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‘2312’ – a Novel by Kim Stanley Robinson | Book Review

2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson [ISBN-13: 978-0316098120]
reviewed by brian shiro

Imagine a future where people have escaped a crowded, environmentally ravaged Earth to inhabit the entire solar system. From vulcanoids near the Sun to Pluto in the Kuiper Belt and everywhere in between, your passport to this inspiring reality is Kim Stanley Robinson’s newest book 2312. In it, he masterfully paints a utopian picture where humanity has terraformed almost every world possible and used the technological advancements made possible by space exploration to extend human lifespans and liberty.

Poverty, greed, and strife still exist in this brave new future, especially on Earth, which has never been able to shake its historical baggage like the space colonies have. At the center of this story is a very human drama of relationships with love, sorrows, fears, and joys that make you really care about the characters. The main protagonist is Swan Er Hong, a spry middle-aged supercentenarian artist who once designed worlds but now finds herself in the middle of an interplanetary terrorist plot to destroy them. Mercury’s roving city Terminator, Venus shaded by an enormous sunshield, Saturn’s rings, and an Earth flooded by global warming induced sea level rise are a few of the destinations along her journey to solve one of the biggest threats ever to face the human race. It’s the stuff blockbuster movies are made of.

Robinson clearly takes the view that humans are destined to terraform other worlds, making them habitable for colonization. He goes into great detail how this is done on asteroids, Venus, Titon, and even the Earth using local resources supplemented by imports of food grown inside terraformed asteroids, nitrogen extracted from Saturn’s moons, ice taken from comets, metals mined from asteroids, solar energy beamed from Mercury, and self-replicating technologies that can accomplish amazing feats of engineering. His attention to detail makes it all seem utterly credible.

Having consulted with some of the world’s foremost experts on astrobiology and planetary geology like Chris McKay and Carol Stoker, Robinson’s vivid and quite accurate descriptions of planetary surfaces, evoke the feeling that one is actually standing in a crater on Mercury, navigating the terrain of Venus, descending to tidal inferno Io, or finding extraterrestrial life on Enceladus. In the next breadth, he seems at home describing quantum computing, neurobiology, genetics, or any other host of technologies. Clearly, the author has done his homework and gets the facts straight most of the time, making this scientist happy.

I myself became a Kim Stanley Robison fan thanks to his Red Mars series, which I had the good fortune of reading about a decade ago when I was in Antarctica. Through those four books, he showed us how humans will first venture to the red planet, adapt to ecological challenges, evolve into an independent society, and struggle with the existential question whether to modify the natural landscape to suit their purposes. Those same themes are played out on the greater stage of the entire solar system in 2312, which seems to occur about 100 years after the end of Blue Mars, for those who are familiar with the series. While Mars is not featured prominently in Robinson’s new novel, it is often mentioned throughout the book’s 561 pages, which preserve much of the same epic feel as the Mars series that preceded it.

Although the story plays out solar system-wide, the question of Earth is central to the narrative in this book. Today’s issues of global warming, overpopulation, social unrest, and political discord have persisted into the 24th century and grown worse. Most animals are extinct, Florida is under water, and New York City is a canal city like Venice. America and China are the main countries driving space settlement. The human societies that have developed away from Earth have eclipsed the Earth in most ways that matter, and the Earth is still held back by the same issues it has always had. The growing disconnect between ‘spacers’ and terrans is a major source of friction in the story.

This all comes to a head in the climax of the book, which occurs in the year 2312. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s quite interesting to consider what this bold upset does to shake things up on Earth and affect the balance of power among the factions in the solar system. Suffice it to say, a struggle for power and impending civil war are major plot drivers in the story, but it’s not what you might think.

The plot progresses slowly. Its story line is broken up into chapters based on the characters involved, but interspersed between them are small chapters called ‘Lists’ and ‘Extracts.’ While I sometimes found these diversions difficult to read and wondered why they were all there, many of the interjections served to move the narrative forward by providing necessary background information you need to process what’s coming next or what you just read. For example, they describe the intriguing way asteroids have been hollowed out and terraformed to create a myriad of different nature preserves and become the main form of transport for travelers throughout the solar system. They also show how quantum computing has revolutionized the way we communicate and coexist with artificial intelligence on a very personal level. In Robinson’s future, routine genetic modifications are as common as plastic surgery is today. One subplot of the book is how people use this capability to intentionally lengthen their lifespans beyond hundreds of years, change genders in many strange ways, and even incorporate alien DNA into one’s genome.

Robinson is a gifted storyteller and futurist, taking trends seen in today’s science fact and extrapolating them forward in the best tradition of science fiction. His sweeping vision is made tangible thanks to the deep human interest story of the narrative. Everything in the book is an extension of what we see today from the looming threat of sea level rise and global warming to the artificial intelligence revolution.

The speculation is pessimistic in some ways with regard to the environmental chaos on Earth, and humanity’s balkanization into semi-autonomous colonies. But it is overwhelmingly optimistic because it shows that, despite our problems, we are able to salvage our planet’s biodiversity and preserve important works of art and culture in artificial environments on other worlds, while at the same time learning to utilize the abundant resources available throughout the solar system. The book doesn’t go into detail on the economic system that makes this possible, but it seems to be a barter-based post-capitalist system in which each person’s individual work ethic and sense of civic duty provide the momentum that drives the economy. In many ways, it’s similar to the way Antarctic bases operate with basic needs taken care for, relegating money only for luxuries.

Is colonization of space going to be the salvation of the human race? It very well may be, and in 300 years time we may look back on this novel as a tantalizingly accurate forecasting of things to come. 2312 is a complex, detailed, and utterly engrossing book that I highly recommend. While the plot itself is somewhat contrived in a few places, the richness of the characters and the universe they inhabit make the book a must-read for any thoughtful sci-fi fan.

Brian Shiro is a geophysicist who was inspired in part by Kim Stanley Robinson’s writings to undertake a simulated Mars mission in the remote high Arctic and strives to help build a future for humanity in space.

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2 Responses to “‘2312’ – a Novel by Kim Stanley Robinson | Book Review”

  1. Coastal Ron says:

    I just finished the book, and I have mixed feelings on it.

    I too loved his Red Mars series, and I marvel at how the author can compress so much into so few paragraphs (he would compress years into a paragraph in Red Mars). But when dealing with the Solar System, this really keeps the story going.

    About halfway through the book I started wondering if this would be book one of a new series, since it seemed like he was still setting up lots of story lines. Unfortunately this did not turn out to be the case, and it is a standalone book.

    That’s too bad, since his story brought up a number of interesting story threads, all of them being played out in the same universe as the Red Mars stories (but no common characters). In a way, it felt like the ending was wrapped up too quickly, and summarized too conveniently. I was left wanting more, but knowing that no more was coming.

    Nevertheless, if you are a Red Mars fan, then it is worth the effort to read, since Kim Stanley Robinson is a great story teller, and that’s not always easy to find.

  2. Brian Shiro says:

    Yes, I also felt that the story’s plot itself seemed to hurry to its conclusion in a not completely satisfying way. That was what I alluded to when I said it was “contrived.” It’s still a superb novel, but the scale and pace of the human story seems to pale in comparison with the author’s meticulous descriptions of the setting itself. It very well could have been the beginning of a new series (and why not?), but I agree that doesn’t seem likely given how conveniently it wraps up at the end.

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