Three Californias, Infinite Futures

Kim Stanley Robinson on science fiction, utopia, and the reissue of his Three Californias trilogy.

On the left, a man and a woman jog on a beach. On the right, a firefighters battle a blaze.
Utopia and dystopia California
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images and Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

From the very beginning of his career, science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson has combined literary invention with an imagination somehow realistic and utopian at the same time. His first foray was Three Californias, a triptych of novels first published between 1984 and 1990 that imagine three possible ways that the Golden State could evolve in the 21st century: In The Wild Shore, a young man living in a post-nuclear holocaust navigates the chasm between his immediate community’s survival and the desire to rebuild the United States. For The Gold Coast, Robinson took a page from Philip K. Dick and imagined a hyper-Reaganite, hypercapitalist Orange County and what resistance to the forces of capital and empire might look like in the future. But it’s the third book, Pacific Edge, which tried to imagine in practical terms how you could build an eco-utopia, that signaled the incredible ambition—and thematic concerns—of his future work.

A few years after the Three Californias, Robinson broke into the upper echelons of sci-fi writers with his landmark Mars Trilogy—also about the practicalities of building a utopia—and never looked back. He’s written novels about space colonization (Aurora), a partially submerged post–climate emergency New York (New York 2140), solar system colonization (2312), and even an alternate history in which most of Europe is wiped out by the Black Plague (The Years of Rice and Salt).

Now, Three Californias is being reissued as part of Tor Essentials, a new line highlighting hidden backlist classics. It’s a wonderful opportunity to discover Robinson’s early writing, which is every bit as rewarding, strange, and thought-provoking as his later work. I spoke to Robinson about how Three Californias came about, how his home state influences his work, and how he keeps the utopian imagination alive as the climate emergency becomes less and less escapable as our present and future. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: Did you always conceive of the three novels as a triptych, or did you start with the first one and then think, “I have more to say about California”?

Kim Stanley Robinson: I began with the idea of the three. I grew up in Orange County, and I went to college at UC–San Diego. In that very first year, I was driving home to my parents’ house and I noticed that how we treated the land was radically different depending on what the goals were, what the laws are. [In] some places it was empty, and other places it was completely covered by housing. It came to me on that drive, the whole idea that you could write a story set in three different futures, where the land was treated in three different ways. Suddenly I was thinking: after the fall, dystopia, utopia—you could do three different ones.

So it’s a few years later, you’re writing The Wild Shore, the first in the trilogydo you remember how you worked out the post–nuclear apocalypse world of it?

I went back into the history of science fiction and read other after-the-fall novels: Earth Abides by George Stewart, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, a couple of Philip K. Dick—especially Dr. Bloodmoney. I also got to study with the California poet Gary Snyder at UC–Davis. In terms of these Three California novels, Snyder is as important as anybody in terms of my teachers, because he was the one that established what a California writer ought to be doing: facing Eastern Asia, getting interested in Buddhism, kind of getting rid of the European influences. I began thinking of myself as a poet in the Snyder tradition before I discovered the science fiction. That was always underlying every sentence.

Your third California novel, Pacific Edge, is an eco-utopia of sorts. What does “utopia”—and writing about it—mean to you?

Pacific Edge was my first attempt at it. I did what I had done with the previous two: I read the utopian literature. Luckily it’s a rather small body. Sir Thomas Moore and Bellamy and Morris. The stand-out example of the utopian novel as such was Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. But I needed it to be in Orange County a hundred years in the future. That meant it was going to be a very weird utopia on a small scale.

The result was so bizarre that I was dissatisfied on a number of levels, and I thought if you were going to do a utopia properly, it would need to be global, it would need to be historical. So The Mars Trilogy comes out of my dissatisfactions with the constraints I had set on myself with Pacific Edge. I thought, Well, if you were going to be realistic, you’d have just do it on Mars. I’ve kept coming back to [realistic utopia] throughout the rest of my career as kind of an unsolvable problem.

It does feel unsolvable. But your work has the tension between a utopian spirit of building a better society and a sense of realism about sci-fi tropes. Like in 2312 and Red Moon, we’ve expanded into the solar system, but the problems of Earth are inescapable. Your utopianism doesn’t look like the dreams that sci-fi traditionally holds out.

Utopias are like blueprints and novels are like soap operas. What kind of art comes out of that? Sometimes I’ve experienced this as intensely stressful. In the domestic realist tradition of the English novel, what you value is, This is what real life is like. Like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet—in theory I would aspire to write a novel like that. Yet here I am trying these utopian efforts time after time. So at a certain point along the way I got over it and just regarded it as a literary problem and an opportunity. My books are unusual, but so what? That’s a nice thing to be.

Since Pacific Edge, the prognosis for the environment and our impact on it has only gotten worse and worse. Does that make utopian writing harder?

The bar has changed. Now “utopia” would be we dodge the mass extinction event. If we manage to get through this century and stabilize with the biosphere, that is a very utopian future. Utopia has also gone from a minor literary genre to a kind of a survival strategy. We have to do things right, in order to get any balance [with] the biosphere and the support system that we’ve got here, the one and only planet.

It does seem like we’ve gone from interested in what the future could be to wondering if there even could be one. The new William Gibson book, for example, is set in an alternative present instead of the future.

I can only speak coherently to my own attempt to come to grips with it. It does feel extraordinarily difficult, but it also feels like, what else are we going to write about? There was always something applied and relevant [in] science fiction that was about what might come to pass, as a kind of scenario building or as a modeling exercise.

But not as a prediction exercise, right?

Not prediction per se, although it’s easy to make that mistake. Sometimes your modeling exercise might stumble on something that really does happen. But by and large, the future is radically unpredictable.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.