Kim Stanley Robinson: Down and out in the year 2000

Eventually the sky was packed with stars, so densely that they defined perfectly the dome of sky; and frightened him. “Where I come from there are not so many stars,” he said shakily to the hut, and then felt acutely his solitude, and the emptinesses inside his mind, the black membranes he could not penetrate. He retreated into the hut. After a long time lying on the hard wooden shelf, he fell asleep.

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A note

Out of the fifty-odd books I’ve written about for this blog so far, this is the only one that fell between the cracks between reading and writing. It’s been six months or so since I read it now. It was so strange and beautiful and unsettling that I really didn’t know what to write about it at the time. I’ll give it a go now, but because I know I can’t do it justice I’ll keep it short.

Why I read it

It was in Cooks Hill Books for 2 bucks. I liked the first Mars book (got bored by the second) and this was a collection of short stories and novellas – worth a go. Good beach reading, I thought.

It turned out to be very different to what I’d expected.

Story 1: A short, sharp shock

The story starts with the most intriguing of hooks: a man gains consciousness as he is washed up on a beach. He remembers nothing of himself or his past, and the only twinge of familiarity he gets is when he sees a woman who has washed up next to him.

Eventually he is able to stand, walk, and investigate his environment. There are subtle things wrong with the inhabitants he meets first; surreal features that warn him (and us) that he is in no normal place. Furthermore, he seems to be on a narrow strip of land with endless ocean on both sides – an isthmus so long it potentially encircles the world. Soon it becomes apparent that there are violent, terrible people living there, and his life will be lived in the shadow of the threat they pose.

The story reminded me of a computer game I used to play. Surreal, peaceful quietness that bred a constant terror. Beauty. Uncertainty. There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of things we don’t understand, and a lot of time where nothing changes except the colours of the sky and the way the light interacts with the ocean.

I absolutely hated the ending when I read it, because I did not want it to be the end. I wanted something more. Something explanatory – whether of their pasts or futures; either would have been welcome. It was almost physically painful being left where Robinson left us.

So to try and dull the pain I went to amazon.com to see what comments had been left, and whether someone could explain it to me. Instead I found two types of response: (1) it’s a poetic meditation with a definite meaning, which is that blah blah, or (2) it’s utter crap and a waste of time, and anyone who finds philosophy in it could probably find philosophy in a dog turd if someone handed it to them and told them it was a haiku.

After a few days of thinking about it, this is what I concluded: I don’t think I understand it. I couldn’t pretend to tell you its meaning or moral or allegory or whatever. But I do know it painted a very vivid image in my mind, this world and this man’s experiences; a totally new and unique picture that I can’t relate to anything else except how a certain computer game made me feel in the 90s. And I feel it conveyed something that I have experienced only peripherally before, but which was terrifying even then: when you are in a place so foreign that you do not have any compass or references left – not in language, or landscape or customs or moral standard – what do you do but keep walking when you can, and seek out what snippets of mutual understanding you can glean from those around you?

The rest of the stories

You can tell Robinson is interested in social class division and everything is permeated by an underlying consciousness of this. The stories are more conventional in form and perhaps more entertaining, but ultimately don’t plant themselves in your brain like a fishhook like the first one.

Ultimately

I feel like the opening story is so strange it’s given me a new reference point by which to describe a kind of existential angst – the terror and calm that can co-exist from realising you are stuck in an existence that may have no meaning, is fraught with suffering and interspersed by stretches of carefree bliss, and may not ever be explainable.

Sometimes, when I over-think major life choices, or suffer through confusing and hurtful events, I feel a hollow tingle in my legs like I’m standing on the edge of very high cliff, and it’s that void of meaningless that’s yawning wide in front of me. Now maybe I can help come to terms with it by referencing the infinite isthmus and knowing the narrator and the Swimmer have walked the way before me, and moreover found ways to enjoy beauty when they found it.

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This book was mostly read in a bath in a hotel in Sydney during Interview Weekend.

Feature image from Arthur Blue on Deviant Art

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