Podcast with Kim Stanley Robinson: Science as a political and ethical project

Kim Stanley Robinson, best-selling science fiction author, shares his view on the potential of science fiction to shape the future of science in the Centre for Science Futures' new podcast series, in partnership with Nature.

Podcast with Kim Stanley Robinson: Science as a political and ethical project

Scientists and researchers increasingly value science fiction for its contributions to anticipating future scenarios. As part of its mission to explore the directions in which changes in science and science systems are leading us, the Centre for Science Futures sat down with six leading science fiction authors to gather their perspectives on how science can meet the many societal challenges we will face in the next decades. The podcast is in partnership with Nature.

In this inaugural episode, the Centre engaged with Kim Stanley Robinson, a New York Times bestselling author and recipient of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, to explore the potential of science fiction in guiding scientists and policymakers toward innovative and beneficial futures. What valuable lessons can science fiction offer to scientists about their profession?

Tune in to this episode to discover more about Robinsonā€™s view of science as a political and an ethical project.

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Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson, author of over twenty books including the bestselling Mars trilogy, New York 2140, and The Ministry for the Future, was recognized as a ‘Hero of the Environment’ by Time magazine in 2008. He is actively involved with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute (SNRI) and resides in Davis, California.


Paul Shrivastava 00:04:

I’ve always had a love of science fiction, and in the last few years I found myself returning to it as part of my professional research work because of the profound and powerful ways I believe it can shape our thinking about the future. I’m Paul Shrivastava, and in this podcast series I will be speaking to science fiction authors from around the world to get their perspective on how science can meet the many challenges we face in the coming decades, from climate change and food security to the disruption caused by artificial intelligence. I wanted to speak to leading science fiction writers in addition to scientists because they can offer us a unique perspective on these issues. They are, after all, professional futurists.

Kim Stanley Robinson 00:58:

Science fiction hit me like a gong, like I was the gong and I had been hit and I was ringing.

Paul Shrivastava 01:06:

In this first episode, I spoke with Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the foremost science fiction authors in the world. Over the past four decades, he’s written many books, including my favorite, the Ministry for the Future, which is unique in giving hope to the challenge of climate change. He’s also covered many themes like human settlements and space in his Mars trilogy and AI powered quantum computers in the novel 2312, and has won pretty much every science fiction award going, sometimes more than once. Stanley has inspired generations of science fiction readers and writers. Our conversation touched on many topics including the dangers of escapism, climate grief, and the myth of scientific objectivity. I hope you will enjoy it.

Paul Shrivastava 02:04:

Stanley, I want to begin with what got you interested in science, your personal connection to science.

Kim Stanley Robinson 02:10:

When I ran into science fiction, I was an undergraduate at UC, San Diego. I thought this is the realism of our time. This describes how life feels better than anything else I had read. So I began to get story ideas by reading general science magazines. You could take randomly any two articles out of science news, combine their implications together, you have a science fiction story. Then I married a scientist. I got to see a working scientist at work, and then I myself was accepted into a program run by the National Science Foundation. So I got to see how NSF works as a grant giving organization, and the NSF sent me to Antarctica twice. I got interested in climate science because a lot of the scientists down there were working on it. And now this is, I don’t know, it’s about 20 years of consistent effort on what you might call climate fiction.

Paul Shrivastava 03:07:

Working with NSF, that is a very interesting part because very few people get an inside look at how grants making actually works. Here I want to begin by pointing out something that I just finished reading, a book by Douglas Rushkoff called Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of Tech Billionaires. And all they were interested in asking him was, “How do we escape the Earth?” And it made me think the possibilities of escapism are seeded into our minds by science fiction, maybe?

Kim Stanley Robinson 03:43:

I think it is, and I myself am heavily implicated in this because my Mars trilogy is by far the longest, most scientifically plausible scenario for humanity turning Mars into a “second home.” That novel, while I regarded as a good novel is not a good plan. I wrote it in the early nineties before we learned that the surface of Mars is highly toxic to humans. As an escape hatch for now, for tech billionaires or anyone else, it’s useless. A lot of this escapism is done as a fantasy in that there’s a part of those people that knows perfectly well that it won’t work, but they want a sense that if push came to shove and if the world civilization fell apart, they could somehow dodge that.

Paul Shrivastava 04:38:

You’re absolutely right. And it brings me to this question. Are there lessons for policymakers that can be drawn from science fiction?

Kim Stanley Robinson 04:47:

To have science fiction be actually useful to policymakers, they would have to read some science fiction. But it would be best if it were curated by somebody that knows the field and can send them to good works of science fiction. And there’s a lot of useless science fiction out there, repetitive, foolish, dystopian, et cetera. Sometimes a dystopia can say to you, you don’t want to do this, but you don’t need much of that before. What you really need is interesting and engaging utopian fiction or people coping with damage successfully. People are given a sense of hope that even if there isn’t a good plan, we might come to a good result anyway.

Paul Shrivastava 05:34:

Yeah, I have been recommending that people read the Ministry for the Future. I’m asking scientists to read it because it really does open their minds to the positives. But how do we take the message, the positive message, the hopeful message that you’re casting to the masses?

Kim Stanley Robinson 05:53:

It’s easy to imagine things going wrong since it’s so remarkable that it’s going even as well as it is. And in fiction in general, a plot is the story of something going wrong. So there’s a gravitation, there’s a tendency for fiction itself to focus on things going wrong so that plots can be generated. Now the further elaboration of the plot is the characters coping with what’s gone wrong and hopefully fixing it. And then if there is a powerful strand of utopian science fiction out there, then the future will begin to seem contested and not preordained to catastrophe. And scientists need to help on this front of saying to the world, you are alive because of science. Science is an attempt to make a better society, perhaps less monetary, less grasping.

Right now, in the midst of our ordinarily grasping in capitalist world, science is a counterforce. So to the extent that scientists are politically self-aware, they would do a better job because there’s many of scientists that say, “Look, I got into science so that I don’t have to think about politics. I just want to pursue my studies.” And yet they are inevitably enmeshed in a political world.

Paul Shrivastava 07:19:

Yeah, and I think scientists have the self-perception of their profession where we center objectivity and we systematically remove subjectivity and values.

Kim Stanley Robinson 07:31:

Well, this is a good point, Paul, because there is that myth of objectivity that science is pure and it’s only studying the natural world. We need what John Muir called the passionate scientists, that the science is being done for a purpose, which is human betterment or the betterment of the biosphere at large. But if science began to understand itself as a religious act, that the world is sacred, that people should suffer as little as possible, given our mortality and our tendency to fall apart, it’s a pursuit that has a point. It’s not just the objective work in the lab to see which molecule is interacting in which way. It’s always also a political project and an ethical project.

Paul Shrivastava 08:19:

So I’m hoping that more and more books like yours will become available, made required reading. If you have any parting thoughts about how we might bring about that integration of the sciences and the arts.

Kim Stanley Robinson 08:33:

All scientists as part of their training should be required to take courses that teach what science is. The vast field of science studies that the humanities and social sciences have brought to bear on how sciences work, the self-reflection on what they’re doing is never a bad thing. They should not be left naive philosophically or politically at the end of a scientific education. That any department could do. Any university could do that and should do that. It would create a more flexible and powerful core of science workers to have that education. And so in terms of requirements, I think that should be done. A few science fiction novels included in that list, some philosophy of science. I mean, do people read Thomas Kuhn and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? Well, I don’t know, but they certainly should to comprehend their own work.

Paul Shrivastava 09:34:

Thank you for listening to this podcast from the International Science Council’s Center for Science Futures, done in partnership with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California, San Diego. Visit futures.council.science for the extended versions of these conversations, which will be released in January, 2024. They delve deeper into science, its organization and where it could take us in the future. Join us next week to hear a fascinating discussion with another science fiction author, Karen Lord.

Paul Shrivastava, Professor of Management and Organizations at Pennsylvania State University, hosted the podcast series. He specialises in the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals. The podcast is also done in collaboration with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California, San Diego.

The project was overseen by Mathieu Denis and carried by Dong Liu, from the Centre for Science Futures, the ISC’s think tank.

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The information, opinions and recommendations presented in this article are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.


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