Kim Stanley Robinson’s Lunar Revolution

The sci-fi author on geopolitics and his latest novel, 'Red Moon.'

Is anyone truly represented by their own government anymore? That’s the question at the heart of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, Red Moon. Robinson’s science fiction has never shied away from politics — his beloved Mars trilogy imagines the colonization and terraforming of the Red Planet and much of the drama revolves around political negotiations. New York 2140, which came out in 2017, extrapolates a Manhattan drowned by rising sea levels and stars a diverse cast of characters struggling to forge new alliances to adapt.

But Red Moon takes this a step further, zooming in on the crisis of representation—that growing suspicion that our leaders are failing to represent us. The story follows the rebellious daughter of a Chinese powerbroker, a neuroatypical quantum engineer, an aging documentarian, an AI designer, and a frustrated Secret Service agent who all get drawn into a maelstrom of geopolitical intrigue that escalates toward all-out war. As they race between Earth and newly established bases on the moon, the protagonists debate political philosophy while they conduct espionage, foment revolution, flee conspirators, and grapple with a collapsing global financial system. Red Moon is champagne for the imagination—a sparkling speculative adventure that will suck you in and make you think.

In the following interview, we discuss the confusing reality of burgeoning revolutions, the critical importance of science, the power of science fiction, and our collective geopolitical future.

What does democracy mean, and how can its definition change? Is the US really the democracy its champions claim it to be? Is China as undemocratic as its critics claim? Are we heading for a “G2” world order?

Democracy—political rule by the people being ruled? My definition is the same as everyone else’s. There are different forms, like direct democracy, usually seen in small places like town hall meetings, but there are also the citizen’s proposition method used in some places, and possibly the internet could make for more direct democracy at larger scales.  

Mostly you see representative democracies, where we elect representatives who then represent us, either faithfully or not. The question these days, I think a question that is worldwide, expressed in different places and their different systems, is this: does anyone feel truly represented by their government representatives anymore? As different as China is from the US politically, and the EU is different in another way, that question keeps popping up. Wang Hui calls it “the crisis of representation.” No one is confident they are really represented politically any more, no matter the country. So that was something I wanted to explore in Red Moon—might a moment come when populations in different countries reacted against their governments, or against global finance, at the same time? What would that look like?

As for the “G2,” I’ve heard and read this phrase, and can see what people are gesturing at: China and the US are so big economically that if they agreed to do things, either good or bad things, they would have quite a bit of power to swing the rest of the world that way. So it’s one possibility. But in the current trade war started by the Trump administration, it seems more likely now that both China and the US will be looking for other allies to cultivate and promote, and this might tend to lead toward more of a polyarchy in the global scene. Right now I don’t think a G2 looks likely.

How are global forces like financial markets, climate change, and the internet challenging traditional governance structures? How is this already going wrong, and what can we do to build a better future? In the story, several lists of goals for reform are debated and deployed. What’s on your list?

This is a really hard one. There are people who argue that in the global capitalist system, free-floating finance may have gotten the whip hand over the nation-states that had been the traditional big powers in governance since the Treaty of Westphalia. You can read about this in Lazzaratto and Vogt and others, and Graeber and Streeck often make the point that maybe this was always the case, or at the very least, that finance and governments were two parts of a single system, both relying completely on the other for their power. I don’t know what I think of these theories, but they do provoke a lot of reassessments.

So far, it’s unclear whether the internet makes any difference to governance. I guess there is some potential to use it for really advanced communications, and even direct democracy elections.

Climate change is an overriding problem that will hit slowly but with increasing effects, so it’s hard to deal with by way of applying finance to it, since financial capitalism works by the year or the quarter, or the micro-second, if doing high-speed trading. It might be that ideas of insurance and hedging could be adapted from finance to help us deal with climate change, and there’s always taxes to make us pay the true costs of our actions, rather than dumping them on future generations—that’s old-school, but could be effective, perhaps.

One thing I think we’re seeing is the scientific community reacting to the way it was ignored when it first told the world that climate change could wreck the biosphere and civilization. Society just kept on burning the house down, and part of society immediately denied the science involved entirely, even though these people run to a scientist every time they feel sick. So now, I think the scientific community has begun what I call “the technocratic push,” by which I mean efforts to effect policy by way of scientists advising government agencies on policies that should be adopted. The Paris Accord is the big success of this push, and there are literally thousands of actions on the local, city, state, and national levels, to deal with climate change as it needs to be dealt with. That may be evidence of a real change in governance, in which people find the level of government that will respond the best, given the overriding need. It has surely led to more polyarchy, which is to say, more widely distributed political power, spreading through the populace in ways that are genuinely democratic and sane—this movement, as against the violent rejection of the scientific consensus which we are now seeing in some of the tribal nativist reactions at the national levels (US, India, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, etc.) which are often seized and used by the rich to sow confusion and stay in power.

Many stories of revolution, imaginary and real, seek to make these movement legible: they distill everything down to a few key characters and causal factors. The revolution Red Moon depicts is distinct because it’s so confusing. Even though we’re following a few of the major players, a lot happens in the background and, for the most part, nobody seems to know what’s really going on. Why did you decide to tell the story of a revolution this way? What do we lose when we reduce a complex scenario to a set of simple take-aways?

I did it that way because I think that’s how it will really happen. I re-read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and was shocked to find how much of it was bullshit—perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I hadn’t read it since 1966, and I recalled it fondly.  But no—it’s a fantasy that replays the American Revolution on the moon. That’s not how it’s going to happen, and the moon’s independence is completely irrelevant anyway, besides being impossible.

The real story is always going to be on Earth, and what we’re seeing now is intensely confusing. At least I find it so. One can grasp at simple explanations that seem to have explanatory power, like the rich desperately trying to hold on to the power their wealth gives them, and stoking conflicts between the various constituencies of the poor, who are more or less desperate—that seems to be happening, but how will that play out? No one knows, there are too many new factors. So, I wanted to express how that might feel, if and when push comes to shove, and big revolutionary events start happening. No one will be able to see it all in person. Media will present it in every possible way. Finance will push governments to react one way, people will push all kinds of ways, people in government will do what they can to cope, and possibly AIs may take a more and more active role, programmed by people with different agendas. That’s the situation I wanted to represent, to give my readers a sense of what it may feel like going forward. The last two lines of my book are very intentional and I think very true to the situation.

Early in the novel, a protagonist reflects that “analogies always deceive more than they reveal” and that even metaphors are “slippery and deceptive.” Isn’t literature one big metaphor for life? How do you seek to access deeper truth with tools that are slippery and deceptive?

It’s what we have, it’s how we think all the time. Language is metaphorical, and slippery and deceptive, and we have nothing else. Our limited personal view of reality means that everyone necessarily has an ideology, which is to say an imaginary relationship to the real situation. You need one, if you didn’t have one it would be overwhelming and you’d be incapacitated. So, we have to try to work with what we have. That’s where I find science so interesting—it too is an imaginary relationship to the real situation, but it’s a group achievement that millions of people have collaborated on over centuries, and its particular imaginary view of the real situation has great power and force, compared to any merely personal opinions. It still has to be expressed in language, sometimes, but it has some powers that are beyond language, and possibly we can put science to use to get a better grip on how we should behave right now.

Over the course of the story, one character takes a pregnancy to term while another character’s mother passes away. How do birth and death mirror each other, and how do they reflect the other transitions that happen in the story? What did you learn from contemplating mortality as you wrote this novel?

I’m like everyone else when it comes to this stuff. I’ve seen birth and death, I know I’m mortal, and so is every living thing. So on we go as best we can. You have to concoct a meaning out of it all, and one good meaning is to be passing things along the generations, with the idea that you’ve done your part in your life, in terms of the longer species life.

It’s true that Red Moon bundles some of these strands into its story. A couple of real stories merged for me in the story of Ta Shu’s mother. And I like the birth scene in the book. The point of view of a deeply inexperienced male observer trying to help was easy for me to imagine, having been there myself long ago. And my neighbor and friend Djina is a midwife and gave me lots of good help with imagining some of the lunar ramifications, so to speak.

Throughout the book, characters gaze at the moon from the Earth, and, strikingly, at the Earth from the moon. What does awe offer us? How do you seek to cultivate a sense of wonder in your own life? How did writing Red Moon change your perspective?

I found the moon to be extremely empty and stark. It wasn’t like Mars, which has an atmosphere and water, and looks like New Mexico. As poisonous as Mars is, I could easily imagine the terraforming I described in my Mars trilogy. The moon gave me no such imaginative possibility. It was so deadly, and so white; eventually it just seemed to me an image of death itself.

So, if standing on it, you look back at Earth, it’s so full of life. Blue with life, and in our minds bursting with life, as it really is in its life zone. In that sense the moon is maybe a good place for looking at Earth, to the point where that may be its chief human value. Certainly looking at Earth from the moon would induce a sense of awe. And being on the moon would be a sublime experience, meaning both beautiful and terrifying at once—that’s what the sublime is.

In my own life, I feel a really strong sense of wonder when I’m backpacking in the Sierra—that’s one of the reasons I love doing it. Here in Davis I have to work harder at it. I write outdoors and keep bird feeders around my table, and enjoy looking at the birds, the only wildlife that still comes anywhere near Davis, California. Then also my reading is very often filled with wonder. I love reading even more than birds. And the people in my life are wonderful. So I look forward to my next Sierra trip, and read, and hang with my people.

Writing Red Moon brought me face-to-face with the feeling that China is hard to understand, maybe impossible to understand. I wanted to write that feeling down in some detail. Then also, writing the book gave me another time with my character Ta Shu, whom I had so much enjoyed in my novel Antarctica. And it gave me Fred and Qi and their relationship, not one I had encountered before. I don’t know if that’s a change in perspective or not.

What other books would fans of Red Moon love? What should they read to challenge themselves to see the world through fresh eyes?

I made a list of moon books that I enjoyed reading that is published on Goodreads. For those who like the character Ta Shu, he is an important character in my novel Antarctica. And  I think reading Solar Bones by Mike McCormack is a wonderful experience in every way, including giving an expanded sense of what the novel can do. In general I always recommend reading as widely across time and space as possible. All those experiences are valuable.

Eliot Peper is a critically acclaimed novelist whose books grapple with what it means to live a good life in an age of acceleration. Get his reading recommendations here.

Red Moon
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Published October 23, 2018

Eliot Peper is the author of Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His books have been praised by Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, Qualcomm, and Future in Review. Eliot an editor at Scout, maintains a popular reading recommendation newsletter, and advises entrepreneurs and investors on technology strategy.

1 comment on “Kim Stanley Robinson’s Lunar Revolution

  1. Melvin Dean Baker

    What an excellent interview. Top notch questions. I’ve enjoyed all of KSM’s books. He covers a vast range of topics and ideas and each book has a unique tone.

    Liked by 1 person

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