Saturday, June 1, 2013
2312 - Kim Stanley Robinson
Three centuries in the future, humanity has spread across the solar system. They are increasingly long lived, dual gendered and come in all shapes and sized. Out in space they enjoy a historically unprecedented prosperity but for all that progress, humanity's destiny is still tied to old Earth. The planet is an overpopulated, exhausted, polluted, ecological wasteland, struggling to support the vast masses of people still living there. Earth's instability is a threat to the entire solar system as sculptor and ecologist Swan Er Hong finds out after the death of her grandmother Alex. It seems Alex was the center of a group of people spread across the solar system who are working on the problem. Now it is up to her to keep the project going. A project that experiences resistance from an unlikely source as it turns out.
Robinson is often accused of using infodumps in his novels. Some of his most interesting scenes are in those supposed infodumps in my opinion but people who disagree will be glad to know he has changed his approach to conveying information ot the reader a bit. In 2312 he alternates chapters, mostly form the point of view of three main characters, with list of related concepts and extracts of various sources giving the reader an overview of the time line. They partly serve as epigraphs, although strictly speaking they are separate from the chapters. Many of the most interesting tidbits in this novel can be found in the extracts and they give the reader enough background to understand the actions and motivations of the main characters. It's an interesting way of structuring the novel. Some of the more plot oriented readers may feel is slows things down but the lists and extracts do contain vital information. Personally I feel Robinson wouldn't be such an interesting author without that density of information, real scientific concepts and theories and the tremendous sense of place that radiates from his writing. Putting some of that in the extracts changes the dynamics of the chapters some. Whether you will like it is a matter of taste but it does make 2312 a faster read than some of his other novels.
It is not uncommon for Robinson to add lengthy descriptions of places and large sections of interior monologue to his novels but 2312 does have a plot of sorts. I guess you could say it is a mix of a love story and a mystery. The author has stated that he set out to write about a romance between a mercurial and a saturnine character. Swan is from mercury and certainly fits the description. She is quite unpredictable and prone to mood swings, as the saturnine character, Fitz Wahram experiences form up close. I'm not entirely sure that I would describe Wahram, who hails from the Saturn league, a collection of inhabited moons and asteroids around the gas giant, as saturnine though. He is very even tempered, to the point of being boring even, but I wouldn't really use any of the more negative traits associated with that particular term to him. Maybe Wahram grew on Robinson while writing. He didn't grow on me though, Swan is by far the more interesting of the pair.
Opinions are divided over this work and I can see why. It reaches back to some of Robinson's most popular works, the Mars trilogy in particular. It's not a sequel in the traditional sense of the word however. There are thematic links and even one passage where Robinson appears to refer to Peter Clayborne's adventure in orbit in Red Mars, but history obviously unfolded quite differently in the 2312 time line. Martian terraforming in 2312 was influenced by Lowell's depictions of the supposed Martian canals for instance. The situation on Mars is not discussed in detail in this work though, the main characters don't spend much time there.
Mercury and Venus feature much more prominently in the novel. Robinson revives Terminator, a city on rails forever being pushed forward by the tracks expanding in Mercury's sunrise. It showed up in The Memory of Whiteness as well as Blue Mars, although the details are a bit different if I remember correctly. Mercury is too close to the sun ever to be fully terraformed but there is a twilight zone on the planet where the light and heat are such people will not be cooked instantly but merely perish from the lack of an atmosphere without proper suits. The city as seen though the eyes of Swan is a piece of art as well as a shelter from the unforgiving conditions outside. Its a marvelous concept and a sharp contrast with the situation on Earth Robinson describes later on in the novel.
Venus is more of a political battleground and one of the places where events relating to the mystery part of the novel are taking place. There is a deep running disagreement on how to terraform the planet, which with it soaring temperatures, thick carbon dioxide atmosphere and sulphuric acid rains, is just as inhospitable as Mercury. Humanity's inability to think in solutions that will take more than a lifetime to achieve has lead to the installation of a sunshield which makes the planet vulnerable. Robinson turns Venus into a dark place, full of muddy politics and shady deals. I think in the end, the story of the character who spends most time there, a man by the name of Kiran, is a bit underexposed. I can't shake the feeling that his story has been inserted into the novel at a later stage.
What did strike me about the novel is the radically different approach to terraforming the novel takes compared to the Mars trilogy. Where in those books a great philosophical debate raged about whether or not to terraform and to what extent, in 2312 no holds barred attempts at rapid terraforming are described. Moons are dismantled, or have their surface changed into graffiti art, meteors are crashed into the surface to speed up rotation, countless asteroids are hollowed out and turned into terraria, sunshieds and mirrors are installed to deflect or transfer light and atmospheres are stripped or created. It brutal and seemingly unguided. In fact one of the characters mentions that they might have been in too much of a hurry to terraform the various planets and moons of the solar system. Very small groups of people feel entitled to take decisions on a planetary scale that are very had to undo. It is a somewhat unsettling way of thinking really. Robinson uses it to great effect when the main characters find out that you can't tear down a garden shed on Earth without pissing at least a dozen people off.
Another thing I noticed about the descriptions of the various places the main characters visit - and where Robinson departs from most of his other big science fiction stories - is that the solar system looks huge and small at the same time. Robinson firmly declares the stars out of reach in any meaningful span of time (not that that stops them from trying anyway) and that puts a limit on human development. With the many terraforming projects in full swing or more or less completed, humanity appears to be once again out of places to expand. Maybe in that light it is not surprising that by 2312 attention is drawn back to the cradle of humanity.
Earth and the rest of the solar system seem to be at odds over many things. Parts of the still not fully unified planet are firmly in the clutches of capitalist economies, while others are moving to different systems. Is space, the Mondragon system is more popular. It's a large scale version of the cooperatives in the Mondragon region of Spain, a system that has been mention in earlier novels by Robinson. Environmentally, things are little better. A huge number of species are only surviving because of the asteroid terraria that house them. Complete collapse of Earth's ecosystem appears to be a matter of time. The interesting thing about these passages is that despite the disasters that struck the planet, Robinson still describes it as a beautiful place as seen through the eyes of the space dwelling characters.
There is a great deal of awareness in this novel of the effect humanity has on the environment. It's one thing that make Robinson's novels so fascinating to me. In space the effect is obvious. Humanity has to make the environment there to survive. On Earth, many people take it for granted but just about everywhere on the planet you can see the effect we're having if you know where to look. Robinson knows and it shows in his writing. His characters know it too, which makes the almost casual decision to take on large and very invasive terraforming projects even more interesting. Ann Clayborne would probably faint. One of the most interesting questions the novel raises in this regard is whether terraforming Earth can be done. Think about it for a while, the concept is daunting.
The novel contains lots of familiar concepts and ideas but there is one element that I don't think Robinson has covered in any kind of detail in his previous work, it is the matter of artificial intelligence. By the end of the novel it is still not quite clear if the quantum computers such as Swan's Pauline (a reference to the device owned by John Boone in Red Mars) have reached self awareness or consciousness but the story line is certainly food for thought. I wouldn't have minded if Robinson had dug into this a bit further, something that might have improved the mystery part of the novel too.
In the end I enjoyed reading 2312 a lot but I do feel that Robinson uses a lot of ideas in this novel that he has covered in detail in other books. It's not that he does it poorly, it is just that for someone who has read most of his other work, the novel offers relatively few unexpected elements. On the other hand, it was written in such a way that I feel you can't possibly get the most out of the novel without having read at least some of his previous books. That, in my mind, is not a good combination. Structurally and conceptually 2312 is an interesting novel but as a tale of a major turning point in human history is fails to pull together like some of his other novels do. I guess I feel the novel doesn't achieve all it might have. That being said, it is ambitious, packed with fascinating ideas and concepts and contains some jaw-dropping descriptions of various places in the solar system might look like. Which is a lot more than many other science fiction novels achieve these days. Maybe Robinson does have a shot at that Hugo after all.
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
First published: 2012