2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2012, 561p. Reviewed for Interzone 242, Sep-Oct 2012.

Note: this is not how the review appeared in Interzone. The post below is 650 words or so long. Due to a mix-up over Interzone’s move to a new page size their reviews editor had to cut 150 of these.

 The Intrusion cover

The Solar System has long been colonised; from asteroids inside the orbit of Mercury out to the mining of the Oort cloud. Earth is garlanded with space elevators and its billions of mainly impoverished inhabitants are resentful of the easier life they imagine spacers enjoy. The planet has succumbed to global warming – there is a nice vignette of an inundated New York as a kind of stalagmitic Venice (though I would have thought storms would have ravaged the skyscrapers quite quickly.) Terraformed asteroids – either hollowed out and spun up “innies” or tented over “outies” – provide habitats for the growth of food (much of which helps to supply Earth,) the preservation of animals now extinct on the home planet, or as spaceships for fast inter-system travel. Politically the structure is Balkanised with habitats jealously guarding their own interests and playing each against other. Humanity too is splintering as a proto-speciation of humans with different statures has developed as a result of the different living environments that abound. Medical advances mean limbs can be regrown, life span has increased, gender become more plastic. Quantum computer AIs known as qubes control many processes, some are utilised as wrist aids or even via head implants. 2312 has no lack, then, of Science-fictional ideas with which to tickle the sense of wonder. The characters’ longevity is almost incidental, though, as apart from not seeming to worry about their children they do not behave very differently from at present. Despite being well over one hundred they act as if they’re in their twenties or younger. This may be how long life spans affect us, of course.

The narrative follows four viewpoint characters; Swan Er Hong, a gynandromorph who lives on Mercury and whose grandmother’s death leads off the story; police Inspector Jean Genette, a so-called small; Fitz Wahram, an androgyn, and Kiran, a young earthman who rescues Swan from possible kidnapping on one of her visits to Earth. The – plot such as it is – hinges on whether or not the qubes are developing consciousness and designs of their own; even manifesting themselves as androids, possibly as terrorists. It is a feature of the narrative that we see the characters caught up in events, variously imperilled, but never quite at the centre of things; which is like life. This is not the usual mode in SF but none the less welcome for it.

Since his Mars trilogy Robinson has rarely borne his research lightly. Here the “story” chapters are variously separated by descriptions of eight (sub)planetary bodies/habitats, fifteen lists, eighteen extracts from an apparent history written well after the events of the novel and three “quantum walks.” It is a style which largely circumvents the crudities of information dumping by parading them as a strength. It is not an entirely new approach to the problem. Robinson credits John Dos Passos in his acknowledgements and, within SF, John Brunner employed a similar technique in Stand on Zanzibar.

In pursuit of this the novel ranges all over the solar system from Terminator, a city constantly on the move over the surface of Mercury, out to Io, back and forth to Earth, taking in Venus, Saturn’s cloud tops, Titan, Pluto and various interplanetary terraria, surfing the gravity wave on Saturn’s F ring along the way. The main fault with all this is that it can seem the narrative has been designed to show off the research. At one point Swan says, “All right. I will. But I’m going to take the long way there.” But she is, in our terms, old, and she has time.

Without these interpolations between the chapters, though, the book would have been much less impressive.

In 2312 plot and characterisation are not Robinson’s primary concern. It is the solar system – to which, as one of the interludes reminds us, humanity is bound by the vastness of interstellar space – that is his hero.

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