Kim Stanley Robinson
2312 Cover


Scott Laz

Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 (2012) is a tour de force of science fiction. It combines a political thriller plot with implications and action ranging throughout the inhabited solar system, with a coherent and fascinating future history of the next three centuries, and a moving story of the relationship between two characters who are alien to us in many ways, but still essentially human.

Most of the novel follows Swan Er Hong, a 135-year-old resident of Terminator, a city on Mercury that moves along the planet on a set of tracks that expand when heated, keeping the moving city permanently at the edge of dawn, but always just out of the deadly sunshine. Robinson's description of how this works is just the beginning of a grand tour of the solar system, which will encompass planets and moons either terraformed or in the process of terraformation—Mars, Venus, Mercury, Titan and other Saturnian and Jupiterian moons—along with thousands of asteroids that have been hollowed out and transformed into "terraria" (and even aquaria), many of which also serve as transportation throughout the system, each with its own unique biome and human cultural orientation (everything from fundamentalist cults to "sex-liners"). Much time is also spent on Earth, from "spacers"' point of view the "Planet of Sadness", which is dealing with the aftermath of climate change, and still suffering  from economic problems that seem all-too-familiar, and which the spacers have more or less moved beyond.

The plot, which involves the investigation of a threat to the spacer habitats, beginning with a bombardment of Terminator, and the death of Swan's grandmother, facilitates the solar system tour, as Robinson manages to involve events and players throughout the inhabited system into the story. It helps that Swan is a thrill-seeker, providing, for example, an excuse to give us a chapter describing what it would be like to surf the moons of Saturn, as she somewhat reluctantly becomes involved in the investigation, which requires her to travel to many of the human habitations of the system, allowing the reader to experience them. (If there is a weakness to the novel, it is the somewhat unbelievable way in which Swan manages to fortuitously be on hand at key times and places in the solar system-spanning drama.)

Consistent with her desire to experience everything she can during her travels is her extreme experimentation with genetic and physical manipulation. She has had various animal brain cells—"augmentations"—implanted into her own brain (she can literally sing like a bird, for example), along with a personal quantum computer that (who?) is a significant character in the novel. (The level of artificial intelligence of which these "qubes" are capable, and their possible role in the plot against the spacers, is a key plot point.) Life-extending treatments have been devised and are in a state of continuous improvement (the oldest people are around 200, with the ultimate limit still unknown), and gender manipulation is commonplace. Swan's choice to have both female and male genitalia is common, creating the potential for a new sexual position, the "double lock and key" (!).

The novel's exploration of the possibilities of advanced gender manipulation and identity led to a Tiptree Award nomination, and is just one of many examples of the amazing level of futurist speculation Robinson provides his readers. The physical and social sciences are combined in presenting a convincing portrait of the possibilities of three centuries of change, as we learn about the various possible methods of inhabiting the solar system, and the types of societies that live there. Some of the details of this future history and technology are provided by interstitial chapters of "extracts" and "lists" that provide just that—snippets from scientific publications, news stories, social commentary, and other dispatches from the future that tie into and provide background for the events of the novel. The effect is similar to that achieved by John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy, or John Brunner in Stand on Zanzibar, combining fictional events and characters with excerpts from various sources that interact with each other to provide a vivid portrait of a society at a point in time. Those with a phobia for heavy exposition should probably stay away, but the end effect is a level of world-building that is quite incredible in its comprehensiveness and believability. Space exploration, space habitats, quantum computing, space elevators, political and economic systems, philosophies of freedom, post-human biological possibilities, recreation, longevity, relationships and sexuality: the possible futures of all these and more are explored, the result being a 21st century amalgamation of Brunner, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ursula Le Guin.

There has been some discussion during the last few months of the possible "exhaustion" of science fiction, and the growing dominance of "escapist" fantasy at the expense of a literature that engages with the real implications of our own world and society. Maybe it's harder to write SF than it used to be. The possibilities of space exploration—the consensus future described by science fiction up through the 1970s—have been tamped down by the sometimes less-than-romantic findings of solar system probes, the growing implausibility of faster-than-light (or anything even close) travel, the daunting economic trade-offs of even the most limited steps of humanity into space, and the difficulty of positing such a future in the face of resource constraints, population growth, and climate change on Earth. Robinson faces all of these issues head-on, and still comes up with a novel full of potential future wonders, showing that there is still a way forward for us, and for science fiction.

While celebrating the possibilities, the novel does not shy away from pointing out the hurdles in the way, nor does it present a future utopia in which all problems are solved. Earth in 2312 is in bad shape, having gone through "the Dithering" (2005–2060), a period during which the coming "Crisis" era could be foreseen, but was not forestalled when the possibility existed, followed by the Crisis period itself (2160–2130), during which the possibility of living in space began to be developed as one possible way out of the mess humanity created for itself. As Robinson explains, "the space diaspora occurred as late capitalism writhed in its decision concerning whether to destroy Earth's biosphere or change its rules. Many argued for the destruction of the biosphere, as being the lesser of two evils." The vast majority of humanity is still on Earth in 2312, but has struggled to recover from the climate crisis, despite the technological advances of the "Accelerando" period of 2160–2220, and is dependent on the spacers for food imported from the terraria.

The space habitats, meanwhile, have grown in population and expanded through the solar system, many having become part of the Mondragon Accord, a loosely cooperative economic confederation that has learned from the experience of Earth to foster cooperation, with market capitalism at the fringes of the system, rather than being the central organizing principle. But competition for resources and political rivalry have not been entirely eliminated, and the novel is set well into the era of Balkanization, when the alliances have been under increasing stress, and the problems of Earth continue to impact the spacer societies as well. The attack on Mercury's Terminator that sets the plot in motion represents the beginning of a new potential crisis and, along with the response of spacer authorities, sets 2312 in motion and drives its plot.

It turns out that Swan's grandmother Alex, who dies just before the attack, had already been involved, without Swan's knowledge, in a secretive group of spacers who had anticipated potential trouble, and was already working to understand the political complexities and find solutions. (I won't spoil it, but their ultimate solution to Earth's environmental issues results in one of the most wonderful scenes I can recall reading in a science fiction novel.) When Swan decides she must try to continue her grandmother's work, she encounters Wahrum, diplomatic representative of the Saturn system, and the development of their friendship and relationship becomes another main thread of the story.

2312, then, becomes a pivotal year, and possibly revolutionary, as humanity must somehow decide, just as we must today, which path to take going forward. In the best science fiction tradition, Robinson uses "future" events to try to force us to reflect on the present. We have unpleasant choices to make, but 2312 should help convince us that it's not time to give up. The Dithering has only just begun, and the future has yet to be written.