Our Greatest Political Novelist?

by cominsitu

by Tim Kreider

Sometime in the past couple of generations, capitalism’s victory over our hearts and minds seems to have become complete, in that hardly anyone even notices it anymore. It’s a monoculture, taken for granted, like monogamy, or monotheism, or having one sun. It’s hard to think of any “serious” literary writers in the United States under the age of fifty who engage the big political issues of our time as directly as Boomer authors like Paul Auster (“Leviathan”), Thomas Pynchon (“Vineland”), or Robert Stone (“A Flag for Sunrise”), let alone in the way that muckraker novelists like Upton Sinclair used to.1 When we call literary writers “political” today, we’re usually talking about identity politics. If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death. If they were looking for any indication that we were even dimly aware of the burgeoning global conflict between democracy and capitalism, or of the abyssal catastrophe our civilization was just beginning to spill over the brink of, they might need to turn to books that have that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine. That is, to science fiction.2

Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding), in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident, whereas conservatism holds it to be inevitable, natural, and therefore just. The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.

Kim Stanley Robinson is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest living science-fiction writers; collectively, the three novels of his “Mars” trilogy—“Red Mars,” “Green Mars,” and “Blue Mars”—have won all the major science-fiction and fantasy awards. He is also, for my money, one of the most important political writers working in America today. In his Mars novels, Robinson uses the Red Planet as a historical tabula rasa, a template for creating a saner, more sustainable, and more just human society. What’s most powerful about the Mars books as political novels is that they envision a credible utopia, one that doesn’t—unlike, say, Skinner’s “Walden Two”—rely on a revision of human nature. Robinson’s characters are cynics, opportunists, idealists, narcissists, drug-dependent, manic-depressive, borderline Asperger’s, and emotionally frozen survivors of abuse, but with all their flaws and conflicting agendas they manage to remake their world in more humane and equitable form.

The first wave of his Martian settlers are all scientists, who are no more perfect than any other human beings but have been rigorously trained in a kind of intellectual integrity. Robinson argues that, now that climate change has become a matter of life and death for the species, it’s time for scientists to abandon their scrupulous neutrality and enter into the messy arena of politics. Essentially, Robinson attempts to apply scientific thinking to politics, approaching it less like pure physics, in which one infallible equation / ideology explains and answers everything, than like engineering—a process of what F.D.R. once called “bold, persistent experimentation,” finding out what works and combining successful elements to synthesize something new. He scavenges ideas from the American Constitution, the Swiss confederacy, “the guild socialism of Great Britain, Yugoslavian worker management, Mondragon ownership, Kerala land tenure, and so on” to construct his utopias. The major platform planks these methods lead him to in his books are:

  • common stewardship—not ownership—of the land, water, and air
  • an economic system based on ecological reality
  • divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities
  • the basics of existence, like health care, removed from the cruelties of the free market
  • the application of democratic principles like self-determination and equality in the workplace—which, in practice, means small co-ops instead of vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations—and,
  • a reverence for the natural world codified into law.

Depending on your own politics, this may sound like millennia-overdue common sense or a bong-fuelled 3 A.M. wish list, but there’s no arguing that to implement it in the real world circa 2013 would be, literally, revolutionary. My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all.

You could argue that, if I didn’t fundamentally agree with his politics, Robinson’s fiction might seem contrived and didactic to me, the way Ayn Rand’s does if you’re not predisposed toward her brand of enlightened assholism. It’s true he likes to write lectures and speeches, but they’re more engaging than some of Tolstoy’s, who nearly succeeded in stomping my clinging fingers off of “Anna Karenina” with his ruminations on Russian agriculture circa 1870. But I don’t just admire Robinson’s ambitions or agree with his agenda; I’m not recommending his books because they’re good for you. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite novelists, period. I know the characters of his “Mars” trilogy—John Boone, Frank Chalmers, Maya Toitovna, Sax Russell, Anne Clayborne (none of whose names I needed to look up)—like I know old friends from college. I love them; they exasperate me; I talk about them behind their backs with my other friends. The history shared by these characters becomes so long and fraught and tangled over the course of his hundreds of pages and years (thanks to genetic longevity treatments, Robinson’s able to keep the same ensemble of characters around for centuries) that it gives me a pang of longing and nostalgia and bittersweet sense of life’s length and brevity. In a bold authorial gambit, Robinson kills off his most charismatic characters—the alpha males, the movers—by the end of the first novel in the trilogy, allowing his secondary characters to come to the fore, expose new facets, and evolve in unexpected and beautiful ways. The strength of his characterizations is inextricable from his power as a political visionary; Robinson is realistic about human beings but nonetheless optimistic about our capacity for change. In the last pages of the “Mars” trilogy, a character who has bitterly resisted change for a hundred and fifty years reminds herself, “Nowhere on this world were people killing each other, nowhere were they desperate for shelter or food, nowhere were they scared for their kids.” Put this way, it sounds like such a modest utopia to hope for.

Robinson’s new book, “Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age,” is what you might technically call historical fiction, though it’s not the kind with a buff Byronic groomsman clutching a swoony supermodel heiress on the cover. It’s set so far back in prehistory—circa 30,000 B.C.—that it’s effectively speculative fiction, an attempt to imagine another world. Any story about the prehistoric past, like stories about the future, is unavoidably political, in that it’s an effort to define what constitutes basic human nature, which, in turn, is presumed to imply what kind of society most suits such an animal. The anthropological picture of early man has varied with changing ideological fashions, from Homo lupus, every man for himself in an eternal war of all against all, raiding the neighbors and raping their women, to a noble savage, living in communal bands with plenty of slack time for drum circles and orgies. Back and forth it goes between warriors or hippies, hunters or vegans, all of which is construed to have some bearing on everything from our own current-day economic systems to the institution of marriage to diet.

“Shaman” is a lesser entry in Robinson’s corpus, not the book I’d recommend you start with (though it does include an outcast Neanderthal who breaks my heart). The novel’s main character, Loon, a fourteen-year-old shaman-in-training, is something of a blank slate—that stock narrator-protagonist ubiquitous in science fiction I like to call The Guy. Its plot is episodic and less than compelling, basically a coming-of-age story, its central arc a classic boy meets girl / girl is abducted by evil Eskimos / boy gets girl back. What’s most interesting about the book is its vision of Homo sapiens and their society in what Robinson elsewhere calls “the morning of the world.”

Robinson’s Ice Age isn’t without its own identity politics. The roles of the sexes are rigidly separated, as in most Paleolithic societies, but it’s not what you could call a patriarchy; it’s the women who make the major decisions, without issuing decrees or fiats, by talking and settling things among themselves while doing chores. Shame is their greatest weapon for enforcing mores, one our own culture has largely lost; “They could spear you with a look,” Loon thinks. Robinson has always understood how women throughout history have contrived to exert power within even the strictest patriarchies, behind closed doors—“the Kegel grip of uterine law,” he calls it in “Blue Mars.”

Another notable feature of the novel—all the more striking because we only come to realize it gradually—is that all but one of its characters are, to put it extremely anachronistically, black. Homo sapiens are (duh) of African descent, and these earliest Europeans haven’t yet adapted to their new environment or interbred with the Neanderthals (the only “whites” in the book). Robinson has set a previous book in a nonwhite world—“The Years of Rice and Salt,” an alternate history in which the Black Death eradicated the whole population of Europe and the scientific revolution occurred in Asia instead. Robinson’s novels are speculative, but even so, I’m trying to think of another white American author who’s written a whole novel without any white people in it. I also have to wonder how long it’ll be before an American novelist can write a book set in the present in which in which nonwhite characters’ race goes without mentioning for fifty pages.

One aspect of “Shaman” that disappoints, or puzzles, me is its assumptions about Ice Age social structures, especially sexual relationships. In the small tribal village Robinson depicts, teen-agers sneak off to fool around and young people sometimes hook up at annual festivals, but for the most part, once they’re adults, people pair up, get married, and settle into monogamous relationships—in effect, they behave a lot like middle-class Californians. It seems like an odd streak of imaginative conservatism for an author whose vision of future societies has been so untrammelled. Similarly, most of the hunter-gatherer tribes we see in “Shaman” are peaceable, too preoccupied with survival to kill each other. Robinson seems to see theft, rape, and slavery as luxuries of wealth and leisure, the cruelties of exploitation a function of relatively advanced civilizations, like the subarctic dwellers who kidnap Loon’s wife. Loon’s tribe in “Shaman” isn’t exactly a preagricultural utopia—they’re starving by the end of each winter—but it’s still a pretty benign view of man in his primeval state, closer to Rousseau than Hobbes.

Wouldn’t it ultimately be more optimistic to create a sort of past-dystopia, showing us how far we’ve come? There’s evidence to suggest that prehistoric cultures would’ve seemed far more savage and alien to us than Robinson imagines here. I suspect this is less a failure of imagination on his part than a triumph of his convictions over the evidence, a projection of his resolute optimism backwards through time to show us that folks are basically the same all over. He wants to show us believable Homo sapiens—gossipy, fractious, constantly bitching—who are also curious, resourceful, and intrepid.

Robinson seems mostly interested in using his protagonist as a vessel of perception: Loon has at least as much awe at the vastness and mystery of this world as we do, as much wonder at finding himself inexplicably in it, the same aching sense of the evanescent present. The most exotic aspect of Ice Age psychology Robinson imagines is what we modern readers would call animist or magical thinking. His characters regard animals as different kinds of people, the wolves as their cousins. Passages in the book are written from the points of view of wolverines or wildcats. Ghosts appear in dreams and by firelight, and speak to the living. Sometimes the Third Wind, that last desperate burst of energy and determination that comes to us when we feel beyond taking another step, speaks to us as narrator. Loon’s world is alive, and he seems more alive than we are for it. The animist worldview, common among what we call primitive people, may be coming back into fashion among some philosophers and even neuroscientists, in the updated guise of panpsychism, the hypothesis that consciousness is a quality inherent in all matter (cf. Christof Koch’s “Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist”), which would have ethical implications for our treatment of other species and the natural world. Provable or not, it might be an indispensible story to prevent us from trashing our own planet.

“Shaman” is ultimately a novel about the importance of stories, filled with Ice Age myths, legends, superstitions and proverbs—some of which, apparently, have survived intact the thirty thousand years into our own time, longer than any other human artifact, sayings more enduring than stone. Our culture is adrift between stories right now—the old ones we lived on for thousands of years aren’t working anymore, and we haven’t come up with new ones to replace them yet. It’s natural for us to see ourselves as being at history’s endpoint, since, so far, we are, but part of science fiction’s job is to remind us that it’s early yet, we’re still a primitive people, the Golden Age may lie ahead. In an era filled with complacent dystopias and escapist apocalypses, Robinson is one of our best, bravest, most moral, and most hopeful storytellers. It’s no coincidence that so many of his novels have as their set pieces long, punishing treks through unforgiving country with diminishing provisions, his characters exhausted and despondent but forcing themselves to slog on. What he’s telling us over and over, like the voice of the Third Wind whispering when all seems lost, is that it’s not too late, don’t get scared, don’t give up, we’re almost there, we can do this, we just have to keep going.


1. Crime-fiction authors from Raymond Chandler to George Pelecanos have always written compellingly about class, wealth, and power, but that’s a whole ’nother essay. 

2. About the only major American author I can think of off the top of my head who’s grappling nakedly with the disfiguring effect of capitalism on the human soul is George Saunders—who is also, you’ll note, a fantasist (or fabulist, if that sounds classier). I can think of a few other counterexamples to mess up my neat thesis, and I’m sure you can, too—another of my favorite novelists, Lionel Shriver, writes compelling novels of ideas about social issues—but not many. And is it relevant to point out that Shriver is an expatriate? 

Tim Kreider is an essayist and cartoonist. His most recent book is “We Learn Nothing.”