Science fiction author draws inspiration from the Sierra

“The High Sierra: A Love Story” captures Kim Stanley Robinson’s passion for the wilderness terrain that influenced his greatest works of science fiction.   

"The High Sierra: A Love Story," by Kim Stanley Robinson, Little, Brown and Co., 560 pp.

It took only a single visit for Kim Stanley Robinson to fall in love with the Sierra Nevada in northeast California. Maybe it was simply the right time – the summer of 1973, during the future science fiction writer’s college years. Perhaps it was the company – a close-knit group of California athletes-adventurers-hippies. Whatever the confluence, Robinson calls that initial trip “[a] four-day conversion experience, a road-to-Damascus event. Now I was a Sierra person.”

Robinson returned from the trip a changed man, one who would go to the Sierra more than 100 times, becoming uniquely qualified to write a comprehensive guide to “the best mountain range on Earth, if backpacking is the game you want to play.” ”The High Sierra: A Love Story” gives Robinson the room to write at great length about a wilderness he cherishes, and he brings an idiosyncratic perspective in describing its wonders, large and small, in this unique memoir and guidebook.

Equally adept at writing about the distant past, the near future, and locales as far apart as Alpha Centauri and Orange County, Robinson is one of the most environmentally astute science fiction writers of his generation, having written more than 20 books, including “New York 2140,” a portrait of the metropolis as it succumbs to rising sea levels, and “Aurora,” which explores the limits of interstellar travel. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, he gets the details right. 

Courtesy of Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson writes on the back of a map at Dumbbell Basin in 2010. He’s made more than 100 backpacking trips into the Sierra since 1973.

Robinson acknowledges the ways in which the Sierra has influenced his fiction, starting with his “Three Californias” trilogy and the novel “The Gold Coast” which Robinson regards as his “take on the seventies from the perspective of the eighties.” Later on, snow camping gave him insights about survival that would prepare him for writing “Shaman,” about our cross-continental traveling ancestors.

But perhaps the books most aligned with his Sierra experience would be “The Mars Trilogy,” his best-known and most popular works of fiction.

He writes, “Indeed, the process of terraforming Mars, as described in my novel, was really a matter of turning the Red Planet into something more like the high Sierra.” Is it right to say the Sierras have always played an important role in his fiction? “How could they not?” he says. 

“The High Sierra” brims with useful information, containing maps, photos, and nature poems as well as practical advice on what to pack, where to hike and how to stay alive and comfortable through the night. With an annotated bibliography providing a generous selection of further resources, the book invites both intense study and casual browsing.

Chapters of particular note are those tagged “Moments of Being” and “My Sierra Life.” Robinson writes insightfully about his own thoughts and motivations, and captures the changes that came to hiking friendships over years. His thumbnail sketches of other “Sierra People” are concise and well-crafted. Robinson’s choices include physician and science fiction writer Michael Blumlein, conservationist John Muir, memoirist Mary Austin, and poet Gary Snyder.

Courtesy of Kim Stanley Robinson
The author and his companions emerged from their tarp at a campsite near Palisade Creek and spotted a double rainbow.

Robinson also recognizes the indigenous people who have lived in the Sierra across 10,000 years of human habitation. He argues for returning to native names in the area, even while promoting place names honoring his own favorites, including Henry David Thoreau and Ursula K. Le Guin.

He recounts being inspired to label an unnamed peak near one already named for poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing “the two peaks had much the same relationship as Emerson and Thoreau, not just in size and aspect but in position, being close to each other but separated by a huge gulf of air. It was like that in Concord,” Massachusetts, where the two men lived.

Robinson is able to spot what distinguishes an item – a geological specimen, a fellow traveler on the trail, a marmot sunning itself – and convey how it fits into the grander scheme of life in the Sierra. He communicates his observations without any kind of overblown mysticism, but with a deep sense of gratitude, an appropriate sense of wonder, and a welcome sense of humor.

Courtesy of Kim Stanley Robinson
The author’s friend Darryl DeVinney (right) photographs another hiking buddy, Joe Holtz, near the peak of Mount Williamson.

Sometimes it feels as if the density of “The High Sierra” might be too much of a good thing, as Robinson describes routes he took while backpacking on barely memorable trails. But then there are some truly harrowing maneuvers. When hair-raising events occur, the author describes the action lucidly and grippingly.

Robinson discusses the environmental impact of climate change in the Sierra. He foresees higher temperatures, longer droughts, disappearing glaciers, and perhaps the northern extension of Arizona’s midsummer monsoon, which might help relieve the droughts. “May they hit hard every summer! We can deal.”

“The High Sierra” makes good on the promise of its subtitle. On every page, Robinson celebrates the mountain range, conveying in his intimate and distinctive fashion his abiding love of the place. Anyone who opens their heart to the mountains – veteran trekker, casual explorer, or complete neophyte – will be well rewarded by this singular book.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Science fiction author draws inspiration from the Sierra
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today