The worlds of the science fiction writer

Kim Stanley Robinson

The novelist in today's publishing market must wield several essential skills. Competent prose is a good start, emotive language will help depending on your genre, realistic dialogue can let you sidestep a lot of cliches fairly effortlessly and something readers have never seen before goes a long way.

But spare a thought for the humble science-fiction writer. Often setting tales in the future (or at least somewhere we're not familiar with), the sci-fi has to build a whole world and the way it works from scratch. And make it seem realistic according to the plot, convey detail that isn't needless exposition, and enmesh description of it into the narrative.

One of the modern masters of such skills is Kim Stanley Robinson. The 61-year-old author is best known for almost 20 ground-breaking novels, most of them containing signature themes of social, environmental and economic risk and destruction. It's no surprise his doctoral thesis at the University of California was on the work of Philip K. Dick, another peerless world-creator who managed to issue some of the most urgent social and cultural messages of his time under sci-fi auspices.

Robinson is also one of those authors whose work has broken the banks of mere art. His Mars Trilogy (1993-1996) about the colonisation of the red planet was so realistic when it came to the technological and political systems at play, today it's seen as a blueprint of how to (and how not to) settle Mars when we finally have the means and the will.

"Most science-fiction novels are trying to give their readers a strong sense of a different time and place, " Robinson says. "And it's indeed very important. Readers expect it, not just in novels set on alien planets but in novels set on Earth in different times, too."

For his latest book, Shaman, Robinson stayed on Earth, depicting life for humanity 30,000 years ago. We have some fossil record of what life was like in Paleolithic times (a period Robinson calls a "baseline of what we are, or how we became what we are") and then an important discovery in Europe convinced him how advanced people of the time really were.

"When the ice man (Otzi) was pulled out of a glacier between Italy and Austria in 1991, I was very struck by his gear, " the author explains. "It was sophisticated and it resembled the kind of gear we take mountain climbing now in purpose and design - in everything but materials."

The final piece of Shaman fell into place when Robinson saw photos of 32,000-year-old cave paintings from France's Chauvet cave (discovered in 1995). "I was so struck by their beauty and age I felt I had my story, " he says. "I'd tell the story of the people who painted that cave."

Shaman is just the latest in one of Robinson's epic works. Few of his novels are "normal" length, usually clocking in at 600-900 pages. The sheer number of words the Illinois native has written in his fiction is staggering, and that's just what we see on the page. Whether it's living on Mars, extrapolating the birth of Islamic history across eons, life 300 years hence (2312) or America healing from nuclear war and industrialisation gone mad (the California Trilogy), an enormous amount of preparation and reading goes into each project.

"I definitely enjoy my research, " he says. "It's reading with a purpose. I feel like I'm on the hunt, looking for good stories to tell, because I collect good stories from the research and retell them."

The process often begins years in advance as Robinson collects books and web links that seem relevant to an idea he's been "brooding on". When starting a book, he then looks for whatever he has on hand that's useful, but when he starts writing, the process changes to what he calls "iterative". "Once I've written a draft of a scene I know much better what I need to know to make it better, and that directs subsequent research."

As well as his unparalleled name as a sci-fi author, there's a whole other dimension to Robinson's work. His books are so influential and (in the case of the Mars trilogy) have become the definitive statement on an issue that a new genre was credited to him: literary sci-fi. It's as if his realistic addressing of themes such as environmentalism and interstellar exploration elevate the material above "mere" science fiction.

But Robinson bristles at the suggestion, saying any adjective before the words "science fiction" are usually attempts to box him in by people who "don't like the kind of thing they're naming". "It's bad for writers to get stuck with labels because it cuts down on potential readers, and pre-forms expectations, " he says. "I've experienced this directly and reject all those labels. The one I'll always accept is simply 'science fiction', because it means something, it's what I do."

It also makes perfect sense to Robinson (and any dedicated science-fiction reader as well, if you care to ask them) that lofty themes attracting attributions like "literary", "feminist" or "political" have a natural home in science fiction. "The future of science, civilisation and life on Earth depend in large part on how we choose to deal with our current problems, " he says.

Shaman is published by Orbit ($30).