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"2312," by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Remember how about six weeks ago I did a post about Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, and mentioned that I might do off-topic book posts from time to time?

Well, with the off-night tonight, here's another one...if you're interested, after the jump you can read my thoughts on Kim Stanley Robinson's "2312."

Kim Stanley Robinson's "2312" was released on May 22 of this year. I pre-ordered it, downloaded it the day it was available, and finished reading it a few weeks ago. I had previously read Robinson's "Mars" trilogy, which was written as a realistic, "hard sci-fi" fictional treatment of the colonization and terraforming of Mars, and while I had some issues with the Mars trilogy, it was compelling enough to me that I wanted to read 2312 upon its release.

2312 is set in a different universe than the Mars trilogy, but there are a lot of similarities between the novels in terms of ideas, themes, and technology. In the book, the events take place in the year 2312, and the title takes its name from the year in the same way that a book might be titled "1793" or "1848" -- 2312 in this universe is a year looked back upon as a turning point in history, where the events described in the book changed humanity's course.

In the 2312 universe, humanity has settled on numerous planets, asteroids and moons throughout the solar system. Earth and Mars are the major powers in the system, but much of the novel takes place among a collection of semi-autonomous inter-dependent colonies and settlements referred to as the "Mondragon Accord." Robinson uses the Mondragon Accord as a mechanism for exploring an alternative, fairly utopian post-capitalist economic system. Naturally, there is a fair amount of bouncing around done by the main characters of the story throughout the solar system, with action taking place, among other places, on Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, moons of Saturn, in the "Vulcanoids" (a hypothesized band of asteroids with stable orbits believed to be located between Mercury and the Sun), and in various hollowed out asteroids which have been terraformed and given their own (very varied) ecosystems. 300 years in the future also sees humanity having developed greatly extended lifespans, tiny (but very powerful) quantum computers known as "qubes," alternatives to a binary gender system, and individuals whose maturation in space has resulted in them being either much smaller than Earth-normal humans ("smalls") or much larger ("talls").

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the main protagonist, Mercury native Swan Er Hong, and her efforts to carry on the conspiratorial work of her deceased grandmother -- the novel begins with the immediate aftermath of her passing -- along with the assistance of her grandmother's co-conspirators, including Wartham, a denizen of one of the moons of Saturn. Robinson said in an interview with Wired that the idea that fueled the book was of a story of a romance between a "mercurial" character and a "saturnine" character, and so he of course took the additional step of using Mercury and (a moon of) Saturn as their home worlds. However, while the book is 576 pages long, the plot itself could have been done in a novella...the plot of 2312 is ultimately just a flimsy framework to allow Robinson to explore the future he envisions. This isn't that uncommon a device -- Gore Vidal's "Creation" comes to mind as a book that is similar in that regard, with a thin plot used simply as a mechanism to transport its protagonist to the various farflung locations in the 5th century B.C. that Vidal was imagining -- but it is still frustrating when so much of the book seems ancillary to the plot.

One of the other issues I had with 2312 was that I found both the primary protagonists -- and in particular Swan Er Hong, the central character in the book -- not terribly likable. Swan embodies the "mercurial" personality to a degree that the primary emotion she evoked in me was irritation -- on multiple occasions, I wanted to reach through the pages and smack her. Wartham, meanwhile, was less irritating, but consistent with his embodiment of a "saturnine" personality, he was slow, methodical, somewhat was like reading about an Ent turned human. I had this same issue with Robinson's Mars trilogy, as I was reading 2312, it struck me that one of the flaws with the Mars trilogy was that the primary characters there were so unlikeable. I thought maybe I was misremembering or being too harsh, so I went to the Wikipedia page and read through the Mars trilogy's primary characters, and sure enough, I remembered correctly. Frank Chalmers, John Boone, Maya Toitovna, the members of the love triangle that is central to the first book? All annoying. Sax Russell and Ann Clayborne? Irritating. Hiroko Ai, the mystic agricultural leader? So totally annoying.

Another vexing trait the Mars trilogy and 2312 have in common is their pacing. One review of 2312 describes it as having a "very deliberate pace," which I think is something of an understatement. A significant portion of the book consists of nothing but Swan and Wartham walking underground through a featureless tunnel. Other sections of the book contain paragraphs that are little more than meditations or contemplations of irrelevant (to the plot) situations or surroundings. 2312 is much more about the journey than the destination, and Robinson wants to make sure that the reader has plenty of time to contemplate the scenery along the way. The Mars trilogy was much the same way...I remember reading through those books, and it seeming like there were countless pages of nothing happening other than a character roaming across the surface of the planet, alone with their thoughts, dwelling upon questions with no answers, while I waited Robinson to decide that was enough with the soul-searching and he was ready to move on to something else.

So...thin plot, slow pace, annoying characters. All that being said, as like the Mars trilogy, while I didn't love the book, I found it compelling reading. It kept my interest, and I feel it was worth my time to read it. As with the Mars trilogy, the possibilities that Robinson sees, the future world that he puts onto paper, was engrossing enough and fascinating enough for me to slog through the slow parts and forgive the flaws. I am a sucker for "hard sci-fi" that deals with humanity's potential to escape Earth's gravity well and settle elsewhere in the Solar System, and in both the Mars trilogy and in 2312, Robinson is able to make one believe that that is a realistic possibility. Reading 2312 makes me, at least, feel like colonizing the Solar System isn't science is inevitability. Maybe that's wishful thinking on my part...maybe 300 years from now, we'll be as locked down on the surface of Earth as we are now. I certainly hope that's not the case, though.

Robinson doesn't really paint a picture of a utopian future in 2312, particularly not as it relates to Earth, as he carries over many of the same political themes that he explored in the Mars trilogy into this new work. Robinson's vision of Earth in 2312 features a planet decimated by global warming, with sea levels rising 30 feet (putting much of New York, among other places, underwater) and many animals extinct or only existing in habitats created in specially terraformed asteroids. Capitalism is portrayed as anachronistic. Politics, both internal and external, appear malignant and omnipresent, while at the same time, personal freedoms are greatly expanded.

There are a lot of fascinating ideas in 2312. And as frustrating as it was to read at times, it is the sort of work that I find in a lot of ways inspirational. Its the type of thing that makes hope that I can somehow survive long enough to see us permanently establish settlements off of Earth, and spread, however slowly, towards the stars.