Kim Stanley Robinson On Why Novels Are So Beautiful

During the past year my schedule has undergone some radical changes. I don’t have much time to watch TV or video these days, but I listen to several hours of audio every day, both radio and podcasts.

The Coode Street Podcast is at the top of my weekly playlist. A few weeks ago, Kim Stanley Robinson was on the show discussing space travel and man’s prospects for life away from earth and outside the solar system, as well as his latest novel Aurora.

He and hosts Gary Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan made some interesting observations on the show about how storytelling influences culture and how science fiction has shaped our expectations about the future of human life over the last century. He also made a few comments about the relationship of readers to novels that reminded me of one of my first posts here.

Jonathan Strahan: How do you feel or hope the readers who once they’ve read the novel themselves and come back to re-read it, what do you hope they’ll encounter? Because the surprises that we’re respecting in the podcast will be surprises no longer. In fact anybody possibly picking up Aurora at Christmas will have a chance to find out that ‘X’ happens and ‘Y’ happens and whatever else and no longer are those the great rewards of someone who is fortunate enough to read the book without that information. What do you hope they’ll take away from that?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, that’s a good question. That’s a good question, and I guess what I would hope for has to lie at the level of the sentence and the scene so that even if you know vaguely where the story is going you don’t know the how or the why and you don’t know what the computer or whatever the narrator is is gonna say next, you don’t know what the characters are gonna say next, and at that level that’s really where novels live or die because otherwise they’re just cases being made that could be in fact–and this is one of the conundrums that confuses the computer–that you could tell the story in a hundred words or maybe 300 words. I could compress it down and tell the story so why the 300 pages, the 450 pages? It has to be interesting on the level of enjoying [garbled audio].

Novels do two things for us at once, and that’s why they’re so beautiful. One: it’s telepathy, you’re inside somebody else’s head and in this case mostly a computer’s head but also Freya, I suppose, as the protagonist. And then two: you’re an anthropologist and you get to see what is it like for a culture that is not your culture. So, you know, the Incas at Machu Picchu or under a dome on Mars or inside a spaceship set of biomes what was it like for that culture to–what were their habits, what was daily life like? So we like novels because they give us daily life somewhere else and then we also like them for telepathy that we’re inside other people’ heads which is very hard to do in any other way and movies aren’t good at that and novels are and then lastly for plot, for story, like what happens next, and I’m thinking now that plot is when daily life goes wrong so this is–I’m understanding in a way that’s helping me with my new book that what we love and detect in novels, well say in normal novels like this, you have daily life–and Shaman is like this–daily life, 150 pages and you’re thinking of course like I could read an anthropology book. I need a story here because I’m reading a novel, and then suddenly the wife gets kidnapped and it’s a desperate plot from then on you’re ripping through the pages to get to the end and maybe staying up all night, and we love that in novels. So the two things are not quite the same, and what I’m loving in the idea of the detective novel series is that most of those novels began with the plot. Something has gone wrong and as the detective figures out why it went wrong they have to reveal what daily life was like beforehand so you immediately get your plot handed to you on a plate and your suspense from the get-go, like why did this happen, and in the figuring out of the mystery you’re also unpacking daily life as it existed beforehand and, like, say it’s in Palestine or in a Roman monastery during the, you know, dark ages, the daily life will maybe even explain why the crime happened, that only in that culture would the crime have happened because of some particular anthropological rule in that culture that caused the criminal to do what they did. So I’m using this new understanding of what we want out of novels to kind of construct my next book which will be a kind of detective story, I guess.

After listening to this podcast, I put four of Robinson’s recent novels, Galileo’s Dream, 2312, Shaman and Aurora, on my (endless) reading list.

Listen to the complete podcast here: Episode 238: Kim Stanley Robinson and Aurora

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