Writers discuss challenging future trends at Whole Earth Festival

By From page A1 | May 09, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson. Enterprise file photo

Kim Stanley Robinson. Enterprise file photo

Two of this country’s most forward-looking writers — whose carefully researched books describing life in the future have won multiple awards — will speak Saturday at the Whole Earth Festival about where current trends might take us in coming centuries.

Kim Stanley Robinson, a longtime Davis resident, and Paolo Bacigalupi, a Colorado author, will speak, take questions and sign copies of their books from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Young Hall on the UC Davis campus. Admission is free.

Robinson will talk about his new novel “2312,” copies of which should be available for sale at the festival, 10 days before the book’s official publication date on May 22.

The premise behind “2312” stems from a discussion between Robinson and his publisher about long-term trends. Think about how much life has changed in the 300 years between 1712 and 2012. Now, try to imagine how much life might change over the next 300 years.

Robinson typically grounds his projected futures in substantial factual research. He recently told Publishers Weekly that “art in our time is strongest when it is aware of science, includes science, is inspired by science, or is about science.”

In “2312,” Robinson describes a future in which humans are living as far afield as Mercury and Saturn, as well as on several asteroids. And life on Earth has become “a gigantic ongoing crisis,” as sea levels have risen by 11 meters.

“Manhattan is like Venice,” Robinson said. “People zip around in canal boats. The bottom floors of buildings are flooded, but things are still functioning.”

Robinson also writes of “a space civilization, with thousands of asteroids that have been hollowed out, and the interior serves as a sort of terrarium that imitates a biome on each.”

He projects enormous social changes as well. With advances in medicine and genetic engineering, people are living a long time, and gender identity becomes kind of a personal choice matter — male, female, both, neither. Some people choose to be 2 or 3 feet tall, other people stand 9 feet tall.

“It seemed to me that if technologies existed for lifetime extension and body modification, people might get into a mindset of wanting to try everything,” Robinson said.

Robinson’s writing style in “2312” is also a departure from his previous books. He tells his story using techniques somewhat similar to those used by John Dos Passos in his “U.S.A. Trilogy” (written during the 1930) — a kaleidoscopic composite incorporating everything from newspaper clippings to biography to prose poems, and a big cast of characters.

This style of storytelling was employed by the late science fiction writer John Brunner in his prize-winning near-future novels “Stand on Zanzibar” (1968) and “The Sheep Look Up” (1972). Now Robinson, who was a friend of Brunner’s, is adapting the approach to describe a future that is a bit further out.

“I had a blast” writing the book, Robinson said. He included some “lists and extracts, and I wrote ‘pocket bios’ of Io (one of Jupiter’s moons), Titan (one of Saturn’s moons) and Mercury, which made objects in the solar system into little characters in the book.”

And oh yes, “2312” includes a love story — involving one character on Mercury whose personality is mercurial, and another living near Saturn’s rings whose personality is (well) saturnine. Readers of Robinson’s other books also will recognize that the story in “2312” is set several decades after the events in Robinson’s landmark Mars trilogy.

Saturday’s event at the Whole Earth Festival will be the first time Robinson has actually met his co-presenter, Bacigalupi, though the two have read each other’s books. Bacigalupi is coming to Davis from his home in western Colorado and is touring in support of his new novel “The Drowned Cities,” which was published May 1.

As compared with Robinson, who has been publishing books since the 1980s, Bacigalupi is a relative newcomer — his first book came out in 2008. Bacigalupi is probably best known for his breakthrough 2009 novel “The Windup Girl,” which was picked as one of the year’s best novels by Time, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal and others.

“The Windup Girl” also netted two of science fiction’s top honors — the Hugo Award, given by fans, and the Nebula Award, given by writers — and also has gone through multiple printings.

Set in Thailand, “The Windup Girl” is set in a dystopian future that includes bio-terrorism, genetic engineering, civil war, food plagues and slavery. The title character has been described as “a cybernetic geisha.”

Some critics said the book reminded them of the dark Ridley Scott science fiction film “Blade Runner.” Others compared Bacigalupi to cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, whose dark novel “Neuromancer” made a big splash in the 1980s. Bacigalupi has occasionally been dubbed a “biopunk” by way of comparative differentiation.

Bacigalupi’s 2010 novel for young adults “Ship Breaker” picked up the Printz Award, which honors books written for teens. The book, also a future dystopia, is a story of survival featuring a character who strips copper wiring from abandoned oil tankers.

Bacigalupi was born in Colorado and grew up there. He attended Oberlin College, where he studied Chinese.

Bacigalupi’s take on the future is by and large darker than Robinson’s — several of the young author’s works of fiction deal with ecodisasters — but Robinson sees some common ground.

“There’s a line from Ursula Le Guin through me that extends to Paolo,” Robinson said, “a kind of green environmentalist strand of science fiction. It’s not a dominant strand in the field, but it is important.”

And what more appropriate place for these two writers to meet and speak than the Whole Earth Festival at UC Davis?

Notes: Robinson also will sign copies of “2312” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26, at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St. in Davis.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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