Sunday, June 24, 2012

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson: book review

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit £18.99)

Reviewed by John Howard

The year is 2312 (yes really). The Solar System two centuries hence is a very different place from now. We get to see this. There is a lot of travelling. The panoramas are exhilarating and sometimes dangerous.

The structure of 2312 recalls (and is acknowledged by a nod) that of John Dos Passos’ trilogy USA (1930-36): weaving in and out between the main narrative chapters there are recurring sections with numbered headings which contain lists, bits of info-dumps, extracts, etc. The earthbound SF exemplar is Stand on Zanzibar (1969) by John Brunner.

Alex is dead, but is still probably the most important character in the novel. She remains central – people and events revolve around her – although she is never there.

Where it has proved possible for humanity to settle in the Solar System, it has, with lesser or greater degrees of insecurity and danger. Spacers are the humans who have been born and live away from Earth. Sometimes distrusted on Earth, the rest of the Solar System is their territory.

Swan Er Hong is mourning her grandmother Alex, whose death at the age of 191 is nevertheless a great shock to Swan and the wide-ranging network of Alex’s friends. Swan’s ongoing grief has scarcely begun to abate when she visits Mqaret, Alex’s partner. Jean Genette is a close friend of Alex’s, looking for something she might have left behind. Wahram, from Titan, and another friend of Alex’s, arrives there too.

Mercury: a planet blasted by the sun. The city of Terminator endlessly travels along its ribbon of endless track, kept moving by the power of light and the pursuit of shadow. Out on Mercury’s surface, the feral sunwalkers have to stay moving to keep up.

Some people have a qube (implanted or carried with them). Qubes are personal AIs that can be turned on and off at will, and networked throughout the Solar System. Swan and Jean Genette have them. Who else has qubes, and what are they doing that humans might not know about?

Jean Genette is an inspector from Interplan, the Solar System’s police. He asks Swan to carry out her grandmother’s wishes and travel to Io to deliver personally a paper note to Wang, another friend and colleague of Alex’s. Why should this be, when interplanetary and personal communication and travel is so easy? Swan agrees and travels to Io with Wahram.

Two examples: Io, volcanic hellworld; Iapetus, liquid world frozen into an irregular sphere. Spacers keep a precarious hold on what they have been able to grasp.

Swan and Wahram: fire and ice: light and dark: nevertheless something may well be there.

2312 is a trilogy packed into a single volume. Robinson keeps things lean and is always cutting to the chase.

Earth, ravaged by climate change and the massive rise in sea level, is still a main player in Solar System politics. Much of its population of eleven billion lives in poverty in the shadow of the orbital space elevators.

On Earth, Swan is rescued from a bad situation by poor boy Kiran, who is rewarded with a job working on the gigantic project terraforming Venus. Kiran keeps his eyes and ears open and finds things out, whether he wants to or not.

Robinson is often categorised as a utopian writer, which he often is. Perhaps sometimes he seems to be too willing to concentrate too much on the sunny side of his detailed worlds. But his work is not that simple and things are not that clear-cut.

The terraria: Aymara, Aspen, Tatar Soul, Saint George, The Little Prince, Arabia Deserta: some of the nineteen thousand asteroids and satellites occupied by humans, each custom designed with an environment for a particular interest group. Some terraria also function as huge space transports: the Orient Expresses and cargo liners of the Solar System.

…Are not always what they might seem. Swan and Wahram meet some they are very unsure about. They look human, but…?

Mars is now terraformed, Venus is in the process of being terraformed. Some feel that mistakes have been made and are being made, and want to change things. The Solar System could be torn apart by a series of planetary civil wars. Swan, Wahram, Jean Genette, and Kiran find themselves involved in a tangle of schemes that Alex had left in progress.

The connected significance of several dramatic events in different parts of the Solar System slowly dawns on Swan, Wahram, Jean Genette, Kiran, and others they have enlisted to help.

Swiftly and surely, inexorably, Robinson closes the woven tapestry of 2312 and loose ends are trimmed, not without sacrifice. But there is welcome uplift.

The verdict: perhaps Robinson sometimes coasts a little in 2312. Nevertheless he constantly holds the interest and shoots out ideas like solar prominences. This is a fine novel from an author of many fine novels. Humanity would still be lucky if everything 200 years hence were to turn out this way. 

No comments: