Heath Johns, in conversation
There are two kinds of serious writer.
There are those whose primary interest is with the form, the structure of their fiction, like painters more concerned with colour and composition than with representation.
At the opposite end of the scale are those writers who (mostly) take form and structure for granted, concentrating on narrative, with story-telling. (Yes, I know this is over-simplistic; work with me, people.)
It's no secret to those who know me that I fall into the latter camp far more than I do the former, both as a reader as a writer.
Which goes quite some way toward explaining the adolescent thrill I got on Thursday after I picked up my camera and decided to stop off at a Coles (or whatever it's now called). While searching for a copy of Green Mars (which wasn't there) I discovered that Kim Stanley Robinson had released a new novel. Naturally, I snatched it up with barely a glance, then hied myself off to a local watering hole for a bite to eat and a beer (or three).
Robinson is best known for his Mars trilogy, an epic in the very best sense of the term, eschewing melodrama in favour of a serious examination of politics, religion and philosophy as seen through the eyes of a large cast of three-dimensional, passionate characters.
Despite (or, arguably, because of Robinson's long-standing passion about those issues that effect the here-and-now), his Science Fiction is at once "about" the theoretical future and the all-too real present.
The new book (which I have only half-finished as of this writing) seems to be a serendipitously intelligent answer to the "global warming" disaster movie currently making the rounds. But instead of focussing on scenes of tidal waves and iced-over cities, Forty Signs of Rain concentrates on the day-to-day lives of his characters, political operatives and scientists involved in dealing with the swiftly-approaching threat of global warming.
As usual, there is no single protagonist, no "hero" with whom the reader is expected to identify, nor who the reader expects will save the day. Robinson knows the world is far too complex for the usual Science Fiction superhero on whose broad shoulders the doom of all is balanced.
And so, despite a structure that resembles a traditional adventure novel or romance, Robinson uses that structure to grapple with the broad issues that affect us all - economics, environmental change, philosophy, politics, war and peace.
That's not to say that his book (or this one) ignore the human element - they don't - but rather, that he assumes a commonality within the human psyche that will permit his readers to understand without a Joycean epic Charlie Quibler's conflicted feelings about being a care-giver to his children and a senatorial advisor; that we will empathize with Anna Quibler's feelings of guilt at leaving her infant son with her husband while she heads off to the office.
Robinson's interests and talents lead him to write novels that are at once humanly rich and intellectually challenging. His novels are novels but they are also philosophical meditations. His primary concerns are with the latter, but his instincts show he is a story-teller before all else - he never forgets that a writer must always remember his readers must want to find out what happens next.
He finds humour and pathos in his characters lives, he understands that human beings live in the moment and that even those directly involved with the great events of their times are emotionally most concerned with those things that effect them on a personal level - changing diapers, getting laid (or not), struggling with traffic jams or taking time off to body-surf in an ironically chilly Pacific Ocean.
I am only half-way through Forty Signs of Rain but have no hesitation in already recommending it. I already want to find out what will happen to his half-dozen major characters, want to find out how the impending eco-catastrophe will play out, am already impatient for the next volume in the series (as I have just learned from the link, above, this novel is the first of a series, apparently).