As any good middle manager will tell you, spotting problems is easy. The challenge and the creativity is in finding the solutions. The easy way, the lazy way, is to point at everything wrong with the world and go all chicken little. In my gloomier moments, I suspect that the current vogue for dystopian SF is an outgrowth of that. The relative ease of shrieking that the sky is falling, combined with the dragon’s hoard on which successful gloom-mongers, like Suzanne Collins or Veronica Roth, presumably sleep at night, is like catnip to the long tail of would-be bestselling authors.
This line of thinking is nothing new to anyone who’s read Neal Stephenson’s essay ‘Innovation Starvation’, lamenting the paucity of big, optimistic ideas in modern SF. But one might imagine Kim Stanley Robinson politely raising a hand as Stephenson launches into his mostly valid diatribe and gesturing towards ‘2312’.
Indeed, towards many of his previous works, like so many of Robinson’s novels, ‘2312’ is old-school in its exploration of ideas, hypothesis and analysis. The solar system is opening up, with settlements on Mars, the Saturnian moon Titan, Venus and Mercury, established by scientists and descendants of scientists for the most part and more than half-way to forming the kind of post-scarcity, post-capitalist utopia where everyone works because they want to and nobody really mentions money.
Only Earth is still a mess. Still over-populated, still spiralling into environmental catastrophe, still stubbornly stuck using economic and political models that, from the spacers’ point of view, are proven failures. Trapped by its vested interests, the weight of its history and it’s the weight of Earth’s backward pull which gives ‘2312’ its gravity. The plot might kick into action with the death (maybe murder?) of a leading spacer, but the problem of Earth is always weighing on the characters’ minds.
So much, in fact, that the plot itself unfolds with leisurely ease. This is no taut thriller, driven by story beats. It’s content to follow its post-human protagonists, Swan Er Hong and Fitz Wahram, and explore both their internal lives and the rich wonders of a solar system that’s opening up like a Faberge egg.
Wahram is a Titan, from that moon of Saturn that’s long been put forth as a likely prospect for human settlement. Swan is from Mercury and her home is Terminator, a technological marvel of a moving city, sliding ever westward ahead of the lethal dawn. The Mercurials are all a little crazy, it seems, sun-worshippers and artists, walking the surface of the planet in lockstep with the planet’s rotation is a common…perhaps pastime isn’t the word. A calling? A compulsion?
Whatever it is, this isn’t the sort of book to condemn or poke fun at them. ‘2312’ is an extraordinarily generous novel, offering a rich feast of wonders without judgement or censure of its characters. There’s drama, of course but, aside from a small handful of exceptions, it’s driven by the challenges facing all of the characters of escaping the trap of the past, of old ways of thinking and making the most of the infinite opportunities that the solar system offers. Not just for the spacers, but for everyone.
It’s hard to look at a summary like that and not see parallels in modern questions of first-world privilege and activism. For most of the billions who teem on its surface, Earth is a miserable hole that can’t be escaped, yet the spacer protagonists or, at least Swan Er Hong, the mercurial Mercurial who reaps the lion’s share of narrative attention, seem to approach it with the first-world naivety of the obliviously privileged.
Swan is earnest and eager and blissfully oblivious to Earth’s dangers, frustrated at the seemingly self-inflicted nature of its problems and at the same time convinced she can solve them if people were just a bit more sensible. At one point, she lectures a barful of locals with drunken but wince-inducing obliviousness to her own entitlement: “We’re on Earth! You have no idea what a privilege that is. You fucking moles! You’re home! You can take all the spacer habitats together and they’d still be nothing compared to this world! This is home.” (p.418).
In a lesser novel, Swan would probably get the crap kicked out of her for that. In a lesser novel, maybe she’d be a villain with that kind of arrogance? But here they cheer her, ‘for being wrong, for flattering them, for buying the drinks and catching them all up in a moment of enthusiasm.’ (p.418)
Because this is the sort of novel which doesn’t really take the easy way. Where the resolution of one of the novel’s central plotlines is not really a resolution at all. Where rather the characters explicitly punt the issue down the line for a couple of hundred years in the hope that society will have evolved and matured to the point where it can deal with the problem. Not everyone is okay with that, but no one can really think of a better plan.
The only exception to that scrupulous sense of fair play comes in the form of some economic sleight of hand. Both Mercury and Titan are part of the same loose alliance of minor groups, the Mondragon accords a new economic model with ancient origins, based on ‘…a small Basque town that ran an economic system of nested co-ops organized for mutual support’ (p. 125) co-operating in order to balance their diverse strengths against the great weight of human power on Earth and, to a lesser extent, Mars.
These kinds of socialist utopias have often struggled to maintain decent structural integrity in fiction, emerging as a paper-thin façade of best intentions that only remain standing due to authorial good will and the lack of robust reader scrutiny. ‘2312’ isn’t much different, unfortunately, hand-waving away any potential problems through the miracle of sufficiently advanced technology: ‘…supercomputers and artificial intelligence made it possible to fully coordinate a non-market economy…needs were determined year to year in precise demographic detail, and production then directed to fill the predicted needs. … Once policy questions were answered―meaning desires articulated in a sharply contested political struggle―the total annual economy of the solar system could be called out on a quantum computer in less than a second.’ (p.125)
But aside from that convenient invocation of Clarke’s third law, ‘2312’ tends to play fair. It places its actors at a turning point in human civilisation and the challenges they’re attempting to overcome are suitably vast in scale and scope.
Much of the sense that you’re watching history being written comes from the way the novel waxes experimental in its scene-setting, interrupting the plot with occasional collections of excerpts. Most appear as if taken at random from some future history of a pivotal period: ‘…the space diaspora occurred as late capitalism writhed in its internal decision concerning whether to destroy Earth’s biosphere or change its rules. Many argued for the destruction of the biosphere, as being the lesser of two evils’ (pp.124-5). Other excerpts might provide a list of masochistic votive acts or offer a tongue-in-cheek recipe for terraforming a planet as one might bake a loaf of bread.
It’s an experimental approach to exposition that works more often than not, providing supplemental material that can, as appropriate, lend the central narrative an epic scope or rich intimacy. Many are poetic in construction and beautiful to read in their own right, such as stream-of-consciousness impressions from the young mind of a confused AI, a rich blend of Emily Dickinson, branching logic and autistic incomprehension. ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’, indeed.
By which logic, ‘2312’ is pretty feathery but, while the naïve style of the writing only furthers that sense of optimism, it can occasionally give ‘2312’ a curiously childish, even Blytonesque feel:
‘Couldn’t they have destroyed their qube when they were done using it?”
“Yes, But there’s no reason to assume they’re done.”
This was a chilling thought.’ p.223
“I wanted to talk to Wang again, because his qube is really powerful, and he also has the biggest data banks on the unaffiliated.” p.224
It’s an odd experience, to be reading a novel of such imaginative brilliance and one which engages with hugely complex ideas but which is written in such a charmingly, even child-like register. You constantly trip yourself up, looking for subtext and finding none but that feels like it might be the point. Don’t over-think it, the novel’s saying. Isn’t the simple act of understanding people, this universe full of wonders enough of a challenge already?
Take the relationship between Swan and Wahram. Fairly early in the novel, they are forced together by disaster and forge a connection through adversity, physical isolation and hardship. As they struggle, they whistle together, point and counter-point, an elemental kind of communication. When the world reasserts its presence, when words come back between them, it’s as a barrier. Which sounds all so much soap opera, but this isn’t played for melodrama rather it’s acknowledging a simple human truth. The unheightened prose steps out of the way, a beautiful example of how to align medium with message.
‘2312’ is a masterpiece, in short, a novel of ideas, of optimism and endless empathy. No heroes here, no villains, just people, in all their rich contradictions, trying to make the best of their situation and it’s a pleasure to watch them.
(pub: Orbit/LittleBrown, 2012. 561 page enlarged paperback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-997-0)
check out website: www.orbitbooks.net