Kim Stanley Robinson chapbook: how history works explained in fiction and essay

San Francisco-based PM Press were kind enough to send me a couple of their lovely little "Outspoken Authors" chapbooks, including The Lucky Strike, a volume by and about the science fiction great Kim Stanley Robinson.

The "Outspoken Authors" format is a good one: a novella, followed by an explanatory essay, followed by an interview with the author. For The Lucky Strike, the titular story (a reprint from a Terry Carr Universe anthology from 1984) is an emotional alternate history story about a man who finds himself in the bombardier's chair as the first nuke is flown to Hiroshima, and the moral conundrum he faces at the thought of birthing the historical moment that separates the pre-atomic world from the one we inhabit today. This is a story that goes straight to the gut and the heart, a wrenching tale about morals and duty and hard choices.

Following The Lucky Strike is an essay, "A Sensitive Dependence on Internal Conditions," (reprinted from a 1991 Pulphouse chapbook) that is a cerebral -- but equally moving -- look at the theoretical basis for alternate history stories, drawing parallels between science (especially physics, particularly quantum physics) and "scientific" theories of history, using several alternate versions of the bombing of Hiroshima to make its point. Here, Robinson is challenging us to consider why we find alternate history so satisfying, and what it says about the way we approach literature and politics today.

Concluding the volume is a sweet and collegial interview with Terry Bisson, 30 pages' worth of material about how Robinson sees fiction and genre, his relationship to the American left and his literary predecessors (like Philip K Dick, who was the basis for Robinson's PhD) and views on art and science and the culture of scientists.

Stan is one of the nicest, smartest and best writers I know, and that shines through in this volume. At just over 100 pages (plus bibliography), this is a perfect quick introduction to his work -- or a great way to refresh yourself on why it matters so much.

The Lucky Strike (Outspoken Authors)


  1. Sorry, but I don’t find alternative history satisfying, or even interesting. It’s much more important to deal with and learn from the real history we live in, which human beings have largely failed to do. Alternate histories may be entertaining to some, but they waste time. There are hard consequences for both making and failing to make decisions in the real world, and we’ve been putting off some big ones for a long time. Robinson, of all people, knows this, which is one of probably several reasons he wrote his global warming trilogy, set in the near future. I find reading that far more thought provoking and satisfying than any alternate history I’ve ever read — including Slaughterhouse Five, much though I love Vonnegut. Alternate history is, simply said, mostly overrated.


    1. Each to his own and other such cliched nonsense, but surely (good, anyway) alternate history – like futuristic SF isn’t *really* about the future – is rooted in the present and the problems that we’re dealing with now?

      The Years of Rice and Salt by KSR, for example, is obviously an AH novel where the European population is largely destroyed by the plague, but the issues that he discusses are universal and eminently applicable to the present.

      So, if you don’t like it fine. But I don’t think it’s fair to be quite so dismissive of the sub-genre.

  2. Webdiva: when you understand how speculative history works — which Robinson plainly does — you can apply it with equal effectiveness to either the future or the past. While alternative histories may not interest you, they can be thought-provoking and poignant reflections upon the evolution of human culture and ideas to those of us who enjoy gazing with equal delight in both directions down the timeline of history.

    If anything is a waste of time, it’s commenting about how you dislike the subject of a post, rather than offering substantive commentary.

  3. Though I’d have to agree that I enjoyed “A Sensitive Dependence on Internal Conditions” more than the alternative history portion of the novel, I don’t think I’d poo poo it like Webdiva has at all. *It was* worth reading and very thought provoking.

    The dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan involved a million variables that everyone has given hugely differing weights, and people will continue to dispute theory after theory for the next century or two I’m sure. Because of this I’m glad that someone as bright as Stan Robinson has weighed in on it with his hard science approach, he makes a lot of very valid points that are relevant today.

    …and Slaughterhouse Five is an alternative history? Never even crossed my mind.

  4. Robinson hasn’t been describable as “great” for some time. I read The Years of Rice and Salt. In fact, it was the last time I bothered with one of his books. It isn’t alternative history so much as it is Hindu fantasy, with the same characters reincarnating over and over. I picked it up expecting an interesting alternate history novel and put it down thinking “You’ve got a lot to answer for, Kim Stanley Robinson.”

    But that’s just me.

  5. Thanks for posting this, Cory. I remember reading this story back in the early 1980’s. I was too young at the time and didn’t “get it”. Looking forward to a re-read and the analysis.

    I just downloaded it to my Kindle — does that make me a bad person? :-)

    Steve (The Happy Engineer)

  6. A deeply flawed story from a historical perspective.

    By the numbers.

    First, we can examine Japanese reaction to the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima in the original timeline. More or less, the reaction was this.

    “They are killing more of us with firebombing than they are with this one superweapon. And the Americans surely only have one of these. We should continue to resist.”

    The quote is mine but the attitude can be found in Edwin P. Hoyt’s book Japan’s War, the Great Pacific Conflict. You can also find that sentiment, expressed by the Japanese militarists of the Supreme War Council, recounted in John Skate’s work, The Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb.

    If dropping the weapon a city, killing 60 to 80 thousand outright didn’t move the Japanese Government (who correctly pointed out that they had lost 200,000 plus in the Tokyo Firebombings alone) then I sorely doubt that dropping the bomb in the water would have the effect predicted by this story.

    That, is the first problem with this story. It denies evidence from the original timeline from the point of view of the very enemy it is purporting to spare.

    Second, it is very unlikely that aircrews would be rotated to the Pacific for this mission or any other mission from Europe.

    Third, the Army Air Force would have had plenty of time to get into the heads of these people. I sorely doubt Captain January would have been in a position to misuse the weapon.

    Of course, KSR has a political message he wants to push with this novel, mainly that the bomb was wrong. He also pushes this farcical notion that FDR would not have used the weapon (after authorizing the project, I find that laughable).

    The only way this story works is if the reader is completely ignorant of what the Japanese were thinking at the end of the war. It also complete ignores their continued willingness to resist even though they knew, militarily, the war was lost.

    Finally, the story does not address alternatives other than a demonstration. Setting aside the two projected invasions, Olympic and Coronet, there were other plans.

    One was a total naval blockade advocated by Admiral Kelso, which would have starved millions of Japanese civilians to death.

    A second was continued firebombing without a ground invasion. This would have killed far more than simply using nuclear weapons.

    A third option was to combine blockade and firebombing.

    Even the use of the second weapon on Japan did not immediately produce an end to the war. It took direct intervention from the Emperor to push the council to accept unconditional surrender. Even then there was an attempted coup de tat by hardliners at the last minute.

    Finally, the depictions of the other characters in the story, nominally depicted as gung-ho rednecks bent on killing, does not reflect the overall war weariness extant at that time.

    In terms of pure literature, it is well written.

    In terms of historical accuracy, it is a sorely flawed work in desperate need of consideration against the background of evidence and research on this period.

    Of course, KSR’s main point is to peddle a polemic, not educate. So long as readers remain ignorant of the rest of the original historical narrative, he will probably continue to achieve his goal.

    Steven Francis Murphy
    North Kansas City, Missouri

  7. Mr. Murphy,

    I have a BA in Japanese Language and Literature and am currently pursuing an MA in Japanese history. I say this not to promote my knowledge but to say that the English sources available are nothing but a drop in the bucket in the research done in this field. My hope is that you are not focusing solely on accessible sources.

    I suggest you stop thinking of an entire country of people as one soup pot. The number of people who were making the comments not to surrender were far, FAR outnumbered by those who, conveniently left unmentioned by many American sources, knew Japan had to surrender.

    And even here I hesitate because it is a much more nuanced response is required for something so sensitive as justifying the bombing of ANYONE.

    Furthermore, though you are correct in your assessment of the numbers from the blast itself (comparing Tokyo to Hiroshima), the numbers do not include the HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF CIVILIANS who were effected, even today, with the after affects of the bomb. But you should know that since Americans set up facilities to study these “subjects” (though they never helped them).

    I can recommend these two sources to anyone interested:

    John Dower’s War Without Mercy. He pinpoints much of the Japanese propaganda (and American) and distinguishes between the different voices at the time. He is most known for, and I also recommend, Embracing Defeat. One of the few historians who looks at evidence for his arguments.

    Also, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombing by The Committee of Compilation. A collection of primary source documents. Though it relates less to the “protest in surrendering” it does support the point that the statistics you provide are too narrow a scope to provide a just picture.

    Congrats to Kim Stanley Robinson for drawing attention to one of the worst moments in history in such a heartfelt and riveting way. I look forward to seeing him at Aussiecon 4 this year (he is the Guest of Honour).

    MTL, QC

  8. Nessa, I have no doubt there were voices in Japan calling for surrender. The problem, unless you are aware of a source that I am not, is that accounts of what the Supreme War Council were doing up to the bombings are pretty clear.

    It was deadlocked three to three between the militarists and the peace faction (if they can really be called such). The Emperor himself had to intervene AFTER the second bombing AND the declaration of war by the Soviets.

    Do you, perhaps, have some evidence to dispute this? I’d be interested in seeing it.

    It is unfortunate that any weapons were necessary, be it nuclear weapons or the conventional variety. However, it should probably be politely pointed out that the United States of America did not start the Pacific War. Japan did.

    If you want to make the point that we incited the war with an embargo of oil and steel, I’ll grant that with the qualifier that FDR did so in an effort to get the Japanese to stop their behavior in Mainland China.

    Finally, if you want to talk about casualities, I can easily see an alternate time stream where a demonstration did not work, and a naval embargo tied with firebombing was used instead.

    Deaths would have been in the millions, if not higher.

    Since you cited your credentials, I’ll cite mine. I have a Master of Arts in European History with a specialization in Gender Studies. That includes six hours of studies on the Black Death (another KSR work one could easily take issue with) plus hundreds of hours of personal study of the very event we are talking about as an aside.

    I am also the principle researcher for John Birmingham (you may have heard of him) for matters historical and military in his novels.

    In other words, I know what I am talking about.

    To the contrary with regard to your comment about taking the Japanese as a soup pot, I have done no such thing. I have merely pointed out the behavior of their government in the later days of the war.

    On the other hand, he certainly delights in describing the Americans, with the exception of Captain January, in terms of cardboard stereotypes concerning military characters. Rather sad, actually.

    It is too bad that neither yourself, nor KSR, could be bothered to pay any mind to verifiable facts.

    Steven Francis Murphy
    North Kansas City, Missour

  9. “Sorry, but I don’t find alternative history satisfying”

    …That’s fine. Howabout not criticizing those of us with a good deal more taste and intelligence who *do* find AH both satisfying and entertaining, then?

    [shakes head in utter dismay]

  10. Thank you, Cory for this fine appreciation of one of my favorite writers. Well deserved. I couldn’t disagree more with some of the respondents here.

  11. My apologize. I guess my point was not clear in my original post so let me try again.

    I do not disagree with your presentation, Mr. Murphy, of Postdams and the division within the Supreme War Council. My disagreement lies within your analysis (unless I read your post wrong) of that fact and lack of mentioning others.

    You provide three options on the likely alternatives given KSR’s plot. Three.

    My original comment was simply a frustration at taking one “voice” or fact, such as the SWC, and expanding that across the government and people, thus supporting your doubts “that dropping the bomb in the water would have the effect predicted by this story.”

    My initial comment was that, in fact, a more nuanced look at exactly what the sources are in their PLURALITY is necessary. In other words, we cannot consciously JUST look at one council. For example, there is a section in Bix’s bio on Hiroshima which does address the relationship between him and the council which can prove telling in such an analysis. The point can not be made so simply.

    Furthermore, to imply, as Wikipedia does, that the Americans bombed Hiroshima & Nagasaki because of the SW Council’s rejection of Postdams is absurb. Hence, my reference to Dower’s two books which, unlike Hoyt’s which has been reviewed by academics to be quiet useless in the canon and inconsistent with his analysis (Ex.: C. Petillo, Journal of American History, Dec 1986. “In essence, this work contains little of value for either the specialist or the general reader.” pg 761) made headway by actually looking at primary source documents from both US and Japan. He demonstrates that the governments were fragmented within themselves – not to mention the thousands of points-of-view from civilians.

    And to say that “it should probably be politely pointed out that the United States of America did not start the Pacific War. Japan did” is again a skewed argument. America was avidly involved in the bombing of Germany – a country that never bombed US. But they bombed their allies – same as Japan (a great novel that discusses this is Gunter Grass’ CRABWALK). Now, this is not some hidden support for some totalitarian regime which, arguably, both Japan and Germany were under. Rather, it is to point out that to simply point a finger, yell out “He started it” does not constitute a good enough reason to bomb civilians.

    So I would never “want to make the point that [America] incited the war with an embargo of oil and steel” because, as I mentioned above, such simplistic statements are for the (corrupt?) politician not the scholar.

    So no need to come up with a defense. Though I should tell you that the idea that the “FDR [incited the war with an embargo of oil and steel] in an effort to get the Japanese to stop their behavior in Mainland China” is laughable. Oh, don’t get me wrong – Japan has to admit to the war crimes they committed in Manchuria and other Chinese (and Korean) colonies. But I think you just need to look at the immigration laws in the US at that time to see that little concern was given to the “yellow man”.

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki had more to do with showing off the murderous toy that America so proudly created to warn off Russia of any thoughts of conflict. It was also a scientific experiment, given the topography of the two centres, the American government was able to gain an extensive amount of information concerning the effects of the bomb, radiation etc. The source I mentioned in my previous comment is proof of that. Also, see the documentary White Light Black Rain. Excellent in demonstrating how that bomb is still killing among other things.

    In defense of the bomb, the best piece I have read is Paul Fussell’s essay Thank God for the Atomic Bomb. I will not go into why I don’t quiet agree with his analysis but I feel it only right to point out that, again, there are several voices that need to be heard here before we start pointing fingers and, worse, simplifying history to wiping our hands down to a “no choice” scenario. Thanks to authors like KSR – I don’t think that will happen too often.

    I think a good, though perhaps not so obvious response to Fussell and other defenders, is Mark Seldon’s discussion of strategic bombing: .

    Why read SF? Because it manifests the much needed philosophy that there is always a choice, there is always an alternative. And when it comes to people’s lives I do not think it is too much to demand of my and other governments to not become like their enemies at war but to remain honest to the ideology they were supposedly fighting for. The American government in WWII feel short.

    I write this because I want readers to understand that KSR’s story is great for the very reason that he demonstrates one among many possibilities – one of the reasons SF and Fantasy are such powerful genres. My hope is that in reading KSR’s story it will motivate audiences to further explore what is out there, some of which I listed above. I am sorry this is long Mr. Murphy and other readers – I doubt you made it this far and I have to apologize again. But it was too important to remain silent.

    Thank you for your patience and Happy Reading!

    KSR has got mad skills
    & an articulation of time that resonates with me.
    This fine author is speaking at
    the SF Anarchist BookFair on Saturday, March 13th @ 5pm.
    The topic is listed as: the Politics of Science.

    Terry Bisson is listed as one of the speakers as well.
    He’s scheduled for the Sunday @ 2:30pm.
    Looks like fun.

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