Kim Stanley Robinson has won nearly every coveted SF writing award, and remains best-known for his extraordinary Mars Trilogy. He claims his novel, 2312, 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.
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 semi-terraformed planets and moons, and in hollowed out rotating asteroids. Computer and genetic augmentations have become commonplace. Spacers, in particular, have modified themselves to the point where the human race may be speciating.
In this future, several characters become involved in a world-spanning, head-spinning mystery. These include Swan Er Hong, a somewhat volatile, 135-year-old ecosystem designer and artist from a moving city on Mercury, Fitz Wahram, an emotionally-detached diplomat from a partially terraformed moon of Saturn, and Inspector Genette, an interplanetary Hercule Poirot with a distrust of AI. 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.
2312 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.
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. If the predictably awkward love story between Swan and Wahram does not consistently work, Robinson gets points for depicting a plausible romance between intersexed individuals-- one written as though he has Asperger's Syndrome. However, despite their idiosyncrasies, Robinson encounters problems differentiating some of his characters and their dialogue. The players, as a result, feel somewhat flat.
The images and ideas, however, pop and flash off the page. Robinson writes the SF of visionary ideas, and 2312 contains enough mindwarpery 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 upon the sun from Mercury.
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— the return of species long extinct on the homeworld, but bred elsewhere—remains one of the most brilliantly surreal moments in contemporary literature:
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)
He also posits a novel and very deadly version of a pebble attack; hard SF rarely overlooks the military possibilities opened up in space.
All writers select, developing 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 also rather dull. Meanwhile, certain 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-page and get explained later. This becomes particularly annoying when solutions to the novel's central mysteries get explained after the fact. The results feel off-balance.
In addition to some excesses and 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.
Robinson has written some of the best recent SF, but 2312 would have benefited from a strong editor and a few more revisions. If you have never read him, start with Red Mars. If you like his work, you will find much to enjoy in 2312. But if you're not a fan of SF, or if Robinson leaves you cold, this is not the book to engage.
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
ISBN: 9780316098120, 0316098124
First published: May 2012.
Pedantic Bonus: Robinson uses the word "decimate" correctly.