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Book review: Once upon a time in the future

In this issue:

Green City, Part I: Remedial environmentalism is so 20th Century!
California faces a fiscal and political crisis
California enfrenta una crisis política y fiscal
Dear Dennis Kucinich
Prop 54 is racist and dumb
Tom Hutchings runs for Assembly
Form and Function
On the "Progressive Democrat", and their threat to progressives
Military Recruiters: Stop marketing war to our children
Stay Green!
New Way of Thinking Needed
Book review: "The Candidate's Handbook"
Book review: Once upon a time in the future
Recall FAQ
Letters to the Editor
News Clips
Author urges citizen activists to reach for Sci Fi when envisioning utopian 'green futures'

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Many people regard science fiction as being exclusively urban, technophilic and convinced that humanity can engineer solutions to all its problems without regard to the biophysical surround. The most famous science fiction of the Twentieth Century was written by engineering types from the 1940s and 1950s, and taken all together it projected a consensus future that was a kind of "city world," like Lang's Metropolis or Asimov's Trantor, or any of the spaceships, as in Star Trek's Enterprise, which is a city cast loose in space.

Science fiction has never been "fiction about science," but rather "fiction set in the future;" and because of that, there has always been a minority voice, made up of science fiction writers concerned about the natural world, or in love with the natural world, and therefore depicting futures in which the fate of natural world is the crux of the story. Thus the science fiction of Ray Bradbury, Clifford Simak, Edgar Pangborn, Walter Miller Jr., Theodore Sturgeon, George Stewart, Keith Roberts, and Kate Wilhelm very often describes pastoral worlds or enclaves, in novels that stand as a critique of the urban-industrial model for the future.

The crucial figure in this "green future" movement is Ursula K. Le Guin. A powerful myth-maker and brilliant stylist, she is one of the finest and most important living American writers, and she serves for many readers unfamiliar with the genre as their "first contact" or "way in" to the genre. One of her many novels, Always Coming Home depicts a future in which people with sophisticated technology choose to reinvent a life based on the native Americans, as a move toward sustainability, and a saner mode of living.

With Le Guin on the green side, it may be said that science fiction itself has changed, and now includes a healthy number of writers attempting to model futures that are environmentally sustainable. Sometimes it has an "eco-feminist" slant, as in the work of Gwyneth Jones, Molly Gloss, Karen Fowler or Joanna Russ; other times it has a leftist political bent, as in the work of Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Terry Bisson, or Geoff Ryman. Ryman's newest novel, for instance, called Air, describes the effects of globalization in ways so unforgettable that all who read it will be affected. With luck these new visions of permaculture and sustainability will become the new consensus future, replacing the city-world with something more vibrant and believable; something to work for.

Thus it seems to me natural and important that all environmentalists become science fiction readers. After all, being a green is in essence a utopian act, taking a stand on the future, saying "this is what we should do, now, for the generations to come." Science fiction envisions scenarios of all kinds, from utopian to dystopian. You can't commit yourself to a future, and struggle for it, when you can't see it; and envisioning the future is a kind of group project that we all perform together, with science fiction as the narrative wing of the project, providing the new visions, scenarios, test cases, and myths.

Try it and you'll see. It's very inspiring, and we can always use inspiration.

Kim Stanley Robinson has written science fiction and utopian novels since the 1980s, including the Three Californias and Mars trilogies.###

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