THE HIGH SIERRA by Kim Stanley Robinson, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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THE HIGH SIERRA by Kim Stanley Robinson, Review

Alexander Wallace heads to the mountains.
Of all the science fiction writers working today, Kim Stanley Robinson has some of the most spellbinding prose. He is elegant and lyrical in a way that stands in such utter contrast to the dry prose of the Golden Age. He set a new standard for hard science fiction with the Mars trilogy, and redefined alternate history with The Years of Rice and Salt. Now, for the first time since his doctoral thesis (which was on the work of Philip K. Dick), he turns to nonfiction in The High Sierra: a Love Story.

The High Sierra is a paean to one of Robinson’s other loves: the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. Robinson is an enthusiastic hiker, and he has trekked through these ancient mountains many, many times. They are a massive influence on his fiction; he admits this himself, discussing the Mars trilogy and 2312.

Reading through The High Sierra, I couldn’t help but think of the sort of rambling, wandering historical nonfiction of the likes of Erik Larson or Simon Winchester. These are authors who will focus on a single event or subject and probe every little facet of it, going on a variety of odd and interesting tangents that together form this panopticon of said subject, teaching you about that and about many other things. Robinson takes this formula and runs with it, discussing geology, human history, the literature of the Sierra Nevada, and a memoir of sorts of his various voyages through these mountains (and, for comparison, some chapters on the Swiss Alps).

The end result of the agglomeration of all of that is a book that feels very much like a collage, with all these little segments slowly forming an entrancing picture of not just a mountain range, but a way of life. Robinson is vulnerable with you; he is very honest about how he has made mistakes and his foibles, and also about the one time he got penile frostbite (the mere mention thereof made me wince).

This is all conveyed in Robinson’s enthralling prose. This is not a textbook, of geology or of history; no, it is an epic every bit as sprawling as the Mars trilogy with the Sierra itself as the main character, and Robinson its narrator and sometimes deuteragonist. Robinson is a writer that succeeds in making geology a thrilling read! I never would have thought that possible, but alas, he’s done it!

I hope that nature writers and nature readers take note of The High Sierra. It’s the first of this form of writing that I’ve read, but it has made me want to read more of it. This is a book that deserves all the awards it is eligible for. It made me care about nature (and on the other side of the continent from where I live) in a way I never thought possible. It will do the same for you; I’m certain of that.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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