Book review: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

This book is in bookstores now

In 2312 Kim Stanley Robinson creates a vivid and richly imagined picture of our world 300 years from today. It is obvious that he has thought about this world in great detail, but this becomes one of its weaknesses as well as a strength.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to go back in time to 1712 and to not only explain what the world is like in 2012, but also how it got to that point over the 300 years in between. This is essentially the task that Kim Stanley Robinson sets himself in describing the world in 2312.

The premise, in a rather large nutshell, is thus: Earth has become almost uninhabitable – the ice caps have melted, the sea has risen seven metres and much of the previously inhabited land is now underwater. However, mankind has conquered all of the solar system’s other planets and many of its moons – from using advanced terraforming techniques to create a liveable atmosphere on Mars to creating a domed city on tracks on Mercury, always moving to keep ahead of the scorching sun.

A divide has sprung up between the spacers (the ‘haves’) and the majority of Earth dwellers (largely the ‘have-nots’) – the Earth dwellers resent the spacers for bailing out on Earth, while still relying on the space colonies for resources; the spacers nostalgically long for Earth, while at the same time find the planet heavy, both literally (in terms of g-force) and metaphorically – all the techniques that have transformed space either will not work or are not allowed to be tried on Earth. Meanwhile, the politics between the planets is as bad, if not worse, than that between Earth and space.

Humans have also achieved much greater longevity, comfortably living beyond 150 years. This was one aspect I found very interesting about the story, as one of the ways in which longevity has been achieved has been through a blurring of gender definition. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ are no longer exclusive or the only gender descriptors, with people further defining themselves as hermaphrodite, androgyn, gynandromorph, womb-man and more.

Marriage between two people has become the exception, with all sorts of different unions forming, including a type of crèche model where a group of people form as a family and raise children together, individuals taking turns to be mothers and fathers, both biologically and otherwise, to the resultant progeny. Sex is both more complicated and less complex than now, in that there are more choices of partner, and more ways the act can take place, but fewer social constraints on the way in which people choose to do it. I wondered whether Robinson was making comment on the short-sighted arguments many people are currently giving to reject the idea of people of the same gender marrying.

“Young” people in 2312 no longer rebel by getting tattoos or piercings – instead they are able to implant things into their brains and bodies to allow them to purr like a cat or sing like a bird, amongst other things. Artificial intelligence has evolved to create qubes – quantum computers, which are like a super-Google implanted in a person’s head or arm, or detachable and worn like a watch.

The story’s protagonist, Swan, is a planet-creator – people travel between the planets on terraformed asteroids in which life is recreated in whichever way its makers wish. Swan was one of the early and most successful terraformers, although she doesn’t do much of this now. Her grandmother, Alex, who dies in suspicious circumstances just before the beginning of the book, had plans to “save” Earth, as well as having serious concerns over the behaviour of qubes. Throughout the course of the story, Swan is drawn into the continuation of her grandmother’s projects in a variety of ways.

Swan and her love interest Wahram are interesting, as are many aspects of the story. The main issue I had with the book was that 2312 doesn’t quite know what it is trying to be. The love story gets lost in the ‘who-dunnit’ aspect of the story (which I haven’t even touched on in the précis), the mystery gets lost in the environmental warning; the warning gets lost in the ‘brave new world’ idea, which in turn gets lost in the social and political commentary.

I found the pace of the book slow, and got frustrated at times by the intrusion of the ‘excerpts’ and ‘lists’ which attempt to explain the history (and in some cases the future) of the events of 2312. There are some lovely cinematic scenes, like the ‘reanimation’ of Earth, where the planet is repopulated by animals floated down from space in aerogel bubbles, but in general there was just too much information and too many ideas fighting for attention within one book.

I’m known among my friends for being a word-geek, but I found myself reaching for my eDictionary on a number of occasions, which got irritating. As someone with a good general knowledge, but no specific science/engineering background, I also found myself at times overwhelmed by technical detail. Conversely I imagine that an engineer would find themselves picking holes in the theories behind the book’s technologies.

Robinson is clearly passionate about the world he has created, and in the end that, along with the brilliantly flawed character of Swan made the book worth the slog through to the end. However, I think that with a tightened focus or perhaps by making this into a series rather than a single novel, 2312 would be able to reach and entertain a much wider readership.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published by Orbit
ISBN 9781841499963

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