Climate politics has moved to centre stage. Even as pockets of denialism persist, political actors of multiple hues are turning green. A new generation of activist youth is insisting that we cease to evade the mortal threat posed by global warming. Chastising elders for stealing their future, these militants claim the right and responsibility to take all necessary steps to save the planet. At the same time, movements for degrowth are gaining strength. Convinced that consumerist lifestyles are driving us into the abyss, they seek a transformation of ways of living. Likewise, indigenous communities, North and South, have been winning wider support for struggles only lately recognized as ecological. Long engaged in defending their habitats and livelihoods from colonial invasion and corporate extractivism, they find new allies today among those seeking non-instrumental ways of relating to nature. Feminists, too, are infusing new urgency into long held ecological concerns. Positing psycho-historical links between gynophobia and contempt for the Earth, they mobilize for forms of life that sustain reproduction—both social and natural. Meanwhile, a new wave of anti-racist activism includes environmental injustice among its targets. Adopting an expansive view of what it means to ‘defund the police’, the Movement for Black Lives demands a massive redirection of resources to communities of colour, in part to clean up toxic deposits that ravage health.
In this book first published in 2008, Jaime Semprun and René Riesel examine the attempt by predominantly First World governments and NGOs to utilize the specter of an environmental apocalypse as an alibi to save “industrial civilization” by imposing a rationed form of “survival”, justified by a terroristic propaganda campaign based on fear, enforced by an expansion of the state’s coercive powers, and facilitated by the mass conformism and resignation that “industrial society” has induced in the population by creating an “anxiogenic environment” of “insecurity and generalized instability”; “[f]or the fears proclaimed by the experts … are in reality nothing but orders”.
In November of 2018, fires of “unprecedented speed and ferocity” broke out across Northern and Southern California. The “Camp Fire” in Northern California killed just under ninety people and destroyed approximately nineteen thousand structures. Even with modern safety protocols and building codes, it was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. The “Woolsey Fire” in Southern California burned, at the exact same time, nearly one hundred thousand acres. Fires are tricky things to understand. The fires that burn across most of central Africa, for example, are seasonal, mostly contained, and part of a decently well-maintained agricultural cycle. Californian wildfires, while certainly nothing new, are not. They may be sparked by simple heat or a lightning strike, or by a recreational accident or a glitch in the utility grid, but their frequency, intensity, and duration have all unquestionably increased due to anthropogenic climate change.
The critic Raymond Williams once wrote that every historical period has its own “structure of feeling.” How everything seemed in the nineteen-sixties, the way the Victorians understood one another, the chivalry of the Middle Ages, the world view of Tang-dynasty China: each period, Williams thought, had a distinct way of organizing basic human emotions into an overarching cultural system. Each had its own way of experiencing being alive.
In mid-March, in a prior age, I spent a week rafting down the Grand Canyon. When I left for the trip, the United States was still beginning to grapple with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was suffering; the N.B.A. had just suspended its season; Tom Hanks had been reported ill. When I hiked back up, on March 19th, it was into a different world. I’ve spent my life writing science-fiction novels that try to convey some of the strangeness of the future. But I was still shocked by how much had changed, and how quickly.
Javier Moreno Zacares (JMZ) from Political Economy for the End of Times: I wanted to start this interview by exploring the broad question of the relationship between capitalism and the environment.
I think that a good entry point is the conceptual distinction that you draw between ‘capitalist time’ and ‘ecological time’. Can you explain what these two temporalities are and how they relate to one another?
Gareth Dale (GD): Human beings relate to various systems through different temporalities. That is, the different rhythms of time and the different ways in which humans relate to time. In my essay for The Ecologist that you are referring to, I look at three of those: geological time, ecological time, and capitalist time. All social systems are ways of organizing behaviour and time.
Under capitalism, the aim is to increase profit and save time. This accounts for some of its central dynamics: The systematic disciplining of labour and the segregation of labour from the rest of human experience, which enables labour-time to be marked out and measured. The continual acceleration of labour-processes through technical and social change. The fetishism of technology, which has a key role in displacing labour and decreasing the circulation time of capital. And also, of course, the systematic degradation of the natural environment. In a sense, capitalism eats time, and in the process erases nature.
The Anthropocene narrative portrays humanity as a species ascending to power over the rest of the Earth System. In the crucial field of climate change, this entails the attribution of fossil fuel combustion to properties acquired during human evolution, notably the ability to manipulate fire. But the fossil economy was not created nor is it upheld by humankind in general. This intervention questions the use of the species category in the Anthropocene narrative and argues that it is analytically flawed, as well as inimical to action. Intra-species inequalities are part and parcel of the current ecological crisis and cannot be ignored in attempts to understand it.
BRUNY ISLAND, Australia — Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen.
The images of the fires are a cross between “Mad Max” and “On the Beach”: thousands driven onto beaches in a dull orange haze, crowded tableaux of people and animals almost medieval in their strange muteness — half-Bruegel, half-Bosch, ringed by fire, survivors’ faces hidden behind masks and swimming goggles. Day turns to night as smoke extinguishes all light in the horrifying minutes before the red glow announces the imminence of the inferno. Flames leaping 200 feet into the air. Fire tornadoes. Terrified children at the helm of dinghies, piloting away from the flames, refugees in their own country.
By Andreas Malm, Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15–68 [PDF]
The process commonly referred to as business-as-usual has given rise to dangerous climate change, but its social history remains strangely unexplored. A key moment in its onset was the transition to steam power as a source of rotary motion in commodity production, in Britain and, first of all, in its cotton industry. This article tries to approach the dynamics of the fossil economy by examining the causes of the transition from water to steam in the British cotton industry in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Common perceptions of the shift as driven by scarcity are refuted, and it is shown that the choice of steam was motivated by a rather different concern: power over labour. Turning away from standard interpretations of the role of energy in the industrial revolution, this article opens a dialogue with Marx on matters of carbon and outlines a theory of fossil capital, better suited for understanding the drivers of business-as-usual as it continues to this day.
What follows is rather like the famous courtroom scene in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947).  In that noir allegory of proletarian virtue in the embrace of ruling-class decadence, Welles plays a leftwing sailor named Michael O’Hara who rolls in the hay with femme fatale Rita Hayworth, and then gets framed for murder. Her husband, Arthur Bannister, the most celebrated criminal lawyer in America, played by Everett Sloane, convinces O’Hara to appoint him as his defence, all the better to ensure his rival’s conviction and execution. At the turning point in the trial, decried by the prosecution as ‘yet another of the great Bannister’s famous tricks’, Bannister the attorney calls Bannister the aggrieved husband to the witness stand and interrogates himself in rapid schizoid volleys, to the mirth of the jury. In the spirit of Lady from Shanghai, this essay is organized as a debate with myself, a mental tournament between analytic despair and utopian possibility that is personally, and probably objectively, irresolvable.
REVOLUTION IN A WARMING WORLD Lessons from the Russian to the Syrian Revolutions
by Andreas Malm
It doesn’t take much imagination to associate climate change with revolution. If the planetary order upon which all societies are built starts breaking down, how can they possibly remain stable? Various more or less horrifying scenarios of upheaval have long been extrapolated from soaring temperatures. In his novel The Drowned World from 1962, today often considered the first prophetic work of climate fiction, J. G. Ballard conjured up melting icecaps, an English capital submerged under tropical marshes and populations fleeing the unbearable heat towards polar redoubts. The UN directorate seeking to manage the migration flows assumed that ‘within the new perimeters described by the Arctic and Antarctic Circles life would continue much as before, with the same social and domestic relationships, by and large the same ambitions and satisfactions’ — but that assumption ‘was obviously fallacious.’ A drowned world would be nothing like the one hitherto known.
Written by Guy Debord in 1971, this text was intended for publication in Internationale Situationniste 13, which never appeared. It was first published in the French edition of the present collection in 2004. It may also be found in Guy Debord, Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 2006, pp. 1063-9). Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, published in English, 2008. PDF
‘POLLUTION’ IS IN FASHION TODAY, exactly in the same way as revolution: it dominates the whole life of society, and it is represented in illusory form in the spectacle. It is the subject of mind-numbing chatter in a plethora of erroneous and mystifying writing and speech, yet it really does have everyone by the throat. It is on display everywhere as ideology, yet it is continually gaining ground as a material development. Two antagonistic tendencies, progression towards the highest form of commodity production and the project of its total negation, equally rich in contradictions within themselves, grow ever stronger in parallel with one other. Here are the two sides whereby a sole historical moment, long awaited and often described in advance in partial and inadequate terms, is made manifest: the moment when it becomes impossible for capitalism to carry on working.
My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 16 years old. I come from Sweden. And I speak on behalf of future generations.
I know many of you don’t want to listen to us – you say we are just children. But we’re only repeating the message of the united climate science.
Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future. Is that really too much to ask?
In the year 2030 I will be 26 years old. My little sister Beata will be 23. Just like many of your own children or grandchildren. That is a great age, we have been told. When you have all of your life ahead of you. But I am not so sure it will be that great for us.
I was fortunate to be born in a time and place where everyone told us to dream big; I could become whatever I wanted to. I could live wherever I wanted to. People like me had everything we needed and more. Things our grandparents could not even dream of. We had everything we could ever wish for and yet now we may have nothing.
Now we probably don’t even have a future any more.
Because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money. It was stolen from us every time you said that the sky was the limit, and that you only live once.
An interview with Kim Stanley Robinson by Helena Feder / RP 2.01 (February 2018)
Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of more than twenty works of fiction, including the celebrated Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars), Forty Signs of Rain, The Years of Rice and Salt, 2312 and, his latest novel, New York 2140. A former student of Fredric Jameson, Robinson’s work is consistently anti-capitalist. His novels evince not only his deep interest in global economy and ecology, but also a belief that fiction may venture into spheres where theory fears to tread. For Robinson, science fiction is uniquely placed to do this, rooted both in what is and what could be. In the best tradition of the genre (H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin), it can consider critically both the politics and possibilities of technology, and the social, ideological and ecological systems that give rise to it. Science fiction has, in this sense, a particular responsibility not only to imagine the future but to imagine how we might change its direction. In Robinson’s New York 2140, a series of connected characters, centred around the MetLife tower in a future inter-tidal world, a financially and physically liquid city, come together to do just this. Sea levels have risen in two catastrophic ‘pulses’ of ten and forty feet, transforming planetary and human geography. In the midst of this ecological and refugee crisis, lower Manhattan becomes ‘a veritable hotbed of theory and practice, like it always used to say it was, but this time for real.’
Let me start with a blunt statement: It seems to me quite likely that weather calamities will get worse in coming decades and major climate catastrophes implying many fatalities, perhaps many hundred million deaths, will occur before the end of the century. There are major uncertainties about such a forecast but, unfortunately, considering the key aspects of the problem, the chance of avoiding a catastrophic outcome of that kind seems slim. The progress toward disaster will likely evolve as a continuation of present trends, with increasingly frequent heat waves, droughts, major hurricanes, and flooding because of torrential rains. Leaving aside the possibility of more unpredictable events, also catastrophic—like changes in oceanic currents that would lead to freezing temperatures in Europe—the process of increasingly frequent weather extremes will be eventually compounded by the flooding of coastal areas due to the melting of Antarctic and Greenlandic ice. Recent heat waves in Europe and Australia, wildfires in Portugal and California, droughts and hurricanes worldwide and specifically in major areas of the United States and the Caribbean, illustrate how climate changes and weather extremes, which are already causing severe harm to natural systems, are also causing disruption of human societies. Of course, weather extremes like these have occurred previously, and it is impossible to be certain that any particular hurricane or drought in recent years is attributable to man-made climate change. But, for instance in the Peruvian Amazonia, 2005 and 2010 saw two of the worst four droughts in the past 120 years; then in 2011 and 2012 flooding took place with water reaching levels that had only been registered twice in the past 100 years, with the largest river flow ever measured there registered in April 2012. What meteorologists tell us is that there is very little doubt that the increasing frequency of weather extremes worldwide is caused by human activities.
Reflections from a science-fiction angle on the scenarios posed by climate change and the defence of the imagination to help find real solutions.
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the world’s most highly reputed science-fiction authors and one of the key exponents of climate fiction. His work, set in the near future, brings us face-to-face with concepts such as the Anthropocene, terraforming and post-capitalism. With him we analyse the link between the ecological crisis and the economic one, placing the emphasis on the need for new political economics. We also explore the role of art and literature when formulating possible futures, the importance of the imagination for finding solutions and the defence of optimism and humour as we deal with the scenario confronting us. This interview, conducted by José Luis de Vicente, forms part of the catalogue for the exhibition After the End of the World, in which the writer is participating with an audiovisual prologue.
It is said that your Mars Trilogy of novels (Red Mars,Green Mars and Blue Mars, 1992-1996) is perhaps the most successful example in science fiction of the use of the notion of “terraforming”: the idea that man can transform a whole planet to make it habitable and reproduce Earth-like conditions. The Mars trilogy explores the idea that any terraforming project would necessarily be not only technical, but also political. As McKenzie Wark writes in Molecular Red: A Theory of the Anthropocene, in your version of Mars, “questions of nature and culture, economics and politics, can never be treated in isolation, as all levels have to be organized together.”
What is terraforming in the Mars trilogy as a political project, and what was it telling us about the transformation of Earth itself by the hand of man?
About 20 years ago, I began to read in the technical literature of the planetary science community that Mars is unusual. It is on the outside of the sun’s habitable zone, and because it has water and other frozen volatile gases that we need for life on Earth, it might be possible to heat up Mars and release those gases to essentially recreate an atmosphere, and then introduce Earth’s genetic heritage, life forms and biosphere into the Martian context. In combination, you might get something new that would be like the High Arctic or Siberia; a human space that would be habitable without wearing space suits. Carl Sagan was actually the astronomer who was really important in pointing this out. It’s essentially a kind of science-fiction idea that was achievable in the real world.
It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.
Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.
Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.
The growth of production has been entirely verified until now as the realization of political economy: the growth of poverty, which has invaded and laid waste to the very fabric of life... In the society of the over-developed economy, everything has entered the sphere of economic goods, even spring water and the air of towns, that is to say, everything has become the economic ill, that “complete denial of man”…
Guy Debord, The sick planet
The process of the expansion of the capitalist mode of production on a world scale in the previous century was at the same time a process of transformation of the biosphere as a whole. This process resulted in the disturbance of the ecological balance of the planet, a balance which lasted for the past 10.000 years, which is known as the Holocene geological period. According to recent scientific studies the main aspects of this planetary ecological transformation are the following:
Increase of the average temperature of the planet due to the increase of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and of other greenhouse gases. This increase is caused both by the burning of fossil fuels for supplying energy to capitalist production and reproduction and by the emissions originating in the capitalist mode of agricultural production.
Great loss of biodiversity mainly due to the conversion of forest ecosystems into zones of agricultural production or into parts of the urban fabric. It is predicted that within the 21st century up to 30% of all mammal, bird and amphibian species will be threatened with extinction.
Perturbation of the cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus which are transferred with increasing rates from the atmosphere to the oceans and the lake systems of the planet due to the use of huge quantities of fertilizers in capitalist agriculture. The pollution of oceans has even led to local anoxic events (e.g. in the Baltic sea) during which the oxygen levels in the sea were significantly reduced.
In addition to the phenomena described above, the depletion of atmospheric ozone and the level of ocean acidification have reached a critical point.
All these environmental changes are consequently manifested on a more local geographic scale in various ways: great increase in hurricane frequency, desertification of large areas in various parts of the world, deforestation, increase in the frequency of extreme weather phenomena such as floods and long droughts, emergence of new diseases transmitted in an unpredictable manner and so on. At the same time, the productivity of agriculture has been significantly slowed down due to soil exhaustion. Further, new biotechnological methods of cultivation based on genetically modified plants failed to reverse this slowdown due to the rise of the so-called superweeds. Between 1980 and 2008 the global production of wheat and maize had been reduced by 5.5% and 3.8% respectively compared to a counterfactual without climate trends. These phenomena have negative effects on the living conditions of the global proletariat. The weaker and most poor parts of the proletariat are affected in a more extreme way by having to face even shortages in food and drinking water.
How can the realities of global warming be made visible in literary texts? After the rise of ‘cli-fi’, it might be time to return to a trove of literature written long before the discoveries of climate science: fiction about fossil fuels. It is filled with premonitions of disasters, such as extreme heat and terrible storms. Focusing on two texts – Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon – this essay makes a case for developing ‘dialectical images’, in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the term, from fossil fuel fiction. Such images might contribute to a critical understanding of our current epoch, fracturing the narrative of the human species as a united entity ascending to biospheric dominance in the Anthropocene. The miseries of global warming have been in preparation for a long time. Some have felt the heat from the start.
Partway through Capitalism in the Web of Life, Jason W. Moore provides the imperative for a complete theoretical reworking and synthesis of Marxist, environmental, and feminist thought by asserting: “I think many of us understand intuitively – even if our analytical frames lag behind – that capitalism is more than an “economic” system, and even more than a social system. Capitalism is a way of organizing nature.”
Kamil Ahsan spoke with Moore about his book Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso), released last month, to grapple with his new challenges to old assumptions.
Kamil Ahsan: What was the impetus for Capitalism in the Web of Life?
Jason W. Moore: I wanted to come up with a framework that would allow us to understand the history of the last five centuries in a way that was adequate to the crisis we face today. For the past four decades, we’ve had a “Green Arithmetic” approach to crisis. When we’ve had an economic or social crisis or any other kind of crisis, they all go into one box. Then we have an ecological crises – water or energy or the climate – that go into another box.
So for roughly the past four decades, environmentalists and other radicals have been raising the alarm about these crises but never really figured out how to put them together. Environmental thinkers have been saying one thing and then doing another – they claimed that humans are a part of nature and that everything in the modern world is about our relationship with the biosphere, but then when they got around to organizing or analyzing, it came down to “Society plus Nature,” as if the relationship was not as intimate and direct and immediate as it is.
KA: The premise of this book is that we need to break down the “Nature/Society” dualism that has prevailed in so much of Red and Green thought. Where did this idea come from, and why is it so thoroughly artificial?
JWM: The idea that humans are outside of nature has a long history. It’s a creation of the modern world. Many civilizations before capitalism had a sense that humans were distinct. But in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, this very powerful idea emerged – that is embedded in imperialist violence and dispossession of peasants and a whole series of recompositions of what it meant to be a human, particularly divisions around race and gender—that there was something, in Adam Smith’s words, called “civilized society,” which included some humans.
But most humans were still put into this category of “Nature,” which was regarded as something to be controlled and dominated and put to work – and civilized. It sounds very abstract, but the modern world was really based on this idea that some group of humans were called “Society” but most humans go into this other box called “Nature” with a capital N. That’s very powerful. That didn’t come about just because there were scientists, cartographers or colonial rulers who decided it was a good idea, but because of a far-flung process that put together markets and industry, empire and new ways of seeing the world that go along with a broad conception of the Scientific Revolution.
This idea of Nature and Society is very deeply rooted in other dualisms of the modern world: the capitalist and the worker, the West and the rest, men and women, white and black, civilization and barbarism. All of these other dualisms really find their taproots in the Nature/Society dualism.
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.