"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"--
Even if I did not know who had written the novel, I would have recognized the way the Solar system is built -- not because there is any repetition but simply because this is what Kim Stanley Robinson does. This time he chooses a not so conventional way to show this world - by extracts from a future history (sometimes pages long, sometimes a jumble of half sentences) and a sequence of lists which make no sense and look pointless until you realize what they mean and they either give you some additional information about the world or a clue you need to understand what happens or simply the connection between two extracts that are otherwise not connected. Add to this the few chapters discussing different moons and planets and the world is there - alive, breathing and gorgeous.
The year that gives its name to the novel does not get mentioned in the linear story until page 400 (unless if I missed is somewhere) and quite a lot of action happens before that - the novel leads to it even if the extracts start talking about it much earlier. And the story the unfolds is not really new or unexpected - but it is executed pretty well - accident killing thousands of people, another one almost killing everyone on Mercury, a league between planets and worlds (and the head of this league dying out of the blue, the human impulses and stupidities given a bigger theater to be played on. And then come the people itself - changed, genetically engineered but pretty much the same. And Robinson takes hist time to show what the human race is turned into (sometimes in somewhat too vivid details).
The part that does not work (as almost always with Kim Stanley Robinson) is his portrayal of the people that are supposed to be the main characters - some of his secondary ones are a lot more believable and interesting than Swan who is supposed to be the leading character. The dialog does not really work for most of the book (no real surprises there and thankfully there is not too much of it), Pauline's conversations occasionally get tedious (although they are quite entertaining for the most part), the "love" affair is predictable, expected and almost feel like a caricature and the main "solution" of all the mysteries is visible from halfway through the book.
And despite this, the novel works. It is a powerful glimpse in what could be - both in the Solar system and in the development of the human race and society. It will not be everyone's cup of tea but it is what you would expect from Kim Stanley Robinson.
Swan is our heroine. She's 130 or so and looking forward to at least another 50 years of life, maybe more if the technology keeps increasing. She currently lives in Terminator a mobile city on Mercury that travels on rails perpetually avoiding the full glare of daylight. Like many f the population she's an artist and her art has taken many forms over the years - from self experimentation through to many forms of geography - simple sculptures to whole asteroid spaceship forms. The book opens with the death of her 'parent' Alex. A formidable woman who'd been responsible for many of Mercury's political movements. Swan finds a handwritten note from Alex asking her to courier - in person - a note to one of Alex's friends on Saturn. This Wahram wasn't someone she knew about. And the request to keep the note physical, rather than passing it through her embedded AI, suggests the course of the rest of the book. The AI's aren't conscious. But only just, and they do manage to pass a Turing test, sort of. Swan and Wahram travel round the rest of the solar system investigating a few such curiosities with the aid of various friends.
Inventive and imaginative, the story is interspersed with extracts from the future, and somewhat more boringly, Lists of associated concepts. the Quantum Walks of AI thought processes are the cleverest of such interruptions. The plot is not so fast moving that these cause particular problems, but not all readers will appreciate them. I found the thoughts on various forms of governance interesting, and the possible future of earth well constructed. The requirement on not breaching any of the rules of physics have constrained many more popular options. The only error I noticed was the spacesuits adrift in Venus orbit - surely they should have been exposed to the excessive solar radiation that the terraformed planet was shielded from? Another issue is that it isn't always clear over what timescale the book is written. It doesn't start in 2312, but it isn't ever clear precisely when it does start, and how long various actions take - the longevity treatments mean that there isn't such an urgency from the part of the characters.
I found this enjoyable and engrossing, much like all of KSR's work - it isn't the mind blowing epic of the Mars trilogy, but it does move a lot faster than they do.
If we want to continue with our technologically-advanced lifestyles (and I certainly do) we have to leave the planet and start plundering other worlds. That’s literally it. We either use of all of Earth’s raw materials, go into decline and start fighting with each other of what’s left; or we colonise space and utilise the resources currently floating above our heads. I know which one I want. (Added bonus: securing the survival of the human race by not putting all our eggs in one basket).
I mention this because Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312, while certainly flawed in many areas, is one of those wonderful science fiction novels that makes you realise what’s frustratingly possible for the human race to achieve, if only we could show a bit of gumption and look beyond our own lifetimes. (Quotidian example: Melbourne recently replaced its 100-year old sewage system with one designed to last… another 100 years. Surely we can do better than that?) Set, as you might guess, in the year 2312, 2312 explores a possible future of the human race. Humanity has slipped free of Earth and is busy terraforming worlds and hollowing out asteroids, creating earth-like environments from scratch, cloning animals, building cities, and generally looking forward to a bright new future. At least, some of humanity has – 90% of the species is still trapped on Earth, many of them mired in poverty, the planet ecologically devastated, a “development sink” threatening to drag the rest of the system down with its problems. 2312 draws on many concepts from Robinson’s previous novels, A Memory of Whiteness and the Mars trilogy (and doubtless more that I haven’t read), but clearly takes place in a slightly different universe. (For a start, the Mars trilogy had humanity settling Mars sometime around the 2030s, if memory serves; Robinson now has a more realistic outlook on the timeframe, with the period 2000-2060 dubbed “the Dithering.”)
Robinson has developed on some of his ideas since the Mars trilogy, particularly the role that Mars itself plays. In 2312, the rest of the system views it as something of a bully, an isolationist superpower that presents itself to Earth as the face of humanity in space. Interesting, too, how dependant science fiction is on short term future predictions. The Mars trilogy, written in the early 90s, saw Japan as a big player in the future, and barely mentioned China; in 2312, of course, the opposite is true. 300 years ago, the world’s current superpower was a string of British colonies facing down an enormous wilderness. For all we know, the most important country in the world 300 years from now might be Argentina or Canada or a unified Africa. (Although Robinson presents the interesting theory that, apart from a period of European subjugation, the status quo for human history has always been Chinese domination.)
A better author than many other hard science fiction writers I could name, Robinson is about equally as interested in hard science as he is in human foibles, but can still get carried away with infodumps about biology or physics, where my eyes tended to glaze over. 2312 has an aspect which is partly an interesting storytelling choice and partly a cop out: chapters are broken by “lists” or “extracts,” pieces of information flowing out in an almost poetic form. On the one hand it provides a brief and interesting chapter break; on the other hand, I have no doubt they were lifted raw from his worldbuilding notes. How tolerant you are of them depends on how interesting you find them. I was quite happy to read about eras of human history or a list of some of the more important asteroid biomes, but a list of spaceship engines or human psychiatric disorders? Not so much.
Robinson is not blind to the problems humanity will face, but his predictions always lean towards utopian optimism, sometimes naively so. I noticed that, much as in the Mars trilogy, everybody in Robinson’s futuristic world is highly cultured and intelligent and loves nothing more than listening to classical operas or creating artworks or debating the finer points of philosophy. Most people, in real life, aren’t like this at all; most people are simple and ignorant and have no intellectual curiosity, and are even mistrustful of intellectual curiosity. Robinson has an almost autistic attitude to these things, assuming that everybody else is as interested in high culture and big ideas as he is; it genuinely doesn’t seem to occur to him that most people would prefer to watch the X-Factor over a Beethoven concert, and that this will be just as true in the future as it is now. This was somewhat excusable in the Mars trilogy, where nearly everyone is a scientist or descended from scientist stock, but 2312 pushes it a bit. There’s one particularly vexing scene (in a bar in Ottowa, of all places), where the protagonist convinces a bunch of Russian immigrant farmers that the return of wildlife to Earth is good for them, because animals are our “horizontal brothers and sisters.” In real life that would get you a glassing. Or consider the space elevators, which entertain passengers with long renditions of Philip Glass orchestras – imagine trying that as the inflight entertainment on the Friday evening Tiger flight to Bali.
Criticising Robinson for his utopian vision, though, is a bit like kicking a puppy, and it’s hard not to get swept up in his grand and beautiful proclamation of what could potentially be our future – after all, it’s so much more tantalising than anything currently in the cards for the human race. 2312 is a novel that only Kim Stanley Robinson could have written. It’s not a great novel, or even a great science fiction novel, but it’s an important vision of what humanity could be capable of. It’s worth reading if you found the Mars trilogy worth reading, and your appreciation of it will probably be on the same level, whatever that may have been.
I'll reread this and do a longer review on the blog, but my first criticisms are that the plot only aggregates into a action late in the novel, where we spend longer with a slighter lead character than Robinson's given us in past offerings. Swan felt like an elevated supporting character and I found myself wishing we were spending more time with small detective, Jean Genette.
But these are relatively minor criticisms, seems odd to say when plot and protagonist are the critical points, yet I enjoyed the novel's structure, prose, and vision of the future so thoroughly that I was more than willing to go along for the ride and left me wanting more.
Recommended as long as you understand what you're getting.
The big blot is Earth. Sea level has risen there drastically,and coastlines have shrunk. Only a few ice sheets remain. Despite harnessing the resources of the Solar system, Earth is even more overcrowded than ever and its people as hungry as ever. There is tension between Earth and the rest and national rivalries still smoulder on.
There is a problem here as the background scenery is much more interesting than the miniscule plot, which involves quantum computers. Things are not helped by the cryptic notes/lists that interrupt chapters. These are sometimes obscure, contribute little and give the (probably wrong) impression that the author got bored and decided to leave as notes ideas for more narrative/background development etc. There is a love story here of sorts between the main character, Swan, a headstrong Mercurian and Wahrum, an easy-going music lover from Saturn. But the main character here is our Solar System itself, which is what really makes this novel special.
I don't know what it is about KSM this time. I remember why I fell in love with the Red Mars trilogy; I was patient enough to get through the long descriptions of martian landscape, and KSM introduced me to the understanding that science fiction is about ideas (politics, economics, art), not just space ships. And that rocked my world.
What was it this time?
Every sentence in this book felt like a perfectly crafted idea. I'm usually a quick reader, but every sentence in this book felt like a fully formed world to contemplate. So many ideas packed into every thought, every place, every person, all new and wonderful. What an imagination this guy has.
What else? Is it because I'm in the environmental field and KSM writes about that? No so much that, as he constructs this world that is not a utopia (climate change has set in), and yet it is very optimistic. For someone in the environmental field, bound to the uphill climb and the little that can be accomplished, this optimism and joy in an imperfect world is so hopeful and so energizing. Not particularly because i think it could happen, but because the possibility brings me joy.
And he deals with concepts that aren't terribly common in science fiction so personally and deeply, like activism and international development. He marries the two biggest parts of my world (science fiction and the environmental and social justice movement) in his books and in them, i don't feel like two hemispheres that don't belong together. In his books, its so clear that they are part of the world and body of ideas worth thinking about and imagining about.
Does that explain why this is my new favorite book of all time? Maybe not. I think KSM always takes us on wonderful adventures and shows us a million wonderful things in a world that is both dystopian and utopian at the same time (just like ours) and is intensely joyful at the same time.
As many have mentioned, this is a first class example of “world building”, well supported by hard science fiction and in many instances, highly original. As the name suggests, the story takes place roughly 200 years into the future. The solar system has been colonized and there is political discord among the several competing factions and alliances. Artificial intelligence has reached the stage where “replicants” have begun to appear. Life expectancy has reached over 200 years, with potential immortality on the horizon. Acts of interplanetary terrorism set the stage for the story.
The backdrop of the story is about as good as it gets. Only Peter Hamilton can compete in the arena of world building, among the numerous authors I’ve sampled. The hard science fiction is first rate. The story itself, however, simply doesn’t measure up to the scenery. It is not bad, by any stretch; it is simply not that good, which is a shame. The story drags at times and the primary characters were just not that interesting to me. Periodically, chapters called “Lists” and “Extracts” are inserted. Some of the Extract chapters contain information dumps, which are helpful. Others are pointless and the List chapters are a complete waste of time. Nevertheless, this novel is a worthwhile investment of your time if you enjoy hard science fiction.
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
It is only a small exaggeration to say that popular taste has generally run to books of action and pace. Despite his status as one of the celebrated writers of SF, Kim Stanley Robinson’s books have instead ideas at their core. In this way, his work continues the archaic tradition of classic SF, with its Big Idea head rush. But Robinson’s writing is unsullied by the Gee Whiz juvenility of those forerunners. He writes in a unique literary style, willing to innovate, but clear, playful and original. And without the sacrifice of character familiar to readers of the SF of decades gone by.
What ideas? Ideas about human nature. Idealism and catastrophe. Earth’s challenges, human and ecological. Buddhism and desolation. And information. Like Neal Stephenson, Robinson’s books educate with infodumps, many elegant, some less so. The reader uninterested in higher education is unlikely to get very far in his bibliography.
Which brings us to his latest, 2312. I can say with confidence that Robinson’s fans will like this book. Near-future novels seem to be his forte, and this one vividly portrays the titled future in which human habitation extends throughout the solar system: Mars is terraformed; Venus on the way (having been cooled sensibly and creatively by bombarding it with icy asteroids, followed by installation of a sunshield). Mercury has one city, ingeniously configured to move on tracks around the planet, just ahead of the blazing sun. The major moons are occupied, and most surprising, large hollowed asteroids are used as spacecraft, for human habitation, and as preserves for the species of endangered, threatened Earth.
Robinson has created a complex array of subcultures and interest groups, consistent with the varied lifeways of our descendants.
I have selected a few quotes to illustrate themes emphasized in the book:
On the relation between art and life:
“A work of art which need not be in the arts per se”
“History is a product of labor just like the work of art itself, and obeys analogous dynamics”
“…for the truth is we are here to inscribe ourselves on the universe, and it is not inappropriate to remind ourselves of this when blank slates are given us. All landscape art reminds us: we live in a tabula rasa, and must write on it. It is our world, and its beauty is entirely inside our heads. Even today people will sometimes go out over the horizon and scuff their initials in the dust.”
"'Remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.’ ”
On those who remained on Earth:
“They didn’t even look up at the stars at night. Walking among them, she saw that it was so. Indeed if they had been people who were interested in the stars they would not have still been here.”
“..[I]rritated by a problem, Jean Genette never really gave up on it. Even problems officially solved sometimes still had a haunting quality, because of things that didn’t quite fit, didn’t seem right—and if a solution never was found, the problem became part of the insomniac rosary, one bead in a Moebius bracelet of beads wearily fingered in the brain’s sleepless hours.”
A nourishing banquet here, recommended especially to those who have enjoyed his previous work. There is a sense in which I am not sure the story fully hangs together cohesively, a certain ambling about in the process of describing; truly not a whole lot happens for a book of this size; but frankly that is secondary to the rich, vivid, thoughtful and reflective portrayal within. I left happy.
I struggled to rate this as three stars. There were parts of the story that I wanted to give five stars but much of the book deserved 1 star. It was not the story, but rather the writing style that bothered me. Robinson took a great story and wrapped it in a lot of unnecessary junk. He had chapters of lists and random walks that detracted from the story and came off very gimmicky. Sometimes you feel that an author does not take the time to develop the plot or the characters, this was not Robinsons problem. He took the first 250 pages to develop the characters and set up the plot, 250 PAGES. At that point I still was not sure just what was going on and where the story was going.
Having said that I really enjoyed the book. I liked the characters and the plot. The thing that most impressed me, and what drew me to the book originally, was the vision of people living on other planets and other bodies throughout the solar system. The idea of a city on tracks on Mercury that is always located just before dawn is incredible. I can just close my eyes and imagine being there, longing to be there. I contained a love story and the struggle of a character to understand who they were and what their life meant. I found that fascinating and worthwhile to experience.
I don't think I can highly recommend this book because it is way too long and needs a brutal editing job. However, having read through it, I don't feel I wasted my time. I am better for having experienced it.
I'm not sure 2312 worked as well for me, though I can see why many people loved it. The solar system, from Mercury to Pluto to various asteroids are populated by settlers, some on worlds an some on moons, and each settlement has a different means of adaptation or terraforming to ensure the survival of the populace. Much of the details of these worlds and their cultures are filled out in a multitude of side chapters, which provide either lists of information, extracts from scientific or sociological research, or chapters focused only on describing the world. All of this certainly paints a vivid picture and it's clear the author had a clear vision of a complex future society spread out among planets and moons.
There were really two problems in this for me. The first is that there were so many worlds and spaceships (called terrariums) with indiviu ecosystems that after a while it became information overload. I started out fascinated by the civilization of Mercury, with its giant domed city, set on tracks that span the planet like a belt in order to keep the city on the shadow side of the planet and avoid the burning sun. It also has the sun walkers (among whom is the main character Song), who are able to traverse the planet on foot, because the planet rotates just slowly enough for them to stay well ahead of the sunrise.
But by the time I got to, oh, about the fifth world or spaceship to be described in detail, I was kind of over it and was just wanting to get back to the story.
The second problem is that the story doesn't seem to have quite a strong enough plot. Ultimately, the resolution was satisfying, but Song was all over the place in terms of personality of travel. Throughout she sets off across the solar system to accomplish a goal only to not have not much happen half the time. It began to seem that te plot had been twisted into this form and insisted on all these travels just to give the author an excuse to describe in detail all these various ships and worlds. I think I would have preferred to have had a focus on fewer world, which would have let me immerse in them more completely and get to know the characters better in relation to the local culture.
That said, I also get that all the detail of the worlds and the scientific asides are a part of the appeal for a lot of people. It just wasn't for me.
I'm torn though because the details and thought that went into this creation was down right brilliant. But on the other side when it comes to the actual plot and characters that's where I can't seem to make up my mind. I couldn't feel any sympathy or liking for any of the characters. They all came off to me like the qbes in the story bland and to the point, but this may be how he envisions humanity to be when living that long of a life.
3 1/2 or 4 1/2 stars? I'll settle for in between and maybe a second reading will help me understand the characters some more.
The worlds of human existence Robinson paints are interesting, but I did not find the characters to be nearly as interesting. Similarly, the book's story plods along slowly.
Ostensibly, it's a mystery. There is an attack on Mercury's city. The central character Swan becomes part of that investigation. That investigation does not start to move along until the last 10% of the book.
Swan is a weird character, with bits of genetic engineering and an implanted artificial intelligence device called a qube. She was too much of a mish-mash for me to care about.
2312 is an imagining of future human history in the Solar System. It is a contemplative and mature work, whose author recognises his own strengths and weaknesses. Kim Stanley Robinson has vast knowledge and ability to imagine human ingenuity in space exploration and colonisation. There is more in KSR's head on this topic than can be contained in any plot. The book is punctuated by lists and excerpts, tantalising snippets of Solar System knowledge. In different hands this book could have been a thriller or detective mystery. But for KSR it is a love story, and a deep pondering of human life.
KSR's characters are at their weakest when they become mere tour guides to the wonders of his imagined worlds. This happens less frequently in 2312 than in Green Mars, and the novel is stronger for it. Here KSR focuses on two main characters and a few minor ones (as opposed to the many cipher characters in the Mars trilogy). Wahram is a Saturnian, slow, contemplative and deliberate in his actions. Swan Er Hong is an erratic Mercurial artist whose own body and mind are frequently her experimental canvases. The characters are well-realised (once you get past the astrological stereotypes of their personalities) and their slow-moving love story is believable.
This book reminded me of the later (post God Emperor) Dune novels by Frank Herbert in its pacing, older and more thoughtful characters, and the deep consideration given to problems by its protagonists. It is a great and human imagining of a future neither dystopian nor utopian.
The world-building is the source 2312's brilliance. Mercury is described with astonishing vividness from the very start--this being a world where sun worshipers risk their lives to see the sun rise, and where the sole bastion of civilization is a mobile terrarium that is constantly outrunning fatal sunlight. Most space travel is also done via terrariums--microcosms of Earth or fantasy environments, replete with wild animals and agriculture and cities; I loved the uniqueness of this. The physics also feel very real, down to g-forces, the dangers of space, and the mechanics of space elevators. Biological adaptations are also commonplace. The lead characters go by standard gender pronouns, but there's something more going on in their pants.
Earth is the source of humanity's diaspora, and it has suffered in the years prior to 2312. Global warming has melted many of the ice caps and flooded the continents. Florida is completely underwater. I was fascinated by how he described Earth in this condition.
However, the lead character was not as compelling.
Swan is rather unstable, manic and outright annoying. She does incredibly stupid things, repeatedly; there's a subplot involving wolves that felt like it was supposed to be largely symbolic, and it was more of a distraction. When she is intelligent, it's because of her qube, her computer implant. Sadly, the qube isn't in charge most of the time. Robinson's writing is excellent in showing Swan from her own viewpoint and that of others, and how she does annoy other people and drive them away (readers included, alas).
The book is over 500 pages and feels far too long. The plot wanders all of the place. There are extra brief chapters interspersed throughout that have extracts and lists of key words. They seemed largely pointless, or in same cases like an excuse to drop in tidbits of world-building that didn't fit in with the narrative.
I can see why the book compelled so many people to vote for it to win the Nebula, but it simply doesn't feel like a cohesive story to me. I think I would have enjoyed a Wikipedia about Earth and the universe in 2312 instead of the character-based novel.
First of all, it is very erudite and fiercely intelligent.
Secondly, it is very heartfelt and full of emotion,- one can really feel the author's genuine concern, despair and hope for humanity's well-being.
KSR often goes into the minutiae of behavior, thought and decision-making in the seemingly mundane moments of life; and how they ultimately culminate in change. The nature of change is also well delved into.
There is quite a bit on art, music, philosophy, rhetoric and rhetorical devices.
Great many ideas on economics, politics, social structures.
And of course - ecology, biospheres, ecoengineering, terraforming, various space habitat engineering, longevity treatments, gender manipulations and so on.
The main story is chronologically linear without confusion. But in between chapters there are short sets of lists, excerpts and "quantum walks". Excerpts provide a wider view of events in the form of historical records from the further future.
Lists I enjoyed the most! - I feel it's best to treat them as association strings.
Highly recommend it not only to science fiction readers, but any reader of contemporary literature. Will absolutely read ALL other books by Kim Stanley Robinson.