Jeff VanderMeer reviews Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The High Sierra’

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning science fiction, like the hugely popular “The Ministry for the Future” (2021), often grapples with environmental issues. It’s no wonder, then, that his first major non-fiction release, “The High Sierra: A Love Story,” is about the wilderness he knows best.

“The High Sierra” is meant to be a hybrid: a personal memoir and a hiking journal, a geology lesson and a history lesson on one of the world’s most epic natural sites. The structure of the book attempts to create order out of Robinson’s exuberance and enthusiasm, but only half delivers on that promise. Several types of chapters have been woven into a sort of quilt of the Sierra Nevada: “My Sierra Life” (hiking experiences), “Geology”, “Sierra People” (indigenous peoples as a general group and contemporary figures), ” Snow Camping”, “Moments of Being”, “Routes”, “Names” and, uh, “The Swiss Alps”.

The book begins with “Not Touching the Earth”, a beautiful but all-too-brief account of Robinson’s initial trek through these eastern California mountains with his friend Terry, whose company is an important and poignant touchstone. . A geology section jarringly intercedes before Robinson continues, like a flashback included too early in a novel.

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The remainder of that first day’s account, “Break on Through”, includes an acknowledgment that he was on LSD and an unnecessary section on the benefits and dangers of drug use. “It definitely made a cosmic day, as they say. Hilarity overwhelmed us. But what struck me the most that day…was a prodigious feeling of importance …more real than real – real reality – something like that.

I was curious how different the landscape felt under the influence, but Robinson steered clear of the lived experience for a while. Instead, he has a brief discussion with himself about which word — surreal, mystical, or metaphysical — best describes that day, then turns to a nostalgic account of his life in California at the time, as a that impregnated “long-haired stoner students”. in “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” but also as “hippie jocks”, which included surfing and hiking.

Throughout these chapters, I felt like Robison had been recording freewheeling riffs about his life in the mountains and I was reading a transcript. Variations on “I loved it”, “What a pleasure! Let’s do it again!” “What a beautiful day”, “What a beautiful life in the Sierra we had”, spice up the narrative. Sometimes these moments reach an ecstatic crescendo similar to the effect of Walt Whitman’s poetry, but sometimes Robinson can’t quite show us what he’s telling us, despite detailed accounts of his various hikes.

The book includes many photographs of mountains of varying quality, some by the author. Tom Killion’s woodcuts of peaks and passes provide the necessary contrast. Some images, like a just-ok photo of the map at the Baxter Pass trailhead, sport exuberant Robinson captions. (“Touch the photo and peel!”) The overall effect is of someone showing slides to a neighbor, with undeniable charm.

Robinson is also fascinated by the original native inhabitants of his beloved mountain range and posits that a site of many obsidian shards used for arrowheads was used because of the magnificent view: “They were like us, thought Terry. But was the scenery the same back then and wasn’t there a strategic value to the view – to be able to see anyone coming up the mountain towards you?

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Naturalist John Muir, recently excoriated as a racist by the Sierra Club, is covered here in a chapter recounting his role in land conservation work around the Sierra Nevada region. Later, in the chapter “The Ugly”, Robinson decides to redeem Muir, writing in part that the man had “post-traumatic triggers”: “If he saw people sitting in the middle of the day, he would get angry. If he saw dirty clothes, he was disgusted. These overreactions explain almost all of his negative statements about people of color he encountered on his travels. Robinson writes that Muir’s attitudes changed over time. and as he got to know more Native Americans.

The “Geology” chapters form a different type of story. Robinson offers the caveat that “I’m not competent to delve into this” during a Wiki-like description of plate tectonics, then adds a more interesting section on masses of granite called batholiths, which Robinson describes as “some thing like a backpacker’s air mattress”, except “four hundred and fifty miles long”, with “individual drops called plutons”, “grouped together like party balloons”.

A chapter on “Fellfields”, or “The God Zone”, offers a personal view of high-altitude “sky islands”, where “the higher you go, the greater the ratio of stone to flower”, but we can’t really hear it, smell it or taste it. Eric Blehm has done a much better and more uplifting job of making the reader not just see, but To feel this kind of awesome plot in his thrilling “The Last Season” (2005), about a missing ranger. Robinson’s book is an exploration and a journey, not a real-life thriller, but did the subject of “Basins” justify two separate chapters of “Geology”? Why does “Gear Talk”, advice on what you need for the hike, happen halfway through the hike rather than at the start?

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It sometimes feels like readers have been given the raw materials from which they could choose to write their own book. Separating “My Sierra Life” from “Snow Camps” and “Moments of Being” simply places similar experiences under different panels. The “Swiss Alps” chapters can be included as a contrast, but a book already composed of poorly synthesized fragments cannot afford to include vacations. Robinson acknowledges this by ending a chapter on the Alps with “Now let us return to the Sierra, my native land”. By the time I got to a chapter titled “Did I mention how much I love the fall colors here?” I have to admit that large sections of the book had faded like the pattern of leaves on a forest floor.

Yet the book also has passion galore and glorious moments where science and poetry collide, like this description of a twilight caught between mountain and sky: “Pure black and pure blue, divided by a jagged line so crisp and sharp that often the boundary between the two colors vibrates a bit… the blue within the blue, electrically cracks due to its own oversaturation.

“The map is not the territory,” writes Robinson, but neither is territory always useful without the anchoring of a good map – a strong argument for delving into “The High Sierra”, rather than to go through it from start to finish.

Jeff VanderMeer is the author of 13 novels, including “Annihilation” and, most recently, “Hummingbird Salamander.”

Small, Brown. 560 pages. $40

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