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Robert Markley

About Kim Stanley Robinson

Today’s conversation is about the work of science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson.


Mars, NASA.Gov

If you have listened to Night White Skies before (and if you haven’t) let me point out that the overarching focus has been to highlight just how expansive the future is. What I mean by that is there are so many unknowns to the actions we’re currently taking, that it becomes difficult to fully understand their ramifications when wanting to make plans.

If we were to look at just two topics on the table today; Climate Change’ and the Healthcare of our bodies’ we’re already talking about two pressures that impact nearly all actions on earth. With Climate Change it’s a course change on a global scale to the environments we live within and with health, it’s the makeup of our bodies that experience this environment. No doubt, each of you listening is thinking of yet something else that either falls into one these two categories or even exists beyond. 

This is all to say that designers (architect, landscape architect, urban designer) inherently design for the future - producing artifacts of the imagination that must then exist for years if not decades into the future. The future ahead of us seems inherently unknowable. What are we to do? There are so many technologies, advancements and politics seemingly just tossed around us at any given moment that have immense implications on our species’ future. As designers, it’s likely our greatest strengths aren’t these technologies themselves but the means in which we can better understand the implications of their actions. These are techniques for teasing out potential futures so as to better know the terrain in which we embed design. A type of Stress testing’ of the future. 

A big undercurrent of Night White Skies’ has been to turn to science fiction. Science fiction in my own life has always been a guilty pleasure mostly kept to myself that I’ve only recently come to realize has been a source of inspiration for decades to many of the names you might often associate with authority on topics of science, social anthropology, engineering and beyond. Science fiction has long provided techniques and tools not so much for predicting the future but for better understanding the ground currently beneath us.

There is probably no bigger name in science fiction in the last 50 years than Kim Stanley Robinson. Robert Markley (who I’m speaking with today) wrote a book with that very title, Kim Stanley Robinson’ that looks at his work. The book looks at the works including the alternate histories of The Days of Rice and Salt, the future through the Mars Trilogy, as well as books like Shaman that take place 30,000 year in the past before written language. Ultimately, the work looks at how we as a species and civilization might move forward as we come to grasp the pressures facing us today.

For those familiar with his work or even completely unaware of it until this very moment, Robert Markley’s book is a great read. It was a pleasure to speak with him for this episode and I hope you enjoy the conversion half as much as I enjoyed recording it.

Robert Markley

Robert Markley is Trowbridge Professor and Head of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His recent books include The Far East and the English Imagination, 1600-1730 and Dying Planet: Mars in Science and the Imagination.

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