Tag Archives: kim stanley robinson

I’m with the Bears

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews I’m with the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] edited by Mark Martin, introduction by Bill McKibben, with Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Kim Stanley Robinson, &al.

Martin Atwood Robinson Mitchell McKibben I'm with the Bears

This 2011 anthology is made up of short fiction concerned with climate change, extinction, and environmental collapse. Two contributions, the ones by Lydia Millett and Kim Stanley Robinson, are excerpts from previous novels, while two others by David Mitchell and Paolo Bacigalupi seem to have been advance work for novels they later completed and published (The Bone Clocks and The Water Knife, respectively).

Of the ten stories collected here, three are set in the present or recent past. These are concerned with the futility of protest-based activism against environmental depredation and with the unbalancing of the human mind in the face of non-human extinctions.

Another six stories are set in the relatively near future; 2040 is the specified date for two of the stories, and these seem to be the far boundary of the set. All of these depict varying types and stages of social collapse as a result of environmental exhaustion and climate change, in the (former) UK, US, and Italy. All are plausible, none are cheering, and easily the bleakest is “Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson.

The collection concludes with Margaret Atwood’s three-page “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet,” which doesn’t offer anything like hope. I was a little galled that this set of narrative fictions held out even less consolation than Roy Scranton’s book-length essay Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.

The Lucky Strike

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Robinson The Lucky Strike

This slim book includes the eponymous novella “The Lucky Strike,” a closely-related essay “Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions,” and an interview with author Kim Stanley Robinson by Terry Bisson. I would totally recommend it as a chaser for anyone who has just finished Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt and can’t stop thinking about it. (Not that further ideas on those lines will stop anyone thinking.) The story and the essay deal with philosophy of history, and the evolving understanding of the relationship between chance and determinism, under the sign of non-linear dynamics and its “strange attractors,” as well as the relationship of all of this business to any understanding of free will.

The interview was entertaining, and reassured me that despite the prominence of Robinson’s scientific curiosity and social conscience, his ambitions as a writer are primarily literary. I especially enjoyed his angry rejoinder to those who object to the expository elements of his style: “go read Moby Dick, Dostoevsky, Garcia Marquez, Jameson, Bakhtin, Joyce, Sterne–learn a little bit about what fiction can do, and then come back to me when you’re done. That would be never, and I could go about my work in peace” (87).

The Years of Rice and Salt

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson.

This novel covers about 650 years over the course of approximately as many pages, ending in 2002 when it was first published. It is set in an alternate history where the Black Death of the 14th century eliminated the prohibitive majority of the European population. It is a necklace of ten novellas carrying out a thought experiment regarding world history in the absence of Western modernity. Author Kim Stanley Robinson is known for investing his fiction with both the sort of grand scope present in this book and also a presentation of political concerns embracing socialism and environmentalism. These are also on hand in The Years of Rice and Salt. After working through analogies for the ages of discovery, rational enlightenment, and industrialization, the great wars of our 20th century are reflected in the Long War, sixty-six years of global military conflict between a Chinese empire and a worldwide Muslim alliance. The last two sections of the book take place in a post-war world with challenges very similar to our own.

Although Robinson’s style is often very cerebral, whether philosophical, scientific, or mystical, this book is still one that insists that the reader attend to bodies, and consider the libidinal cathexes that seem to drive both civilization and its discontents. His characters are often informed by deliberately-inflicted injuries: the castration of a young slave, a man’s hand cut off in punishment, a woman’s bound feet.

The title The Years of Rice and Salt appears in the book as a Chinese phrase denoting the stage of a woman’s life between motherhood and widowhood. Metaphorically, Robinson seems to be suggesting that the entire modern period (whether our own or that of his conjectural parallel history) is such an interval for our species, and his characters often contemplate the arc of history and wonder about possibilities for human society. Typically, these thoughts arise in the context of the “Four Great Inequalities” theorized by his character Ibrahim ibn Hasam al-Lanzhou, one of which is the domination of women by men (406-411). Ibrahim appears in the section called “Widow Kang,” which features this world’s version of modern spiritualism, with a subversion of received gender codes just as in our own 19th century.

The “Widow Kang” episode is one that most highlights the fact that the ten stories are explicitly linked through the function of metempsychosis: Robinson re-purposes the Buddhist term jati (Skt, Pali “birth,” but also “clan” or “sub-caste” in non-Buddhist Indian usage) to represent a persistent association of reincarnated individuals, who are also periodically reunited in the disincarnated bardo state. Although the novel presents reincarnation and the bardo as narrative facts, some of the book’s last passages reflect on them more philosophically, observing: “Reincarnation is a story we tell; then in the end it’s the story itself that is the reincarnation” (654). The epigram and first paragraph of the book imply that the two principal characters in the jati represented through all the stories are identical with the monkey Sun Wukong and monk Xuanzang of Chinese lore.

On the whole, this book is ambitious, profound, and often beautiful. [via]

Green Mars

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, book 2 in the Mars Trilogy.

Kim Stanley Robinson Green Mars

In my reading of Red Mars, the first of Robinson’s Mars books, I detected an esoteric infrastructure for the saga of the First Hundred, cast according to the pattern of the gods of ancient Egypt and their legendary deeds. The esotericism of this sequel is alchemical, as openly signaled in the first of its ten parts, but carried through in more subtle details as well as the overarching structure. Ann Clayborne reflects at one point on the nomenclature of areography, which is remarkably alchemical when Robinson translates it into English, not that Ann notices:

“Only on Mars did they walk about in an horrendous mishmash of the dreams of the past, causing who knew what disastrous misapprehensions of the real terrain: the Lake of the Sun, the Plain of Gold, the Red Sea, Peacock Mountain, the Lake of the Phoenix, Cimmeria, Arcadia, the Gulf of Pearls, the Gordian Knot, Styx, Hades, Utopia….” (121)

As with the first book, the novella-length components alternately follow different principal characters, most of whom are still members of the original expedition, now well into their second (terrestrial) century of life. These characters accordingly are driven to reflect on memory, both in actuality and theory. The two new focal characters are Nirgal (a native Martian of first Hundred parentage) and Art Randolph, an new immigrant sent as a liaison to the Martian underground from one of Earth’s metanational corporations.

This middle book of the trilogy is a tale of transformation that describes the accomplishment of the Martian biosphere and political independence. As with the first, it is replete with political and scientific meditations, anchored in the travails of admirable but credibly fallible central characters. The lore of Big Man and the little red people of Mars (272-274) also acknowledges the vital presence of a fantasy dimension, that is nevertheless not deeply explored. The end of the book is clearly only the beginning of a story, although it does deliver some satisfaction in its own right. [via]


The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Red Mars

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson:

Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars


“… Even without an imagination you can see what kind of power we have. Maybe that’s why things are getting so strange these days, everyone talking about ownership or sovereignty, fighting, making claims. People squabbling like those old gods on Olympus, because nowadays we’re just as powerful as they were.”

“Or more,” Nadia said. (323)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars is now twenty years old, but it still provides a compelling story about 21st-century colonization of Mars. The hefty book describes the lives and work of the “first hundred” in the initial settlement expedition, who subsequently become something of a free-floating elite within colonial Martian society, as well as the inception of the project to terraform Mars. It is very “hard” science fiction, with lots of “areological” (i.e. the Martian equivalent of geological) detail, and a good deal of political and philosophical reflection.

The novel also includes a lot of literary allusion, not only of the predictable Martian sort (to Bogdanov, Burroughs, Bradbury, etc.), but conspicuously to The Lord of the Rings and to the stories of Phillip K. Dick (on whom Robinson wrote a dissertation). The “hardness” of the story can make a reader overlook its intense metatextuality. In fact, I was about 80% of the way through my read of the book before I realized — long after the telling quote reproduced above — that the key members of the first hundred who serve as the book’s protagonists correlate very closely to ancient Egyptian gods. Once discovered, I find the relationship so vivid that I’m surprised to see no discussion of it in a quick search of the ‘net. (Since the details of this correlation could be taken for plot spoilers, I’ve separated them from this review. Scroll down to the Comments field on this linked page.)

In more recent science fiction, the blindingly bright future of information processing seems to have eclipsed many of the still-valid technological concerns that are foregrounded in Red Mars. So it was very refreshing to read such an “old fashioned” story written with such care for them. The “first hundred” characters, despite their sometimes superhuman intensity, are all believably flawed. Robinson makes it possible for the reader to care about even the worst of them. (Except for Phyllis Boyle. I did not like her a bit!)

Red Mars is the first volume of a tightly-composed trilogy. Popular opinion seems to consistently rate it as the best of the three, but that does not deter me from reading further, because it is very good. I suspect that the larger work suffers from the syndrome that afflicted the Matrix movies. The brilliance of the initial installment stands out in contrast to prior work in the larger genre, while the sequels — no worse, and in some respects better — fail to provide the same sense of astonishment, since they are conserving and continuing the story developed in the first. [via]



The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.