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Most current attempts to envision the commons of the future in fiction and film are relentlessly dystopian. Fromcormac mccarthy’s The Road (2006) topaolo bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and fromroland emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) toneill blomkamp’s District 9 (2009), speculative fiction and film tend to envision future breakdowns of democratic governance, justice, education, health systems, and civic awareness far more often than societies that are improved over present ones in any but a narrow technological sense. Evenmargaret atwood’s well-known MaddAddam trilogy—Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013)—which ends on a reconciliation between two genetically different human species and a biologically evolved pig species with human-like intelligence, can only envision such a peaceful future after global genocide, pervasive violence, and the breakdown of civil society. In this vast field of dystopian imaginings, the work of kim stanley robinson stands out for its steadfast commitment to utopian possibilities, or, as he likes to call them referencingjoanna russ , “optopian” visions that seek out the best rather than the worst scenarios, given particular historical conditions.
After completing, in the 1980s, a doctorate in English under the direction of Fredric Jameson and concerning the novels of Philip K. Dick, Robinson went on to write numerous science fiction novels and short stories of his own. His Three Californias trilogy of The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988), and Pacific Edge (1990) juxtaposes three different visions of California’s future: the neo-primitivist aftermath of a nuclear war, capitalist business-as-usual, and an embattled ecotopia. The Science in the Capital trilogy—Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007)—portrays the world-wide consequences of climate change as well as the struggles that accompany the translation of science into meaningful public policy—struggles that in this set of novels end on a moderately hopeful vision of progressive politics in Washington. But Robinson is best known for Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996), a trilogy that traces the terraforming of Mars and the development of a multicultural, conflictive, and ambiguously utopian society on the Red Planet, even as Earth remains prone to military conflict, corporate exploitation, and ecological degradation. To what extent can and should Earth provide the templates for how to design a biosphere and organize the social sphere in a brand-new society? In what way might models developed on Mars be applied back to Earth’s histories and conflicts? In playing Martian and Terran societies against each other, the Mars Trilogy develops an extraordinarily complex and nuanced engagement with current ecological, economic, and social crises.
The Mars Trilogy not only traces a detailed outline of the ecological and eco-political challenges of terraforming that obliquely reflects on current debates about environmental politics on Earth; it also seeks to portray the social, cultural, and political turmoil and compromises that arise in the colonization of another planet not so much by humans understood as a homogeneous group, but by Americans, Arabs, Japanese, Russians, Swiss and many other groups that bring very different histories and traditions of how to organize society to bear on the emergent Martian communities. The novel 2312 (2012) expands the scenario of the Mars Trilogy to the solar system, and Aurora (2015) even to other star systems. But in Aurora, the biological, chemical, and physical challenges of multi-generational travel ultimately overwhelm the ambition to colonize other planets, and they force a return to the home planet and a more limited project of ecological restoration that ultimately foregrounds the conceptual difficulties in any detachment of human histories from the planet on which the species has evolved.
Robinson’s imaginations of the future focus above all on two dimensions: the future of nature and the future of the socio-economic order. While his utopias are always dynamic, embattled, and heterogeneous, they seek to outline what an economic organization beyond capitalism might look like, and how natural ecosystems might be inhabited sustainably for the next few hundred years. Marxist-influenced critiques of capitalism play a crucial role...