Meet sci-fi master Kim Stanley Robinson in his Davis writing sanctuary

Acclaimed science-fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson of Davis shows readers where he writes daily - outdoors.
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Acclaimed science-fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson of Davis shows readers where he writes daily - outdoors.
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Books

World-famous author has found his writing utopia – outdoors, under a tarp, in Davis

By Debbie Arrington

darrington@sacbee.com

June 09, 2017 08:00 AM

Sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson has found his sweet spot. Not in a galaxy – or century – far away, but in the courtyard of his Davis home.

With his laptop on a patio table, the famed novelist imagines a unexpectedly livable future Earth, moon, Mars and more. It’s where he’s written several of his best-selling novels including his current “New York 2140,” which redefines “underwater real estate” by exploring a flooded Manhattan.

Robinson always writes outdoors – no matter the weather. In winter, he bundles up in warm clothes. In spring, a blue tarp protects him from scattered showers. In summer, misters keep him cool.

“This saved my career,” he said of his outdoor “office.” “I was getting bored writing 10 years ago. I couldn’t concentrate. Writing a novel is very labor intensive. Then, I realized I’d rather do anything than stay indoors.”

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So, Robinson moved his writing into the open air. “I like it,” he said, surrounded by his fern-filled courtyard garden. “It made me happy.”

Over the years, Robinson has written more than 20 books including three acclaimed series. Winner of just about every major sci-fi book award, he’ll be the featured speaker at The Sacramento Bee Book Club on June 15.

Robinson continues to be ahead of his time in his literary visions. His celebrated “Mars” trilogy, published in the mid-’90s, speculated on the colonization of the red planet long before recent interest by Elon Musk, Donald Trump and others to make Mars habitation a mission. Right now, he’s considering what would happen if China claimed the moon as its territory, the subject of his current work in progress.

“That could happen in the very near future and very quickly,” he said of a possible Chinese moon takeover, “just 10, 20 years from now.”

His latest novel, “New York 2140” (Orbit, $28, 624 pages), submerges Manhattan under 55 feet of water, the result of a century-plus of melting ice caps and severe climate change. He chose 2140 as the year because that’s how long he speculates it would take for rising seawater to cover half the island.

And, surprisingly, this watery world is not a dystopian wasteland, but an oversized glass-walled Venice with flying boats. Surfers ride waves between skyscrapers topped by urban farms. As always in Robinson’s not-too-distant future, humans adapt to change.

“I had a lot of fun with this book,” he said. “Most people envision the end of the world as a zombie apocalypse. (In his book), there are going to be disasters, but there are still young people trying to find their place in the world and trying to make the most of it, too. It’s a comedy of coping.

“Because people find ways to cope. My characters still have fun. They fool around. ... But like any world, there will always be danger. You’re never safe.”

Time magazine named Robinson a “Hero of the Environment” for his optimistic vision of the future. The New Yorker suggested that Robinson “may be our greatest political novelist” as well as a sci-fi genius.

“There also are some very important political elements to this book,” Robinson said of “New York 2140.” “It expresses belief in government and a nation/state system (instead of) a utopian dream.”

Robinson, 65, contemplates utopian ideals on a daily basis. He and his family live in Davis’ Village Homes, a pioneering collective that combines quality of life with shared community experiences.

Robinson and his wife, environmental scientist Lisa Nowell, moved there in 1991. The couple originally met while both were at UC Davis in the late ’70s. Robinson was teaching freshman composition and Nowell was finishing her Ph.D. in chemistry. (They actually met at the Davis Aquatics Masters swim club, Robinson notes.) He earned his doctorate in English at UC San Diego in 1982, then immediately launched his writing career. They lived in San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Switzerland before returning to Davis. “The Village” is where they raised their two sons, David and Tim, who still live at home.

“It was a life changer,” Robinson said of Village Homes. “It’s suburbia tweaked to hippie values. When hippies grew up and started having children, they came up with this idea. It really worked. We know our neighbors. It’s shaped our lives.”

It’s helped shape his world view, too.

“I’ve been redefining utopia,” he said. “In everyday speech, utopia implies an unrealistic pipe dream of everything good. It seems pointless and impossible to achieve. I see utopia as positive progress, always improving things. But there always will be resistance.”

In his patio office, Christmas lights crisscross overhead, adding to the tranquil environment created by an author used to inventing altered circumstances. Blue jays and sparrows dart in and out of shrubs, stopping by to chirp while perched on the fence. “These are my office mates,” Robinson said of the birds. “I see them every day.”

In addition to its original flagstone, the patio is paved with rocks and stones collected from the homes of other authors. More collected rocks serve as paperweights on his work table. They give him immediate physical (and metaphysical) touchstones to literary compatriots as well as trigger happy memories.

Robinson currently is plowing through George R.R. Martin’s five-book “Game of Thrones” series. Martin is a friend, he explained, and fantasy – sci-fi’s literary sister – can make fun reading. “ ‘Game of Thrones’ is very smart, like Tolkien suddenly real,” he said.

Part of his daily routine includes a morning garden break. Robinson walks the short block to his plot in the community garden that unites the Village Homes neighborhood. He tends his tomatoes and pulls weeds.

“My garden is crucial to my life,” he explained. “Gardening is physical. Writing – it’s a lot of thinking. You have to go by feeling. It’s all invisible work, inside your head. To be able to get outside and do physical work is a joy.”

In addition to working his community garden, Robinson hikes the Sierra and other mountain ranges. Logging time on peaks around the world, he’s a devoted backpacker.

“I was raised a beach kid in Orange County,” he said. “I never could imagine life away from the ocean. But then, I moved here and changed my focus to the mountains. The Sierra became my beach.”

His experiences in nature, both as a backpacker and a gardener, help keep Robinson grounded and focused on a near-future Mother Earth.

“The only utopia possible for us is to hold on to what we have,” he said. “We need to become gardeners of our planet. The future is not all doom and gloom. (Saving the planet) is a full employment project, too; people are necessary because gardening is so labor intensive. If everybody gets on board, really good things could happen.

“Gardening of the Earth is something we can do,” he said. “That’s how I hold on.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Sacramento Bee Book Club

Science-fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 15, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.

Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $10 for students and $25 for general admission. Buy tickets at www.sacbee.com/events. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “New York: 2140” for 30 percent off the list price (Orbit, $28, 624 pages).

All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.

“New York: 2140” also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through June 15 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the five Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.

Information: www.sacbee.com/events