Tuesday 29 May 2012

Book Review | 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

The year is 2312. Scientific and technological advances have opened gateways to an extraordinary future. Earth is no longer humanity's only home; new habitats have been created throughout the solar system on moons, planets, and in between. But in this year, 2312, a sequence of events will force humanity to confront its past, its present, and its future.

The first event takes place on Mercury, on the city of Terminator, itself a miracle of engineering on an unprecedented scale. It is an unexpected death, but one that might have been foreseen. For Swan Er Hong, it is an event that will change her life. Swan was once a woman who designed worlds. Now she will be led into a plot to destroy them.


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - or so it feels, at least - I read Red Mars. I was at an age and a stage that demanded I discover those things that I'd love for the rest of my life: not the perfunctory pleasures I'd inherited from my parents, nor the playthings of my peers, but passions of my own devising. Thus, I invested in an alarming amount of classic sf and fantasy. Decades if not centuries of masterworks were mine in one fell swoop, and amongst them, the most celebrated of all Kim Stanley Robinson's novels.

I adored it, of course. Then as now. I'd never read such a meticulous and convincing future history, and Mars, though far-fetched yet, was not such an unknown quantity as to overstretch my limited imagination. By that same token, a lot of Red Mars went right over my head - not least the fact that it was book one of three - so it's been an occasional aspiration of mine to re-read it ever since, in quick succession with its acclaimed sequels, Blue Mars and Green Mars.

Alas, as is often the way with aspirations, it hasn't happened yet... though I have returned to Robinson's work in the succeeding years. Galileo's Dream was not for me, I fear, but I had a terrific time with the best of collection Night Shade Books put out in late 2010, such that I've been eagerly anticipating 2312 for, ahem, many a moon.

It does not disappoint.
"Really you have no idea. It's like nothing you've ever seen. You may think you are inured, that nothing outside the mind can really interest you anymore, as sophisticated and knowledgeable as you are. But you would be wrong. You are a creature of the sun. The beauty and terror of it seen from so close can empty any mind, thrust anyone into a trance. [...] The sight of it can strike thought clean out of your head. People seek it out precisely for that." (pp.3-4)
Three centuries on from the present day, everything has changed. Everything, that is, except Earth. Humanity has taken to the stars; spacers have radically overhauled the solar system; millions of people have been born and raised on Venus and Mars and Mercury, meanwhile countless thousands of terraformed asteroids - which is to say terraria - are now home to Earth's surviving flora and fauna. Longevity treatments have raised life expectancy amongst those who can afford the intervention into the high hundreds, and gender, in the future, is a thing of the past.

Advances along these lines are made every day - exponential progress is the name of the game - yet humanity's pitiable point of origin is in dire crisis, as ever.
"It was almost an ice-free planet now, with only Antarctica and Greenland holding on to much, and Greenland going fast. Sea level was therefore eleven meters higher than it had been before the changes. This inundation of the coastline was one of the main drivers of the human disaster on Earth. They had immensely powerful terraforming techniques off-planet, but here they usually couldn't be applied. No slamming comets into it, for instance." (p.90)
For obvious reasons.

In short, "Earth was a mess, a sad place. And yet still the center of the story. It had to be dealt with, as Alex had always said, or nothing done in space was real." (ibid) Alex, incidentally, is the self-styled Lion of Mercury, a scientist and a significant political figure whose sudden death - supposedly from natural causes - sets off 2312. In the bravura prologue - a short but stunning sunwalk that serves to set the surreal scene ideally, as well as one's expectations - Robinson introduces us to Alex's daughter, Swan Er Hong, as she navigates her planet's scorched surface in an attempt to get to grips with the unbearable grief she feels. Some distance away from the relative safety of Terminator, Mercury's sole city - an awesome industrial colony that circles the world a scant step ahead of the world's own orbit, and thus the sun, which burns hot enough here that it might melt a person (indeed a place) - Swan considers suicide, for a second, or seems to.

Her impetuousness will be the death of her, one suspects. If not now then not long from. She's a spacer, born and raised, and though she's more than a century old, as often as not she behaves like an entitled child. Swan huffs and sulks, pouts and shouts. Not unrelatedly, she's an artist. An aesthetic activist in full-fledged rebellion against the abstract of the establishment. To which end she's eaten aliens, and had bird-brains installed in her head - as you do - as well as a snarky quantum computer called Pauline whom readers of Red Mars may well recognise.

In terms of her character arc through 2312, however, the single biggest obstacle opposite Swan - at least when we meet - is that she has no sense of purpose, or of place. But Alex's death gives her a glimpse of these things, tantalising if not yet terrifying: Alex's last request is that Swan personally ferry some encoded information to those who need to know it. Thus, our odd duck comes into contact with Alex's cultish cadre, who (as it happens) have been working to disrupt the dithering establishment on Earth themselves. Almost as if it were meant to be, Swan finds herself falling in with one of her dearly departed's closest confidantes: Fitz Wahram, out of Titan. He is "a very big man. Prognathous, callipygous, steatopygous, exophthalmos - toad, newt, frog - even the very words were ugly. [...] Once she had seen a toad in an amazonia, sitting at the edge of a pond, its warty wet skin all bronze and gold. She had liked the look of it." (p.15)

So it is that the scene is set for revolution, and perhaps a strange strain of romance.

Thereafter, 2312 gets quite complicated quite quickly:
"By the early twenty-fourth century there was too much going on to be either seen or understood. Assiduous attempts by contemporary historians to achieve an agreed-upon paradigm foundered, and we are no different now, looking back at them. It's hard even to assemble enough data to make a guess. There were thousands of city-states out there pinballing around, each with its presence in the data cloud or absence from same, and all of them adding up to—what? To the same mishmash history has been all along, but now elaborated, mathmaticized, effloresced—in the word of the time, balkanized." (p.78)
To paraphrase our occasional, omniscient narrator: to simplify history would be to distort Robinson's reality, and this award-winning author does not dilute. It is, therefore, a bold-type testament to his unflinching grasp of the narrative art that one understands as much of the plot, and indeed its byzantine backdrop, as one should, or is supposed to. Wisely, I think, Robinson draws a hard line between the involved scientific speculation readers have come to expect from his work and the actual unfolding of the tale he's here to tell; that of - at long last - the end of the world as we know it, if not the apocalypse proper.

To wit, Robinson builds his single sprawling setting, and gestures toward the million (give or take) meticulously researched ideas underpinning it, in excerpts, as in in the extract above. In extracts - of which there are eighteen - in addition to fifteen lengthy lists, a miscellany of individually titled segments, ten strong, on top of a prologue, an epilogue, and forty-odd actual chapters. 2312 is a big book punctuated, and so forth made manageable, by lots of itty bits. Asides, mostly: postcards from the far-distant future, or the diary entries of an unfathomable AI.

This tension in the structure of 2312, between the little and the large, reflects the relationship between the planet-cracking happenings and the seemingly insignificant events that Robinson is interested in for the bulk of the book. The reader is routinely shuttled between stunning set-pieces, like the sunwalk with which the whole thing begins, or the destruction of Terminator - Swan's sweet home if she has one - and quiet, composed, character-oriented moments, such as the prolonged underground walkabout our scattershot protagonist shares with Wahram, or the stop-overs she takes on various terraria.

You will come to look upon all these moments equally. In astonishment, in awe, at both the small, and the immense. Such is Robinson's success in terms of the sense-of-wonder 2312 evokes, like a sky full of stars exploding one after the other, over and over again.

Given all its ideas, not to speak of the myriad intricacies of each of these, I dare say 2312 is a substantially more accessible novel than it has any right to be. The author's decision to delineate his science from his fiction pays dividends in that respect, as it allows each scene to breathe, and more often than not to blossom. Furthermore, Robinson presents many of most complex concepts with a winning amount of whimsy. As recipes, among other things. For a successful revolution, for instance, Swan's qube would have us
"Take large masses of injustice, resentment, and frustration. Put them in a weak or failing hegemon. Stir in misery for a generation or two, until the heat rises. Throw in destabilizing circumstances to taste. A tiny pinch of event to catalyze the whole. Once the main goal of the revolution is achieved, cool instantly to institutionalize the new order." (p.334)
There's fun in 2312, then. Fun, and unbelievable wonder; love, profundity and a lot of legitimately gripping drama. Also some startling ideas. I had not dared to dream that Kim Stanley Robinson could even equal Red Mars, but in time, 2312 could take the cake. That and biscuit-based relativity aside, it's a magnificent sweet treat in its own right. Robinson is as intelligent and compelling as ever he has been - at least in my experience - but herein he has tempered his the science of his fiction smartly, if not sensitively. The result, simply put, is stunning.

Never mind the usual genre divisions: 2312 is easily one of the year's best books, period.


by Kim Stanley Robinson

UK & US Publication: May 2012, Orbit

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  1. Thanks, Niall.

    Yeah, need to read this, and soon. As of the time of this commenting, having a nice twitter chat with Paul Cornell, Cheryl Morgan and CE Murphy about Robinson. I think we all concur on that.

  2. Niall, this is a brilliant review. I am green with envy. "The author's decision to delineate his science from his fiction pays dividends in that respect, as it allows each scene to breathe, and more often than not to blossom." is a brilliant observation, almost diametrically opposed to what I wrote, but now I read it, I agree completely. Great stuff.

  3. @Paul - Yes sir, you do! It's the first science fiction novel to evoke the sense of unbridled awe that I fell in love with the genre for in years. And here I'd been thinking that I'd become immune. Good to know that's not (quite) the case.

  4. @Stefan - You're too kind. Seriously, much too kind. Did you see that bit about cakes and biscuit-based relativity? I must have been hungry or something. :)

    Thank you, though. Means a lot coming from a critic of your stature.

  5. My stature has nothing to do with it, sir. Yes, I may be 6'5, but that doesn't make my reviews any better!

  6. I will definitely check this out! The only other one of his novels I read was "The Years of Rice and Salt" which I didn't like that much