Why prolific sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson's latest book is about real-life mountains
Kim Stanley Robinson is prolific.
The author has published 20 novels since the early '80s, each of which is rich in prose that immerses us into both its detailed worlds and the complex minds of its characters. Many of Robinson's books have ascended into the firmament of modern sci-fi, especially his breakthrough trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) about what human colonization of the red planet might look like. In 2020's The Ministry for the Future, which made Barack Obama's list of his favorite books from that year, Robinson used sci-fi's speculative nature to explore possible climate change solutions.
But Robinson has taken a different path with his latest book. The High Sierra is not a novel — in fact, it's hard to describe exactly what format or genre of book it is. Subtitled "A Love Story," it is a book-length exploration of the Sierra Nevada mountains, which the California-based Robinson has been hiking for decades. In some chapters he shares memories from his own trips to the mountain ranges (his "Sierra life"), while other chapters detail the region's wildlife and rock formations and the historical figures who made notable discoveries about the Sierras. This multiplicity of perspectives makes The High Sierra an engaging read even if you've never been to California.
EW caught up with Robinson to chat about the book — and ask one lingering question about The Ministry for the Future. Check that conversation out below. The High Sierra is in stores now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When we talked in 2020 about The Ministry for the Future, you said that you intended it to be your last big novel for at least awhile, and that you wanted to focus on different kinds of books. How did you decide to make the Sierra Nevadas the focus of your next book?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: I had been wanting to write about the Sierras for decades, and The Ministry for the Future felt like the end of a sequence of novels, so that it was kind of a case of "now's the time." I was really ready for it. With the pandemic stopping all travel, the first draft poured out of me, and then it was a matter of organizing the material and slimming things down.
How did you approach writing about your personal love of these mountains while also making the book accessible to all kinds of readers?
That was hard, actually. I was aware that some chapters would just be a collection of names, so I tried to describe basic things like the crest of the range, peaks and passes, different kinds of ground underfoot, textures of rock, the nature of basins, and so on — really take it back to basics, such that if someone had never been in the Sierras, or even in mountains, they still might be able to build a picture in their mind from my describing things from the ground up, so to speak. Also, there are experiences we all have — walking, seeing the stars at night, feeling a strong wind or being caught out in rain, that everyone can relate to.
When you write about the different geologic formations, rock types, and colorful sunsets in The High Sierra, I'm reminded of your beautiful evocations of the Martian landscape in The Mars Trilogy. How would you say your Sierra life has influenced your sci-fi writing?
I definitely felt like my science fiction novels could include their setttings as a kind of character in and of itself, and when writing about Mars or Antarctica or the inside of a spaceship, I was able to incorporate a number of physical details from my Sierra life just to give the descriptions in the book more precision and intensity. And I often found reasons for my characters to take long walks. Even when walking a long tunnel, as in 2312, the experience of walking all day was another thing I could bring to the books from my Sierra life.
I recently watched the Humphrey Bogart film High Sierra and was struck by the similar title, as well as the fact that it was apparently ahead of its time in terms of shooting on location at Mount Whitney. Why do you think the Sierras are so good at capturing the imagination of visual artists as well as writers?
This is partly a matter of the Mount Whitney area being within driving distance from Hollywood, so that even in the days before flying, film crews could easily get there. Thus they stand in for Asian mountains in Gunga Din, and it goes on like that— about 75 movies have been filmed in that area, and often when looking at a movie with a mountain backdrop, Mount Whitney itself is clearly visible.
That Bogart film High Sierra has some terrifying stunt work of men falling down immense Sierra slopes. So, along with the convenience, the eastern escarpment of the Sierra is a 10,000-foot high wall that extends for about a hundred miles, with a desert below and another mountain range to the east. It's very striking visually, iconic in a special way. It fits the human stories, and figures and faces, against a giant backdrop.
What do you hope readers take away from The High Sierra?
That it's possible to have fun outdoors? That spending time outdoors can be a great joy and comfort? I think we can all use that reminder.
The Ministry for the Future was wonderful to read in 2020. It gave me hope in a dark time. But given your illustration of carbon coin, it's been a bummer to see the rise of cryptocurrency consumed by scams. Do you still see hope for getting us on track with pro-climate monetary policies?
Yes, I would agree that cryptocurrencies are usually speculative bubbles and often scams. Pro-climate monetary policies need to involve fiat money, meaning money created by central banks, and/or authorized by legislatures. And the big new push of green investment from private capital and asset managers working to invest giant pension funds is encouraging as well. So to be clear, the carbon coin, if it is to do the most it can, has to be led and paid for by governments.