One of the measures of how interesting I find a book is the number of bookmarks I leave attached to it as I read it. With Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, 2312, I had to stop myself doing this, or I would have run out of the little sticky tags I use. It is absolutely brimming with ideas. This, I am tempted to say, this, is science fiction! And yet …
Where do I start? Perhaps something about the world would be in order. The book is set, fairly obviously, in 2312. By this time Earth has been devastated by climate change (entering crisis mode in 2060); Mars has been settled, terraformed and has rebelled against Earth rule. Echoes of Robinson’s earlier work are there, albeit that this is probably a slightly different future than the one that might have proceeded directly from either the Mars Trilogy or the Science in the Capital books. The world, and Robinson, have moved on since then, and Stan is not the sort of person to feel hidebound by earlier writings.
In addition to Mars, humans have now colonized Venus, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, a large number of asteroids, and even little Mercury. The book opens in the city of Terminator which, as implacably as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, rolls it’s way over the surface of the planet at exactly the steady pace required to keep itself, and its delicate, fleshy inhabitants, out of the glare of the roaring stellar inferno that hangs so close in the sky. The city is propelled by solar power — the expansion and contraction of its rails under the waning and waxing influence of the sun being all it requires to keep moving. It is a breathtakingly audacious creation, both for the people of the book, and for the author. And Robinson doesn’t stop there.
Earth’s thirty-seven space elevators all had their cars full all the time, both up and down. There were still many spacecraft landings and ascents, of course, and landings of gliders that then reascended on the elevators; but all in all, the elevators handled by far the bulk of the earth-space traffic.
That would be a fine opening for any science fiction novel, but Robinson already has the amazing city of Terminator, so that passage was relegated to a chapter opening on page 89; a mere minor point of wonder.
What we have, then, is a solar system that bears some relationship to the Earth of the 19th Century. Earth takes the place of Europe, and the various colonies are gradually being opened up. Some of them are declaring independence. Back home, there is much strife between individual nations. The principal difference is that there are no local civilizations for the colonists to displace (well, except for in the seas of Europa, and they don’t appear to be sentient).
As Paul Cornell astutely noted on Twitter, the book’s structure is far more like that of a literary novel than science fiction. The novel tells of a year in the life of two people: Swan Er Hong from Mercury, and Fritz Wahram from Titan. They are thrown together when Swan’s grandmother Alex, a redoubtable politician known as the Lion of Mercury, dies unexpectedly. Amongst her bequests to Swan is a message for a diplomat on Titan that Swan is asked to deliver in person. So it is that we are introduced to a conspiracy amongst space-faring folk so secret that it cannot risk the use of electronic communications. You never know who, or what, might be listening. Eventually both the plot and the relationship between Swan and Wahram come to fruition, but to a large extent they are only the means whereby Robinson gets to discuss all sorts of other things.
While 2312 might have a conventional, character-centered plot, it also contains an enormous amount of speculation and info-dump. Robinson deals with this, not by trying to hide it in conversation, as the usual advice to young writers suggests, but by brazenly interspersing chapters of the story with sections marked “Extracts” which are pretty much pure infodump. It’s not a new technique. John Brunner was doing something very similar in books like Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, and he got it from the great American literary novelist, John Dos Passos, but I’ve never seen it done more brazenly than Robinson does here. And damn me, it works! (Or at least it does for me, and I have been put off by Robinson’s info-dumping in the past.)
Possibly one of the reasons it does is that the information is not presented as monolithic prose, but as short, pithy extracts from presumed larger treatises that are much easier for the reader to digest. What Robinson is trying to do here is mimic the effects of reading a small bit of text and then clicking on an interesting link to something else. When doing a reading he likes to use a bell sound to indicate switching from one text to another.
Before I get into the various bits of world-building, I need to get the awkward bit out of the way. I really don’t like Swan. This is probably as much me as her, but let me explain. Swan is selfish, impulsive, erratic, feckless, violent and otherwise prone to going off and doing whatever comes into her head at that instant. And everyone loves her. This is presumably because she’s drop-dead gorgeous, utterly charming, and brilliantly creative; though thankfully Robinson chooses to focus only on the third of those as an explanation. Swan is a sort of the female equivalent of Lord Byron. She’s mad, bad, and always getting into trouble. She’ll try anything once. Wahram isn’t exactly my type (he’s obsessed with classical music, for a start), but boy do I feel sorry for the guy. The romance angle of the book makes me just as mad as I get from those books in which the tall, dark, handsome stranger treats the girl so abominably that she falls in love with him.
Astute readers may have noticed that Swan is very Mercurial in nature. The gloomy and taciturn Wahram might be described as Saturnine. This is deliberate. Robinson credits Adam Roberts for the inspiration that led him to create these characters. Of course he’s not claiming that every inhabitant of Mercury is like Swan, and everyone from the Saturn system is like Wahram. It is just a conceit he’s using on which to hang the characters of his mis-matched lovers.
Thankfully I’m not one of those people who can’t read a book unless she finds a character that she can sympathize and identify with, which is just as well because Swan is the only female-identified person in a cast of just four major characters. That is, unless you count Pauline, Swan’s AI, who is most definitely not human, though she passes the Turing Test very comfortably.
Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s look at the world. And mention of “female-identified” reminds me that Robinson is quite revolutionary in his treatment of gender. “Extracts (7)” provides the background to all of this. It covers not only a primer on gender science (including a suggested biological basis for gender identity), but also the treatments necessary to encourage embryos to develop intersex characteristics. What is more, such treatment is fairly common, at least amongst space-dwelling folk. Both Swan and Wahram are intersex, though they present as female and male most of the time.
At this point your jaw may have dropped. Is Robinson actually saying that it has become commonplace for parents to have their children treated, while still in the womb, in order that they should grow up intersex? Yes he is. Of course he knows that this is totally outrageous given current social mores, so he needed a justification. The main one he has is that it has been discovered that a balance between the levels of testosterone and estrogen in the body leads to a much longer life. If you want your kids to live to be 150 or more, you give them the treatment. And of course if you do live a very long life, you may want to sample more of life’s possibilities. Having the opportunity to be both a father and a mother during your life is something that very long-lived people might want to try.
As a consequence, the world of 2312 has a whole melting pot full of genders. This is from “Extracts (17)”:
distinctions can be pretty fine, with some claiming that gynandropmorphs do not look quite like androgyns, nor like hermaphrodites, nor eunuchs, and certainly not like bisexuals — that androgyns and wombmen are quite different — and so on. Some people like to tell that part of their story; others never mention it at all. Some dress across gender and otherwise mix semiotic gender signals to express how they feel in that moment. Outrageous macho and fem behaviors, either matched with phenotype and semiotic indicators or not, create performance art ranging from the kitschy to the beautiful
Which is, of course, exactly how the wider trans community is today. The difference in 2312 is that it has gone mainstream.
I suspect that some people are going to take offense at Robinson’s use of the term “bisexual” to mean what today the media (and porn industry) might call a “she-male” — someone with a female body shape and male genitals (and in this case female genitals as well). Robinson knows he’s trod on a landmine here, but he needed a word and, as he explained to me, language does change. Which it does. In the post-gender world of 2312, the idea of being someone who fancies people of both genders is somewhat redundant, as there are far more than two to choose from. It may therefore be reasonable to assume that the word “bisexual” has changed meaning.
Talking of language, Stan told me that he has really wanted to write Swan and Wahram as much more gender-free than they ended up. He found it too hard to avoid gendered language for his principal characters. Instead he has confined that to minor characters. Swan’s ex-partner, Zasha, never has a gender specified. There’s also one other character who is intended to be gender-free, but I read the character as male and Stan isn’t sure that he didn’t accidentally leave a “he” in for that person.
Of course Robinson is well aware of the tradition in which he is writing, hence this little snippet:
Cultures deemphasizing gender are sometimes referred to as ursuline cultures, origin of term unknown, perhaps referring to the difficulty there can be in determining the gender of bears.
It isn’t only gender where Robinson dabbles in post-human speculation. One of the other innovations that he has introduced is “smalls” — people who have been genetically engineered for significantly reduced stature. In a space-faring environment this makes a lot of sense. You don’t have to build such big spacecraft, and the deleterious effects of high-g acceleration are much less if your body mass is smaller. The third most important character in the book, Inspector Jean Genette of the Interplanetary Police (French, of course, but Maigret rather than Clouseau) is a small.
These issues, however, are largely incidental to the main thrust of the novel, which inevitably covers territory that is more political and economic. Robinson has created a future in which the colonization of the solar system has not only proved do-able and worthwhile, but enormously successful. He provides a potted future history that includes a period of planetary economic revival, during which Mars colonization takes place, followed by a period of rapid economic expansion. That period, of course, is known as the Accelerando.
As Gary Wolfe notes in his Locus review of 2312, Robinson used the term before Stross.
But would it work? Having been somewhat dubious of some of the economics underpinning the Mars books, I was hoping to see some evidence that Robinson had thought through how all of this space exploration might happen: how it might be financed, how the willpower to do it might be found. He doesn’t, he just assumes that it will happen.
Does that matter? Possibly not. It is quite likely that the money for such projects as space elevators is there. After all, the entire lifetime budget of the SpaceX program is apparently less than Facebook paid to buy Instagram. What’s missing is probably the will, and it could be argued that sufficient economic disaster (brought on by the climate crisis), plus a heavy dose of optimism (fueled by future generations of science fiction writers) is all that we need. I’m prepared to give Robinson a pass on this one, though my faith in the hope-filled vision that he is peddling is now a little shaken.
What is clear from the books is that space-based civilization is booming. People like Swan and Wahram are fantastically wealthy. That, in part, is because of the sheer space available. It’s like the settlement of North America all over again, except without the troublesome locals. There is plenty of room for all. Natural resources abound. And in part it is doubtless a result of three more centuries of technological development, especially in nanotech. It also assumes that we don’t run into any major roadblocks, such as the recent claims that carbon nanotubes might be as dangerous as asbestos. Stan pointed me at this Japanese company which aims to have built an operational space elevator by 2050. Whatever the reasons, the characters occasionally talk about living in a post-scarcity society, just like The Culture.
That doesn’t mean that they have it all easy. For example, Robinson doesn’t waste resources building gigantic spaceships. Instead what his characters do is capture large asteroids, hollow them out, build a living space inside, and attach a mass driver to the back. Presto! Instant General Service Vehicle, at a fraction of the cost, and with its own natural anti-impact coating. You can even sell the innards of the asteroid to help finance the project. It is not quite that easy, of course. There’s the issue of internal gravity. Also creating and maintaining the miniature internal ecosystems isn’t easy. It is, however, far easier than starting from scratch.
So the spacers are rich, but not everyone is a spacer. On Venus many people are clearly wage slaves, badly treated by their employers, and pretty much unable to work for anyone else. Back on Earth, people are still poor, especially in places like Africa. And when I say poor, I don’t mean relatively poor, I mean not having a roof over their heads, just like today.
I think there’s something to be gained from reading 2312 and This Shared Dream as a matched pair. Robinson and Goonan didn’t talk to each other while they were working on their books. Indeed, Stan says he hasn’t even read Kathy’s latest work, though he loved the Flower Cities books. However, both volumes share a common concern: the liberal Western despair that decades of aid appear to have done nothing to help the developing world.
As you may recall, I found This Shared Dream a bit out of touch. Robinson is more on the ball. He knows that development aid is a very hard thing to manage. Opportunities for corruption abound, and sooner or later someone will get greedy. Nevertheless, it has to be done. Robinson has Pauline précis Thomas Carlyle:
“Best self-interest lies in achieving universal well-being. People are foolish and bad, but want certain satisfactions enough to work for them. When the goal of self-interest is seen to be perfectly isomorphic with universal well-being, bad people will do what it takes to get universal well-being.”
The irony here, of course, is that Swan doesn’t choose to help the poor because it is a good thing to do. She does it because discovering that the poor exist has made her unhappy and she wants them to go away. When she is unable to do that quickly and easily, she loses interest and decides that what Earth needs is a revolution instead.
Of course she may be right in that. I’m not convinced by Robinson’s methodology though. When direct action finally happened, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. My shark was well and truly jumped.
Another problem that I had with the book was the idea that the spacers would be smart and altruistic because they were the people who had the good sense to leave the sick, old Earth and seek new frontiers. Robinson seems to believe that the majority of those who set out to settle new lands will be good people. That’s a very Californian attitude. My recollection of history suggests that settlers are often reckless, selfish, lawless, and sometimes obsessed with weird social theories that they want the freedom to impose on others. In his defense, Robinson has said that turning space exploration over to private enterprise makes him uneasy, so I guess he is aware of the issues.
Finally there is the question of the AIs. I can’t say too much about this without being unduly spoilery. There are doubtless academic papers to be written. Those papers should also reference Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division, and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep.
So what did I make of 2312? As often seems to be the case for me with Robinson, I am in awe of his audacity, his breadth of thought, the magnitude of the issues he not only addresses but appears to suggest solutions for. I’m also seriously impressed with some of the authorial technique on display. But have I bought into the message? Am I now enthused with belief in the need for the colonization of space? Do I think it will save mankind? Because that seems to be what Robinson wants us to take away from the book.
Well, I love the energy, the enthusiasm, the intellect, the optimism. The writing is magnificent. But right now, on the question of mankind’s future, this jury is still out. I want to believe, I desperately do, but I’m old and cynical. Maybe I’m just not the right audience.
Other people at the reading I attended must have had similar thoughts, because Robinson was asked whether he thought such a future could really come about, and whether it was right to be so optimistic. His answers were very interesting.
On the question of whether it could work, he says that he’s working on that. His next book, which he is just finishing, is set in Paleolithic times. The book after that, however, is projected to be set between 2312 and now, and will discuss how we might get from now to then. Robinson can’t guarantee that the book will happen, because it is very much at the ideas stage right now, but it is what he’s working on.
As to optimism, his answer was startling and honest, and made me sit up and think. He said that it is not optimism at all, but stubbornness. As representatives of the dominant culture of the planet, he says, we have no right to be anything other than positive in our outlook. We are the ones with the money and power. We can’t just give up on the planet because the last thing we tried didn’t work, or even because the last dozen things we tried didn’t work. While we have the ability to do so, we have to keep trying.
Oh. Of course.
[This review was substantially improved thanks to my being able to talk to Robinson at length about the book when he did a reading at Toppings Books in Bath. My thanks to him and Toppings for providing the opportunity.]
For more information about Kim Stanley Robinson, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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