An Ordinary Disaster
Brothers and Teachers
E14 / Wayfinding with Kim Stanley Robinson

E14 / Wayfinding with Kim Stanley Robinson

How he became a writer, the "Cardboard Set Problem," the deep pleasure of wayfinding, the erotic charge of being in the mountains, "being a dog," and moving from dominance to resistance.

This conversation is part of a series of interviews with various brothers and teachers, including many fellow writers, all of which are part of the body of work surrounding my book-length memoir An Ordinary Disaster—one man's proof that we can all learn to listen to ourselves, and to act upon the inner voice of our self, our sanity and our soul.

Today I'm speaking with Kim Stanley Robinson, a true legend of a writer, and also as an advocate for better stewardship of planet Earth and for sustainable cohabitation with all the species that inhabit this unique gem of a planet. Stan has published more than twenty books including the pioneering Mars Trilogy, 2312, Shaman, The Ministry For the Future, and, most recently, The High Sierra: A Love Story. He has received great recognition for both his creative work, his advocacy—and, although he's quick to qualify it as the work of a novelist, the fact is that he’s made quite a mark with his scientific thinking as well.

Stan and I met through the Long Now Foundation here in San Francisco and reconnected through our mutual love of the high Sierra, in particular through the shared experience of independently coming across Paiute obsidian knapping sites simply by following our intuition in looking for good places to rest while out hiking.

Especially since I'm working on building a third career as a writer, I value very highly Stan's life experience as a working artist who's met with such success—and also as someone who embodies warmth, curiosity, irreverence, adventure, poise, truth, and openness, just to name a few of the values that I see in him.


Stan and I cover a lot of ground that should be interesting to fans of his writing as well as lovers of the high Sierra of California, including the Cardboard Set Problem, physical places as characters in writing, how he became a writer, poetry, how he feels about formal training in creative writing (and MFA programs in particular), the connection between geography and outdoor sports, intuition and the practice of wayfinding, the difference between micro and macro lost, risk and danger, the spiritual practice of ‘being a dog,’ learning to love the inhuman—and other species of ‘people,’ dualism, escape, and balance, our collective embodiment, moving from a model of masculinity based on dominance to one based on resistance, his relationship with Gary Snyder, civilization and progress as “lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win,” and the Kingdom of San Francisco.

As you read or listen, you might scan the questions at the bottom of the show notes, or just consider this: what is your relationship with the natural world? How does it feel to be in nature and to be part of nature? And how does that inform you in your daily life, and as you look towards the future?

The Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

Bowen Dwelle: Stan, welcome to Brothers and Teachers.

Kim Stanley Robinson: My pleasure, Bowen. Good to be with ya.

[00:03:27] The High Sierra

Kim Stanley Robinson: I know that we're here today also to talk about my most recent book, The High Sierra. And that of course is a whole different thing. It's non-fiction. It has a bit of memoir in it. Never have I written directly about myself as much as I have in that book.

And it was kind of uncomfortable to tell you the truth. But in order to express the Sierra properly, I needed to tell my own story. And it would've been crazy not to. So I went ahead and dove in.

Bowen Dwelle: I really felt that, and it was just a lovely surprise and serendipity to come across your book in the little Mono Lake bookshop there in Lee Vining. I was just on my way back from a visit to the high Sierra, and so it just made perfect sense.

It was so striking to me, this relationship between these two very different worlds of backpacking in the high Sierras of California and the futuristic, fictional worlds that you write about.

If they've read the High Sierra, I'm sure other readers can see the places and the scenes directly lifted from there [like] the fell fields and the Terminator, which reminds me of the sunrise coming up over the high Sierras.

How do those relate for you as a writer? I mean, it seems like you began to spend time in the mountains and became a writer around the same time, so how do you inhabit both of those worlds?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, let me ponder that aloud. I grew up in Orange County, and it was a period of rapid change from agriculture in that it was orange groves, literally when I was a kid, to the city, a portion of Los Angeles, suburban automotive. It was a dreadful transformation of that landscape, and quite shocking, although when you're young, it was just natural.

[00:05:21] The Cardboard Set Problem

Kim Stanley Robinson: I didn't register it much until I went to college at uc San Diego, and I discovered science fiction at that point. When I ran into it, it felt right to me. I think that my experience of seeing Orange County transform so quickly meant that when I read into science fiction, that literature seemed more expressive of how things really felt than ordinary literature did, which now struck me as a kind of historical fiction no matter what.

So there I was as a science fiction writer, quite excited. At this point I was maybe 20 years old, a sophomore in college. Filled with big ideas and dreams. And at that same time, I started going to the Sierra, inspired by my friend Terry.

We had been friends since junior high school. We went to college together to go body surfing, and then we were going to the mountains together. And what struck me, and this maybe took a few years, was that science fiction has a standing weakness in formal terms in that you know that it's made up, it's set in the year 3000.

It's set in the future. It's maybe on another planet. When you're reading, you know it's made up. And I eventually called this the cardboard set problem. And this comes from Star Trek. The bridge of the USS Enterprise was clearly a cardboard set.

[00:06:39] Physical Places

Bowen Dwelle: It's very clear that you're fascinated with the physical places, and they're huge characters in your work.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, but this was a conscious choice as a kind of an overcompensation for a structural weakness that is in science fiction itself. So seeing that, that structural weakness, the reader, they know it's made up, the settings tend to be kind of shaky and one's sense that this is more than a dream, that it's reality, which you really want outta literature- that was weaker in science fiction, I felt, and I had experiences that, that were mostly at that point, Sierra based, that would allow me to say, okay, I'm on another planet. And for me that became Mars and the bodies in the solar system that NASA was revealing to us in the late seventies because of Voyager.

Bowen Dwelle: There is something otherworldly about the High Sierra in particular.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Oh yeah. At least to me there's some cheating involved. Like you have to terraform Mars to make it look like the High Sierra. And of course the rocks are different, et cetera. But the American West with its redness and its bare rock aspect, even more than the High Sierra proper, which is a wetter zone than most of the American West.

It looked martian all over and I had spent some time in the Navajo reservation north of Flagstaff and seen what everyone sees as a Southern California that right behind the coastal range, you've got a desert. So, I thought I can do Mars and if I tell the story of terraforming Mars, the more it's terraformed, the more it looks like a place that I really know quite well.

So that was a big driver, and I must say this evolved over decades of work, but it became a habit.

Bowen Dwelle: I see that, the connection between the other worldliness of the mountains and the American West.

[00:08:31] Becoming A Writer

Bowen Dwelle: It leads me back to when did the seed arise in you of the idea of becoming a writer and the idea that you could?

Kim Stanley Robinson: It begins I think by being a reader and loving reading and loving reading fiction, I've always read nonfiction, but in an instrumental way. I like to learn the information. It's not an aesthetic pleasure, but between novels and short stories and also poetry and also plays theater and plays written down.

These were all really important to me as a reader. And I went to college thinking, well I've gotta learn something useful. And I was thinking I would be a lawyer, but I started taking literature classes on the side, and slowly but surely I realized this is really what I'm interested in. So I became a literature major instead, without a good sense that I was going to do anything with it. To tell you the truth, it was a little bit of a scary thing.

When I came near the end of my undergraduate career, I had no prospects and I had no sense of what to do next. So like a lot of people, I went to graduate school to put off the decision. But from very young age, like maybe 12 or so, I started writing little short stories and I had good critical eye.

I could see that my short stories were not good compared to the ones I was reading and loving. And I realized it's harder than it looks. I would put things aside for years. And then I started writing poetry and I would say poetry is a really great way in. It makes you attentive to language, to the sentence and to phrasing.

And also you can do a poem and then you can revise it 20 times. In many traditions, they're like one page long and you just keep on cycling it through till you have to give up. I was never a very good poet, but I was intense about it and it gave me a self-definition.

And then running into science fiction as an undergraduate. The moment I began to try, I had an idea for a science fiction story. I wrote it, it was better than my younger efforts had been, distinctly better. I could see that myself as a reader. I thought, ah, well maybe it's just a matter of growing up. Maybe it's a matter of having ideas. God knows, I could never figure it out, but it was clear that I was better at it than I was when I was 12 when I began.

And at this point, again, I was about 20. It was a lifelong urge that really only coalesced into something that other people would enjoy reading, possibly, and the test of that is whether an editor will buy it from you and publish it. And that happened relatively early for me. I was maybe 22, and I sold a story to Damon Knight, who was my first teacher and editor, and a lovely man and a kind of a mentor figure.

In fact, you know how in the arts, in the Renaissance, you had a patron and really, Damon Knight was more of a patron than he was a customer or a client because he supported me in my mental life.

He's the one who made me feel like, oh, I am a writer. I'm even a professional writer. Although I was making, you know, hundreds of dollars per year.

In other words, not enough to keep going, but it was something that I could regard as my main thing.

[00:11:55] Poetry

Bowen Dwelle: Thank you for that. You know, one of my writing teachers, Jack Grapes—[he’s] out of Los Angeles—who's just a really interesting cat and a poet and certainly teaches that as part of his practice. For me it's a way to get direct access and exposure to, and to work with the structure of language, like the geology of it, the shapes and feelings of the words and the different textures of language.

Kim Stanley Robinson: I love it still. All my life as a novelist, occasionally in my notebooks, cuz for many years I wrote my novels by hand on the backside of pages. Occasionally a poem would strike me, I'd write it down. A lot of 'em are just forgotten in those notebooks. But when the pandemic hit, I got reacquainted with a fellow student from the first writing workshop I ever took at UC San Diego.

And so the teacher was Donald Wesley, who's retired, but he's still very active and quite the writer. And then this fellow student, Tom Marshall, is really a fine poet and the three of us began to exchange poems as a kind of a pandemic Buddhist exercise of dailiness. Well, that was a lot of fun and it's kind of got me back in the game again of paying attention.

I think actually, if you're interested in writing poetry, then paying attention to the moments that might turn into a poem is one of the most important things you have to do. Once the notion occurs to you and you take it at an informal level, like a Buddhist meditation that isn't meant to last forever or isn't meant to be a perfect how can I say it?

An achieved poem like in the tradition of English and American literature, but just a notation, almost like a diary entry that is made into like a little vase. Well, at that point it's just paying attention. And then quite often, the ideas will come.

Bowen Dwelle: I can see these artifacts of awareness in the High Sierra, there are many of them. These little paintings, these little vases, they do strike me as just that. And then I was able to see more of them sprinkled through other stuff of yours.

[00:14:02] Formal Training

Bowen Dwelle: You have a real formal education in writing, not only a master's, but a doctorate as well. How much of that formal training factored into your becoming a writer? Does it come into play at all at this point, in terms of how you think?.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Oh yeah. I never stopped being a student and I wanna make a distinction here. Except for the occasional workshop, like the one I mentioned, I was not a writing major. I was an English major. It was a scholarly pursuit.

Although I've been involved with the Clarion Writing Workshop for most of my life first as a student in 1975 and then helping it to run at uc, San Diego since 2006, I don't think you can do much to teach writing of fiction. I don't believe in the MFA. I don't believe in taking creative writing courses beyond one or two maybe to give yourself some practice and to learn what writing workshops are all about. You can quickly get what they're about. You can strip mine them for their useful craft tips, which if you were to speak them all at once, would take about a half an hour.

Getting a two year course in it is just an indulgence or it's a cash cow for the universities involved. And for the writers, it's maybe a chance to give them some time to write, but it does no good. It doesn't teach you much about what writing really is because what's teachable is brief and simplistic and too general to be of help when you're really faced with a scene or a sentence.

And then on the other hand, it's not a good job credential. You say you've got an MFA, it's worthless unless you've published a lot. And so, that has become increasingly true of a PhD in English as well. But I got the PhD in English in American literature and I think it always has helped me because I know the tradition, I know the canon. I know what Daniel Defoe did when he was writing novels. And I've read a whole lot of great stuff that doesn't resemble what MFA programs produce now. I think that there's sharp blinkers put on the standard MFA courses even now that quote, literary fiction is a very constrained and small minded subset of what novels and literature can really do.

And the more you know of the whole tradition, the more you're realizing that that is a tiny little island in a giant archipelago of greatness. I think one creative writing course in each lifetime is enoughand more is a waste of your time.

Bowen Dwelle: I didn't study writing, I studied geography, and speaking of job prospects, didn't see that many prospects in that either. And so I went sideways from there into software essentially, cuz I was here in San Francisco and had grown up with computers and that sort of stuff. For me, studying writing has mostly been about forming community with other writers and seeing what it is to be a writer by way of other people who are doing it.

[00:17:00] Geography and Sports

Bowen Dwelle: This connection between geography and writing is so strong. For me, that comes together as wayfinding. Being outdoors in the mountains, in particular off trail is the best possible practice or training that there is for wayfinding, literally physically on your feet, on the ground, in the terrain. That translates down into an ability, and a confidence in finding one's way in the world, also has helped me to find my way through my consciousness and my creativity and helped my intuition to flourish. And so I wonder how this practice and all this wayfinding that you've done in the mountains plays into your life as a writer.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Wayfinding and geography, the relationship between humans and the land that they live on. Well, this is a beautiful topic indeed.

Now it's becoming clear that whether you can make a profession out of it or not, it's one of the main projects we have in civilization today, is to do better at geographical comprehension and expertise you might say.

Cross-country hiking in the Sierra, I think of as a kind of a sport, a particular skillset that resembles other sports.

It involves footwork like a soccer player, and then it involves comprehending a landscape to find the easiest or the best way to get from point A to point B. So, like you say, it's wayfinding. It's something that you can get better at with practice. And it involves abstraction, map reading and keeping in mind things that aren't right there for you to see.

And, judging the land that you can see, knowing that foreshortening is happening and that there are inevitable optical illusions.

The better you get at it, the more fun it is. But it also takes a bit of stamina. That's why I call it a sport. It's a kind of simple, slow moving sport. And it doesn't have rules. You aren't competing against other people and nobody's keeping score.

It's like body surfing in that respect, which we loved when we were kids. And I love a lot of sports, to tell you the truth. I like doing things like that. I'm not particularly good at any of them, but I enjoy a lot of them and I'm just good enough to enjoy when things go well and then despair when things go poorly.

I guess I would say this. It's this summer, it'll be 50 years since I first went to the Sierra, and I've been going as much as I can every year since then, which means I, I calculate now that about two years of my life have been spent up there wandering around and without a whole lot of goals.

The main goal eventually became what I would call circum ambulation, like the way Ginsburg and Snyder went around Mount Tamalpais as a Buddhist ritual, the circum ambulation of a peak. Most of our backpacking trips have turned out to be something like that. Go out, do a big circle, inevitably you're gonna circle some peak and get back to your car.

So, as a sport, it's kind of poorly defined, but it is immensely pleasurable to pursue.

[00:20:22] Wayfinding

Bowen Dwelle: Yes, yes. Absolutely. For me, the feeling of wayfinding, of successfully finding one's way, and finding the right path. Not that there's just one, but a path that feels good is something that So many of us struggle with in a larger sense in life, right?

And outdoors, you can really feel that in such a concrete way. And that feeling is just one of the best feelings there is, you know, to feel like I wanted to get over there, it's not quite clear how to get there. I'm gonna use what I know and what I can see and what I can imagine.

That part of it that is being able to see over the mountain, cuz you know enough about how these things work and then you find yourself there and you're like, it feels good in the body. And I just think that that's so good for us as organisms, but also as conscious beings.

It's a sport, a physical sport, but it's also an exercise of the imagination.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah. And it has an aesthetic quality to it, A clean line, I call it, that you took the route with the least amount of effort and most effectiveness. And I think it's very deep in the brain. I mean, it's obvious humans were intensely nomadic and often had a winter home and a summer home.

And then always going over the next hill to see what was there. And spreading across the surface of the earth in a process took most of 50,000 years. Which is a pretty fast speed when it's foot speed and you're taking your whole life with you. It's very deep. It's a deep pleasure.

The Paiute knapping (and napping) site that I located using my intuition, just above Duck Lake on the Mammoth Crest Loop

[00:21:59] Getting Lost

Kim Stanley Robinson: What you said inspired me to remember that there's something creepy but provocative about being lost. And in this High Sierra, you're never macro lost. I would say what happens is you get into basins that are so, ripped by glacier, the granite that you're in a rock maze.

And so you're locally lost even with a topo right in hand trying to get to out of that basin by the way of a cross-country pass, you can be locally lost. In fact, I'll tell a story. I guess it was two summers ago now. September of 2021, I was guiding a couple of friends who had not been up in the Sierras before over Bishop Pass into Dusy Basin, then over Knapsack pass into Palisades Basin. These are trail-less basins at least Palisades Basin that I know quite well. so right underneath the Palisades on effectively their south side, although you could also call it the west side.

Bowen Dwelle: The south and west side.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, exactly. And God, what a beautiful base. And, I'd tried to find a most beautiful campsite that I'd been to a couple few times before just to impress them with its prospects. Cuz it was like being on a plinth, like a castle keep, and you were looking around in all directions and there were the palisades just a mile away to the north.

And I couldn't find that same little plinth. I was mystified, but, I was only a little bit uneasy because I thought I knew where I was. So the next day I was leading them toward Thunderbolt Pass and getting increasingly uneasy, but not sure why. I didn't even feel like I was lost, but I was uneasy and I should have known I was lost cuz I couldn't find that campsite.

And appeared over a ridge, a man in white. He was wearing like a French foreign legion white hat that covered most of his face. He was in white hiking gear with a almost white backpack, a beige. And he immediately headed towards us and I headed towards him. It was a guy from Tennessee who was hiking the Steve Roper High Route entirely by himself with a map, and the guidebook of Steve Roper.

And he said to me, do you know where we are? And I said, yes, I know where we are. And he said, good, I need some help here. I'm trying to find Knapsack Pass. And I said to him, well, you're looking at it, we just came over it yesterday and I pointed up to it and he said, but where are we in Palisades Basin?

So I pointed to the map and I said to him, we're right here. And he goes, no, we're not. He said, I was right there a half an hour ago and we were, I was pointing to a lake shore and they're all unnamed lakes in Palisades Basin, or maybe it was one of the Barrett Lakes and it all suddenly came clear to me. I had spent the previous 12 hours thinking I knew where I was, but I was at the wrong lake, and they were isomorphic. They looked about the same, but they weren't the same. So then what had happened was the men in white, whose name was Tim, but I was so blown away, I never got his last name. He works in music in Nashville, and I hope that someday I meet him again. He thought he was in the wrong place and he was in the right place. I thought I was in the right place, but I was in the wrong place.

We clarified this for each other and I, instead of leading my two friends up and over, I Cecily's pass, which would've been a nightmare I was reoriented, went to the spot that Tim told me about, and suddenly I knew where I was again, with only about a 20 minute adjustment in hiking time and off to Thunderbolt Pass we went.

But I have been so amused at this lesson. There's expert overconfidence and then there's just ordinary overconfidence. But this was a case of expert overconfidence on my part and his was amateur under confidence when he was actually right where he is supposed to be.

So it was a beautiful illustration of you can never really get the Sierras completely wired no matter how much time you spend up there.

[00:26:06] Intuition and Finding My Way

Bowen Dwelle: I heard you say though, that you had a feeling. You know, that you were off, and you didn't quite believe it in a way.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Right?

Bowen Dwelle: To me that's intuition. That's the subtle, you know, the subconscious speaking up, trying to say something and it can't say it perfectly clearly.

And so often we don't pay enough attention. That's part of what I'm getting at, talking about wayfinding. I mean, for me, this physical wayfinding on the ground has helped me to feel better at finding my way in a broader sense.

Kim Stanley Robinson: I think it's analogical, it's an analogy. I'm thinking of my own life, and I wrote about this somewhat in High Sierra. Sometimes you make errors and you know that you've made an error in life. I'm thinking in my own case of I went to Boston for a PhD program and I freaked out.

It was the first winter of my life, and in climactic terms, it was traumatic to me. I thought, I can't live this way. And I bailed out and I returned to San Diego after a single year in Boston. That was a mistake that haunted me for many years afterwards. And the thing is that even when you know you've made a mistake like that one your way finding in your life course has you've maybe explicably, but or inexplicably, you've made an error.

It isn't all that simple to you can't backtrack. You can't go back the point you made a mistake. Sometimes in the Sierras you can go back to the place where you made a mistake, where you lost the trail. And you can try to find it again. You can repeat.

In life, you're kind of stuck with, okay, onward and upward. I'm gonna have to forge on here despite knowing that I made a kind a stupid error, a rookie error or a fearful error. And then you just have to forge on. And this is something I wrote about in my Galileo book. Very often, experience teaches you stuff that is no longer relevant, that it would've been useful to know it when you could have put it to use and now you've learned the lesson.

The High Sierra: A Love Story by Kim Stanley Robinson

[00:28:30] Risk

Bowen Dwelle: I want to talk about risk just a little bit. You wrote about this in the High Sierra, and I've heard you talk about it. It seems early on in life you got this idea that danger or risk is kind of decadent, is the word that you've used. And then you explain in High Sierra bit, saying that you've come to not completely write it off, it's just not you, and you didn't feel the need to seek risk in the outdoors in the way that a lot of people, myself included have felt the need to seek more danger, more risk more extreme situations.

In my case, for example, with paragliding, flying in the mountains, the top of your head comes off and stays off. I've since stopped doing it. You know, I kind of had my time flying and I had enough of that. . It was just such a heightened state that I decided I really didn't need it anymore.

I know for a lot of people, seeking that risk is a compensation for some earlier trauma, a need to get out of their heads, get away from something early on.

I was talking to

about this the other day, he's kind of the same way—and I said "maybe you suffer from a lack of trauma."

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, you know, that's one way of putting it. It's a very personal thing and and it could be just a matter of a risk assessment and being easily scared, so that the risk is not felt as a stimulant.

People who like it, one thing for sure, I've seen this in myself and in others, is that whilst you are at risk, you are paying attention. You are in the moment. So if one of the points of meditation and a Buddhist practice is to stay in the moment, well, if you're hanging on a rock wall, then you are in that moment and you're not gonna be thinkin' about tomorrow or yesterday. You are forced to be. So that is attractive to certain people.

I've never felt it, it's too intense for me, the fear factor.

But when I was writing the High Sierra, I suddenly put it together, which is ridiculous cuz it's as obvious as can be. A good childhood friend died of leukemia and I spent a lot of time with him in his last few months. We were 15 years old, so, I'm watching this guy and he's watching me, and we were 15.

We were not articulate, we never talked about it, but on his face, I could see a certain expression, I'm gonna die. You're gonna live. It was a kind of a hunger. I repressed that, that was way too much to take on. And I don't think I properly processed his death for about between say 1966 or whenever it was. I to the point where I don't even know the year 66 or 67 or 68 and then the Winter Olympics where Dan Janssen fell because his sister had died of leukemia.

Bowen Dwelle: The skater you mean?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah. The speed skater. And it was, so that's about that's about a 20 year gap in between for me and when I felt it, so this isn't unusual.

Proust talks about this, the intermittencies of the heart and the literature's by far the best psychological inquiry that we've got, I cuz it doesn't try to generalize and make a generalizations about people that goes to specific cases and yet the generalizations are still there for sure in Prust.

This judgment of climbers, which was intense in me until I got over it, where I was thinking they were choosing to do dangerous things. And that's where I was thinking, this is decadent, this is jaded. They can't get off on anything less than a life-threatening situation. This seems to me to be a blunted sensibility cuz I can get off at looking at a sunset or looking at a piece of granite.

Why can't you, why would you need to take risks to, to get a thrill?

Bowen Dwelle: Like an inability to appreciate the subtle.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, but all that was wrong. That was me misinterpreting the first of all, everybody's different and comes to these things with different motivations. And secondly, there's a lot of behaviors that we're not choosing that are subconscious driven things.

And a lot of climbers, they're just driven to it. It's like, it's more than their religion, it's their nature. If I, you know what I mean? Or maybe not. I'm trying to say that it's so ingrained in their personality that to judge them for it's very inappropriate and in fact, inappropriate analogies while I'm trending in that direction anyway, if you were to judge somebody for their sexual preferences, this would be clearly inappropriate.

And we know that more now than ever before. So that's as intimate as it gets. If somebody also has a set of habits, desires things that they like that you might not like, that's their business. So I had to educate myself by paying attention. Why these strong feelings, why this judgmental quality?

And, you know, to a certain extent, we're always judging ourselves and we're judging other people. And a novelist is always doing, making micro judgements. The stories have morals characters say or do things. You're making judgements all the time. So I'm not saying that it's impossible to be non-judgmental, but you can be a little more discriminating and a little more generous in your sense of judgment.

Bowen Dwelle: Sure, sure. Yeah. I'm aware part of my drive towards more these more extreme sports has been out of a need to compensate for some earlier traumas in a more forceful way, like force myself to get to that state of awareness and attention. It just wasn't enough for me to just kind of sit quietly or, I don't wanna say just, but to walk in the mountains.

I needed something else to kind of do it to me more forcefully, and like I said, in some of those cases along the way, I've gotten my fill of those things, I've felt okay, now, I don't need to do that all the time. I don't need to keep doing that.

And that feels good to have had that realization, and to have moved past some of those extreme states.

Kim Stanley Robinson: I, I have climber friends who are older than me. They're still climbing. They're 75. I don't know how they do it physically, but mentally the thrill is still there for them. And they're obviously, the longer you live as a climber, the more confident you can be that you climb safely that objective dangers exist, but they are low probability and you've got the subjective dangers in hand and it's something that you like to do.

And now I have much more generosity towards that impulse. And I like these climber friends a lot.

[00:35:25] Being a Dog / Frisbee Golf / Sports as a Spiritual Practice

Kim Stanley Robinson: I have a practice that I'll share that has taught me some things. Temple Grandin makes this point, that our brain is conserved and everything that evolution has run us through is still there in the brain so that in very simple terms, we've got a lizard brain at the bottom running autonomous functions, and then a mammal brain in the middle. The temporal lobes that we've been, we are mammals still and mammals all along. And then the human part, the last couple of million years in the prefrontal cortex.

The emotional centers are clustered in the mammal brain. We're feeling creatures very substantially with human thoughts and language on top of that and to turn into a dog. And so my friend Neil and I, we go to a local park that has a Frisbee golf course on it. And we take our Frisbees and we run the course. The crucial thing is to run the course, cuz golf is a finicky and somewhat stupid sport. It's meticulous but with Frisbees, you can, we have more control and we have less care as to scores. We run the course and during that hour we have turned into dogs and you know what I mean?

Park a dog chasing the Frisbee. It leaps in the air, it grabs the Frisbee, it runs back to its person. And then they keep playing that game together. That dog is in the present, and you can return to that part of your brain. It takes a little practice. And I think this is part of what Buddhist practice is, is to practice getting out of past and future and just being in the moment.

And that's experienced as a blessing. And doing it is a kind of a devotional practice. So it's funny that sport, I mean, I've loved it since I was a kid, and partly it might be cause of that mammal aspect that it gets you back in your body and into the present that you're focused on the sport, whatever it may be.

Body surfing was definitely like that. Now, I'm following this train of thought. Walking in the mountains is not quite like that. Walking in the mountains can be thoughtful. You can be lost in your past, you can be thinking about the future. It isn't as point centered as some of these more focused and extreme sports or something repetitive like, the Frisbee running where you turn into a dog. In the mountains, I think you're still fully, all three parts of the brain are fully pumping and there's a lot of time where I'm lost in thought to the point where, oh, I didn't see that last mile of forest or I was thinking about something else.

Bowen Dwelle: Right, right. Well, I think I hear that and I love your description of being a dog and both that and the experience of being in the mountains and climbing, for example, or, I believe me, flying paragliders in mountains, those all to me get to the spiritual nature of sport and something that's often not talked about or lost in our, conception of sport as just the physical doing of it, but the access to other states of mind and to these different levels or, parts of our brain and the different ways of being, and that awareness.

That's something that sport is hugely powerful for. I mean that's part of the reason I love all of the sports that I've practiced over the years and, partly for the physicality, but very much also for the states of being.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah. The two are so close. You can divide 'em up linguistically and it makes sense too. But. At the two in your, in actual experience, they melt together into a oneness that is really and I worry about the younger generation in the way that old people tend to. Has computers, the internet and screens, has that created a massive loss. They talk about nature deficit syndrome and I believe in that, but I also wonder about the physicality deficit syndrome of lost in screens and in ideas. It would be a big loss. It will be bad for your health eventually. And so maybe we're seeing some of that, but also humans are flexible and they'll come around.

I think it might be A problem of some being something new in history, then new and interesting, and then people realize it's not that interesting and maybe they'll pass back into the larger world. You never can tell and everybody's gonna be different on that.

Bowen Dwelle: We are embodied creatures. That's the thing. And going into the future, of course, there's lots of people that just can't wait to get to the disembodied future, because that feels like freedom and immortality and, it's an interesting idea.

[00:40:15] To Love The Inhuman

Bowen Dwelle: But I love being in my body and one of the things that has come up experientially for me in the last several years is this feeling of energetic, connected to sexual feeling that has come up in nature.

It's a feeling of an energetic connectedness, very much in the body. And you can also just say that it kind of turns me on sometimes, just being out in such beautiful, powerful places and being so much in my body.

And this is a bit of a theme I'm starting to see more people talk about. Some people call it ecosexuality, or an energetic intimacy with the world. And I think it does get to this hunger for embodiment and this direct connection that you were just talking about.

Has this ever come up for you? It's an energetic connection. It's not just in the legs, it's in that second chakra, it's in the balls and in the sexual realm.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, I know what you're talking about. Being in the mountains is a total experience. And so it's mind, body, and it's all the body. There's a feeling of wholeness and completion, but also an interaction. You can feel that you're an animal and so there's an erotic charge when things are going well, when you're, if you're not in pain, because that can happen too.

And that's a strange state of mind if you have to hike in pain, which sometimes happens. But on the normal state, it's a total body thing that has an erotic component. Very quickly, as a American suburban man up there in the wilderness, you think of mother goddess of the world, which is the Tibetan name for Everest. Mother Nature, the sense that you're in a relationship with a place that is nicely amorphous and undirected. A kind of a surround state rather than a specific interaction. So it gets generalized across the board. And I would say it feels good to be up there in a way that's pretty total.

I don't think of it as specifically sexual, but erotic and all of these words, they cut a little too finely. The feelings are broader and bigger than the words allow typically.

I'll say this, I love to be up there. When I wrote the High Sierra and I put the subtitle, which my editor instantly said is a good idea. A love story. Well, there's multiple love stories in that book that make it very appropriate as a subtitle, but one of the main ones is a feeling. Now how can you love a landscape?

Bowen Dwelle: Oh, but we can, of course.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Oh, absolutely. But a lot of people, when they love a landscape, it's their home. And that you understand completely.

It's where you live. It's a place that you've nurtured and that's nurtured you. It makes sense. When you go out into wild places where you are really a visitor and you are trekking across them, and a landscape that if you were forced to live off of it, you'd be in big trouble. Especially in the winters.

Well, loving that. That's a little bit peculiar. It's a little mysterious to have that intensive a feeling. And it might be aesthetics, it might be that something that it looks beautiful. It doesn't always look nurturing, especially when you get into the higher rocky areas. It looks absolutely alien and inhuman and to love the inhuman this is strange and I think it's worth exploring.

[00:43:56] Meat Packages and Immortaility

Kim Stanley Robinson: I wanna drop back to something that you were saying before, this notion, it's very common in science fiction, they talk about their bodies as their meat packages and that souls or spirits or minds and unfortunately bonded to a meat package.

This is a sign of deep alienation from self self division, and also it's a lie. We're never gonna download our brains into computers. We don't understand brains enough, and computers aren't good enough to do what the brains do, and brains are embodied in fact, a strange form of jelly inside a body. It all works as one.

It's like what you said, this is a dream of transcendence. It's like, I wish I could go to heaven. I wish I could be an angel. And then, what would you do with your days? You'd play your harp on a cloud. I mean, it's all very amorphous. This drive to immortality or to transcendence, to being more than human or being just a mind, it's a replacement for religious ideas. And it might be a fear of mortality that okay, you've only got 90 years or a hundred years. Very often in my science fiction, I say, oh no, you'll get 250 years, which would be great, but you'd still come to an end.

This endedness, this bound quality to our selfhood. A lot of people struggle against that and say, oh, I'd rather be immortal, but you're not gonna be, so there's a certain form of escapism or a lack of acceptance. And this is another reason why I like Buddhism as a way of thinking.

Bowen Dwelle: Buddhism, because it's grounded in acceptance. Is that what you're saying?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes. That it doesn't have an afterlife. I mean, there are forms of Buddhism where they talk about reincarnation, but basically it's always saying, look, we're mortal creatures, we are animals. Pay attention to the moment that you're in.

Bowen Dwelle: Right, right, right. That brings me back to this love of landscape and wild places and certainly for me, that embodied experience of spending time outdoors and active in my body has helped me come to feel a kind of a love for everything, not just people or women or certain places or times or whatever, but for the world on a broader scale.

And like you said, it's a total experience. There is an erotic charge and an activation to that. You know, ask a dog, right? I mean, they feel it for sure.

[00:46:28] Dualism, Escape, and Balance

Kim Stanley Robinson: Although I have to say like when I was younger in particular, there was a dualism going on. If I was in a wild place, I was free. I was happy. And then you'd have to drive back down into civilization, and oftentimes it was like a return to hell.

In fact, we used to stop at a Burger King in order to immediately profane ourselves by doing the stupidest thing possible. Okay, we're back. Let's plug in. Let's not think too hard about what we've just left behind, because, you know, 80% of our time, 90% of our time was gonna be caught in this stupid, post-war American reality that you and I grew up in.

Bowen Dwelle: right? Right.

Kim Stanley Robinson: you'll have to.

Yeah, you gotta free yourself from that [the dualism, the need to escape] somehow.

And so it, it was a good thing for me. Luckily my home life, my life in civilization became very positive and benign. That's another part of the love story of the High Sierra. My wife Lisa and I just celebrated our 40th anniversary. So between that, bringing up children doing the thing of ordinary suburban life, which I would've laughed at when I was in my early twenties, saying, I'm never gonna do that.

And I more or less reproduced my parents' life in Southern California. In a way, it feels ridiculous in a way. It's been profoundly sustaining and I've been lucky. And at that point, going to the Sierras is no longer an escape to freedom and beauty and the wild and the incredible blessing that we have, these wild lands that we are allowed to go up into, which is a privilege and a blessing.

To have the two sides more or less in balance has been a growing thing for me. It's actually quite old at this point, but when it first hit me that I was gonna be just as fine at home as I was up in the wild, that was a major realization.

Bowen Dwelle: I feel you there. Yeah. And I think that's part of what I'm getting at, with my own experience with certain sports and having made the choice to give these things over because, I don't need to escape in that way anymore. And yeah. I'm not just, okay, but very happy and at home and with with less extreme stimulation.

[00:48:48] Trying to Kill Ourselves / Our Collective Embodiment

Bowen Dwelle: There's the one last question that comes to mind, and it goes off this question of immortality or really just human nature. I was reading a bit of ministry for the future over these past several days and I've often been struck myself with the fact that we've managed to create so much beauty and yet also that we're doing our best to kill ourselves and to kill the world along with it.

Your writing about the future is very much an optimistic projection, that we'll continue to create beautiful things. So why do you think that we're caught in this, between creating beauty and trying to destroy ourselves?

Are we just not smart enough yet? Is there some point of evolution of consciousness that we'll get to where we'll get past this destructive nature? Or is that something that just part of humanity forever?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, it's a good question. And I have been thinking about it a lot. It's part of being a utopian science fiction writer. Once you say a utopian science fiction writer, you're committed to viewing the positive potentialities that we could make a better world. Therefore, we should make a better world, a social world. I mean, we should make a human society worldwide that is In a great balance with the biosphere. That is our ultimate sustaining support system. And also really our extended body, like you said before,

Bowen Dwelle: it's our collective embodiment

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes. it's our extended body. And it's like we're cutting off our feet in order to make hang glider wings.

It's not a smart thing we've done now, but on the other hand, a lot of that happened by accident. So, I would say the science itself is a project. You try to understand the world. You try to get more control over it. You try to create more comfort, more pleasure. You do these things out of positive motivations. You don't want suffering. You would like to have better medicine. You'd like to have longer lives, healthier lives. You'd like to have more opportunities. You'd like to see the world, which is a very profound pleasure.

And so all these things, developed industrial civilization out of the best of motives, but then side effects like the obvious one, the CO2 burn, the release fossil fuels into the atmosphere, and now we're gonna cook the planet and cause a mass extinction event.

Bowen Dwelle: We were just following a branch on the tree...

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, you know, by starting to use oil to power our civilization, we saved the whales who were being killed to use their oil. And so at first, oil was a great blessing for the whales, for instance they would be extinct without these Pennsylvania oil fields leaking oil and the burning of coal, et cetera.

So then the side effects hit, or the negative effects of doing good things hit. And sometimes like now they can be overwhelming and all of the good that we've done can collapse under the side effects of the bad. Now, at that point, you do have a choice to make and it's a moral choice. You can say, well, let's get out of this situation. Let's continue to improve. Let's invent and institute and pay for clean tech, and we can do it. and because we can do it, we should do it, and all will be well, and we will develop a steady state, a permaculture names for it are all over the place. You know what I mean? But there's a certain dark streak, a stubbornness to admit that you were wrong and to get caught up in a mindset of if I have to change or else the world is wrecked, then the world is gonna be wrecked and I am not gonna change.

So there's a narcissism, there's a narcissistic response that in Ministry, I talk about this as the Götterdammerung the last scene in Wagner where the gods, if they're gonna go down, they're taking the world with them. So this is an interesting thing for us to talk about. as privileged Californian older white men because it's a patriarchy thing. It's a capitalist thing. We've led relatively privileged lives despite our scrambles, being in the precariat.

Bowen Dwelle: I think what you're getting at is like being privileged enough to not feel the need to have to change.

Kim Stanley Robinson: right.

Bowen Dwelle: we're not used to having to change. We're not used to having to give things up.

Kim Stanley Robinson: No. And we've been, I, if you look at all of human history, we are in the aristocracy for sure of of world history. We are in that top of 5% in terms of privilege and comfort and security, all these things. So a certain number of and I'm not saying it's entirely confined to men, but it is a kind of a testosterone slash patriarchal stubbornness of like, I'm right. I'm never gonna change. If you ask me to change, you're insulting me. And I'd rather see the world go to hell than change my privileged ways.

And this, I would say is a big portion of the Republican party. I mean, if you have that attitude, you gravitate towards the more right wing part of the Republican party.

And I don't wanna characterize all of them because there are so many good, decent Republicans or there were in this country, that it would be overly partisan to just tag an entire half of the country's population and also the other half being men as opposed to women. All these things are very, very mixed, and I don't wanna overgeneralize, but the Götterdammerung response is mentally ill.

It hurts your own children. And it's a thing that has to be fought and it's an one name for the political battle that we're in, is to convince enough people that the health of the planet is the health of your own body.

Bowen Dwelle: Yes, I love that.

[00:54:48] Gary Snyder

Bowen Dwelle: We've just come around to what could be a whole nother conversation about masculinity and the nature of identity. One of the things that you brought in the High Sierra, I think you were talking about your relationship with Gary Snyder and about how he taught you about this idea of resistance, of moving in masculinity from a dominance to resistance. I agree very much that that's the juncture that, we are at as men certainly in broad terms in this age, that it's our choice to move past where we've been and to resist it.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, I'd like to talk about Gary a little bit because he's been so important to me, and I talk about this in the High Sierra book, so I'll paraphrase it a little bit that say you wanna be an American male writer, and it's 1965 1968 The role models out there, Jack Kerouac at the, at the outsider, and then all of the New York famous ones as the insiders in American culture.

They were They were really shitty to the women in their lives, and it was standard operating procedure. So there was a lot of alcohol, there was a lot of abuse of women, and this was okay because it was, you were a great writer. You could get away with that and you would still be a great writer even though you were doing these shitty things to the people in your life.

And there were, if you're looking around for role models, it was a kind of a barren landscape for role models that I felt attracted to. And then there was Gary Snyder, which he popped into my view at the same time as the mountains and Buddhism and LSD and writing poetry. And there's Gary Snyder and he's like coming back from Japan and he's saying, no, I'm a family man.

I wanna buy some land. I wanna stay on it forever. I it's marijuana rather than alcohol. It's being a hippie and a Buddhist rather than a Christian and a, and a power tripper of the East Coast. Male writer variety. These shoddy stories of personal excess and pain for other people while you are the genius writer that it, they inhabited America's ins imaginary as to what a writer should be like.

A horrible. Power trip. And so Gary, when I understood what he was up to, and it came with all the rest of the things that were happening to me when I was young, talk about wayfinding. He was like the guy up on the path going, you know, if you come this way, it's really beautiful over here.

It's a much better trip than getting on the freeway and driving down to New York and being on TV, come up this direction and you're gonna have more fun. Well, it blew my mind and it changed my life. And it was only much, much later that I actually met Gary in person and was happy to

see that he's just as rock solid as you might imagine. There is no artifice in him. He's a scholar and a gentleman and a sweet super smart poet living a California life that you could admire. And so I've had a much more suburban existence, much more conventional existence than he has, but he's been a guiding light for me, an exemplary figure.

Bowen Dwelle: That's great to hear. That's part of the reason that I'm doing this as just part of my life and my practice is to expose myself to better examples.

[00:58:11] Lose lose lose lose lose lose, Win

Bowen Dwelle: Back on the question of giving things up, and not being in the habit of having to give things up, or just surrender what can seem to some like such hard won gains.

Are we ever gonna get past this human dilemma of destruction and creation and learn to give up some of what we think of as our power?

Kim Stanley Robinson: We're in such a climate emergency right now that everything is in kind of crisis mode, and that'll be true for the rest of our lives. And it's gonna be a mixed picture. I've been trying to encourage people by emphasizing that they're gonna be a lot of losses and a lot of defeats, like my story of the American Revolution, which goes lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win.

It's important not to freak out, because the news will be frequently of defeats and losses. But the undercurrent of the larger, longer story, hopefully, it will have that bend in its arc towards justice that Martin Luther King talked about. And all you can do is do your own part and try to encourage people.

[00:59:18] The Kingdom of San Francisco

Kim Stanley Robinson: We are both part of the larger kingdom of San Francisco and as a cultural capital of the world, San Francisco is something to be proud of.

It's really the cultural capital of California and it's a world site. It's physically beautiful, landscape beautiful and culturally beautiful.

And this has to do with diversity, with acceptance of previously unaccepted versions of sexuality and gender. You can be like me, the most ordinary, straight suburban guy, just as boring a life as you could possibly imagine and still benefit from being part of San Francisco culture.

And what the young people there have taught me, cuz they mostly were younger than me by the time I began to live here and get educated by them. What I've learned from them is so encouraging. So it's like I was seeing into the future a few decades, and I trust that the rest of the world will be changing in the same way because it's just more sustainable ecologically, but also in human terms.

We're lucky just to have lived here. Speaking of bringing it back to landscape, that whole California experience is way more than the beautiful hills and valleys and mountains. It has to do with the people that came here and what they made. And so all props and kudos to San Francisco culture and all the people that have made it.

I think as a provincial, like I live in the provinces of San Francisco, cuz Davis is utterly boring little college town. But because we go down to the capital of our province, we have an exciting center to our lives and a place where you can feel that history might turn out okay because just in the last 70 years, San Francisco has changed the world.

And so maybe that will continue.

Bowen Dwelle: Yeah. I heard you mention your love of San Francisco. I just listened to your talk that you did with City Arts and Lectures, and as a native San Franciscan, I'm very proud of this place, and I think it comes back to geography.

a, it's a beautiful place, and it's a very stimulating, activating place. There's lots to look at. There's lots to explore, on foot and otherwise, and,

Kim Stanley Robinson: It's human scale. Yeah, human scale, which matters a lot, that you can see the extent of it in all sides when you're on one of the hills. No, you're right, in geographical terms, it's a blessed place and people have done right by it, more or less usually—with the obvious struggles and exceptions.

It's been a comfort, since Davis is kind of like a Midwestern college town, I've got the small college town benefits, and I've got San Francisco benefits within an hour. We're lucky men. That's a good way to end it, I think.

Bowen Dwelle: Absolutely. Yes. It's a great place to be. It's part of the wealth that we've inherited of the place.

Finding Stan

You can find Kim Stanley Robinson’s books everywhere. He’s not on social media himself, but there is a fan site at, as well as a KSR subreddit, and he speaks regularly at events in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Further Reading

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312The High Sierra: A Love StoryThe Ministry For the Future

Davis, Scott, Snyder, Opening the Mountain: Circumabulating Mount Tamalpais

The Long Now FoundationThe Half Earth Project

This interview is part of a series in my podcast right here on Substack, some highlights of which include:

You might also be interested in some of my own writing on the topics that Stan and I covered, including:

Become a subscriber

DECIDE NOTHING is a reader-supported publication. To support my work, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

I’ve got some questions for you…

  1. If you’re a writer, what sort of formal training have you pursued, and how useful has it been for you? (I’ve taken a bunch of independent classes and workshops, probably the best of which overall have been Jack Grapes’ Method Writing).

  2. Have you ever been macro lost? (I have to say, I haven’t, and I’m sort of wondering how I might actually get that lost… It’s not that easy).

  3. Have you experienced how wayfinding in the physical world can contribute to a better sense of finding one’s way in life?

  4. What’s your own relationship with risk and danger?

  5. Have you ever experienced an erotic charge from being in the mountains? (I’ve written a bit about this in this piece, and Liz Goldwyn writes well about this in her book Sex, Health, and Consciousness).

  6. What is your own relationship with the natural world? How does it feel to be in nature and to be part of nature? And how does that inform you in your daily life, and as you look towards the future

  7. Have you ever consciously given something up? How did that feel, and what were the results? (I write about one of my own experiences giving something up in The Last Time).

  8. What are some of your favorite science fiction reads? (Aside from KSR, one of my favorites is Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix Plus)

And finally, please let me know that you enjoyed this piece by click the cute little heart 🤍 right below


An Ordinary Disaster
Brothers and Teachers
This show is a series of conversations with and about people who embody positive presence, talking about identity, addiction, depression, adventure, intuition, love, relationships, gender, sexuality—and becoming ourselves as much as possible. It's also an effort to honor people who who have been teachers, who I love and respect, and who I want to get to know more deeply. In short, a way to highlight people doing and being good in the world.