Hard on the heels from his latest science fiction novel, The ministry of the future — a searing vision of climate change in the near future — just released Kim Stanley Robinson The High Sierra: A Love Story. The book is a gripping memoir intertwined with musings on history, literature, geology, ecology, politics, and psychogeography, all threaded through the narrative thread of the author’s lifelong enchantment with hiking and scrambling in a trailless desert on a precarious planet spinning in space.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jon Christensen: How did High Sierra influence your science fiction?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I think it was formative, in a very deep sense. I was surprised at how many of my texts have High Sierra analogies. Right from the start I can see when Hjalmar Nederland wanders around Mars in Icehenge, it was a walk in the Sierra. And it kept event. That was true in my Mars trilogy. Terraforming Mars is really cheating. Mars is basalt rather than granite. It’s toxic rather than healthy. So turning Mars into High Sierras required something like a 2,000-page novel to make it even slightly plausible. I love when my novels find their way to take a long walk. It is also a gesture towards Ursula K. Le Guin. In The left hand of darknesswhen Genly Ai and Estraven have to take a long hike across the glacier, it’s brilliant writing, and it’s always inspired me.
JC: Did the process work the other way around? Did your science fiction influence your experience of the High Sierra?
KSR: When you’re hiking in the High Sierra, you’re high enough on this planet that you can look out into the Central Valley and into the Owens Valley and think, “Look, you’re on a planet here.” It’s kind of a sci-fi moment. This leads to other ideas. Like, what’s the future of wilderness? Is there wilderness in the Anthropocene? And what are we going to do with this planet in the future? And then I also think of the deep past. What about the first people who arrived here? Somewhere between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, humans roamed these spaces, and they had hiking kits that were no different from ours. They used leather, wood and other natural materials to create lightweight objects that they could carry on their backs and be comfortable at the end of the day. When I’m up there hiking, my literary imagination, a historical imagination, is definitely fired up.
JC: What has changed in the High Sierra in your lifetime?
KSR: The bottom line is that climate change has hit the Sierra. The fires mean that there is often smoke up there and the lower parts have burned. And the glaciers go, go, are gone. I saw it with my own eyes. I climbed to the head of Deadman Canyon, where there were seven glaciers, and now there is only one. And it’s very small. It will be gone in three, four years. In the Sierras, everything happens faster than we thought. You know, I was hoping that I would die before that happened, and it would be someone else’s problem. But no, it will be something I will see on every trip for the rest of my life.
JC: And what do you think of the future of Sierra Nevada?
KSR: I have thought about this a lot. I think it’s a practice honed by writing science fiction. This is where we are, this is the trajectory we are on, so let’s extrapolate. The Sierra is part of the 30 by 30 plan for California, keeping 30% of California wild by 2030. And they’re thinking 50 by 50 to follow. The Sierras will be very important for this. The tree ring data indicates very clearly that there have been prodigious droughts in the American West, and we may be entering another. That doesn’t mean the Sierras will die out and be just dead rock. There are extremophiles out there. The life forms up there are used to desiccation, and then to being under the snow. And being so high up and so close to the Pacific, they’re going to get some precipitation. Maybe it will be really irregular; possibly the Arizona monsoon from the Gulf of California in July. But it won’t turn into one of those totally moonscapes you see in some places, including other places in the American West. It will always be a little greener, a little more varied, a little more Sierra. That’s what I see when I try to push it forward. He will be injured, damaged. It will change. But it won’t be dead. It’s a little comfort.
It’s kind of a sci-fi moment. This leads to other ideas. Like, what’s the future of wilderness? Is there wilderness in the Anthropocene? And what are we going to do with this planet in the future?
JC: You participated very recently in the designation of Mount Thoreau. And your book addresses the debate over renaming some of the Sierra peaks named after racists and eugenicists. What is your guiding philosophy for naming the landscape?
KSR: I think there is no harm in naming woodpeckers after humans as a gesture to honor them and what they stood for. But almost all of Sierra’s names came from the period between the Civil War and World War II. And they kind of screwed it up. All the philosophy of the time concerned the great men of history. On the one hand, it was intensely masculine. On the other hand, they were entrepreneurs. Stanford has two; there are two Mount Stanfords in the Sierra Nevada. So those names are crap. And if there’s the equivalent of a Confederate monument up there, which there is, let’s take it down. These magnificent peaks should have better names. Native American names should go back to where we know them.
JC: One name you think should stick around is John Muir. Why do you think Muir needs to defend now?
KSR: I feel like his defense attorney. And, of course, he wasn’t perfect. Nobody is perfect. I also try to interrogate my own feelings now and realize that I’m partly interested in questions of historiography, like, how do we judge people from the past? And what is the psychological motivation for judging historical figures for doing good or evil? Is it part of the judgment we pass on ourselves? I think it must be. Then it gets even more interesting. I’m interested in Muir. I have read all of his writings, including his unpublished works in the archives. Muir has a bad reputation. Out of, I guess, 3,000 to 4,000 published pages, there are, indeed, at least three or four pages of nasty commentary on Native Americans. Muir did not understand that he was looking at a devastated refugee population. He looked at the prisoners. That was stupid of Muir. And he had prejudices, it’s true. But in reality, he was a great admirer of Native American cultures.
JC: What do you think Muir still has to offer us – now and in the future. Why shouldn’t we bury him for good?
KSR: For Native Americans, Muir is the symbol of the colonial appropriation of Native lands by European settlers. So we have white settler colonialism and the incredible pent up guilt of the suppression and near extermination of the Native American population on this land. How, then, do you take care of this land? Like Wes Jackson’s book Become a native of this place, how do you do? It’s really a religious issue, in a way — the transcendental idea that nature is a sacred space, that God is imminent, that you can transcend by paying close attention to nature. As a powerful public intellectual of his time, Muir was a crucial figure. He was also an early reader of Thoreau. He reads Walden when he was young. He read all 20 volumes of the complete works of Thoreau. For Native Americans in California, Muir represents the appropriation of their ancestral lands, even if, compared to the armed military men who killed and hunted them, he was just a hippie figure wandering up there saying, “This place is beautiful!” But also, the story is not determinative. In terms of advice for us, for what to do now, it is extremely ambiguous. You can take what you want from it.
JC: Not a big fan of the John Muir Trail, though, or bagging peaks. You prefer to get off the beaten track, cross nameless passes and cross high basins without paths. It seems to be almost a philosophy. Why?
KSR: Well, it’s beautiful. And you can do it. The Sierra is a huge eroded plateau. So, unlike some other mountain ranges in the world, like the Swiss Alps, you can walk around without putting yourself in immediate danger and without having to climb vertically. The John Muir Trail now receives 90% of traffic in the Sierra. There is a lot of wilderness with no trails and very few names. When you hike and scramble, you get off the trail, but you’re not putting your life in danger. Problems can be solved with intense cognitive and physical effort. And you can get a little jittery thrill, like, oh my God, I better not fall here. But even if you fall, you’re not going to kill yourself at the bottom of that fall, which is exactly what I don’t like about rock climbing. So hiking and scrambling is a very nice activity. To be completely honest, I’m playing a game up there. It’s all for fun. I’m like a 5 year old in a gymnasium in the jungle. And it’s just a spectacular gym in the jungle.
Jon Christensen teaches and does research at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA, where he is one of the founders of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies.