Kim Stanley Robinson is science fiction’s answer to Martin Luther King Jr. And Louis Farrakhan. And, for that matter, half a million or so soccer moms. But when the 52-year-old author decided it was time to take his issue—that the deterioration of the environment may eventually lead to abrupt climate change—to the National Mall, he chartered no buses and arranged for no marching permits. He simply turned the iconic strip of land—and much of downtown Washington—into a lake.
Robinson’s latest novel, Forty Signs of Rain, follows the Quibler family of Bethesda and a group of Southern California scientists as they fight against unsympathetic authority
figures—of both the political and the biotech varieties—and then watch those figures get what’s coming to them in the form of some Old Testament–style weather.
“The Potomac had almost overrun Roosevelt Island,” Robinson writes, “and spilled over its banks until it disappeared into the huge lake it was forming, thus onto the Mall and all the way across it, up to the steps of the White House and the Capitol, both on little knolls, the Capitol’s well higher. The entirety of the little Southwest district was floored by water, though its big buildings stood clear; the broad valley of the Anacostia looked like a reservoir. The city south of Pennsylvania Avenue was a building-studded lake.”
No matter how much that sounds like something out of a certain recent cinematic blockbuster, Rain isn’t a rush job being used to ride The Day After Tomorrow’s considerable wake. For one thing, Robinson says, it often takes him as many as 10 years to collect his thoughts for a project; this one was under way at least “a couple years ago.” For another, Robinson resents the film’s clumsy approach to what he considers a subject of utmost seriousness.
“It’s a terrible movie,” he declares. “It isn’t true to what would happen….And realism matters—because that’s when people care.”
And Robinson, of course, wants you to care as much as he does. In Rain, he focuses not on some outsized hero who saves the day by the seat of his pants, but on the real-life organization that—wide-eyed as it may sound—the author believes has the ability to effect the kind of change needed to avert a Roland Emmerich–sized ecological disaster.
“If you have tail-wagging-the-dog fantasies, like I often do, because the dog seems so big and immovable,” he says, “then I think [the National Science Foundation] is a rational place to choose.” Accordingly, the saviors of Robinson’s world are small-budgeted federal-government nerds who pack heat in the form of scary scientific studies and have a taste for intelligent public discourse.
In fact, the theories behind Robinson’s book are based on the results of some hero-with-a-clipboard studies of ice cores drilled between 1989 and 1993 in Greenland. There, Robinson says, “they finally got, like, 120,000 years of good climate data. They discovered that this little ice age 11,000 years ago was triggered, so to speak. It happened really, really fast—like, in two to three years, we went from a warm, wet global climate to a cold, dry one.
“Abrupt climate change has happened in the past,” he adds, “and it could happen in the future.”
Rain isn’t the first time Robinson has analyzed the real world by plunging himself into an imaginary one. His early- to mid-’90s Mars Trilogy hypothesized a human presence on the Red Planet and its subsequent transformation to
habitability—and offered a sometimes
sobering picture of what might happen if Earthlings ever decide to indulge in terraforming. (For the record, Robinson is skeptical of the Bush proposal that would shut down the Hubble Space Telescope in favor of a manned mission to Mars.)
Robinson is also well-known for alternate histories—detailed projections of such disparate hypotheses as what might have happened had the Black Death wiped out most of Europe (2002’s The Years of Rice and Salt) or had Orange County, Calif., allowed development to run unchecked (1988’s The Gold Coast), evolved into an ecological paradise (1990’s Pacific Edge), or been bombed into apocalyptic submission (1984’s The Wild Shore). Quite well-known, in fact: Over the past two decades, hardly a year has gone by in which Robinson hasn’t picked up a prestigious Nebula or Hugo Award.
Of course, it hasn’t been all space-cowboy glory. For nearly a decade after he earned his undergraduate degree in literature from the University of California, San Diego, in 1974, Robinson managed to publish only about one short story a year. And then the longtime California resident found himself living in what he once called “the only place I’ve ever lived where I actually disliked the combination of landscape and human presence”: inside the Beltway.
Robinson and his wife, Lisa Nowell, who was working for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, came to Washington in 1988. The couple lived in Bethesda–Chevy Chase until the middle of 1991, when they returned to Robinson’s home state.
“Our first kid was born there in ’89,” Robinson says from his current home of Davis, Calif. “It was a great time—we were new parents, and I was a stay-at-home dad and Mr. Mom. I wrote my books during his nap time.”
When the now-15-year-old David wasn’t asleep, Robinson says, much like Rain’s Charlie Quibler, he walked with his son on his back or in a stroller, wandering through area parks. He also connected with a group of East Coast science-fiction writers that included the late Charles Sheffield and then–Baltimore resident Paul Park. Robinson, who seems to have a certain need to compete, and Park, who was once a squash instructor, used to meet regularly for a game.
“We’d talk about plans he had,” Park says of Robinson. “He was just beginning to think about the Mars books….He gave me an early draft of [his Pacific Edge] to read.”
Park says Robinson’s taste for activism through fiction was obvious even though his early issues were more basic. “Global warming, per se, wasn’t really on our radar then,” Park says. “It was mostly land use and preservation of wilderness.” But for a man who had grown up in a region that has long been exploited without much regard for consequence, those issues were just as important.
“The thing about growing up in California…[is], physically, it’s just an awesome place,” Park says. “And Southern California has just been butchered. I don’t think it’s possible not to be environmentally conscious, because so much has been lost.”
Eight days after Rain’s scheduled U.S. release, Robinson is back in Washington to give a lecture at the NSF’s headquarters in Arlington. Robinson’s feel for the place—like his treatment of Washington’s weather, which on this mid-June day has delivered in its usual stifling manner—is spot-on:
“The structure was hollow,” he writes in the novel, “featuring a gigantic central atrium, an octagonal space that extended from the floor to the skylight, twelve stories above. This empty space, as big as some buildings all by itself, was walled by the
interior windows of all the NSF offices. Its upper part was occupied by a large hanging mobile, made of metal curved bars painted in primary colors.”
Though Robinson will admit to having spent only six days inside the building (“I’m quick with impressions,” he quips), his association with the NSF is somewhat more impressive: In 1995, he traveled to Antarctica after being accepted to the NSF’s Antarctic Artists’ and Writers’ Program, which he still considers his greatest honor.
“I went down there and it really is, like, easy travel to other planets,” he says, “and it really reminds you that you’re on a planet.” As part of the deal, Robinson based his 1997 novel, Antarctica, on his experiences there. The book also introduced the world to environmentally conscious U.S. Rep. Phil Chase, who plays a bit part in Rain.
Most of the 60-odd people who pack into the NSF’s Room 110 seem as if they may already know all this. In his introduction, Antarctic Artists’ and Writers’ Program Director Guy Guthridge mentions Robinson’s past work to nods and smiles from the frizzy-haired, calculator-watch-wearing audience. Saying, “I couldn’t resist,” Robinson begins with a section of Rain that details a “brown-bag” lunch much like the one he finds himself a part of today.
He then settles down to deliver a lecture that meditates on such topics as science fiction (“The genre’s not quite accurately named….It’s more fiction about the future”), science vs. capitalism (“Science and capitalism are two vast forces…one trying to conquer the other”), and, of course, the NSF itself (“Can NSF do anything about abrupt climate change?”).
The room is flush with heroes of the type who, if Robinson has his way, might one day have some tail-wagging power over the Saint Bernard that is the U.S. government. But first those heroes need to be rallied. Robinson thinks people in the scientific community don’t read science fiction because it’s “bullshit.” “People think of me as…one of a small handful [of science-fiction writers] that’s really doing science and talking about what’s possible,” he says.
Rain, which its author describes as “a science-fiction novel about science and how it works,” could be just the thing to change the skeptical collective mind of the scientific community. And the ever-optimistic Robinson hopes that if he can change that, he might be able to change other, more important things as well.
Even if it comes at a cost: During the Q-and-A session following the lecture, Robinson is asked how he thinks his book will do when placed before a non-NSF readership. “I’m scared to death,” he answers.CP