As they did last year, the international editions of Time are devoting an issue to Heroes of the Environment (full list). (I don’t know if this ever sees newsprint in the states Update: it does, just not on cover.) My contribution this time is a brief appreciation of my friend Stan Robinson, the science fiction author.
In a genre full of environmental warnings, Kim Stanley Robinson’s gift is a vision that uses the environment and its complexity as the focus of all that happens, rather than merely as grim set dressing or allegorical overlay. And that vision is optimistic about what could, with sufficient will, be brought about. He sees creating utopias as a technical challenge to his craft — they’re hard to do convincingly and interestingly. But he also sees them as an empty ecological niche in the imagination; if only to maximise cultural biodiversity, he wants that niche filled.
Settings, whether as alien as Mars or as familiar as Washington’s Rock Creek Park, are one of the foundations of Robinson’s writing; the realism with which he treats the changes he imagines for them is fundamental to making his stories of progress convincing and compelling.
The other foundation is work. No other writer I know can capture so well the hum of joy that goes with working very hard on something you care about. His communication of that experience is itself a work of great creative skill; but its power comes from an authentic sense that it is grounded in just what it describes.
Utopia, Robinson says, is a kind of history, and the experience of utopia is that of making such history: of working, believing, fighting, accepting and — before all and during all — imagining. And he shows what that could mean for us by showing us what it means for him.
Here are Stan’s books on Goodreads, and here’s an interview conducted with him at his alma mater, UCSD, about a decade ago.
Through here you can see a talk on climate change he gave last year at Google, along with subsequent discussion.
Interesting geographical note on the list. Stan lives in Davis, and the Time listing has a staggering bent towards northern California, specifically the bits between Sacramento and San Jose. Of the celebration’s 30 subjects, six — Robinson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alice Waters, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Van Jones and John Doerr — could all visit each other’s places of work without recharging the Prius (though to be fair Arnie does go home to SoCal in the Gulfstream most nights…) And I suspect Annie Leonard may be in the same neck of the woods too. As far as I can see, the only American on the list currently living elsewhere in America is Lonnie Thompson. The varying degrees to which this is an indicator of where real environmental heroism is going on in the states, where it is most visible, cool-looking and/or newsworthy, and where people associated with Time are most likely to see it would, I think, be fairly hard to tease out.
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