Book Review: “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson

Travel! Deadlines! Wedding prep! I haven’t posted for weeks! Look, here’s a review of a book I managed to read on the plane before and after a conference:

23122312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I need to use the word “transcendent” to talk about a book with spaceships in it. I am fully aware that this is a silly thing to do, and I hope that one day you can forgive me. But really, 2312 is a transcendent work of science fiction.

Let’s start with the science fiction and work our way up to the transcendence. So. Three hundred years from now (q.v. the book’s title), we’ve managed to colonize the solar system and we’ve started terraforming some likely planets, moons, and asteroids. The advent of powerful quantum computation is a real presence in this effort, and hugely extends humanity’s technological reach. And medical technology has advanced to the point where humanity has started to speciate into different variations with all kinds of weird body types and more than two genders. Oh, plus a two hundred year lifespan is starting to seem reasonable.

That’s all really rich material, and good sci fi has been written about any one of these ideas alone. But Kim Stanley Robinson takes all of these ideas together and builds something large, profound, and beautiful with them. Take the colonization of the solar system for example. This is driven by environmental catastrophe on Earth (totally understandable, given the bottomless dithering about climate change we see in 2012) and in turn it drives an expansion into new economies and systems of government. So in addition to the exciting plot and the rich emotional lives of the characters (I’m getting there, hold on) you, the reader, also get to think about twelve billion people living all over the solar system. Is 21st century American-style capitalism the natural course for all these people in all these different environments? What does the working day look like for somebody who grows up on Mercury? How would she relate to somebody who grew up on one of Saturn’s moons?

The miracle of 2312 is that it doesn’t turn into a giant essay on political science. Instead, Robinson manages to explore and develop all these ideas through strong, vital characters moving in an exciting plot. (In a science fiction novel! Imagine that!) Things kick off with Swan Er Hong, a citizen of Mercury’s only city, dealing with the unexpected death of her grandmother Alex. Alex was a politically important figure in the solar system, and this importance sucks Swan into an rich and complicated world of interplanetary politics, space travel, and quantum computers that may or may not be behaving strangely. (Get it? Quantum physics joke — you’re welcome.)

It’s worth stressing this point: Swan is a fascinating protagonist. She used to be a scientist who designed and built enormous, space-bound terraria to house animals and ecosystems that can’t survive on post-climate-change Earth anymore. But now she’s an artist, because somehow that other work wasn’t rewarding for her? She grew up on Mercury and has, yes, a mercurial temperament. And along the way she meets huge, intensely contemplative, toadlike Wahram. Wahram has a complicated past that involves manual labor but also apparently a nontrivial role in the politics of Saturn. (Wahram is a titanic, saturnine citizen of Saturn’s moon Titan. This would be trite if it wasn’t so well done.) Then, lots of things happen to them.

I want you to understand how great this is. It is a real rarity in contemporary fiction – especially genre fiction, but also in TV and movies – to find characters who are totally actualized, who speak with their own voice instead of the author’s voice, who are not just robots built to drive the machinery of the plot. Instead, each character is unique and together they interact in ways that totally make sense given this uniqueness. I guess I have high standards for books about space travel? Anyway, to sum up, I’ll just say woo-wee Kim Stanley Robinson can write!

It’s very hard for me to understand how there can be so much breadth and depth in a 550-page book. How can you have a book about interplanetary politics that is also about one person’s complicated emotional life? There are only a few other books I can think of that manage this successfully and I love them so much: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem takes breaks from the action to explore dialogues – all of them relevant to the plot, but also just intellectually cool – between a teacher and a student; Frank Herbert’s Dune starts chapters with excerpts from a scholarly work on galactic history; and of course Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quotes liberally from the titular Guide. 2312 manages this in a more postmodern way, by sprinkling the book with 1-2 page “Excerpts”. It’s not explained what these passages are excerpted from, but it doesn’t matter. They’re a great way for you to catch your breath and put the action into a larger context. Some of them are long and expository, but some of them are short little political-scientific lightning strikes:

…any given economic system or historical moment is an unstable mix of past and future systems. Capitalism therefore was the combination or battleground of its residual element, feudalism, and its emergent element — what? … as feudalism is the residual on Earth, capitalism is the residual on Mars

I chewed on that one for a while before I moved on to the next chapter. Or how about this one:

It was rumored in these years that Martian spies were everywhere in the system, but that they were constantly reporting back to headquarters that there was nothing to fear — balkanization meant Mars faced nothing but a stochastic chaos of human flailing

This is what ends up making 2312 transcendent instead of just “good” or “exciting”. There’s just so much more than you could possibly expect from a single science fiction novel. It manages to look forward to a plausible, exciting future for humanity, totally, but it also somehow manages to make deeply incisive observations about the world we actually live in today, in reality. It explores wild new ways of being a human being – Swan Er Hong has given birth to a child, has also fathered a child, and has an extremely powerful computer implanted in her head – but the book still throws much of its emotional weight behind the growing, blossoming relationship between two interesting people. (Just like Jane Austen does, but different!) The action spans the solar system and multiple governments on multiple planets, but there are wildly exciting, nail-biting chapters devoted to small groups of people in difficult, exciting situations. And all the future-y technology-related stuff is cool and forward-looking while still seeming plausible.

2312 manages to be great in every way that a science fiction novel can possibly be good. Read it.

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