2312 is set quite far ahead of other things you’ve written; tell me a little bit about how that came to be.
I had an idea for a story that would be a romance between a mercurial personality and a saturnine personality; it struck me it would be funny, and then part of the joke was that the mercurial person should be from Mercury, and the saturnine person from Saturn. Thinking about being on Mercury and Saturn immediately pitched it out pretty far into the future to make sense of people being there. And really it was my editor, Tim Holman at Orbit, who suggested that we make [2312
] a round number so that it was easy to calculate and put it in the title. I have to confess that was his idea, and it was a good one, and it put it beyond the end of Blue Mars
, and beyond my comfort level in terms of thinking that far out. It seems to me it’s an awful long way out, but then I’m conservative as science fiction writers go.
You mentioned Blue Mars there. Unlike many SF writers all of your stories – at least outside of trilogies and so on – are in different universes, so to speak.
Yes, that’s right.
Although there are – for people who’ve read the Mars trilogy recently, perhaps – some interesting points in 2312 which may make people think they’re not entirely detached from one another.
Well, I steal from myself, and I guess you could say that in this world of 2312, possibly the Mars trilogy exists, and so that would be one way of making those things parse… because Mars’ terraforming history is different and its political history is different, and I don’t even try for consistency to tell you the truth.
And there are alternate timelines within the Mars trilogy and The Martians, and so on.
Yes, and so this is just one more future history. I think there’s more to be gained from making up a new future history every time for every novel; there’s more flexibility, more ability to play, you don’t have to try to be consistent to older visions which may no longer be as appropriate to the take-off moment of ‘now’. Even if I had changed my mind, which I hadn’t, I couldn’t do it anyway in terms of making one consistent future, so I’m stuck on this course.
You create such rich worlds – and I’ll come on to the research in a second – but are you ever tempted to return to some of these so richly realized creations?
No, actually not: I don’t feel any temptation whatsoever. Actually, as I get further away I probably am less tempted as time goes on. I feel like they’re done; I feel like it’s probably a good sign that people feel like there’s more that can be done with these worlds and that there’s more stories to tell, but actually I feel that it’s a mistake to try to execute them. It’s better to be in the readers’ minds, as potentialities.
The Martians, for example, was a collection of all the stuff that you created while creating the Mars trilogy?
Yes, and for that special case I was still under the thrall of Mars. Things were occurring to me, and things that couldn’t fit properly, and so one way or another The Martians was mostly written after, so it was a kind of sequel, but even there I wanted to play around and do the things that wouldn’t fit the Mars trilogy but were still about Mars. It was sort of making an armature for those two early Mars stories, and once I got going there were a lot of things that popped to mind.
You’re clearly interested, across the entire swathe of your work, in a huge amount of different subjects, and you write with authority. How on earth do you begin to research planetary science, biology, Buddhism, ecology, all of these things? Do you just dive in?
Well, I’m interested in them, and it’s evolved as a kind of a method where once I get the idea for a novel then I will basically dive in so that I don’t run into what I call ‘the Coleridge problem’ – there’s a famous passage in Coleridge where he lists all the things that he needs to know before he can write his epic poem, and of course he never wrote his epic poem. So I dive right in and I research on a need-to-know basis, but the projects are sort of complementary to each other, so things that I’ve learned are useful later on. Especially the planetary sciences, since I’m convinced that the solar system is interesting enough and we don’t need to go outside the solar system – and also we can’t – so between those things I have slowly built up a number of research areas where I’ve got a big bank of books… and now of course there’s the internet.
Do you subscribe to some of the journals?
Science News – that is the only one that I subscribe to. I used to take Nature and Science, but they just would pile up and never be read. Science News you can read, and I still faithfully read it.
You seem to go to great lengths to have your science accurate. There was an article online recently – I don’t know if you saw it – going through the Mars trilogy and showing how it still stands up. There’s some things that we’ve discovered since, but all the stuff that was written at the time is still accurate. That’s remarkable.
I was lucky when I wrote the Mars books, that what they had learned through Viking was solid enough and Michael Carr’s book The Surface of Mars had made enough good guesses and good deductions… and like you say, we’ve discovered some details since, but the basics were there. It was a lucky moment to be writing the Mars book. The truth is that I made some mistakes, not about Mars per se but just pure physical errors, errors in physics and aerodynamics. I had an opportunity to correct mistakes after about maybe five or eight years. The American paperbacks that are currently out there, I think it was something like the 15th printing of Red Mars and the 10th or 8th of Green and Blue where I got in about 300 corrections, including some quite spectacular mistakes.
Do you have your work peer-reviewed before you publish?
I wish I did! No, it’s been pretty hopeless. The poor publishers: their copy editors are overwhelmed. They don’t have scientifically literate people – and I’m an English major myself – so some of my mistakes have been stark, and any scientifically literate person would have seen them and helped me. But I don’t get that kind of help, and readers afterwards… sometimes they’re quite kind and generous, sometimes they’re absolutely feeling betrayed when the text throws a physical error at them and they have some shocking notion – Oh my God, the sanctity of the text – they haven’t quite gotten that a human being wrote these things – they have to go through that shock. [Laughter]
Has your research ever led you into regions so fascinating that you’ve been tempted to abandon writing and just dive into research for its own sake?
[Laughs] Yes, and I would like to be an archaeologist and geologist. Those are the two areas where I’m constantly thinking, ‘that would be a tremendous career’.
There are some themes that emerge when looking at your work as a whole. One you’ve commented on in previous interviews: the search for a plausible utopia, along with things like ecological sustainability, an interest in politics and economics, all these different things. Do these just come out because they are things you’re interested in, or are these things you want to explore in the thought space of a novel?
Well, I think to a certain extent they’re my political work, my political contribution, and also just as a novelist trying to write the best novels I can imagine. If you have the novel being both the individual and the individual’s relationship with his society then the society becomes of interest. And doesn’t just have to be our society right now, which is changing so fast that would be a hard thing to do anyway. I have been interested in the utopian novel as a kind of political work, as a leftist and someone thinking that it could be done better than what we’re doing now. So that is problematic – that’s the best way to put it – it puts me in a weird zone where many times I would rather just be writing a novel for the sake of writing a novel. Mostly I think that’s what I’ve morphed into. The utopia driving that work is much modulated and sort of an undercurrent; it’s just my stance, my way of doing my thing.
Is your interest in the concept of alternative economies something you came across during research for something else?
This probably originated when trying to write Pacific Edge, the purest utopia that I did, and then in the Mars books I was on the hunt and I found [the research literature] was outrageously sparse. There is a literature out there, but it is embryonic at best, and just keeps coming and going without any build-up. Later theorists are not building on earlier theorists, but are starting again from scratch at the current moment. I’m not convinced that this is a robust field, and I’m disturbed by that because it really should be, given the situation we’re in, and the dysfunction between the current economic system and the world that we live in. These are radical differences.
And how does that tie in with your interest – your passion, I suppose – in ecological sustainability? The entire Science in the Capital series is really about that, you’ve been to Antarctica and written a book about the continent and its future as you might see it. What triggered that? Was there a single event that made you conscious of the issue?
It’s a life-long thing. I live in California, the place is massively impacted; I’ve seen the agricultural coastal plain turned into a complete concrete monstrosity that is not sustainable… and just reading the news, you can see the need, so I’m interested. It would be nice if there was an ecological economics, a sustainable economics. It seems to me obvious, and I’m surprised there isn’t more; when you Google it you find very little. There’s not the money funding the studies, there’s not the intellectual discipline, there’s not the paradigm I guess. The fact that it’s still science fictional – which means that it’s sort of a stage set, a false front – behind it there aren’t the numbers, the systems, the kind of things the academic field would throw at it – that it should be a science. A human science, but it should be a science. So I’m interested to keep on pushing, by telling stories, but I’m frustrated – I can’t go do the research and describe a system that has already been worked out by human scientists – I’m not good at this, I can’t invent it myself; the subject deserves more technical expertise.
One of the things that is most telling in your work is how realistic scientists are. I guess this is more noticeable to me and to people who are working scientists [full disclosure: I’m a physicist by training — Ed.], but it is very noticeable, especially when you compare it to other portrayals of scientists in fiction. Is this something you care about particularly?
Oh, yes. To me it’s an empty ecological niche in the world of literature. We live in a science-heavy world, a world that’s shaped by science, and yet literature hasn’t really caught that. It’s difficult. Their work tends to be collective, slow-paced, definitive, undramatic, and even boring. Success is measured in how many citations your paper gets and that kind of thing, how much you influence the field over a matter of decades, how many graduate students and post-docs… this is very hard to tell stories about, and so in a way it’s interesting to try. I do have an interest in trying these things that are hard, and I have spent an awful lot of time living with and watching scientists in action. Since I am only an English major and an observer there’s a certain anthropological and also comic interest, because it’s pretty funny! [Laughter]
Following on from these incredibly scientifically-literate books came The Years of Rice and Salt, which initially goes in the other direction, to the time of the Black Death. Did you need to have a break from the future and go back a little?
When I was beginning to write science fiction the alternative history was very attractive to me. When I was writing down ideas for stories I wrote down, sometime in the late 70s, ‘all the Europeans die in the Black Death’, so that idea would stare at me. The years passed and I didn’t know really what to do with it. But I do love to read history, and I’m interested in world history, European history, American history – it’s fascinating to me, and I think of science fiction as a very historical literature, where you’re just casting out these future histories. So I’ve always loved alternative histories, and figured this would be my contribution. So finally when the time came, when I felt that the Mars trilogy taught me a method that could be used to span centuries, it was really what I needed. The novel is not well designed to span centuries, so you have to work out some kind of trick or method, and I thought that I did, so I was ready to go after the Mars books, to take on this idea. I love alternative histories; I like all the science fiction ideas – not equally – and I think that the reason there are so many books in all of the major science fictional tropes is that they are interesting. I’d like to take a whack at almost all of them, except for the ones that I feel are just not my thing.
Iain Banks has the Culture series as one facet of his writing personality; is that perhaps a similar exploration of the utopia, if in a world that is even further ahead?
I love the Culture novels, and I think they’re a big enough world that in different Culture novels he’s focusing in on different problems and issues. I think his constant thing is what threatens a sustainable and rich human civilisation?, and so he only has to look around today and see the threats and then he can place them in his future, and deal with them with his Culture police – or whatever the heck they are. They’d go around snuffing out conflicts and dealing with rogue elements and attacks from outside. It’s kind of a giant playspace for him to think social policy questions out in a way that is still a giant entertainment for us as readers. He’s one of the few science fiction writers that I’ve read most of their work – I don’t have time to read, I read my research and I read my friends, and Banks is a friend and I’ve been reading him since the 80s, so I’ve kind of caught up – although he’s awfully prolific. But I’ve read an awful lot of Banks so I feel at least I know what’s going on.
One last thing – right slap bang on page 4 of 2312, some art is mentioned as being ‘goldsworthian’. How did you come across Andy Goldsworthy?
Through his books. One of the things about him is that he’s a tremendous photographer, and without his tremendous photography people wouldn’t know what he does out there because so much of it is ephemeral – not the stonework of course – but the stuff with leaves, so it’s a blessing and a part of his craft and his gift that he’s an excellent photographer. I long ago ran into these great coffee-table books of his, and he boggled our minds! I go up to the Sierra Nevada with a group of friends a few times a year, and we’re up there in the high sierra of California doing what we call ‘goldsworthys’, using granite to make little stone henges, and granite pieces to make walls… I work with glacial cobble on a place we have on a lake on the coast of Maine. And so goldsworthys had a big impact on my life, to the point where I have some crushed fingers [laughter]… ‘granite kisses’, they call it in England! I admire him, I think he’s one of the great world artists, and so essentially he has a sort of genre, and this is why I put his name in as a common noun, in that this landscape art that he does has had such a huge impact on it; you could say he was the Shakespeare of the genre of landscape art. It existed before him, for sure, but he raised it up to a level that is really going to be hard to match in terms of individual accomplishment, but it’s suggestive that anybody can do a little goldsworthy the moment you get out into a landscape and have some time to fool around. It’s important to break them down; in the Sierras when we’re done I take photographs and knock it all apart, so that the next people that come by will still be in wilderness – very important in the Sierra Nevada. So, then I thought, he does that for landscape, and much later, a couple of years ago, I ran into the work of Marina Abramović who does her work with her body. Her art is mainly contortions and flagellations, and manipulations of her body. So between those two, I thought we could turn both their names into nouns of new genres, and art will get off the walls of museums and back out into the world.