Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312 describes how life looks exactly 300 years in the future, when the combination of two major enabling technologies - space elevators on Earth, and self-replicating machinery – have enabled mankind to colonize the solar system. Being a “hard” scifi author (he writes stories that only depict realistic or potential extractions of current science), Robinson doesn't allow himself any faster than light travel, so this means that our nine planets consist of mankind’s final frontier. In this mix comes our two heroes: Swan, an artist/politician from Mercury, and Warham, a somewhat dour, frog-like Politian from Titan (one of Saturn’s moons). This odd couple are thrown together through a plot to help Earth overcome its political inertia and also a mysterious attack on Terminus, Mercury’s moving city, that may or may not involve intelligent quantum computers. They overcome their misunderstandings and different natures to forge a path forward in this distant future.
And what a future it is! Robinson throws lots of speculation at us - things like quantum computers, commonplace androgyny, surfing Saturn’s rings, and terraformed asteroids. These fascinating ideas are included as a matter of fact in the main narrative, and fleshed out in extreme detail via with minor chapters intertwined with the main narrative. They're like the minor chapters of Moby Dick except instead of being minor treatises, they’re fragments, feeling like you’re channel surfing past the history channel. Robinson pulled this blend of styles from dos Passos’ USA trilogy, in particular the 1st person stream-of-consciousness he assumes for his Quantum Walk chapters. In place of dos Passos’ Newsreels, we have fragments of histories, where little nuggets of facts or conjecture are dropped – just enough information so that we learn the details about this fascinating world, but not so much that we become bored or start feeling trapped in a textbook. It’s a canny way to approach the age-old problem of exposition in scifi.
However, as much as I loved this book, I can’t really say that I recommend it to a general reader. Despite all of its strengths, Robinson has a bit of a tin ear for character development, so the book can be slow going when Swan and Warham are talking to each other. In fact, their relationship – ostensibly the main focus of the book – pales at times against Robinson’s technological and historical ideas, which feel to be the book’s real heroes. After all, for all of its formal innovations, 2312 is also a book steeped in the traditions of SciFi, and so some aspects of the book may be lost on someone who hasn't read a lot of Science Fiction. If you read it with an open mind, I doubt you’ll be disappointed, but buyer beware. For what it’s worth, while I’m not sure it’s the best book I've read this year, it was certainly the most thought-provoking, inspiring, and also the one that’s stuck with me the longest. I’ll certainly be picking up more of Robinson’s work (probably his Mars Trilogy).
Saturn and Iapetus
First Lines of KSR's 2312