On the shelf
The High Sierra: A Love Story
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Little Brown: 560 pages, $40
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Kim Stanley Robinson published his debut novel The Wild Shore in 1984. It envisioned a post-industrial America after a devastating nuclear attack and became the first book in his “Three Californias” trilogy, which frames a range of possible futures after environmental destruction. In the nearly 40 years since, Robinson has established himself as a visionary science fiction writer—author of more than 30 books, including the Hugo Award-winning Green Mars and Blue Mars. He is also a leading advocate for environmental issues, having spoken at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last autumn.
Yet if his May book The High Sierra: A Love Story is any indication, it is perhaps most appropriate to view Robinson as a humanist. In this, his first general nonfiction book, he blends personal narrative, survival tips, and geological and cultural perspectives to create a multidimensional portrait of both the terrain of California’s glorious mountain range and his place within it. “I’ve been going to the Sierras for half a century,” he explains, “and I’ve been thinking about a book about them for about 30 years, and it seemed like I’d better look into it while I was still an ambulatory.” so to speak.”
Recently, Robinson and I corresponded via email to talk about the book, climate issues, his dedication to this landscape, and hiking as a creative venture.
“The High Sierra” is, among other things, a field guide of sorts. They discuss gear, routes, and the history of the area. How did it evolve?
When the pandemic brought travel to a halt, I sat in my front yard and wrote every day, jotting down everything I wanted to say about the Sierra. There was a lot of it, and there were a lot of different topics I wanted to cover, including my own Sierra memoirs, the geology of the mountain range, the history of its people, some suggested routes and gear tips, a bibliography, and so on. I realized early on that it would be nearly impossible to organize all of this as a single flow of thought, so I started breaking it down into categories. Once I had a taxonomy of chapter types, I wove them together, the continuous line being my Sierra life from age 21 to about 68.
As a fantastic fiction writer, what was the impetus behind writing something that’s not quite memoir, not quite history?
I think my life in the Sierras was very distinctive and can therefore be used as a type for a fairly common experience: I discovered the Sierras at a young age, fell in love and went back there backpacking and scrambling as often as I could for the rest of my life. Thousands have done so, and my story is little different from theirs. For me, this is as much a memory as I want to write. For one, it captures most of what I’ve done that’s even interesting to tell others about. Aside from the Sierras, I was a suburban househusband who works in the garden and spends a lot of time typing every day. My Sierra life is also basically tranquil and not enormously dramatic. But the mountain itself is something to write about, and I’ve had quite a few adventures, so I decided that if I was going to describe it properly, I had to tell the story of my time up there.
Part of your focus in The High Sierra has to do with climate change. Are you at all optimistic that we can save ourselves from a culminating death spiral?
The death spiral is going too far, although I suppose a worst-case scenario could involve mass extinction and a shattered human civilization. So it doesn’t seem right to announce that everything is fine. We are at a moment of extreme danger to the biosphere and humanity. But now everyone knows that, even those who try to deny it, and it’s possible we’re reacting well enough to slip by. The same is true of the Sierras – this biome has survived 100-year droughts before and will likely do so again.
Would the planet be better off without us?
We’re not that important to the biosphere anyway! If we destroy civilization and cause mass extinctions, in a few million years the biosphere will be completely occupied by new species again. Life will go on. people, who knows. We’re probably reasonably ineradicable – look at the near-extinction event 73,000 years ago that left just a few thousand people alive on the planet – that was close! And yet, without our current capabilities, we have still been hurtling through what appears to be a decades-long volcanic “nuclear winter” event. So it’s best not to get apocalyptic. Put it this way – it could always get better or worse, it will never end: So try better.
Many of your novels, beginning with the Three Californias trilogy, deal with climate issues. What role, if any, does fiction play here?
Maybe it helps. It helps to think ahead and imagine what is needed, and science fiction is just a literary elaboration of that tendency and ability. For myself, I find utopian science fiction useful and interesting. Helpful and fun to think about.
How about The High Sierra?
There are many places on this planet that are incredibly beautiful and adorable. You don’t have to burn a lot of carbon to have a good time. The basics of Paleolithic contentment remain the same within us and are readily available. The technological sublime is indeed sublime, but like a drug rush – it’s expensive and can be tiring. The ordinary pleasures are better all around. Walking is one of those pleasures – we evolved to walk better! And hiking in the mountains is fun, but so is hiking in the city or pretty much anywhere else.
As a dedicated hiker, I found your thoughts on walking deeply resonant, particularly the idea of viewing it as “devotional exercise”.
When I hike in the mountains – and that would be all day, every day for about a week – there is time to think about writing and about life. A nice chapter I crossed out: Virginia Woolf reviewed Thoreau’s journals when she was young (still Virginia Stephen I think). [Times Literary Supplement]. In her review, she reveals that she was flipping through the journals and came across a section where Thoreau would go out at night, notebook and pencil in hand, writing down what he saw and thought in real time. A month later she wrote “Monday or Tuesday” and then “The Mark on the Wall” and then “Jacob’s Room”. In short, she invented her version of the “stream of consciousness” narrative after reading Thoreau’s experiments on real-time nocturnal writing!
You have been described as a “utopian”. What do you think of the author as an advocate or activist and your own role in this regard?
Utopian thinking and writing can be helpful in imagining a different and better social order than the one we have now. We need this better system so writing about it should help. For me I want to write good novels: but what is a good novel? There must be more than one kind; and sometimes they help us to imagine new worlds. I see my writing as my political contribution, but I also just want to think of pleasing forms, like vases or poems. Fortunately, thinkers like Brecht and Aristotle have made it very clear that this isn’t really opposition, but that art is always important to help us think and feel.
Ulin is a former book editor and book critic for The Times.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-30/kim-stanley-robinson-talks-about-the-high-sierra-book Sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson talks ‘The High Sierra’