I must admit, I have varied feelings about Kim Stanley Robinson’s work. I discovered Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) in the midst of the Mars Pathfinder landing in the 1997, which left me so enthralled by the fact we were seeing images from the very surface of another planet that I set off to find and read every sci-fi book about Mars I could get my hands on. Robinson’s triology—which chronicles the near-future exploration, settling and terraforming of the Red Planet—is definitely one of the best out there. I loved the blend of science and social/political ideas, even if in the end I don’t agree with Robinson’s utopian style conclusion (or some of the social ideas he uses to get there). I tend to have a bias against utopian sci-fi, and Robinson definitely fits that bill.
Come to find out, that's one of the aspects of his work folks like to discuss. I recently ran across this article profiling Robinson, where he’s quoted as defining utopian stories thus:
"These days [utopian stories] are all about the struggle of getting to a juster society, and then keeping it there, or fending off counter-attacks, or making further progress. Utopia, in other words, is just a name for a positive dynamic in history; history will never stop happening; and so to call for utopia is to call for an increase in justice in the world, and a different economic system that is based on justice and ecological sustainability. This is exactly the subject matter on which science fiction is by definition focused -- science fiction being a matter of imagining fictional histories for the future, some better, some worse, all different -- all therefore challenging the current power system and its attempt to portray itself as inevitable and eternal."This runs through Forty Signs of Rain as well, along with something else I didn’t remember from the Mars trilogy: a complimentary view of science and religion (in Robinson’s case, Buddhism). It’s been a while since I read the Mars trilogy, so a similar thread may have been there—but even if it was, I don’t think it was as obvious as in this series. According to the same profile above, Buddhism is a personal interest of Robinson’s and a prevalent aspect in his earlier Years of Rice and Salt as well. In a review of Sixty Days and Counting (the third book in this series), the reviewer says that in Years of Rice and Salt, Robinson reflects on religion and science, "not as diametric opposites, but as complementary ways to get a grip on the big enchilada, one using deductive, and the other inductive means.”
At one point in Forty Signs of Rain, one of Robinson’s scientists (who often have the main roles in his novels) attends a lecture by a group of exiled Buddhist Tibetans and has an ephiphany of sorts that changes the way he looks at life. Frank is reason-rules scientist who sees life running, among other things, according the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which Frank describes as a kind of tit-for-tat power struggle. Earlier in the book, Frank reflects:
In traffic, at work, in relationships of every kind—social life was nothing but a series of prisoners’ dilemmas. Compete or cooperate? Be selfish or generous? It would be best if you could always trust other players to cooperate, and safely practice always generous; but in real life people did not turn out to earn that trust. That was one of the great shocks of adolescence, perhaps that realization; which alas came to many at an even younger age. And after that you had to work things out case by case, your strategy a matter of your history, or your personality, who could say.But in his spiritual epiphany, Frank realizes he’s in the mist of a paradigm shift which he describes as a kind of "kaleidoscope" experience. (Heh, for what it’s worth, I was delighted to run across this metaphor as that is how I’ve been describing epiphanies since college!) Frank reflects then that all things that generally lose in the Prisoners’ Dilemma might have a different value (warning: cursing ahead):
It was more like . . . . dying and being reborn. Altruism, compassion, simple goddamned foolishness, loyalty to people who were not loyal to you, playing the sap for the defectors to take advantage of, competition, adaptation, displace self-interest—or else something real, a real force in the world, a kind of physical constant, like gravity, or a basic attribute of life, like the drive to propagate one’s DNA to subsequent generations. A reason for being. Something beyond DNA. A rage to live, an urge to goodness. Love.I couldn’t help but circle that last word (heh, I always read with a pen at hand) because, as a follower of Jesus, it resonated with me as an echo of the Way. It doesn’t make sense to folks who walk the world running up points and power by way of the Prisoners’ Dilemma (which is a surprising number of folks—even those in religious circles); but it makes a whole world of sense to a lot of other folks. As I’ve said before, I’ve long appreciated that elements of God's truth can be found in other religions, that there are people in many cultures and religions who are drawn to those truths. If we are made in God’s image, how can we not be drawn to those elements? And for those who have spent time with Jesus, Love is indeed “something real.”
One last comment before this post gets too long: this is the first book I can remember reading that gets life in the D.C. Metro area so dang perfect! Sheesh, Robinson describes D.C. traffic (which he uses to introduce readers to the Prisoner's Dilemma), the “steam bath of the capital” where the heat hits “an upper limit where it just blur[s] out” and the often frustrating madness of the political life like he lives here (he actually lives in Davis, California). I read more than one part of the book out loud to my husband, who spends his days on the Metro, highways and in hallways of D.C. Heh, he laughed and grimaced.
I’ll wait to read the next two in the series before I come to a final conclusion, but right now I’m entralled enough to read the second one. I’ll let you know how it goes.