2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Reviewed by L. Timmel Duchamp
14 January 2013
Readers seldom approach the mature work of the most ambitiously creative writers in the field in the same way. Those without a lot of experience in the field will tend to read the work with reference to other work in the field released at the same time, regardless of the author's reputation or thematic and stylistic development. Longtime fans who've read a significant portion of the author's oeuvre will likely read it with reference to both the author's reputation and previous work. Critics, though, might instead try to place the new work, as they read and consider it, within a larger context, albeit one that includes awareness of the author's previous work and (unavoidable) consciousness of the author’s reputation.
Kim Stanley Robinson numbers, without question, among science fiction's most ambitiously creative writers. His novels tend to be dense with both characterization and information and have from the beginning attempted to mesh the values and aesthetics of the literary novel with those of the science fiction novel, often by elaborating the minutiae of his characters' quotidian lives while at the same time recording their frequently verbal struggles as they grapple with politics and the major ethical questions confronting them. Galileo's Dream (2009), while still recognizably Robinsonian, took greater risks with both form and style, and could be said to be have invested more heavily in aesthetic than mimetic narrative values and to have trusted far more than usual, for Robinson, in the reader's ability to understand and appreciate the text.
Robinson's latest novel continues these tendencies more boldly, intrepidly, and even joyously. 2312 unabashedly experiments with a form that separates the novel's narrative sections from the material the reader needs for making sense of the politically complex world in which the narrative unfolds; thus it transforms the novel's lengthy and numerous hard SF infodumps variously into word paintings suffused with sense of wonder, eighteen sets of fragmentary bits of lectures on a variety of subjects sampled at apparent random, as well as fifteen evocative lists and three stream of consciousness passages titled "Quantum Walks" that record the perceptions and "thoughts" of a quantum AI. It matters tremendously that Robinson doesn't use infodumps to build the novel's world—the innumerable small details that emerge through the narrative show the reader more about that world than infodumps themselves can directly tell the reader. The infodumps are always supplemental, sometimes contentious, frequently provocative, and often deliberately fragmentary, but never a substitute for organic world-building. They add depth to the background, the way chatty footnotes can do for a piece of scholarship. They persuaded me that the well-placed, aesthetically shaped SF infodump is extra-dimensional rather than flatly expository.
Key to the success of such experimentation in form is, on the one hand, a text that implicitly teaches the reader how to read itself, and on the other hand, a reader willing and able to integrate, imaginatively and intelligently, all of the novel's component parts. Though it challenges the reader, there is nothing intrinsically difficult about such a text. And yet doubtless some readers will consider this too much effort to ask, especially if their experience of science fiction has been minimal, or if they think of the aesthetics of SF as ornamental and secondary to the standard narrative arc driven by suspenseful plotting: 2312 maintains, throughout, a deliberately slow pace, allowing the reader to absorb its context to a greater degree than most fast-paced narratives do. Readers like myself will swoon with bliss as they experience the continual gratification of their reading chops and 2312's sophisticated SF aesthetics.
The site of the novel is a period of time—roughly, the year 2312—rather than a place, though at least some of the "Extracts" interspersed with the narrative are written from a vantage of 2320 or later. In Extract 8, one fragment asserts that "what happened in 2312 suggests that the twenty-fourth century will mark a turn" (p. 247)—inviting the reader to attempt an extrapolation from the novel's narrative events into its world's future. The novel's physical setting spans most of the solar system, from Mercury to the moons of the outer planets, metaphorically the ocean in which humans swim; it offers an index of main character Swan Er Hong's range of personal mobility, scope of thought, and notion of home. Despite Swan's expansive notion of home, Earth figures importantly in her consciousness, both as the place people with generous lifespans must return to every seven years to assure their continued health and longevity, and as the place of intransigent backwardness and apparently determined immiseration, a ball and chain the privileged can't escape, while providing a source of miraculous well-being where air is free and sunlight abundant yet.
The attractions of this future beckon powerfully as Robinson treats us to marvelous scene after scene of breathtaking beauty and wonder in which Swan makes the solar system her playground. In an earlier part of her life, Swan terraformed numerous asteroids, creating a variety of terrestrial ecological styles that decades later she regards critically. Travel through the solar system for those with Swan's privilege is largely accomplished by transferring from one spacefaring asteroid to another (and the occasional space elevator) until one reaches one's destination. Each asteroid has not only its own ecological style but also its own culture, customs, and laws. The domed city Swan calls home, Terminator, "a little bubble of green, gliding over a black-and-white world," (p. 341) rolls around Mercury on twenty gigantic elevated tracks at an average of five kilometers an hour, propelled by the thermal expansion of its tracks as the city is always moving into the dark. Swan, like Mercury's "sunwalkers," dons a suit and walks just ahead of the dawn—exhilaratingly risky behavior of the sort she is addicted to. Terminator is a marvel of science and technology, a home to exquisitely creative and sharply intelligent, active humans.
The novel opens with the funeral of Swan's grandmother, Alex, known in Terminator as "the Lion of Mercury." Swan finds her grandmother's death hard to accept—no matter that she lived to 191 years. Death, in Swan's view, is "some kind of mistake." This conviction leads Swan to join forces with Alex's colleagues and one Inspector Genette—a "small" who is waist-high to Swan—to investigate Alex's death as a possible murder. The questions of what Alex was working on at the time of her death, and whether her death was due to murder, and if so who perpetrated it, initiate the novel's primary narrative arc. Interestingly, this is an arc that does not drive the narrative as the investigations of such mysteries typically do in genre novels, but, rather, forms a skeleton that holds the novel's expansive yet attractive flesh together. It gives Swan a reason for traveling from place to place through the solar system and for developing an often ambivalent, always interesting relationship with a Titan called Wahram, who is "in form spherical, or perhaps cubical," (p. 21) but tall.
The nature of Swan's relationship with Wahram has as much to say about the culture they share and their cultural differences as it does about their personalities. Both of them share what 2312 terms a "bisexual" gender: a full complement of both male and female sexual organs, deliberately engineered. An extract asserts "The longevity increase associated with bisexual therapies has led to very sophisticated surgical and hormonal treatments for interventions in utero, in puberty, and during adulthood" (p. 204). Both identify themselves as "gynandromorphous," and both have "bixexual" reproductive capabilities. Swan, in the novel, is given the pronoun "she," Wahram "he"; Wahram is known as a "wombman," possessing a "small vagina" as Swan, who possesses a "big vagina" has a "much littler penis" (p. 424). We are told that "it was said that their particular combination of genders was the perfect match, a complete experience, 'the double lock and key,' all possible pleasures at once" (ibid). And the narrative duly describes the "somewhat acrobatic" moves making a "double lock" possible.
As Robinson's leading characters tend to be, Swan is confident (often to the point of arrogance), stubborn, intelligent, highly educated, and fiercely self-determined. Her particular idiosyncrasy is her proneness to risky behavior and a precipitate embrace of the new. Thus she often "sunwalks" on Mercury, experiments recklessly with her body, and engages in extreme sports (like "surfing" the waves in the rings of Saturn). One of these experiments—ingesting Enceladan organisms—has permanently altered her, turning her into a symbiote. The presence of the Enceladan "bugs" in her gut may (or may not) be what saves her from dying of radiation poisoning; their effect on her is a matter for speculation. In any case, her enthusiastic embrace of new experiences even when she knows nothing about their possible consequences is a key aspect of who Swan is. Swan not only owns a personal quantum computer, but also has it implanted in her body; this personal "qube" projects an individual personality named Pauline that figures so hugely in Swan's social relationships that when Swan receives a marriage proposal, the proposer asks Pauline to marry him, too. Early in the novel, Wahram thinks of her as his "so-mercurial friend" and muses that "the mercurialities of Swan were infinite" (p. 252). This is both a pun and a hint that Swan in some way represents Mercurial culture, given that people from Terminator are known as Mercurials. Terminator, after all, is a construct at the very limits of urban possibility, literally driven by the difference between light and dark, always at the edge between them—and embodies the collective risk-taking that is such an elementary feature of life off Earth.
Swan may be stubborn and largely indifferent to others' feelings, and especially their perceptions of her, but this indifference, in a sense, allows her the freedom to think big and live imaginatively. Swan is Robinson's quintessential protagonist: a bright, ever curious, educated individual who boldly, freely engages with the universe on her own terms—an embodiment of the potential that lies within every individual, if only they had enjoyed the same privileged background. Swan shows us what it would be like to be free of the chains of history that bind us all.
And yet, in 2312, more overtly than in most of his previous work, Robinson confronts the stark divide between those who enjoy the privilege of becoming utterly free and those who don't—caught in the meshes of history that won't allow everyone to go their own way. Swan, during a visit on Earth, rails at the people in a bar in Ottawa, "We're on Earth! You have no idea what a privilege that is. You fucking moles! You're home! You can take all the spacer habitats together and they'd still be nothing compared to this world! This is home" (p. 418). Swan actually uses the word "privilege," which by this point in the novel can only strike readers as painfully ironic. The privileged mostly don't live on Earth, but in space habitats. Earth represents misery and squalor and social and ecological devastation that can't be escaped. Swan doesn't understand this difference except in the most abstract terms. The reader can grasp her lack of comprehension best by Swan's never once registering the means necessary for traveling at will about the solar system or receiving life-saving medical attention, much less surfing the "waves" of Saturn's rings.
Robinson rejects—forcefully and unequivocally—the trite presumption that immiseration of the majority is the price that must be paid for beauty, achievement, and ambition. His lead characters worry over and speculate about the recalcitrance of Earth's misery—the apparently absolute inability to bring about positive change. The off-Earth Mondragon Accord offers an example of a working social utopia, in which basic human needs are met without question, based, we learn in "Extracts (6)" on the organization of "a small Basque town that ran an economic system of nested co-ops organized for mutual support" (p. 125). Most of the space settlements developed from scientific stations, where "Capitalism was in effect relegated to the margins, and the necessities of life were a shared commons" (p. 124). Privilege, in this version of the future, is largely based on escape from Earth's political and economic formations, so historically entrenched that they cannot be changed, so dominated by inequality that all any aspiring person born on Earth can hope to do is escape the planet.
Privilege, of course, attracts resentment and misunderstanding—and, possibly, terrorism, to which space habitats are particularly vulnerable. One part of the main narrative arc involves an investigation of terrorist attacks, one of which results in Swan and Wahram's taking huge hits of radiation and spending weeks walking underground, trying to rescue themselves. Although readers can be pretty certain that other manifestations of privilege—extreme wealth, the power of commanding others' labor and obedience, the exercise of raw power to curtail others' liberty and make destructive decisions likely to affect untold numbers of other humans—are operating in the depicted reality of 2312, Robinson, like his Mondragon Accord, relegates such manifestations to the background and margins, rendering it as a sort of foul sludge Swan and Wahram try variously to ignore or override without being soiled by. This relegation to the margins makes sense, though it renders that portion of 2312's world through smudges and blots rather than the sharp, high-contrast delineations of the rest of its world. Pushed to the margins, deprived even of antagonist status, it has no power to dominate the novel's stories and characters, showing up as a drag on human agency, freedom, and achievement rather than a vector for their expression: a veritable triumph of oppositional narrative politics.
Long-time Robinson readers may occasionally be bothered by the uneasy relationship 2312 has with the rest of Robinson's ouevre, particularly the Mars trilogy (1993-1996). Robinson has been reworking his chronology of the solar system's future history as various developments in real history unfold (not least, in our ever-changing understanding of the speed and consequences of global warming), which makes sense. The chronology set out in "Extracts (8)" meshes well with that of Galileo's Dream but only somewhat with that of the Mars trilogy. Particular details retained or extrapolated from these books (for instance, the rescue of Peter, immortalized in "the old Martian song" [p. 490]) occasionally pop out. Even more peculiar is Swan's naming her implanted quantum computer Pauline. Pauline was the only AI given a name in the Mars trilogy, so I found myself wondering again and again (without reply) why Swan's "qube" is called Pauline. Are we to draw parallels between Swan and John Boone? For me, such resonances were a misstep, albeit a minor one that most readers won't notice.
Long-time Robinson readers will also notice the author's continued interest in the themes that course through his oeuvre—humanity's dependence on Earth regardless of technological advances; the positive consequences of extending human longevity; the beauty and sublimity of the universe, particularly as consciousness engages with the matter of existence; Earth as the figure and embodiment of human persistence in immiseration; and perhaps most notably, the passionate embrace of scientific societies as offering an alternative—almost utopian—model for building a fair and progressive polis and social praxis, a way of breaking free of history's powerful pull.
The historical chronology offered in "Extracts (8)" characterizes the years 2005-2060 as "The Dithering": "From the end of the postmodern (Charlotte's date derived from the UN announcement of climate change) to the fall into crisis. These were wasted years" (p. 245). Wasted years indeed. And yet for all the global elites' entrenched determination to plunder and loot the planet as though the "End Days" were nearly at hand, Robinson envisions not only survival, but even the unstoppable thriving of science and technology, which he perceives as a reservoir for hope. Reading a novel as persuasive as 2312 in 2012, a year which saw the possibility of saving the world from the future ravages of global warming receding ever farther, I find myself wondering if the hope Robinson places in the collective possibilities of not science but scientists might be the only possible one left to us. Certainly most twenty-first century anglophone science fiction is pessimistic about the prospects of significant, positive, collective change. Robinson's novel convinces me that it would be a mistake to dismiss such hope as this as merely wishful thinking.