Kim Stanley Robinson calls the Sierra Nevadas his home range, and over the years his attachment to the California mountains has grown. The mountains contain some of the country's greatest natural formations—Lake Tahoe, Mount Whitney and Yosemite Valley—as well as being home to three national parks and two national monuments. Looking over it, there's little wonder that the science-fiction author has made a living writing stories about humanity exploring some of the wonders of the solar system and beyond.
Kim Stanley Robinson was born on March 23, 1952, in Waukegan, Illinois, and spent only a couple years there before his family moved out of the Midwest and onto the West Coast to Orange County, California. The vast changes in scenery left an impact on him. His biography from Hachette explains that "[a]s a child, [Robinson] loved to play in the orange groves stretching out for miles around his home, so when suburban sprawl began to encroach and the groves were torn out and paved over, the rapid change of modern life hit him close to home." Humanity's impact on its immediate and larger environments would later become a major fixture in his numerous novels. When Robinson was 17, he visited Florida where he watched Apollo 11's landing on the moon. The moment amazed him. Already, he had observed a major transformation in the fabric of the country as rural countryside gave way to urban landscape, and now humanity was touching down on alien surfaces.
Unlike most science-fiction authors, Robinson came to discover genre fiction later in life, in his late teens. When he was 18, Robinson enrolled at the University of California in San Diego, where he discovered books from authors such as J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Gene Wolfe. "I had...seen an agricultural community (orange groves) turned into a giant urban sprawl very quickly, and when I ran into science fiction, it seemed like a realism to me; it expressed things I had seen with my own eyes. That made it very appealing and I was instantly won over." Robinson became engrossed in Science Fiction's New Wave as he studied English, graduating with his B.A. in the subject in 1974. He continued his education, attending Boston University, where he received his Master of Arts in English in 1975. In the same year, he attended the prestigious Clarion Writer's Workshop at Michigan State University alongside authors such as Robert Crais, Bill Johnson, Larry Martin and Gregory Frost. His instructors included Joe Haldeman, Gene Wolf and Samuel R. Delany. In 1977, he studied under Ursula K. Le Guin at a writer's workshop at the University of California in San Diego.
Following his work at Clarion, Robinson began to write his own stories, publishing his first in 1976. Over the next couple of years, he continued to publish fiction in anthologies such as Orbit, Universe, and in publications such as the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He returned to California and his alma mater, graduating with his Ph.D. in English in 1982, focusing on the works of Philip K. Dick for his thesis. Later that year, he married Lisa Howland Nowell, an environmental chemist, and found work teaching at the University of California at Davis before the pair became parents. When children came along, Robinson left academia to become a stay-at-home dad, where he began to use his time to write.
Robinson's first novel, The Wild Shore, appeared in 1984 as the first installment of the New Ace SF Special line. The series editor, Terry Carr, had published some of Robinson's short fiction, and brought him in on the series, along with authors such as Lucius Shepard and William Gibson. The novel followed the survivors of a nuclear war that reset society in an agricultural setting. The book received nominations for the Philip K. Dick and Nebula awards, earning the Number One spot on the Locus poll for best first novel, and 16th place for Best SF novel. Robinson published his second novel, Icehenge, the same year, also published by Ace Books, which foreshadowed his later, better known novels. The three storylines of the book follow a failed political revolution on Mars, the discovery of an artifact on Pluto to a space station orbiting Saturn. The novel, composed of some of Robinson's earlier short work, was partially inspired by imagery transmitted back to Earth by the Voyager probe. Finally, Robinson published a third book, his doctoral thesis, The Novels of Philip K. Dick, through UMI Research Press in the same year.
Over the remainder of the 1980s, Robinson published a number of stories in places such as Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Omni, Interzone and anthologies, all while continuing to publish novels. 1985 saw the publication of The Memory of Whiteness, while 1988 brought The Gold Coast, the second installment of his Three Californias trilogy, which concluded in 1990 with Pacific Edge.
It is Robinson's 1992 novel, Red Mars, for which he is possibly best known. The novel was first published by HarperCollins in the U.K., and in the U.S. in early 1993 from Bantam Spectra. The book was the start to an ambitious saga about the colonization of Mars. Taking place in 2026, a hundred scientists are on their way to the Red Planet to establish a human colony. Robinson was first inspired by images sent back to Earth from the Viking program: "I knew when I saw the photos from the Viking Orbiter, which included stereoscopic 3-D photo pairs where you could see what the landscape might look like, somewhat like early primitive versions of Google Earth. These were NASA publications that came out in the late 1970s." Robinson's love for hiking the Sierra Nevadas came into play when he began writing science fiction, and he "realized that only by terraforming Mars could you actually backpack there; and there were scientific articles coming out about terraforming Mars in those years, so I paid attention to those, and thought that would be a good story to tell. I spent about ten years thinking about that and collecting research materials."
Mars has long been a destination for science fiction authors: famously the home of Wells' Martian invaders, the Red Planet became the mystical home for stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.L. Moore and Ray Bradbury. The first robotic probes to reach the planet, that small red dot in the sky, transmitted back a bleak, cold and rocky environment. As we learned more about the planet, the dry world written about by authors such as Bradbury and Clarke proved to be the real case as opposed to the fantastical versions portrayed earlier. Now, Robinson had the advantage of new scholarship to put to work.
Robinson began to write his Mars book in 1989, and "quickly realized that it was going to be a very long book, and my agent and editor of that time said to me 'Stan, we call that a trilogy'; and so I shifted the title from Green Mars, which was my idea for the title of the whole book, to Red, Green and Blue Mars." This overarching story of a terraformed Mars touches on numerous topics, from scientific to ethical and social. Upon its publication, the novel earned the 1992 BSFA award and, later, the 1994 Nebula Award for Best Novel. It placed second on the Locus poll, and was also nominated for the Hugo, SF Chronicle, Clarke and Tiptree awards. Adam Roberts, in his History of Science Fiction, noted that the books are "realised with such precision, such verisimilitude, as well as with such aesthetic panache, that it creates a powerfully believable whole."
With the publication of Red Mars, Robinson continued forward on Green Mars. In 1992, the University of Arizona released an anthology of scientific literature called Mars, providing him with additional information to include in the next two books: "It looked like I saved the good things for later in the trilogy but I actually learned them while writing and did not know them before, so that was a nice thing to have happen."
Green Mars was again first published in the U.K. in 1993 and in the spring of 1994 in the U.S. Picking up decades after the first novel, Robinson continued to explore the lives of the original colonists and the social and political changes that impacted the Martian colonies, all while the terraforming project continued to transform the surface of the planet and Earth faced its own crises. The novel won the 1994 Hugo Award for Best novel and took the top spot for the Locus Award in the same category. It was nominated for the BSFA, SF Chronicle and the Nebula awards.
Blue Mars concluded the trilogy in 1996. The novel examines the long term impact of colonization and terraformation, picking up after Earth faces several climate disasters, and looks at Mars' role in leading the way for further human colonization into the solar system, covering the next century of human history in the process. The book won the 1997 Hugo and Locus awards for Best SF novel, and was nominated for the BSFA, Campbell Memorial, SF Chronicle and Clarke awards.
In the years after the completion of his Mars trilogy, Robinson continued to write and explore similar themes, publishing Antarctica in 1997, and a collection of short Mars stories in 1999 titled The Martians, which touched on some of the stories explored in his trilogy. A new trilogy written between 2004 and 2007 examined the impact of climate change, and, in 2012, he returned to the themes of terraforming and colonization with his epic novel 2312, which explored a broad, solar-system wide society on a number of outposts from Mercury to the outer planets. When asked about the similarities in theme, Robinson noted that he had "been thinking for a long time, since Icehenge and The Memory of Whiteness, books from the early 1970s and early 1980s, that the solar system is our neighborhood, so to speak. We can reach it, move around in it, establish scientific stations on various planets and moons in it. It's a resource, and a place to learn things about how to live on Earth. Earth will always remain our home and our main place. It might be best to think of the solar system in the way we think of Antarctica. It's there, it's interesting and beautiful, it can help us learn how to live; it can never be our main place." Mars still holds a fascination for the author, who continually follows news of the planet, from the landing of Curiosity to the early stages of manned missions.
Robinson's works have placed him at the forefront of the science fiction genre: Tim Kreider, writing for the New Yorker, opined that "Kim Stanley Robinson is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest living science-fiction writers...He is also, for my money, one of the most important political writers working in American today." His stories go beyond the mechanics of colonizing outer space: They examine the social and political systems, and rather than transpose the present into some uncomfortable future, the stories genuinely explore the potential that the future brings, looking for ways to overcome the problems in modern politics and society for a brighter tomorrow. As we as a planet are forced to face the legacy of our lifestyle, we will have to confront the nature of the systems we've set up to live as we do, and find new ways to exist on the one place we know where humans can comfortably live—for now.
The works of Kim Stanley Robinson are poised to reach a wider audience as they continue to become more relevant. In 2014, Spike TV announced that they would be adapting Robinson's Mars trilogy for television, produced by Vince Gerardis (who also produced HBO's Game of Thrones), with Robinson serving as a consultant. In May 2015, Robinson's next space opera novel, Aurora, will be published, which will examine the lives of the inhabitants of a generation ship about to reach its destination. Undoubtedly, it will only add to his optimistic vision for humanity's future.