Kim Stanley Robinson is a prolific writer specializing in what one may call a subgenre of ecological sf. You know, terraforming processes, the future fate of Earth, generational ships… A fair bit of technical stuff, although definitely nowhere near the staggering amounts present in Stephenson’s works. A rather thinnish plot designed mostly to get to the perceived end-point by the most effective route possible, but still interesting enough to be worth following. And lots and lots of big picture thinking about the future fate of the Solar System – how it might look like one day if people stayed exactly the same but their environment drastically changed. It might sound boring, but I can assure you – it’s not. I reached for 2312 based on a recommendation of a fellow blogger, and though it took me a better part of two months to finish this brick of a book (464 pages in my edition), I was glad that I did. For those interested in awards, 2312 won the 2013 Nebula Award.
2312 describes a future that happened. Solar System is colonized – there are people living on Mercury and Venus and Mars, even Saturn and Jovian moons, and there is a whole diaspora of space travelers spending their entire lives in habitats – meteors which were drilled from within, turned into tori or empty drums, and seeded with a chosen environment. In other words – miniature worlds of a few square kilometers, teeming with life and yet unbelievably fragile at the same time. Heck, there are even people living on the meteors surrounding the Sun – Vulcanoids, worshipping the Sun as a fiery, cruel, and life-giving god. The Earth is a place of dissent and poverty, frantically sucking in the resources from other planets. Unchecked global warming considerably raised the sea levels, drastically limiting not only the habitable space, but also territories suitable for growing food. Forests are almost non-existent. Most of the big mammal species have become extinct. Earth became a terrible, desperate place, sowing dissent and rage across all of the Solar System – and yet still the only place that the human species might fully call their home.
Robinson shows the readers a plethora of remarkable views. I truly admired his take on the colonization of Mercury or the idea of habitats hurling through space and serving both as a means of transport and as a home. The idea of re-animation of Earth was a great one, and perfectly written. The changes that people make in themselves because they can, with a prolonged life-span and various gene therapies – from an ingestion of alien bacteria to avian vocal cords transplants, four sexes (female, male, hermaphrodite and androgynous) as well as the arrival of “talls” (people up to 3 m tall) and “smalls” (people less than 1 m tall) – seem well grounded and perfectly logical within the broad frame of Robinson’s world.
All in all, 2312 is full of intriguing images, and Robinson’s imagination is decidedly a visual one – he paints pictures of space and different environs with an enviable surety of vision. The logical conclusions to the problems currently plaguing Earth presented in 2312 should serve as a form of harsh awakening, and – as such – seem especially needed now, in the light of Trump’s crazy anti-anti-global warming policy and the official declaration that the US will no longer honor the Paris Accords. But there is also a good deal of wishful thinking and Deus ex machina in the idea that Earth’s problems can be solved from the outside. That the colonization of other planets in the Solar System in the next 200 years is going to not only lessen the population pressure, but also find a remedy for all the increasingly interconnected woes of humanity.
And lastly, a fair warning. If you like to read a book for thrills, good action scenes, deep psychological portraits of evolving protagonists or simply uncomplicated entertainment – don’t read 2312. You won’t find any of the above there. The story arc is a simple one, and the criminal aspect of it, at first quite intriguing – turns out to be the least important and only partially solved. The main protagonists are convincing and complex, and not in the least papery, but they seem to have been caught in a moment and remain psychologically fixed despite the profound changes and traumatizing events happening everywhere around them. Maybe that was Robinson’s intent all along – to show that people reaching the second century of their lives remain very much unaltered and firmly set in their form and ways, and that any growth and change, either psychological or physical, is well past them, but somehow I doubt it. It seems to me that they just weren’t the focus of the book at all. As much as I liked Swan and Wahram, and Inspector Genette, I felt that their presence is mostly superfluous, a humanizing factor designed to make the socio-philosophical and political message of 2312 more accessible to the readers. However, at the same time, there are a lot of word puns and allegories, as some of the reviewers pointed out – the relationship of Swan and Frog, the alchemical bond between Mercury and Saturn… Different personality types personified in the two main protagonists, with a belligerent Martian and a new Venusian thrown into the mix for good measure.
Different, varied hues of humanity and artificial consciousness, all the more pressing with the advent of quantum computers and the ongoing miniaturization and neurosurgery, the limits of what we call “human” and “inhuman”, the future fate of Earth and the human species – that’s the main focus of Robinson’s 2312. It’s a thought-provoking, intriguing book with a decidedly liberal-left skew. By no means it’s an easy read, and the chapters following a group of characters are interspersed with short pieces called Extracts and Lists. Some of them look like bits of even-further-future chronicles or scientific pieces, explaining the situation in 2312 and before in historical terms. Others are lists of items seemingly created by free-association, but in fact describing the personality of the protagonists. Others still illustrate the stream of consciousness of an artificial intelligence. All demand the reader’s attention, and a fair bit of a good will – but if you have it, 2312 is definitely worth your time. So if you’re ready for a ride through the space 200 years in the future, buckle up and fly :).