Kim Stanley Robinson’s first book of general nonfiction, The High Sierra: A Love Story, proves something that many readers have known all along: that every novel or short story, even (or especially) those of the speculative variety, has its roots in the abundance and the wildness of the natural world. For Robinson, who has long been one of our most astute and piercing writers of science fiction, this means the landscape of the Sierra Nevada, which he has described as central to his work.
And why not? The Sierra, after all, is nothing if not an alien landscape of sorts, at least to those of us who live in the overcrowded cities of contemporary California, many of them along the hyperdeveloped coastline about which Robinson often writes. Throughout his career—not least in his landmark Three Californias trilogy—he has extrapolated the future from the present, using his novels to road test ideas and observations, many of which deal with climate change and how humanity may or may not survive.
The High Sierra, too, addresses climate issues, while tracing the lithic history of the range, which Robinson uses as a filter for more personal concerns. If the book is not a memoir, it has its share of autobiographical components, as befits a work by someone who has been hiking and camping in the Sierra for nearly half a century. This interplay of past and present, of human and deep time, allows Robinson to frame each through the lens of the other, contextualizing human evanescence by way of memory. “The Sierras,” he writes, “may be a place of solace, but they are not a place of forgetting. As you look down from that high perch, the world can seem so strange, so awful. If only you didn’t have to go down; if only you could live up there forever.” You can’t, of course; that’s the thing about it: every excursion has to come to an end. And yet, there can always be a return, at least as long as we are standing. “This is what the Sierras can give you,” Robinson tells us. “…Hours stolen from the gods.” Those hours are essential because they take us away from our comfort, putting us in a natural landscape where, if we want to survive, we must remain on our toes. Attention, in other words, is a way to move consciously through the world. For the author, a key to this is walking: “Thinking is pedestrian,” he explains. By that, he doesn’t mean unworthy of our focus but precisely the opposite. Walking (or hiking) is a way of staying grounded—in all senses. By stepping back from the quotidian, we become, if only for a moment, closer to ourselves.
Such a vision is not only generous; it is also wholly optimistic, not unlike Robinson’s science fiction writing, arguing, as it does, that only by remaining present do we ever truly come to terms with who, and where, we are.•