- “Science’s Consciousness”: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson
This is a special issue of Configurations, a journal devoted to the “relation of literature and the arts to the sciences and technology.” So we begin with a big question: What can scientists learn from science fiction?
My impression is that scientists can read science fiction in two useful ways. First, when they are young, science fiction puts ideas into their heads and gives them the feeling that a life in science would be exciting and worthwhile; that the future is most interesting when seen through science. Second, when they are older, if they continue to read science fiction at all—which many don’t, perhaps because they no longer think science fiction says much about science, or just because they don’t read fiction any more—but if they do, they read it both in search of stories as interesting as the ones they are running into in their work, and also in hope of some expansion or commentary on those kinds of interesting new stories. They enjoy science fiction that seems to them scientifically literate or conceptually interesting—hopefully both—and have a close interest in how fiction portrays scientists and scientific work in general.
What can science studies scholars learn from science fiction?
Science studies scholars can look to science fiction as a field of indicators concerning what any given moment of the past thought its future could be. Studying older science fiction is a good way to [End Page 187] look into past moments of a culture, to see better their expectations and fears, their senses of what might be possible and their awareness of changes just manifesting in their moment, that from our perspective we see as important.
How often do you talk with scientists? What scientific preparation do you do for your writing?
In the literal sense, I talk to scientists every day because my wife is a scientist. So I listen to her, and because of her frequent conference calls, I listen sometimes as she talks to other scientists about their scientific issues. Then also I have a number of scientist friends I talk to either casually or when asking them questions to help me with my books.
When preparing to write my novels, I usually collect a stack of books, and bookmark a number of links on the Internet, and read around in all of them, then call scientists, either friends or strangers, to ask questions as I go on.
Why do you think scientists who were initially inspired by science fiction stop reading the genre?
My impression is that only about the same percentage of them read fiction as the general population, meaning some percentage that is not that large. I’m just guessing here, but my sense is that the more scientists learn about science, the more they feel that science fiction isn’t really about their work or their lives, but instead is more a kind of fantasy literature and thus either something to enjoy as such or give up on.
Do you think scientists—those who keep reading the genre and those who don’t—hope to learn something or see their view of science confirmed? Do they read SF that conforms to their ideas of what good science is or do they read SF—such as yours—that is more critical and that shows how science itself can be different?
This would be too fine a distinction for me to be able to make, given how anecdotal my evidence is, but I can say the impression I have is that many people would like to see their line of work be represented in literature, but in the case of scientists, the nature of their work means that it doesn’t get written about in fiction as much as other human endeavors. This is complicated by the famous or notorious inability of the novel to come to grips with any kind of work, but there...