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.

View all my reviews

Friday Physics Photos: A Scientific Conference

One of the most important things a scientist can do is to share her work with other scientists.  It gives experts the opportunity to ask critical, helpful questions; it lets scientists find areas of common interest; it gives us new perspectives on our work; and it help us to avoid stepping on each others’ toes.  You can publish your work in a scholarly journal or, if you want a more face-to-face interaction with your colleagues, you can present your work at a scientific conference.

Most areas of research have a yearly conference or two, where everybody meets to compare notes and share their most recent results.  Maybe you noticed that I wasn’t posting for a few weeks?  That’s partly because I was at the International Particle Accelerator Conference, hosted this year in New Orleans, LA.

The conferences I go to usually have two parts.  In the morning, we have a bunch of talks.

And in the afternoon, we have a poster session.

The poster session is a bit like your high school science fair.  (Yes, there really is a reason for those things!)  Everybody goes into a big room, you put up posters about your work, and then you stand around answering questions about your work.  Or, you walk around and check out everybody else’s poster.  Also, coffee.

Here's my buddy Ryan in front of his poster. Q: What's with the t-shirt? A: Scientists don't tend to wear suits. Even at conferences.

I’ve given talks and I’ve presented posters.  I actually feel like the poster session is more fun.  The people who are most interested in your research have a chance to speak with you face-to-face.  You end up having some very interesting conversations with some very interesting people.  Giving a talk is considered more high-profile, but it’s hard to have a stimulating dialogue with a dark room full of sleepy people.

I bet you’re wondering what else I got up to in New Orleans.  Well, in addition to talks and posters, the third thing to do at conferences is to have conversations.  For a week, you’re staying within a mile radius of all your field’s experts.  It’s the perfect opportunity to knock around your ideas with some smart people, to start new collaborations, and to brainstorm about the future.  I’d say I was working after hours, over dinner, just as often as I was sitting and listening to talks.

Of course, I couldn’t go to New Orleans and only work.  After talks on the last day, I ran off to the bayou with some friends and met some gators.

No, that is NOT my hand! That is the hand of a trained professional, petting a nine-foot gator.

Printing our invitations

You may have noticed that we enjoy doing things ourselves.  Especially wedding things!  Continuing with that theme, the other day we went to Reb Peters Press where we printed our wedding invitations on a letterpress.

A quick note on letterpress.  We probably could have saved some money by doing the invitations on an inkjet printer.  But (a) we felt like the wedding demanded something a little more fancy, (b) we wanted to learn something new, and (c) it was a lot of fun!  Not only is it great to get your hands dirty while making things, but printing is an excellent source of cool-sounding words that are great for high Scrabble scores; quoin and reglet are the two I can remember off the top of my head.

We desigend our invitation beforehand on the computer. We sent the design to get it photolithographically etched onto some hard plastic with an adhesive backing.

The first step is to cut the fancy invitation paper to size.  The cut has to be precise, so that you can align the paper in the press quickly and easily for a nice, straight print.  Plus, it helps to cut all the paper at once.  A cut like that calls for a special, industrial-size paper cutter.


Once the paper was cut to size, we set up the plate and mounted it into the press.










Once the plate is set up and the paper is cut, we’re ready to start printing!  First, we mixed the ink and applied it to the press.

And then it was printing time!

So we did that a bunch of times with the reddish ink for the text …

… and then we had to re-ink the press and do it all again for the accent color.

You may notice that some of the text is blurred. The cards came off the press looking beautiful. But I’ve edited the photos to protect our privacy a little bit. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the cards are legible. 🙂

Done!  We’re excited to get these in the mail!  Also, we want to give a shout-out to Rebecca Peters.  Rebecca, we had a lot of fun at your workshop!  And we’re so pleased with how our invitations came out!

Birthday Bike Bdventure!

It was my birthday the other day!  We visited the Cal Academy of Sciences with some friends.  On our bikes!  Here are some low-quality phone photos.

We accidentally biked up some of the steepest hills in San Francisco. Look at how the architecture up here doesn't make any sense at all.

Same park, looking in the other direction. We hauled my birthday cake to the top of this hill and ate most of it. I love this photo.


The Cal Academy of Sciences is one of your better science museums. Planetarium, multi-story walk-through rainforest terrarium, living roof, aquarium, ... it was full of science.


Living Roof. To me, this is very evocative of Teletubbies.


Wedding Rings!

Almost a year ago, I sneaked off and made Anaïs an engagement ring.  Since I had so much fun, and since the wedding is coming up, we went back in and made our wedding bands at the same place, Scintillant Studio, and in the same way.  Get ready for a bunch of photos!

We used recycled white gold for the rings. Here's what it looked like when we started.

I cannot say enough good things about Adam, the owner of Scintillant Studio. Not only is he smart and knowledgeable, but he's an excellent teacher as well. Thanks, Adam!

Anaïs is melting the gold with a torch. This purifies the gold, and also lets us pour it into the ingot mold.

Pouring the molten gold into the ingot mold.

The poured gold forms an ingot.

Anaïs, densifying the ingot.

Every time you do mechanical work on the gold, it gets weaker. Annealing (heating with a torch) repairs the damage and re-strengthens the gold.

Squeezing the gold between these rollers gives it its cross-sectional shape. It's called "milling".

Then we bent the rings into roughly circular shapes.

Anaïs is soldering shut the gap in Daniel's ring.

After that, there's a lot of sanding ...

... and grinding (on a rotary tool, here) ...

... and polishing.

All finished! I can't wait to wear mine.

I also want to give a shout-out to Octavia Hunter, our wedding photographer.  She took all these amazing photos and we’re very happy with her work.  Thanks, Octavia!


Are you a regular reader of this blog? Are you really so brave and generous with your free time? If you are a regular reader, you’re likely scratching your head over a pretty significant question I’ve been ignoring.


I’ve told you that accelerators are big, that they’re hard to build, and that they can get very complex.  Why go to all that trouble?  What are these behemoths good for?  Well, here’s a list.  The internet likes lists, right?

    • Fundamental particle physics.  This is the one everybody thinks of first, especially since the term “atom smasher” is so popular.  If you collide two highly energetic beams together (like at CERN, for example), the resulting Einsteinian cataclysm is interesting in all sorts of ways.  You can search for new particles, test fundamental physical theories, and study exotic environments.  You can ask questions like “why is there matter in the universe?” with a straight face and the expectation of some sort of answer.  This all gets very awesome very quickly.
    • Basic physics, materials science, biochemistry, etc.  We can talk about this more later, but with an accelerator you can create ultra-bright, ultra-fast light pulses.  And then you can use those light pulses to study very small, very fast processes.  You can look at how proteins behave to study diseases and create new drugs.  You can design catalytic processes to enable artificial photosynthesis, because if plants can make fuel from sunlight, why can’t we?  There’s a long, long list of things you can do with these “light sources”. In fact, accelerator-based light sources are a HUGE field of research.  More accelerators around the world do this kind of thing now than do the above-mentioned fundamental physics research.
    • Medicine. I know people who have gotten radiation treatment for various forms of cancer.  Typically, doctors will attack a tumor with x-rays.  But the problem with x-rays is that they’ll also attack the healthy cells around a tumor.  A fascinating alternative is hadron therapy. It turns out that you can “tune” a beam of protons (or neutrons, or both) so that they deliver energy to a very specific target volume.  You can use beams of protons (or neutrons, or carbon atoms, or whatever) to attack tumors without so much damage to the surrounding, healthy tissue.  And where do those hadron beams come from?  Accelerators, of course!  I assert that this is cool. 
    • Safer nuclear power.  Nuclear power is generally pretty safe, but last year we all got an object lesson in its potential problems.  I know people working on accelerator-driven nuclear reactors that overcome some of these problems.  If you build a reactor right, you can control the fission process with an accelerator.  No beam, no fission!  This makes things much safer — you don’t have to worry anymore about meltdown.  “Aha”, you’re saying, “but what about nuclear waste?”  Well, it turns out that you can “burn” (really, transmute) nuclear waste with accelerators too.  Really.  I’m not kidding.  Here’s a video, shot at Fermilab:

There’s another hugely important use for accelerators that’s harder to talk about in concrete terms.  They’re hard to build, right?  And they require cutting-edge technology?  The technology that’s developed for accelerators often makes its way into the private sector, and from there into everyday life.  Do you know anybody who has had an MRI scan?  The magnet technology in MRI machines was first developed for bending particle beams in accelerators.

Not good enough?  Maybe you’ve never had an MRI?  Well, have you ever used this “world wide web” thing?

Seriously.  The vast architecture of the internet was developed by many people over a long time.  But the internet that you interact with daily is based on the work of a few people who worked at CERN.  They tried to figure out a better way to share their data, and the result was the World Wide Web.  You know how you type into your browser in order to look at my site?  That’s the result of some people at an accelerator laboratory, trying to solve an interesting problem.

A long post today, I know.  I tried to pad it out with youtube videos, so it wouldn’t just be a vast ocean of text.  But hopefully, at the end, you have more questions now than you did when you started.  I encourage you to ask these questions in the comments section!  At the very least, stay tuned.  I plan to dig down deeper into these ideas (and talk about other uses for accelerators that I didn’t have room for here) in future posts.

Transit of Venus

Lots of hard work and travel have kept me away from the blog.  But!  There’s now a huge body of cool stuff to talk about.  New posts will be coming fast and furiously in the following weeks!

Let’s talk real quickly about the transit of Venus.  Aside from being a fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime celestial event, it’s a huge plot point in one of my favorite books of all time, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.  So … read that book?

Anaïs and I went down to the Chabot Space & Science Center to watch the transit.  Not only do they have three enormous telescopes, but the place was lousy with amateur astronomers who brought their impressive gear and were so generous as to share it with us, the great unwashed.

In the center of that photo, towards the bottom, you’ll see a suuuuuper-fancy telescope.  (I don’t care to speculate on how much it cost.)  It’s outfitted with a hydrogen-alpha filter, a narrow-band filter that blocks out most of the light coming from the sun.  It makes possible some insanely detailed images of the solar surface.  Of course, I failed entirely to get any photos of that caliber.

Something even more interesting, though, were the pinhole viewers.  I submit to you that a fancy, multi-thousand-dollar telescope rig is impressive and intimidating to the point that it turns your brain off.  Viz:

Q:  How does this complicated, expensive machine work?

A:  Technology!

Bogus.  Unsatisfying.  Worse, that dialogue is intimidating and can scare people off of asking further questions.  Of course, a sufficiently interested person (sometimes reductively called a “geek”) will bother to pick through the layers of complication until they understand how an arbitrarily complicated machine works.  This is totally great, and it can be very entertaining to watch it happen.  But I think we ought be making more geeks.  As many as possible!

So for those times, like the transit of Venus, when the public comes out in droves to do sciency things, I prefer the following gizmo:

Very simple: filter, lens, mirror, screen.  Anybody can look at this gizmo and figure out how it works.  And, because it’s so simple, the sun’s image moves fast across the page.  You end up with not just an intellectual understanding of the sun’s motion, but a visceral feeling of it as well.  People waited in line for a long time to look through the fancy telescopes, but it seemed to me that they stayed longer at the pinhole viewers and asked more questions.

I hope you got a chance to see the transit!  I hope you had lots of fun seeing it!

Particle Accelerator Q&A

Just real quick:  If you’re curious about accelerators and you also do the twitters, you may want to check out this (I’m told this is an actual word that people use)  tweetup: #LabChat.  It’s a twitter Q&A with some US Department of Energy scientists.  Here’s a link for more information:

I know Gigi Ciovati, one of the participating scientists.  He’s a sharp cookie, and pleasant to talk with besides.

Friday Physics Photos: Art or plumbing?

Here’s another Friday Physics Photo in which the physics is arguably absent.  (Although I’d argue that anything in an accelerator enclosure counts as physics.)

I was touring a machine a couple months ago, and this giant weird thing surprised me as I came around a corner.  It turned out to be a sump pump, but it reminds me way more of a sculpture installation at a modern art museum.  I think it’s quite striking.