Indulging in the immediate future

In Red Moon Kim Stanley Robinson turns his attention to the Earth’s satellite in much the same way that he has turned his attention to Mars and Antarctica, among other places. That is to say, with knowledge, rigour, and an unerring instinct for where the stories are. In many ways Robinson’s work can bridge a gap between fiction and non-fiction, not in the manner that blurs those lines in the territory of biographical narrative, but in the sense that the dramatisation of themes can be valuable to their understanding. History or fact is rendered as imagined experience, and what they have the potential to mean is explored in ways that are beyond the scope of scholarship. Where many writers of popular history or science attempt to bring their subjects ‘to life’ in ways that strike me as weak and misleading, Robinson forecloses questions of accuracy by skipping straight to the story, to the narrative truths that are as essential to understanding as the evidential ones. Like the architectural critic Reyner Banham, but from the other side of the shadow-play screen, Robinson lays claim to the title ‘historian of the immediate future’.

Few serious science-fiction writers commit themselves to as close a historical horizon as Robinson. The book, published in 2018, is set in 2047. It makes certain predictions, which in a work of fiction are of course not predictions—if anything can be said about such postulates for certain, it is that they will not be replicated by the chaotic network of happenstance causality that determines events. However, the broader ones are amenable to some kind of assessment on the part of the interested reader. His suggestion that the colonisation of the moon, if it takes place, will be dominated by China, is very plausible—he even outlines the financial rationale for it, and I don’t think much issue will be taken with his thinking. Where his imagined near future departs from events already, only three years after the book’s publication, is a matter of profound tragedy for millions of people.

2047 is the end of Hong Kong’s transitional ‘two systems’ period, and in his customarily optimistic manner Robinson imagines this having been concluded without a collapse of the arrangements that we have seen crushed by an increasingly intolerant Chinese state. In his world Xi Jinping does not appear to be remembered as the perpetrator of a genocide, which seems his likely historical fate now. In fact, it might be argued that the situation in Xinjiang should have been pretty clear by the time Robinson was writing, but he is at pains to represent Chinese subjectivities in Red Moon, and to paint a political picture in Chinese terms. How this endeavour would look to someone Chinese, or at least to someone who actually knows about China, I can only guess—but he certainly gives the impression that he has done the work.

One of his central protagonists is a Chinese daughter of the elite, who conveniently speaks perfect English thanks to her boarding school education. The other is, typically for Robinson, a techie—but atypically, he’s a techie with limited social skills, and limited interest in the larger socio-political context that Robinson is building. These two are thrown together, and the variance in their interests affords the opportunity for some interesting conversations about both politics and quantum mechanics. Robinson is often criticised for the lengthy technical conversations that characterise his narratives (usually mis-characterised as explication), but I would suggest that those criticisms come from people who like to read things in strictly demarcated boxes—fiction over here, and non-fiction over there. They also, presumably come from people who aren’t given to lengthy conversations about politics, science, culture, or other interesting topics. I like to read and talk about such things, and it seems entirely plausible to me that characters in a novel should talk about those things, and that those conversations should be considered among the storyable elements of their interactions.

These two unlikely companions are thrown together by events, and endure some pretty extraordinary privations. They are in many ways intolerable to one another, and this mutual abrasion is portrayed in a way that I found both funny and uncomfortable, but ultimately touching. Their story is something of an adventure, albeit one that they both find very unpleasant, and usually more tedious than exciting. However, their personal experiences are connected at every turn to a broader narrative which is not so much about the colonisation of the moon (that’s really just the wallpaper), as it is about the possibility of democratic reform in China—Robinson is ever the optimist, and clearly he knows a lot about the topic, but I’ll leave it to others to assess how plausible his ideas might be. This larger story necessitates a wider cast of characters, all of whom are interestingly constructed and empathically portrayed. Among them is a favourite character of mine from Antarctica, which coincidentally is the last Robinson book I read: Robinson has a gift for making fundamentally good characters interesting and flawed, and he goes to town here, putting a great deal of what might be called wisdom into the words of this elderly travel vlogging ex-poet.

All of this is tied together sequentially with an alternation of stressful intensity and descriptive, languid pacing. The book has been accused of ‘narrative drift’, but again, I think Robinson is often reviewed by All of this is tied together sequentially with an alternation of stressful intensity and descriptive, languid pacing. The book has been accused of ‘narrative drift’, but again, I think Robinson is often reviewed by critics with very fixed ideas about what a book should be. For readers who are willing to let it be what it is, and who are equally interested in stories about people and discussions of interesting topics, there is very little to dislike—in fact, the whole thing, like most Robinson books, feels like an indulgence to me, a feast of ideas and feelings that nourishes the soul as it stimulates the intellect. There are many recurrent Robinson tropes in this book: if you want to know what’s really going on, you need to find the person in charge of the greenhouse; the most interesting people are the scientists and politicians; all political perspectives are presented non-judgementally; radical communities are growing like mosses below the radar in all the most interesting places. This is one of his most recent books, and I’m familiar with these themes from the first ones I read, the Mars trilogy, written in the late 1980s. This should not be taken as indicating a lack of creative growth, but a sustained interest, a continued investigation of some very complex issues, which need writers of fiction to tackle them as badly as they need scientists or policy-makers. I’m profoundly grateful that Robinson is persevering at this important work.

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