Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Hachette (Orbit imprint)
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the biggest names in science fiction. He’s written three trilogies (the Three Californias trilogy, the Mars trilogy, and the Science in the Capital series) and nine stand-alone novels. I first encountered his work with the Mars series, although I’ve only read the first one and all I can remember from that one is the zero-gravity sex scene… so I may not be the best person to review this book but I’m going to press on anyway. 2312, like KSR’s Mars novels, is wrapped up so much in the setting that plot plays second (or maybe third) fiddle. The thing I really appreciate about 2312 is that it has a really strong, realistic love story that serves as an anchor for the events of the story. It’s easier to care about the beautifully crafted futuristic settings when we feel a connection with the person describing them.
On first glance, Swan Er Hong is your typical hipster/burner, but as I read I kept getting the sense that there was something she was keeping hidden. She comes from a privileged upbringing: her grandmother was the Lion of Mercury, the leader of the Mondragon Accord, an organization of nested co-ops that encompasses Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. She worked as a terrarium designer in her youth but now she devotes her time to creating Goldsworthies (landscape sculpture about nature) and Abromovics (performance art about pain). She likes to travel with the sunwalkers as they try to outpace the Mercurial dawn. She’s a gynandromorph, which means she has a micropenis in front of her vagina (for longevity, because science). And she’s about 130 years old. Her age, I think, is what allows her character to escape being put in the Millennial box, because unlike a textbook Millennial, she’s seen and done it all and a lot of the book is about her struggle to make meaning of an adventurous but somewhat superficial life.
Her love interest Wahram is in many ways her opposite. Where she’s full of frenetic energy, he is calm, lugubrious, and deep. He doesn’t really attract Swan (she is always thinking of him as her “frog”), but he interests her.
He interested her. She was drawn to him as to a work of art or a landscape. He had a sense of his actions that was sure; he drew a clean line. He showed her new things, but also new feelings. Oh to be calm! Oh to pay attention! He amazed her with these qualities.
She’s interested in him, but she’s also intimidated by him:
When I’m with you I feel faintly anxious; judged; inadequate.
It was hard for her not to feel that a person loving her was making a big mistake.
I haven’t read many books that explore this type of cerebral romance. Often if a woman in a romance story is intimidated, it’s by the man’s mysterious, dark aura or foolhardy, devil-may-care courage, but Wahram doesn’t have either of those. He doesn’t push himself on Swan, she pushes herself on him, because he’s different from her and therefore interesting: he teaches her how to slow down and pay attention. His grave, Saturnian disposition intimidates her because it makes her feel like she’s being too loud, like she has to turn herself down for him, but I think she knows on another level that her loudness is what attracts him to her—she’s the sparrow in the banquet hall of his life.
The story begins when Swan’s grandmother, Alex, is killed and Swan is trying to find out who killed her. This leads to Swan contacting all of her grandmother’s old friends and associates to try and find out what happened to Alex and what she had been working on before she died. This sounds like a solid mystery plot, but it gets lost after tragedy strikes her hometown on Mercury and then they have find out who did that (I’m guessing the same person but I’m not sure if that was ever clarified). Then a lot of other things happen that don’t really seem all that related to each other… 2312 is really a novel about ideas with the plot being of incidental importance.
There are a lot of really interesting ideas, though. Most of the planets in the solar system are terraformed or semi-terraformed: Mercury is inhabited by one city that travels on rails, staying always on the dark side of the planet. Venus is in the process of terraforming, Mars is already terraformed, Jupiter has stations floating in the gas or on its moons. Humans’ efforts to terraform asteroids have been even more successful. The “terrariums” as they’re called are built on the hollowed-out insides of the asteroids and designed to mimic different terran environments like deserts or jungles or even oceans. Most of them are full of animals, including species now extinct on Earth. There are also asteroid spaceships that offer different sensory and social experiences, like the blackliner where everyone floats in the dark.
Though the descriptions of planets and space cities and landscapes in the process of terraforming are creative and often brilliant, it does get a bit dull when those descriptions are not related to the plot, or when the plot gets bent out of shape so that the characters can go to a place solely to show off the intricate world-building.
The later plot involves AI, quantum computers, and a lot of politics, and I found it very confusing. KSR doesn’t make the plot any easier to follow when he puts important background information in the “extracts”, mini chapters that read like incomplete research notes about the setting. Many of the extracts are about the history of the different planets and their political and economic systems. They were kind of boring and disorganized. The other experimental feature, which I liked a lot better, where the “lists”, which were highly tangential but they had a nice rhythm to them and they didn’t read so much like encyclopedia entries (more like modern poetry, but I guess that’s an acquired taste as a lot of people in my book group didn’t like the lists). The lists included things like: personality traits and neuroses, types of terraria, reasons why we haven’t made utopia on Earth, craters named after women, and words for the post-modern blues.
Anyway, back to politics. KSR makes a big deal of “Balkanization” and “Mondragon”. I’m still not quite sure why Mondragon, based on the Mondragon co-op system in the Basque country that produces household appliances and other technological wares, is analogous to the economic system described in 2312, but I don’t know a lot about Mondragon and KSR doesn’t explain it very well in the book, so that was very confusing. Balkanization refers to the breaking up of the Balkan peninsula into many small nations after WWI. He uses it to describe the imminent fracturing of the Mondragon Accord, a trend which was reversed by the events of 2312. He also talks about the “Balkanization of love” in the future, “a situation in which affection, child rearing, sex, lust, cohabitation, family, and friendship have all been delinked from each other and reconfigured as affect states.” So you have one partner for sex and a different one you raise children with. I guess in the future, since people can live more than a hundred years, it’s difficult to sustain a relationship that long. Because of that, relationships between people burn a little colder and slower: “A common opinion expressed is that to keep relationships lasting a long time one shouldn’t see too much of a person, or create too intense of a relationship, or it will burn out.”
A lot of the book also deals with economic inequality between spacers and Earth people. Even though spacers provide most of the food for the people of Earth (grown in terraria), terrans resent spacers for being self-indulgent and leading lives of frivolous pleasure, creating navel-gazing, pretentious art and seeking out novelty while terrans live in relative misery. Though on Earth there is the same gulf between rich and poor:
The wealthiest lived as if they were spacers on sabbatical, mobile and curious, actualizing themselves in all the ways possible, augmenting themselves—genderizing—speciating—dodging death, extending life.
In 2012, rich and poor don’t merely have different lifestyles, they are physically and genetically different. The rich can edit their genes to become bigender so they can live longer. They use animal brains and implanted quantum computers to augment their minds. They can have failing parts of their bodies regrown or repaired. KSR posits the idea that spacers have become homo sapiens celestis, a different species than their Earth siblings.
Swan keeps insisting there’s *something* that can be done to help those poor people on Earth, but she’s too impatient and easily distracted to do much on her own… but with Wahram’s help she does accomplish something, which is hotly contested in the Earth media but will probably help the situation, if the Earthlings don’t destroy it.
I feel like KSR had the opportunity to say something interesting with the two main characters both being bigender, he could have described in more detail how it felt to occupy a body that is both genders at once, but the opportunity wasn’t seized upon, it was just kind of there. I conceived of Swan and Wahram as female and male, respectively, despite their auxiliary genitals, but maybe that just exposes my biases. Swan has more interesting and varied emotions and Wahram’s emotions are simple but deep, so I think they still fit into traditional gender roles. If you’ve read it, let me know in the comments whether or not Swan and Wahram seemed androgynous to you.
The writing was pretty solid and kept me reading by literary merit alone when my interest in the actual things the book was describing faded. The only bad thing about the writing was that it was a little repetitive in places. There was one long quote that I was transcribing and as I was typing it out I realized that the whole paragraph was just the same thing stated differently over and over. I guess it takes some skill to do that in a way that the reader doesn’t notice, but it explains why the book felt long-winded.
Here’s the paragraph for all you writers (please don’t do this):
Maybe to say that someone was “like this” or “like that” was just an attempt to stick a memory to a board where you organized memories, like butterflies in a lepidopterist’s collection. Not really the generalization it seemed, but just a stab at understanding… One had impressions of other people, nothing more. Never to hear them think, only to hear what they said; it was a drop in an ocean, a touch across the abyss. A hand holding your hand as you float in the black of space. It wasn’t much. They couldn’t really know each other very well. So they said he is like this, or she is like that, and called that the person. Presumed to make a judgment. It was such a guess. You would have to talk with someone for years to give the guess any kind of validity. And even then you wouldn’t know.
I’ve been vacillating about whether to give this a three or a four, but I’m going to give it a three because it’s really boring and doesn’t really reward the reader all that well for the effort they put in. It gets three stars for good ideas, good writing, and a surprisingly good romance for science fiction.