Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The High Sierra”
One of the last friends I got to hang out with before lockdown hit was Kim Stanley Robinson, an enormously talented writer and incredibly kind and smart person. Stan told me that he’d just finished a major novel, maybe the major novel of his life, called Ministry for the Future, and that next he was going to write his “Sierra book,” a book about the Sierra Nevada mountain range. He said he thought it might be his last book.
Not in a morbid sense, you understand. Rather, I got the impression from Stan that if once he’d published Ministry — a book that plots a plausible course through the climate emergency and out the other side — and the Sierra book, he’d have said everything he had to say, written all of us all the letters he needed to write to tell us all the things he wanted us to know.
Ministry was a triumph, as I knew it would be. Stan is an incredible novelist and a profound and insightful environmentalist. He’d been circling the themes in Ministry for decades and this is the book where he lands his bullseye. It’s a book that’s making a difference in the world. He’s just come back from India, where he met with the Dalai Lama to discuss its messages.
Ministry is brilliant, in a way that I entirely expected it to be, because I know the part of Stan Robinson that produced that book pretty well. But I didn’t know what to expect of the Sierra book. I knew Stan was wont to disappear into the Sierras for weeks at a time, and I knew those trips informed the lyrical — even transcendental — pastoral passages in his fiction. But I’m not much of an outdoors person. I like the wild places, visit them when I can, but it’s a rare thing for me to get up and wish I was in the wilderness.
Months ticked by. Years. Lockdown, pandemic, wildfires, uprisings, political upheavals. Ministry blew the windows out. Stan and I chatted from time to time. I learned that he’d been at the bottom of the Grand Canyon when lockdown hit, didn’t even know about it until he emerged from the wilderness to learn that the world had forever changed. I learned that he…