Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those super-smart authors I’d previously figured wasn’t writing for someone like me. I’ll happily admit that sometimes the science-y bits of scifi can bounce off me because I’m not bright that way – if it can’t be demonstrated to me with some cardboard and a roll of sticky tape then I’m probably not going to get it – and one of my favourite things about reading scifi is finding authors who can explain things in a way that I do understand. So I wouldn’t have given KSR a go if it hadn’t been for bormgans over at Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It who made it sound like something I would appreciate. Which, as it turns out, I did.
2312 is an interesting mix of future history, plotted mystery (ha! rhymes!) and a beautiful-scary vision of humanity making multiple new homes out in the solar system. Structurally you read one or two plot chapters then one or two chapters dedicated to extracts and lists that broaden the universe the author has created. This keeps the pace from speeding up as we’d perhaps expect in a straightforward mystery, but somehow it helps keep the sheer size of the story’s playing field in view. (An interesting re-read experiment might be to only read the plot chapters and see how that alters both the pacing and sense of scale … but that’s for another time). Because in this future we’ve settled on the moon, on Mars, Mercury and Venus, on Saturn’s moon Titan, Jupiter’s moons Callisto, Ganymede and Io, and Neptune’s moon Triton. We’ve created hundreds of different habitats out of asteroids and these are used to travel about the solar system just like spaceships. Thanks to longevity treatments we are commonly centenarians, (which is just as well with all this zipping about the system), we can regrow limbs, and augment ourselves in thousands of ways.
While Earth, poor, dear Earth, is at the bottom of the pile. To the people stuck on our home planet spacers are seen almost to be the spoiled rich kids living it large; to spacers Earth is seen as an embarrassment, a place that cannot be fixed despite all the technology and knowledge that has enabled them to make their homes away from it. On Earth the waters have risen dramatically due to climate change, the animals have died out, a lot of food comes from space, and despite post-scarcity a lot of people still live in poor conditions. Despite this, one of my favourite extracts is about Earth (and every bit of description about Earth in 2312 is beautiful):
“Simply to be outdoors in the open air, under the sky, in the wind – this was what she loved most about Earth. Today puffy clouds were massed overhead at about the thousand-foot level. Looked like a marine layer rolling in. She ran out into some kind of paved lot filled with trucks and buses and trolley cars, and jumped around screaming at the sky, then kneeled and kissed the ground, made wolf howls, and, after she had hyperventilated a bit, lay on her back on the pavement. No handstands – she had learned long before that handstands on Earth were really hard. And her rib still hurt.
Through gaps in the cloud layer she could see the light-but-dark blue of the Terran sky, subtle and full. It looked like a blue dome flattened at the centre, perhaps a few kilometres above the clouds – she reached up for it – although knowing too that is was just a kind of rainbow made it glorious. A rainbow that was blue everywhere and covered everything. The blue itself was complex, narrow in range but infinite within that range. It was an intoxicating sight, and you could breathe it – one was always breathing it, you had to. The wind shoved it into you! Breathe and get drunk, oh my, to be free of all restraint, minimally clothed, lying on the bare surface of a planet, sucking in its atmosphere as if it were an aqua vitae, feeling in your chest how it kept you alive! No Terran she had ever met properly appreciated their air, or saw their sky for what it was. In fact they very seldom looked at it.”
How can you read that and not look at your home world from a completely different slant, even if only for a moment?
There are some equally beautiful descriptions of both the sunrise and a Beethoven concert on Mercury; asteroid terrariums recreating savannah and ice-age environments; tracking wolves after a project to repopulate Earth with mammals; and a festival day on Mars where a vast number of simultaneous marriages take place on Olympus Mons. To name but a few.
And it’s a book jam-packed with ideas. I loved the hollowed-out asteroids used to create terrariums and aquariums and enjoyed both the plot chapters where I got to see more of some of these habitats, and the extracts that apparently come from a sort of how-to manual of habitat building and are almost comical to read: “the matrix will rise like yeasted dough as it becomes that most delicious and rare substance, soil” – how to cook yourself a habitat indeed! I loved the qubes and the debate about sentience (one of my favourite subjects in any case and interestingly done here) and everything to do with the unusual qubes. I loved the only lightly touched upon idea of people ingesting alien bacteria. I loved KSR’s future humanity – so altered that they are now possibly post-human – always experimenting, always curious, always pushing at their limits.
On the other hand, I struggled with the politics … because I struggle with politics, (I will never understand why it’s all so complicated); and I was frustrated by KSR’s portrayal of future Earth as a place where very little could be done to improve things because of disagreements and bickering over what should be done. Not that that’s not an accurate representation, but then I think that’s what was so frustrating. And I sometimes found the main character, Swan, difficult to understand. Or rather, difficult to be intimate with, in the way that a reader is able to see into the minds of the characters they are reading about. She’s interesting in many ways: she’s done more self-augmentation and experimentation than her family and friends feel is wise; she’s impulsive and emotional, she reacts rather than thinks; she often seems childish. The other main character, Wahram, is Swan’s polar opposite in a lot of ways. Sometimes I found him equally difficult to understand, but I felt a lot less annoyance with him than I did with Swan. Both were enigmatic to a degree I didn’t find comfortable however. I like my characters a bit more forthcoming, it would seem. And the romance between the two was, even on a second reading, odd. I found it hard to believe in … although this could be a flaw in me, as romance is always the thing I’ll nit-pick at if I don’t feel quite happy with something in a book. Ultimately though I feel that Swan and Wahram’s romance is supposed to be symbolic of KSR’s general optimism about our future. Yes, there will be disagreements and difficulties, but our curiosity and our desire to understand will be what gets us through.
So, gorgeously written, slow paced, packed to the gills with ideas that could spawn further books (I’d love a KSR book dedicated to the unusual qubes and that put-off-for-now reunion with the human race), and hopeful. This was an intriguing book that I haven’t quite done justice by. It’s made me think, and it’s definitely made me appreciate breathing a whole lot more.