the first Thomas O. Paine Award for Advancement of the Human Exploration of Mars, Martyn Fogg, another planetary scientist, Robert Craddock, who maps Mars at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., and Michael Carr, author of The Surface of Mars.
Robinson's relationship with these authorities begins with a simple phone call. "I tell them I'm a writer and I'm having trouble with this issue (and it's their issue), and that I read about them or read their book, and would they have a few minutes to answer some questions. I say I'm going to put it in a novel. 100% of the time, they've never heard of me before. Nevertheless, they'll answer my questions. I try to send them copies of the book that includes their material. A lot of times I'll get a response from them and then often I will ask them for help again."
In spite of his exhaustive research, Robinson never loses sight of the fact that he is a novelist. Among his sources, for instance, conservative estimates of the time it would take to terraform Mars range from 10,000 to 20,000 years. So to be able to make the process a very real experience for his characters (and therefore for the reader too), Robinson has shortened the terraforming to the quickest it could possibly be. This involves the weilding of enormous amounts of energy, but it's just barely possible.
The second thing he did was invoke an idea from a previous novel, Icehenge. The life-lengthening gerontological treatments would allow the same characters to see the beginning and the end of terraforming. "So essentially this is fantasy. People talk about how these books are hard science fiction, but in trying to fit the terraforming of Mars into a single human lifetime I've done some fantasy type things. I've speeded up the terraforming process and I've lengthened human lives, and I've tried to cover it with science fiction explanations."
Nevertheless, Robinson has the greatest respect for the physical realities of the universe, and most of his work flows with the inevitability of realistic characters in believable circumstances. "I don't believe in faster-than-light travel. I don't believe that science fiction ought to just casually ignore the realities of time and space. I've also never really believed the aliens in science fiction stories."
When he set out to write his own alien story, "Blind Geometer", his 1987 Nebula Award winning tale about a blind mathematician, Robinson faced a dilemma. "I was going to do the whole thing in math and equations. But eventually that idea didn't work out either. Well, I had read a book about teaching blind children and the problems involved. I got interested and read some more books. One about the psychology of the blind was very suggestive and interesting in a way I had never thought about before. I finally realized that a blind person was probably going to be my alien. He's still a human being—still believable—but using a different sensory system, therefore very different from us."