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An illustration of the head and shoulders of Kim Stanley Robinson on an orange background. Rebecca Clarke for Vox

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The novelist Kim Stanley Robinson’s vision roves from the deep past to the distant future

Robinson gives readers grounded sci-fi with a soaring spirit.

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Bryan Walsh is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section, which covers the policies, people, and forces that could make the future a better place for everyone. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor — and wrote a book on existential risk.

As it is in the history of our planet and species, geography is the main character in the fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson.

In his magisterial Mars trilogy, it is the Red Planet itself that defines the arcs of the human settlers who come to make their way on an unforgiving world. In his most recent book, the nonfiction foray The High Sierra: A Love Story, it is the mountains bisecting California that take prominence of place. And in perhaps his most influential book — the speculative climate change novel The Ministry for the Future — all human behavior, politics, and fate come to revolve around the actions of the carbon atom and the effect it has on the well-being of the planet human beings have no choice but to call home.

We are a species that has grown large, perhaps too large for our surroundings, and Robinson is one of the few novelists who has a lens wide enough to capture all that we are and all that affects us. As other writers have grown increasingly narrow, satisfied with playing the small range of notes available to us, only Robinson seems to have the vision big enough to capture all that we are and all that we could be. If we live in the time of the hyperobject — to use the philosopher Timothy Morton’s term for the vast subjects that define the boundaries in which we live — only Robinson has the hyperimagination to match it.

But all this makes him seem like so much spinach. Reading Robinson — whether his books are set on Mars or in the future or 30,000 years in the past — is a pure delight. He has a genre writer’s talent for plot and a literary author’s taste for style. Long before “world-building” was used to describe the paint-by-numbers construction of comic-book movies, Robinson was building worlds down to the sawdust in the sets. His speculative fiction is crafted with such detail that we have no choice but to believe.

Nor is he, as so many of his science fiction predecessors are, content with being either a prophet of doom or a techno-Pangloss. Robinson is a realist, a rare novelist with a finely tuned antenna for human psychology, especially in groups. He has hope for us, but that hope hinges on our capacity to grow and change, without ever believing that 100,000 years of brute human evolution could be undone with the wave of a revolutionary wand. The Ministry for the Future portrays a world as ravaged by global warming as the worst climate models might suggest, yet humanity, despite its selfishness and short-sightedness, manages to chart a kind of salvation.

Perhaps that’s the best thing to say about Kim Stanley Robinson. As difficult as it might be to imagine, we should be so lucky as to live in his future.

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