Kim Stanley Robinson
2312 is quite a ways down my reviewing queue, but somehow it has forced its way to the top. I think this means that my subconscious isn’t done with the book yet, since it still clamors for attention a week after I finished reading. 2312 is a complex, demanding novel that rewards the attentive reader with ideas and images that linger long after the last page is read and the book returned to the shelf. At the same time, it is strikingly contemporary; Robinson is taking questions that fill the newspapers today and builds his future history on the answers he finds.
Robinson is not, by his own admission, a writer of nimble or action-packed stories. Much like the magisterial Mars trilogy, 2312 moves at a stately pace, unafraid to pause for reflection, to peek under stones, or to take in the view from a scenic point. There is action, danger, tension, and drama, but they come gradually and over a period of several years of story time. This is the anti-24, an antidote of sanity in a frantic ADHD world. 2312 is more compact than the Mars books, with fewer infodumps and navel-gazing. Brief interludes of historical text, lists, stream of consciousness writing, and other errata serve the same function as a detailed infodump, in fewer words and with a greater conservation of storytelling momentum. Still, the phrase “taut narrative” does not apply.
I must confess parenthetically that, as a frequent shill for greater economy of prose, I feel a bit like the dreaded flip-flopping politician when I praise a Robinson book. In my defense, there are clear differences between bloat, self-indulgence, and quality writing that happens to be dense or slow. There are a lot of words in a Robinson novel, but he means every one of them and it behooves the reader to pay attention.
The story centers primarily around two characters: Swan and Wahram, with a couple of peripheral folks occasionally adding perspective. Swan is an artiste from Mercury who is drawn unwillingly into Solar System politics. Wahram is a diplomat from the Saturnian League who engages with Swan, sometimes in concert, other times in counterpoint. The musical reference is not just metaphorical, as the two actually create music together in a way that reflects their actions through the book. Indeed, music fills a very specific background role throughout 2312, as Beethoven, Brahms, Glass, and others provide the soundtrack. (Again not totally related, but Robinson convinced me to give Phillip Glass another try. Unfortunately, even with the goodwill engendered by the book, I just can’t get into the Glass style of minimalism.)
Swan and Wahram move through a Solar System teeming with human life, investigating a mystery, tracking down a terrorist, helping an environmentally compromised Earth, and teasing out the possibility of an AI singularity; all things that may or may not be related beneath the surface. Again much like the Mars books, Robinson creates a future history that seems so natural and inevitable that one comes away from the novel convinced that The Future can only be like this. He has explained in interviews that this future history is not the same as the trilogy, but the end result is almost identical. The observant reader will note both the divergences and similarities, but also catch an easter egg or two that scramble the multiverse a bit.
The author also borrows ideas liberally from earlier works, most notably the moving city on Mercury, but in many cases these ideas are used because, to Robinson at least, they are the most practical and likely paths that we will walk. Among these are the economic system he proposes, the likely outcomes of current environmental and political problems, and the ultimate uses of asteroids and other space-based resources. The terraforming in particular has been mapped out in several scientific writings, so he’s not really taking gambles there. I have seen a small number of reviews that call out the anti-capitalist bent to Robinson’s book (no surprise there!), but few of them fully address the shortcomings of our current iteration of economic experimentation or the need a space-based society will have not just for new science, but for new social structures. Any serious reader will come away from 2313 with an appreciation for the depth Robinson brings to his universe, though with it comes the danger that books that merely transpose our current society wholesale into the future will satisfy that much less.
Another word I have seen bandied about in discussions of the book is “Utopia.” I am uncertain why people started labeling the 2312 society as such, but I guess in these dark times, any book that is not clearly a near future with an Earth devastated both politically and environmentally is now Utopian. Of course, Earth in 2312 is exactly that, a gargantuan sink hole propped up only by the efforts of those who have escaped into space; a planet full of poor, hungry, and bitter people that are ravaged by war and corruption. Robinson, like many of us, can see no reasonable alternative to this dark future. In space however, all is not lost. Humanity has mined the asteroids, transforming them into hollowed out terrariums that move between the planets. We have seeded some with lost ecosystems, turned others into massive farms, and yet others into interplanetary cruise ships brimming with decadence. Mars has a breathable atmosphere and a temperature warm enough for shirt sleeves, the moons of the gas giants host their own colonies, and even Venus is slowly capitulating to our engineering might. Politics rages, each power center leverages is economic might for its own purposes, and, while war is not a feasible threat in the book (gravity wells and asteroids make for a whole new level of mutual assured destruction), this is no beatific, system-wide harmony.
What this says to me is not utopia, but a throwback to the optimism of Golden Age SF. Problems abound and people are venal, but we have found a way for science to lead us onward. Swan and Wahram don’t find all the answers, nor do they solve even a fraction of the problems facing humanity, but they society they live in is facing forward. I find it depressing that simply asserting, “Science can improve our lives,” is now a Utopian sentiment and suspect that this is behind some recent murmurings in the community about how SF is exhausting itself, isn’t leading the way forward, or just plain isn’t any fun anymore.
This is all just scratching the surface of what is on display in 2312. I could probably write a (very boring) dissertation just on the music and economics, but the above paragraphs should give a passable summary. Despite what may sound like a heavy slog through social science musings, Robinson delivers some truly stunning set pieces. From Terminator, Mercury’s perpetually moving city-on-rails, to views of Saturn from verandas on its moons; space elevators where the passengers all sing Philip Glass operas during the ride to the glittering skyscrapers and Venetian canals of now-flooded Manhattan, 2312 is full of images that promise to remain long after plot details are forgotten. One scene in particular, which I won’t spoil here, will leave Sierra Club members in stunned amazement, wishing fervently that they could be alive to see it happen. Robinson tempts me sorely to have my head frozen, in the vain hope that I can be revived when his history comes inevitably true.
Summing up a major work like this in a blog post is utterly fruitless, but I have tried to capture the scope and depth of the book. In a year of heavy hitters, 2312 stands out as possibly the most impressive SF novel. I would not be surprised to see Robinson cut a swath through the awards, though there will be stiff competition. Regardless, this is a massively important novel. It tells an interesting story, gives us fascinating and complicated characters, addresses the unavoidable challenges facing us while pointing a hopeful way forward, outlines a comprehensive and plausible future, and still manages that all important sense of wonder. Robinson provides the buzz that we crave from SF and the meat that serious readers demand. 2312 is must-read stuff and is heading straight for the SF canon.
Rating: A Champion’s League final. No true fan will want to miss it.