Saturday, January 03, 2015

Review: 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson

In the story of 2312, the emotional world of a gentle young acolyte explodes open when he discovers an ancient musical instrument in the caves outside Megadon city, under the twin moons of his home planet.  But, deterred by Father Brown and the other Temple priests, he suffers a mental breakd--

Oh shit.  Wait.  No, I'm describing the progressive rock epic, 2112.  The science fiction novel, 2312 is set a couple hundred years later.  Obviously.

It (the novel) primarily serves as a wide-angle view of life in the civilized solar system that takes place on almost all the other planets of the solar federation.  It's conveyed mosaic-like, primarily filled with point-of-view character sections, soaring across diverse geography, liberally broken up with creative lists, encyclopedia entries, interpretations of contemporary art forms, and highlights from historical documents.  (I'd bet that Mr. Robinson has also enjoyed a John Dos Passos phase.)

The year 2312, in Robinson's history, is a pivotal one.  The plot is... well, there is a plot, I guess.  The story begins with an attack on the primary human settlement on Mercury.  Swan Er Hong and Fitz Wahram, our two protagonists, are connected in different ways to one of extended humanity's key independent political and scientific groups, and in that capacity, they chase the whodunit clues around the solar system.  I believe that, plot-wise, the effect is meant to be one of various paths intersecting, showcasing kind of an inflection point between the ages in that titular, and no solid climax is really intended.  That's fine, but it's centered on a mystery and a chase, and that motor doesn't propel things forward worth a damn--seriously, I recall finding myself 200 pages in, trying to catalogue whether any movement toward solving the central mystery had occurred at all--and even by the end of the book, all that's really revealed is that the human sphere is a little bigger than realized, and that there are new factions in it, with different motivations. 

But for all that, it's not an unpleasant traipse.  Robinson's schtick, as I understand things, is environmentally-themed sf.  If we presuppose that human capability could advance so far, then how the heck could it be done?  I believe that 2312 takes place in the same continuity as his more famous Mars trilogy (probably why it's skirted here in favor of everything else), in which Robinson took to task a plausible-within-known-physics approach to making the red planet habitable, complete with planet-scale engineering and challenging political ramifications.  (Or so I understand without having read them--this is a theme of interest to me, but with a new author, I preferred a standalone volume for an introduction.) 

2312 takes place in the century following an established Martian civilization.  Most of the rest of the system has been worked over similarly by that year, and Robinson takes care to describe how, in the case of each sterile alien desert, a stable human environment could conceivably be engineered, trucking nitrogen from Titan, for example, or cooling Venus and whacking it hard enough with celestial objects to give it a day.  And if people lived on that toxic, cataclysmic rock, then what would the transition be like?  Or could a city could thrive by constantly fleeing the blazing hellscape of Mercury's bright side?  How could small bodies could be turned into floating terraria of all varieties?  (Robinson creates a lot of cultural diversity in these outskirts, and he smirks at a lot of classic science fiction societies along the way.)  How could our own earth possibly be un-fucked?  Robinson really enjoys humanizing these landscapes (figuratively and literally), and he shows at least enough scientific grasp of ecology, and paints enough limitations and constraints, for me to suspend my disbelief.  Even in 2312, with the ability to shift matter throughout the system at will, humanity is starting to confront resource shortages.  And so it goes.

My disbelief in human cooperation was a little harder to suspend, though.  One problem for me is that his society me an unfortunate parallel with those John Varley Seven Worlds novels (which I love), which maybe didn't wrangle the angle of geological science in such a detailed way, but understood us hairless apes so very brilliantly, and that society spread hypothetically across the ecliptic plane was dysfunctional enough to accept.  Real governments and populations are so diverse and cloying--and Robinson worked at this, I realize, he was taking a good approach to express exactly this, but the locals were still not shown as stultifying enough or brutal enough to convince me they could overcome themselves.  Maybe it's just my cynicism: I can't convince myself that 20 billion of us would survive indefinitely in a state of high technology, even after extending the odds by moving into every abandoned shack in Sol's neighborhood and squeaking a few minor gods out of the machine.

Not to say Robinson's individual characters are unconvincing.  I liked them well enough, and they kept me reading.  I think he did succeed in creating very exotic and altered people who could, superseding every homer prejudice we would ordinarily have, be easily recognized as not only regular folks, but good, decent, and distinguishable ones.  Of course, if, before I invested in them, I had caught on that impulsive, self-destructive Swan was not only from Mercury but mercurial, and that patient, thoughtful Wahram, from Titan, was literally saturnine, I might have found it a hair too cute.  So I may have just ruined them for you, but it worked out for me.  In all, it was a enjoyable tour.


Inkberrow said...

What I like best about most ambitious science fiction is that old Ptolemy returns to glorious prominence, even if we have to call the midwife Harold Bloom.

Keifus said...

Well, except for the geocentrism thing. Epicycles, my ass.

Actually, I didn't realize those were astrological adjectives, although you think I mighta picked up on it back when I was reading about all that medieval and Renaissance science-through-occultism. (I always just thought they were straight from the mythological.) I think a good modern scientific argument could be made for a person being under the influence of heavenly bodies they happen to live on.