Kim Stanley Robinson has won nearly every coveted SF writing award, and remains best-known for his extraordinary Mars Trilogy. He claims his most recent book takes place in its own universe, but that universe looks a great deal like the Mars Trilogy’s, one hundred years after Blue Mars, three hundred after our time.
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
ISBN: 9780316098120, 0316098124
First published:May 2012.
By 2312, the earth has fallen on environmentally and politically difficult times, while much of humanity lives elsewhere in the solar system—on terraformed and semiterraformed planets and moons, and in hollowed out rotating asteroids. Spacers, in particular, have modified themselves to the point where the human race may be speciating, and computer augmentations have become commonplace.
Swan Er Hong, a somewhat volatile, 135-year-old terrarium designer and artist from a moving city on Mercury, Fitz Wahram, an emotionally-detached diplomat from a partially terraformed moon of Saturn, Inspector Genette, an interplanetary Hercule Poirot with a distrust of AI, and others become involved in a world-spanning plot. Acts of sabotage and war risk plunging the solar system into chaos. Rival human factions may be involved—- but so may artificial intelligences that could be developing their own identities and cultures.
Robinson writes the SF of visionary ideas, and 2312 contains enough visions of the future and mind-warping concepts for an entire career. He can imagine complex futures and altered– yet familiar– humanity. The problems faced by the novel’s characters cannot be separated from the futuristic setting and speculative developments, but they remain recognizably human problems. When this book works, it is a wonder and a joy to read, a gazing at the sun from Mercury.
2312 also thoughtfully echoes old school space opera, but its events take place in one solar system where large portions of humanity have become alien to each other. Of course, this comes dangerously close to the truth about how humans perceive and interact with each other, even now.
All writers develop the treatment of some events while hurrying over others. Robinson’s choices, at times, baffle me. He devotes, for example, significant amounts of time to some characters walking through a tunnel after a disaster. This could work, given that the event represents the beginning of a relationship between two characters. I just ended up feeling, however, like I’d spent too long in that tunnel—-appropriate, I guess, but problematic, from a reader’s point of view. Meanwhile, certainly dramatic and potentially character-challenging events—- Swan’s imprisonment, for example, by a petty local government—- get handled in a most cursory and disappointing fashion. Pages get devoted to technological aspects—-Robinson writes hard SF, after all—- while important developments in the central plot occur off-stage and get explained later.
This book combines far-ish future SF with a mystery. Both genres lend themselves to excesses of infodump. Nevertheless, some judicious trimming and revision would have improved matters.
They all came down together, first in big landers protected by heat shields, then in smaller landers popping parachutes, then in exfoliating balloon bags…. When they got within a few hundred meters of the ground, every lander disintegrated into thousands of aerogel bubbles drifting down, each transparent bubble a smart balloon holding inside it an animal or animal family. What the animals thought of it was anyone’s guess: some were struggling in their aerogel, others looked around as placid as clouds. The west wind had its effect, and the bubbles drifted east like seed pods. Swan looked around, trying to see everywhere at once; sky all strewn with clear seeds which from any distance were visible only as their contents, so that she drifted eastward and down with thousands of flying wolves, bears, reindeer, mountain lions. There she saw a fox pair; a clutch of rabbits; a bobcat or lynx; a bundle of lemmings; a heron, flying hard inside its bubble. It looked like a dream, but she knew it was real, and the same right now all over Earth: into the seas splashed dolphins and whales, tuna and sharks…. all the lost creatures were in the sky at once….(395)
Originality: 4/6 In creating a plausible future (mostly: Robinson himself wonders about the likelihood of terraforming Venus, even a little), one must must draw from current science and history, and this necessarily means including elements that others have used before. In particular, Robinson himself has used many of these ideas before; with few changes 2312 could have been set in the same world as the Mars Trilogy. Nevertheless, he juggles so many elements that the results are original. In particular, I call attention the Sunwalkers’ beliefs and attitudes and the reimagining of a Brilliant Pebbles attack.
Imagery: 6/6 Robinson’s vivid descriptions of imagined worlds remain his strongest point. Few writers can make physical and social geography so compelling. The reanimation of Earth—a portion of which I quote above—remains one of the most brilliantly surreal moments in contemporary literature.
Story: 4/6 The plot develops slowly, but I found it fascinating, and almost wish some of the alternative explanations for events, suggested by characters, had actually been central to the story. At 2312‘s center we find a mystery, but we see too little of the detective. Much of his investigation happens offstage, while other, arguably less important events receive almost obsessive treatment. The results feel off-balance.
The predictably awkward love story between Swan Er Hong and Wahram does not consistently work, but Robinson gets points for depicting a plausible romance between intersexed individuals.
Characterization: 4/6 Robinson depicts altered humans without making them freakish. It takes tremendous ability to write a 135-year-old gender-altered female protagonist with biological and cybernetic augmentations and make her both credible and accessible, and he has accomplished this end. However, Robinson encounters problems differentiating some of his characters and their dialogue. If the images pop and flash off the page, the principal humans seem somewhat flat.
Emotional Response: 4/6
Editing: 3/6 Robinson has written some of the best recent SF, but here, he would have benefited from a strong editor. In addition to some odd repetitions, this novel features pages of “Lists” and “Extracts.” Some of these make poetry from fragments and provide the broader context of the novel’s world. Others read like unedited writer’s notes, and clutter an already complex novel.
Overall score: 5/6 Despite its flaws, this novel will really appeal to readers into the SF of ideas.
In total, 2312 receives 30/42
Pedantic Bonus: Robinson uses the word “decimate” correctly.
Next Week’s Summer Reading
Alex will review Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s graphic novel The Unwritten, Volume One: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity.