2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Reviewed by Ernest J. Yanarella

2312 cover

With 2312, his latest work of science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson opens up the field of speculative fiction to a nuanced and tension-filled portrait of a plausible future for the human species beyond its earthly anchors three hundred years from now. It is the beginning of the twenty-fourth century and the wonders of science and technology abetted by the onset of the Singularity (called the "Accelerando") have converted the solar system into a playground for an expanded human population beyond the confines of Earth. Technological advances in space colonization and terraforming have allowed human beings to convert Mars into an independent planet with a social, political, and economic achievements surpassing Earth's spiraling decline into a hot, crowded, inegalitarian planet of ecological crisis, overpopulation, and corporate mischief. Mercury is now ringed by a mobile city named Terminator that slowly creeps along the ground ahead of the sun's deadly rays, while Venus has undergone early ecopoesis, allowing its inhabitants to benefit from its gigantic soletta to satisfy its basic energy needs and provoking factional dispute over the issue of full terraformation that would require a one hundred year plan. Meanwhile, other planets (e.g., Saturn) and their moons have yielded to techniques of inhabitation that have produced a complicated and increasingly imbalanced set of political alliances and something of a solar system economy of commerce and trade that bears on the plot driving this work of imagination and possibility. Finally the nova (plural of novum) of life extension and asteroid travel compete with the technical breakthroughs quantum computers ("qubes") leading to quantum humanoids and medical innovations promoting the further hybridization of human sexuality (e.g., "gynandromorphs") to enrich the fictional scenario of terrestrial and extraterrestrial life, love, treachery, cooperation, contestation, and transgression of boundaries.

Readers of Robinson's earlier works, especially the Mars trilogy (1992-1996), Antarctica (1997), the Science in Capital trilogy (2004-2007), and Galileo's Dream (2009) will find continuous themes and refrains being recycled and further developed in this latest one. They will also find his literary creativity borrowing from John Dos Passos's experimental collage techniques in his U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936), as well as John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968), mixing fictional realism with extracts providing snippets of information; encyclopedic entries on important concepts, space objects, and inventions; and lists of things bearing on the world-building of the future solar system and its building blocks, which enlighten, confuse, and playfully invite the reader to puzzle out their significance. Together, these elements combine to paint an intricate, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes awful, but always fascinating, colorful, and subtle unfolding of a possible future human history of the next three centuries.

As a continuing friendly critic of the author, I approached Robinson's latest book with hope and trepidation. My hope resided in the possibility that Robinson would re-anchor his literary craft in some of the themes and ideas from his early work grounded in the critical theoretical foundations gained from his tutelage by Frederic Jameson. And, indeed, his imaginings of an Earth wounded by the latest turn of a corrupt terran political system dancing to the tune of trans-corporate and extra-earthly expressions of a world system dominated by its feudalized capitalist remnant—which turn even the consequences of runaway global warming into opportunities for exploitation and profit—showed elements of his keen insights into prevailing tendencies and future nightmarish possibilities. Likewise, his invention of a Mondragon Accord and loose alliance in space, which shine a beacon of hope on a post-capitalist, non-hierarchical, and more democratic restructuring of a solar system economy, is inspired by Spain's real-life Mondragon cooperative enterprise. This fictional creation points to a chiaroscuro future of politics of outer space struggle where peace and comity beyond feudalized capitalism is never fully assured but is on the other hand not entirely precluded.

My fear in picking up to read 2312 was that Robinson's fascination with terraforming in the Mars trilogy and some of his earlier short stories would lead him to project Western science's impulse to transform all of the solar system into a mere object of use and engage in a form of terror-forming of the planets, their moons, and the asteroids inhabiting our solar system. I worried too that his attraction to the persistent strivings by techno-corporate medical research to produce anti-agathic drugs and techniques to extend human life beyond existing limits would prompt him to succumb completely to the Western dream of immortality that breaks the cycle of human life from its ecological and mortal bonds. These apprehensions were largely fulfilled in the first case, and partly resisted in the second.

To elaborate, American, Chinese, and renegade forces have extended human life to the far reaches of the solar system, using available space materials like ice from comets, nitrogen from Titan, and interior metal resources on asteroids to build space colonies, terraform planets and moons, and craft terraria for rapid intra-solar system travel among the human habitats of space dwellers. In this imagined space existence, Robinson has seen the human impulse to explore and dominate this planetary realm around Sol without the apparent limits he imposed upon terraforming in his Martian stories or Mars trilogy. Terraforming without geophysical or moral limits in the 24th century permits the arrogance of humanism to justify the wholesale pillage of the sun's revolving neighbors that pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment inhabitants on Earth had hitherto approached with wonder, awe and restraint. Evidently, Robinson has still not recognized, as Wendell Berry so astutely acknowledged, that no less than on Earth, there is "an ecology of the heavens." So much of Robinson's playfulness with the broad canvas of the solar system reminds me of a remark made by J. Robert Oppenheimer about the US building of the H-bomb—i.e., that it was "so technically sweet" that it could not be foresworn. So, as a political ecologist, I mourn for the domineering technological command over the planets and the moons envisaged by this fictionally realized blueprint of the cosmos.

Though Robinson does not evoke the seemingly irresistible and uncheckable green power of "viriditas" from his Mars trilogy to justify all of this space construction and heavenly wreckage, he does appeal to Homo sapiens celestis as the next evolutionary turn of Homo sapiens. He also reinforces this point rather cavalierly by proclaiming that we earthly beings "are here to inscribe ourselves on the universe" and that we should "remind ourselves of this when blank slates [!] are given us" (p. 250). The arrogance of humanism, indeed!

In an almost completely secularized imagining of Homo sapiens celestis scattered among the planets, moon, and asteroids, the reputedly most environmentally sensitive and most famous radical science fiction writer today does incorporate certain powerful ecological counter-themes into this work. In projecting the possibilities of future medical science to expand human life to limits approaching 200 years, Robinson links both variants of bisexuality to life extension and the necessity of periodic returns to Earth as essential to dramatically increased longevity. He also has his minor protagonist, Mqaret, the leading synthetic biologist, acknowledge that the second law of thermodynamics dictates that "there’ll be no conquering death" (p. 11). In this respect, Robinson seems to be backing off from a strong defense of modernity's death anxiety and quest for immortality. Still, he shows little in the way of appreciation for Michael Zimmerman's deep insight—namely, that "so long as technological innovation is driven by a revulsion against corporeality and mortality, and by a craving to make the clever ape's ego into an immortal god, those innovations will contain an unintegrated dark side that will threaten to undermine every achievement, including efforts by the prosthetic god to flee from a planet poisoned by man’s rage against mortality" (1994, p. 375).

Indeed, in his philosophical musings within his SF corpus, 2312 marks something of a step back by Robinson from a full embrace of the modernist/post-modernist urge and its dark or shadow side. While enjoying the awe and excitement of living among the planets, moons, and terrarian asteroids, his major protagonist Swan finds herself on her periodic returns to Earth experiencing the nostalgia of coming home to Earth, re-inhabiting—if only briefly—its felicitous biosphere fit for human life, and pining from a healed and healing Terra so badly injured by the thoughtless effort to conquer its natural treasures by techno-corporate projects driven by capitalist profit and modernity's technological impulses to dominate.

Perhaps one saving grace of the novel is its sub-plot involving the campaign to revivify and partially re-wild Earth by re-stocking endangered animal species preserved on "ark" terraria in space and to reanimate it by reseeding its landscape with trees. The complete blueprint for rebalancing Earth's ecosystem through native terraforming means is never fully spelled out in the book. And the interventions that take place hardly suggest that the wreck and ruin that much of Earth experiences can themselves be sufficient. But it is comforting to see Robinson acknowledge its necessity and to underline in the larger plot the critical importance of Earth's stabilization and radical transformation as the key to tempering the space politics of the inhabited planets and moons and inner and outer planetary alliances threatening to devolve into heightened conflict, violence, and war.

The book then is a fascinating portrait of one imagined scenario for Earth and the solar system three centuries from now. Like all great science fiction, it sheds more light on the tensions, conflicts, uncertainties, and hazards of our social, political, and cultural human circumstances today. My critique of Robinson in this book is only somewhat less muted than in previous critical analyses of his Mars and Science in the Capital trilogies. The inevitable question is: given his vast popularity and his celebrity status, am I being too hard on Robinson?

In part, the issue has to do with Robinson's strong fealty to science and his commitment in his science fiction to scientific verisimilitude—i.e., deploying the latest and strongest scientific knowledge and expertise from diverse sciences and technical fields applicable to his subject matter. His spouse is a full-time chemist, who is no doubt a sounding board for his many ideas. It is likely that their circle of friends and wide network of acquaintances also influence his thinking on science and its future impact. Then, too, Robinson is associated with many working scientists and engineers who along with him are members of the Mars Society, an advocacy group for Martian terraforming. So his speculations are grounded in cutting-edge science and the well-founded speculations of space engineers. The danger here is that Robinson may be taking these prognostications of Big Science heavily influenced by military R&D and—more concerning—modernist assumptions and Enlightenment hopes and dreams that credit the promise of future science with potentialities that may be far afield of real potentialities (e.g., the limits of space travel on the human body, the capacity of industrial-strength terraforming to actually convert lifeless planets into a world habitable by human beings, etc.). As Robinson readily admits, science is not only a major institution and social force in the world—it is also an ideology. So Wendell Berry and Michael Zimmerman may be closer to the truth than Stan Robinson, Robert Zubrin, Christopher McKay, and Martyn Fogg about the prospects for planetary engineering, even three hundred years hence.

So readers must make up their own minds about the underlying commitments and value anchors motivating Robinson's latest book. Unquestionably, it is an exciting ride and a thought-provoking read. However sure or distant my interpretation of this long and weighty novel may be, it is sure to generate much discussion among science fiction readers and SF writers, somewhat fewer intense debates, and even several doctoral dissertations on variety of erudite topics. As human beings continue to write their histories through emergent movements and collective actions, SF writers like Kim Stanley Robinson seem intent on peering further down a possible pathway and in so doing shedding greater light on the conditions and the forces shaping our contradictory present. Perhaps Robinson's book may yet inspire another SF writer to think beyond the technological sublime into other realms and other plausible futures more firmly grounded in the ecological imagination and our corporeal existence and recognize that in that imagined paradisal future, et in Arcadia ego.


Ernie Yanarella is Professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of Kentucky. He is an avid reader of SF and author of The Cross, the Plow and the Skyline: Contemporary Science Fiction and the Ecological Imagination (Brown-Walker Press, 2001) and a number of previous published articles on Kim Stanley Robinson's novels. He researches and consults on urban sustainability. His latest book with Richard S. Levine is The City as Fulcrum of Global Sustainability (Anthem Press, 2011).