May 22 2012 4:00pm

Trying to Throw Your Arms around the Solar System: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312 by Kim Stanley RobinsonOne of my favorite sections in Kim Stanley Robinson’s famous Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars) occurs towards the end of the series, when the author briefly describes the development of other planets in the solar system. The way Robinson theorized the colony on Mercury always stuck with me: a city on rails, constantly moving to stay inside the sun-scorched planet’s tiny inhabitable zone. What a concept.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that Robinson actually starts his new novel 2312 in Terminator, the moving city on Mercury, taking the concept from Blue Mars (and, I later discovered, from another novel and short story) and using it as a building block for what may be his most ambitious novel to date: a future history of the solar system, set exactly 300 years into our future. However, one thing should be explained right from the start: despite the similarity of the city on Mercury, 2312 is actually set in a completely different timeline from the Mars trilogy, one in which Mars took a different path. So: a standalone novel, not a sequel.

The scope of 2312 is so ambitious that the novel becomes hard to summarize. It’s one of those books that bears in itself the seeds for another handful of novels. (We can only hope that, in the future, Robinson will expand on the slew of fascinating concepts and settings he so casually uses here.) For now, think of 2312 as a novel that constantly shuttles back and forth between two poles. On the one hand, this is the highly personal story of its two main characters, Swan and Wahram. On the other, it’s a wide-ranging and imaginative future history of the next three centuries of the entire Solar System. In other words, 2312 tries to cover both macro- and micro-history. Occasionally the large amount of space between those two extremes makes the novel lose tension and slump a bit, especially in the middle section when Robinson occasionally seems more interested in showing the sights than in progressing the plot, but for the most part he manages to keep everything running smoothly and even takes advantage of the novel’s vast scale by zooming in for a few stunning, extended close-ups.

According to an interview I recently conducted with the author, the novel started out with the idea of describing the relationship between a mercurial character from Mercury and a saturnine character from Saturn, and that’s as good a way as any to describe one important aspect of this novel. Swan is an artist and former asteroid habitat designer from Terminator who gets involved in interplanetary politics when her grandmother Alex, an important figure in one of the Solar System’s many factions, passes away. During the investigation into the possible cause of Alex’s death, Swan meets Wahram, an unforgettable, toad-like intellectual and classical music aficionado from Titan with a gentle but gloomy disposition. The relationship between Swan and Wahram is a constantly evolving and intensely fascinating affair, book-ended by two long, unforgettable scenes in which the two characters are isolated from everyone else.

If 2312 only offered this particular duo and their interactions, it’d probably be a successful novel in itself, but Kim Stanley Robinson sets their relationship in an endlessly fascinating future version of our Solar System, in which several centers of powers strive for dominance. Robinson leaves no stone unturned, focusing on the political, economic and even psychological aspects of humanity as it spreads out across the system. It’s hard to pick out just one or two features of this complex fictional universe to describe, because there are so many dynamics here that affect the story, from the different approaches to profit-building to the ongoing speciation of the race as people adapt to their new planetary environments. The novel moves from spectacular futuristic settings on several planets and moons to terraformed asteroids and even our own overpopulated, politically fragmented and environmentally damaged Earth, which is still a powerhouse player in the system.

An important facet of this setting, and the third major pillar that supports the novel, is supplied by the “qubes”: artificial intelligences whose power has gone through the roof thanks to quantum processing. One of the novel’s central plotlines concerns the nature and future of these qubes, complicated by the fact that Swan has taken the controversial decision to implant her own qube (who, given her talkative nature, is somewhat ironically named “Pauline”) inside her own body. The qube plot line has its own quirks and intricacies, but was for me the weakest aspect of an otherwise stunning novel. 

The combination of quantum-powered artificial intelligences, the prevalence of transhumanism (notably in the way gender is perceived), and a future economy that — outside of Earth itself — flirts with post-scarcity levels occasionally make 2312 feel like a smaller scale, incipient version of the future portrayed in Iain M. Banks Culture novels. It’s obviously an oversimplification, but in some ways this novel feels like the missing link between Robinson’s own relatively near-future Mars trilogy and far-future space societies like the Culture.

What may end up being the most controversial aspect of 2312 is Kim Stanley Robinson’s decision to write the novel using a collage method that incorporates several narrative modes: traditional storytelling chapters, faux non-fiction excerpts that describe planets or historical events, lists of ideas and synonyms, Joycean stream-of-consciousness sections, and a number of other fragments. Confusing as it may be initially, all of these sections work together to paint the overall picture of 2312. (According to the author, this methodology was inspired by John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Just finding parallels between these three works would make for a fascinating discussion.)

Even though the collage technique works more often than not, it does occasionally feel like a way for the author to sneak a multitude of info dumps into the novel without having to come up with a more streamlined way to integrate them, or a somewhat clunky way to set the scene for the following chapter by taking the exposition out of the story: we’re going to planet X now, so here’s a quick couple of pages about that planet. Take heed though: even though they break the flow of the story and sometimes feel a bit self-indulgent, those info dumps often introduce concepts that cross-pollinate and bounce off each other, generating some genuinely interesting ideas that end up playing an important role in the story later on. It’s not your average smoothly narrated story, but 2312 simply wouldn’t be the same if it had been written in a more linear style.  

Regardless of the collage technique, make no mistake: as chaotic as the novel may seem, it’s a carefully constructed story full of surprising parallels and symmetries. Compare the events that open and close out the novel. Compare the scenes in which Swan and Wahram find themselves alone/together. Trace out the various arcs. Like an ancient orrery, 2312 has a lot of moving parts that may seem to swerve and interweave chaotically but, in the end, clearly follow a fixed path. It may be a stretch, but this seems like yet another way in which the novel attempts to fuse two opposing concepts.

Finally, tying it all together is Kim Stanley Robinson’s characteristically lovely prose. There are sections in this novel that beg to be read out loud and savored. There are instances where Robinson introduces concepts in such a playful way that you barely realize they work on several levels at once, images that are so strikingly original they’ll jump out of the page and stick with you for a long time to come. One of my favorites was a throwaway reference to migratory birds living in the cylindrical terraformed asteroids that play such a large role in the novel (there’s even a website where you can build your own):

To be out at dawn was important. The sunny point in the sunline cast shadows up the cylinder, and overhead flocks of birds flew from one lake to another. The migratory birds pretended to migrate, he was told; they took off at dawn and flew around for most of the day, then came back to where they had begun.

Read in the context of the novel, this idea works on more than a few levels, but it’s tossed into the mix so casually that it’s all too easy to miss. 2312 is full to the brim of moments like that, making it one of the most intellectually stimulating novels you’ll read all year, and one that almost has to be read more than once to be appreciated fully.

Admittedly, some of the concepts Kim Stanley Robinson explores in 2312 are nothing new. The dangers of evolving artificial intelligence; environmental collapse on Earth; the colonization of other planets; the tension between transhuman and regular people — sure, you’ve seen these done before, but this novel explores them on such a scale and with such enthusiasm and elegance that the end result is simply stunning. Remember that U2 song “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms around the World” from Achtung Baby? 2312 feels like Kim Stanley Robinson trying to throw his arms around the solar system, bringing the intimately personal sphere into the system-wide one, and vice versa. The result is easily one of the best science fiction novels of the year so far: a challenging, sprawling, multi-layered story that will provide food for thought long after you turn the final page.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His website is Far Beyond Reality.

1. TK1123
Pauline is also the name of John Boone's AI in Red Mars, and is subsequently passed on to members of his burgeoning artificially conceived family, and she also makes an appearance in Galileo's Dream. I was tickled when I heard she'd be tagging along for the ride in 2312.
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Thanks, Stefan.

It does indeed sound very different than Leviathan Wakes, as I expected.
3. Rationalist
I've always found that Robinson's polemics drown his storytelling, sacrificing excitement, pace and empathy for info-dumps, making his books seem more like reeducation camp literature than entertainment.

His dialog in particular reminds me (stylistically, not politically) of Ayn Rand, although she was a completely mediocre writer, while Robinson at least has some basic narrative skill.

Too bad, because his ideas are interesting and his forecasting provocative.

If only he'd separate his manifestos from his stories, rather than try to cram his politics down his reader's throats.
Eli Bishop
4. EliBishop
Rationalist: I find that comparison pretty strange; empathy is one of Robinson's most notable qualities, and I can't think of any way in which his dialogue resembles Rand's stylistically. I mean, his characters do talk about political issues, but that's because that's part of what the story is about-- it's not a matter of style.
5. Bhrymm
A note, Banks' Culture Novels are not far future. The first one, Consider Phlebas takes place around 1300 AD. In a later novel they visit Earth circa the 1970's and study it.
Stefan Raets
6. Stefan
@1. TK1123 - Thanks for reminding me of Pauline's story! Wish I'd had time to re-read the trilogy before tackling 2312. The dialogues with Pauline are some of the funniest moments in the novel - and often very meaningful, e.g. the section about aporia.

@5. Bhrymm. Sure, but they feel far future, probably because they use the concepts and tropes of far future SF so brilliantly. Despite the connections to our timeline, I'd say that they feel more like far future SF than most other novels/series placed in that category. And anyway, even with CP taking place around 1300 AD, other novels take place well into the future from that point. As I understand it, the timeline extends well into (our) 30th century. I'm not sure if 1000 years from now would qualify as far future either - in which case I go back to my first point. :)
7. originalsibling
The one thing I really find frustrating about this book is that it's an *almost*-Mars Trilogy sequel. He borrows sooooo much from the Mars books (not only the way Terminator moves around Mercury on rails, but the Venus terraforming process, the fully-terraformed Mars, the long-life treatment, the "Accelerando" (which doesn't really get explained the first couple of times he uses it)) that you might well be lost if you *haven't* read them, but here and there he makes it clear that this isn't the same universe.

I haven't quite finished it, but I'm not sure if separating this book from the Mars series really serves any purpose, other than to try to keep people who haven't read the Mars books from hesitating before buying it. (As I said, I suspect they should; the Mars books are a good pre-read, whether or not they're directly connected.)
Stefan Raets
8. Stefan
@7 - KSR actually answered my question concerning the issue you mentioned (in your first paragraph) during the interview I recently conducted with him. If you're interested, you can read it on my site.
9. TK1123
Having just finished it, I was struck by two major, competiting trains of thought. The first is that KSR can convey what it is like to be inside a particular head with what I think is really unequalled skill in SF- both in the description of the landscapes through which they travel and the messy thoughts which they evoke. He takes us places with people, in a fashion that always strikes me as intensely intimate, and I can't think of anyone else in the genre (or many out) that can accomplish the same. The time spent in the utilidor, and in the Canadian wilds (or re-wilds) and in some of the terraria are amongst the tightest character writing I've read in a long time.

At the same time though, I didn't feel like I'd received an adequate dose of the blend of gravity, awe, and strangeness I'd come to crave from KSR novels, even those set in (comparably) mundane surroundings on modern Earth. Characters in 2312 are able to mix and match sexual identities, morphologies, and parts at will, but the result didn't seem to produce a culture even as peculiar as Antarctica, and certainly not as intriguing as his tall, gregarious Martians. In the same vein, the battles driving the plot of 2312 struck me as uncharacteristically thin. In Years of Rice and Salt, the opponents are the basic markers of history- injustice, and the inteeruption of good work and good lives by death. In the Mars Trilogy, the list of antagonists is endless- baggage from Earth, baggage from their prior dealings with each other, mental illness and debility, age, klepto-capitalism, war, the hostility of nature, the relative ease of bad habits of all kinds- and the grind through them all is both contemplative and wildly hopeful. The basic thread in 2312, where Bad People set Bad Things in Motion, was so much thinner, and resolved so much more tidily, that I spent a fair portion of the book expecting the revelations about the qubes and qubans to ignite a much more introspective discussion about what we consider to be a thing and what we consider to be a person, and the ensuing questions of fairness, justice, etc., and the conversations that could have tilted that direction were uncharacteristically stiff, both for KSR and for a culture where people have been walking around with autonomous natural-language computers implanted in their skulls for decades.

Don't get me wrong, however- I enjoyed it tremendously. As always, there were passages that I had to read five times just to roll around in the poetry before moving on. I recognized his characters in the people around me and within myself. His settings and the forces within them manage to walk a line between fatalistic eco-grunge and shiny transhumanist fever dream that actually bears some resemblance to the contrasts we witness in the real world and can expect to see in the future. The man writes a hell of a book.

Maybe I just still miss the First Hundred.
10. Jeffrey Ehrnman
Just like this passage..

I'm reading a recent Sci-Fi novel titled "2312", By Kim Stanley Robinson, and I feel compelled to share a small portion of page 177... no copyright infringements intended....
"'Then we die. Our bodies return to earth, go back to being soil. A natural cycle. So..." She looked up at him "So what? Why the horror? What are we?" Wahram shrugged. "Animal philosophers. An odd accident. A rarity." "Or as common as can be, but-" She didn't continue. "Dispersed?" Wahram ventured. "Temporary?" "Alone. Always alone. Even when touching someone." - Swan

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