“Out of this jumbled superposition of different kinds of temporal models History does in fact emerge––as a work of art, like any other work of art, but made by everyone together.”
“Really the question became quite philosophical; how to be? What to care about? And how to become a little less solitary?”
Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is a work of SF that is consistently impressive, often somewhat clunky and occasionally glorious. It is a big book about big things, as the quotes above might suggest. It tells of a plausible human future 300 years from now, in which the Solar System is largely colonized and in the process of massive terra-forming, thousands of hollowed-out asteroids carry various biomes across space and Earth is suffering the consequences of a dire ecological catastrophe. Its many nations are still bickering and dithering (in fact, one of the interim periods between our time and the fictional present is called “The Dithering”), with China as the top political dog whose influence extends far and wide in space. The Solar System itself is heavily balkanized: Mars has emerged as one of the most powerful entities, Venus is being actively terra-formed to open up its vast potential, Mercury, the Jovian and Saturnine moons are themselves separate players in the intricate tapestry. All of them pursue their intrinsic historical, political and aesthetic agendas. To make things even more complicated, powerful classic AIs and new ones reliant on quantum computation (qubes) have become a significant factor in the management of humanity.
2312 is about all of that and more. What holds the narrative strands together and binds them into a meaningful alloy is an extraordinary love story, one which Jeff Vandermeer called “a love song to the survival of humanity”. Indeed, the relationship between Swan Er Hog and Fitz Wahram is a rare thing. It oscillates between extremes throughout the novel, evolves, explores itself, seeks meaning. And what is most wonderful about it – it is never formulaic and avoids clichéd narrative shortcuts. No love-from-first-sight episodes when the characters “just know stuff”, no damsels in distress, no hackneyed dialogue. No, predictability is not a characteristic of this one, which may well be among the best love stories in SF.
Swan Er Hog. A native of Mercury. Former asteroid biome designer, now artist. Quicksilver, mercurial, bipolar, often just mad. Scattered throughout the book there are various “Lists”, many of them detailing aspects of Swan’s life. One of those comprises all the mental abnormalities that characterize her. It runs for at least a full page. Many of those abnormalities are not naturally induced.
“Yes. And I am Swan Second Swan. But I’m not monogamous.”
“No. Except I’m faithful to endorphins.”
That is our Swan. Over a century and a third old, but still very much an Alice in Wonderland:
“Just like my head!” Swan said without thinking, and laughed painfully. “Every time I grow a new one it’s not quite where I thought it was.”
The beginning of the novel sees Swan on her home planet, dazed by the sudden death of her grandmother and favorite person – Alex, the Lion of Mercury. The event forces Swan to look beyond her life of art making and sunwalking in the traveling city of Terminator and to travel extensively across the Solar System in search for answers and a new self.
Fitz Warham. Native of Titan, a moon of Saturn. Pensive, slow, a creature of habit. Saturnine.
“So what about you? What do you do to occupy your time?
“I think,” he said promptly.
“And that’s enough for you?”
He glanced at her. “There’s a lot to think about.”
Wahram is a diplomat that worked together with Swan’s Alex on secret projects that might determine the future course of humanity, as well on an investigation of a strange new breed of qubes. He is described as a “frog man”: “prognathous, callipygous, steatopygous, exophthalmos–toad, newt, frog–even the very words were ugly”; with a “gravelly voice… froggy, yes, but relaxed, deep, thick… like a bassoon or a bass saxophone.” Wahram is a connoisseur of music and art, timid in his encounters with what is new and unexpected. They make a strange couple with Swan and because of that the gradual coalescence of their mutual feelings into something more is all the more forceful.
Swan&Wahram. They first meet on Mercury, then on the Saturnian moons, on Earth, Venus, on many of the asteroid biome-starships flitting between human worlds. They argue, fight, negotiate with the powers-that-be, go to concerts, struggle for survival, whistle songs together in underground utility corridors. The innermost planet of the habitable Solar System, drenched in Sun, and the outermost one, cold and dependent on the import of light; life on both of them operates according to complex and fragile dynamics. The alchemy between Swan and Wahram becomes symbolic of the human condition, namely because KSR has not opted to simplify it, to follow well-trodden generic paths. Their love unfolds slowly and sometimes improbably, thus mirroring the historical processes that 2312 examines.
“You’ve done some strange things to yourself.”
She made a face and looked away. “Moral condemnation of other people is always rather rude, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I do. Of course. Though I notice we do it all the time. But I was speaking of strangeness only. No condemnation implied.”
“Oh sure. Strangeness is so good.”
“Well, isn’t it? We’re all strange.”
Indeed. Beautifully so.
It’s a wonderful lens to view a world through and the world of 2312 is worth viewing. KSR has created a vision of the future that is believable, awe-inspiring and scary at the same time. The descriptions of the Sun rising over Mercury, of Saturn and Venus, of Earth itself are stunning. The spacers’ reactions to Earth are especially powerful:
“The blue itself was complex, narrow in range but infinite within that range. It was an intoxicating sight, and you could breathe it–one was always breathing it, you had to. The wind shoved it into you! Breathe and get drunk, oh my, to be free of all restraint, minimally clothed, lying on the bare surface of a planet, sucking in its atmosphere as if it were an aqua vitae, feeling in your chest how it kept you alive! No Terran she had ever met properly appreciated their air, or saw their sky for what it was. In fact they very seldom looked at it.”
“Here they were, on the only planetary surface on which you could walk freely, naked to the wind and the sun, and when they had a choice, they sat in boxes and stared at littler boxes, just as if they had no choice–as if they were in a space station–as if the bad old days of the caged centuries had never gone away. They didn’t even look up at the stars at night.”
2312 is not your typical space novel that hungrily anticipates the future and the ever accelerating expansion reaching toward the stars. Instead, it looks inward, to our home planet and its maladies. It asks questions and offers solutions – some of those as pertinent now as they are in 2312. There is a scene in the book, taking place on Earth, that will shake you with its bittersweet beauty. You will know the one when you come across it.
Of course, the problems of that future humanity are not localized on Earth only. 2312 employs the pseudo documental technique of Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar to delineate the infinite intricacies of the fictional world. The numerous “Extracts” from encyclopedias and books provide snapshots of an ever developing historical reality, or rather illusions that pose as reality. In addition to history, politics, terra-forming, ecology, the novel is interested in art, consciousness, quantum computation, gender. It is full of references, some explicit and others not entirely so, to important thinkers and artists, such as Beethoven, Ghandi, Derrida, The Doors, Ballard, Proust, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin… It is also rich in science but does not enshrine the scientific method as some kind of almighty god, as some hard SF is wont to do. On the contrary, it seeks synthesis, questions the very possibility of such an act:
“Do history, philosophy, cosmology, science and literature each claim to constitute the totality, an unexpandable horizon beyond which we cannot think?… Is the totality simply praxis, meaning what we do with ourselves and our world? Is there no such thing as totality, but only convergence? Convergence of all our fields of thought into human actions?”
2312 understands that unity should come from diversity and seems to believe that humanity will also come to understand that:
“principle categories of self-image for gender include feminine, masculine, androgynous, gynangdromorhpous, hermaphroditic, androgynous, bisexual, intersex, neuter, eunuch, nonsexual, undifferentiated, gay, lesbian, queer, invert, homosexual, polymorphous, poly, labile, berdache, hijra, two-spirit,
cultures deemphasizing gender are sometimes referred to as ursuline cultures, origin of term unknown, perhaps referring to the difficulty there can be in determining the gender of bears”
“Balkanized love” refers to a situation in which affection, child rearing, sex, lust, cohabitation, family, and friendship have all been delinked from each other and reconfigured as affect states, just as individuals and societies have been”
The novel shirks from that overoptimistic belief of much of SF that the mysteries of life are simply there for the taking, waiting to be solved. It sees many of those as nuts much too hard to crack in the foreseeable future. Such are the problems of death and consciousness that remain mysteries to the end, although they constitute much of the book’s conceptual meat. However, 2312 acknowledges that in the core of what is human lie our curiosity and penchant for problem-solving. In our struggle against entropy there will always be paths that are open to us, even when we are not ready for most them and the end seems ever closer and ultimately inevitable:
“The body tries to stay alive. It’s not so… It’s natural. Maybe you’ll see it now. First the human brain dies, then the animal brain, then the lizard brain. Like your Rūmī, only backwards. The lizard brain tries to its very last bit of energy to keep things going. I’ve seen it. Some kind of desire. It’s a real force. Life wants to live. But eventually a link breaks. The energy stops getting to where it needs to be. The last ATP gets used. Then we die. 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.”
I know I went a bit too far with the quotes in this review. 2312, though, is insanely ramified, hard to write about and on the whole speaks best for itself. KSR’s writing is at times perfectly-suited to his purposes, at others not quite. My chief problem with it was its frequent opaqueness when it comes to the characters’ points-of-view. Their accounts of what is happening are too often reminiscent of a travelogue instead of fiction. They provide vivid and up-to-the-point descriptions, which, however, do not always allow access to their own psychological make-up. In other words, they feel like reports, not like entry points into the principles that drive the narrative agents. Thus, the reader is often locked out of the fictional minds, forced to interpret their consciousness from oblique and sometimes imagined hints. I can’t say whether this was KSR’s intention – to report this world deliberately in such a way – or whether he just writes like that. The lists and extracts and countless details are more than interesting, only at times 2312 feels like one giant list:
“In the town itself (slate roofs, wood beams crossing plaster walls in standard pseudotudor) there was a large park, with a big smooth lawn, actually another of the topiarist’s masterpieces: the grass of this lawn was not simply grass, but also very fine alpine meadow grasses, sedges, and mosses, in a dense mix that also included a number of tiny low alpine ground cover flowers, including bilberry, moss campion, aster, and saxifrage, all together creating a millefleur effect that made it like walking over a living Persian carpet.”
Had it not been for Swan, Wahram and their marvelous interaction, the novel might have easily collapsed.
KSR’s writing style has other flaws, too. For one, he has a rather unhealthy devotion to adjuncts, leading to awkward phrasing such as: “causing the others to cackle muffledly into their napkins” or “spinning bluely in spaces like some telenovela.” But then again, he frequently pens extraordinary, though a bit wordy, images:
“Even problems officially solved sometimes still had a haunting quality, because of things that didn’t quite fit, didn’t seem right–and if a solution never was found, the problem became part of the insomniac rosary, one bead in a Moebius bracelet of beads wearily fingered in the brain’s sleepless hours.”
I realize that I have written and quoted much, without really letting you know what 2312 is about. Truth is, I’m not sure that I know myself. Which is rather a good thing, as the novel is open-ended, polyvalent, reluctant to fit stuff into narratives in order to simplify. I think it tries really hard to be more like life than like literature and I have to say it succeeds surprisingly often. I’m not sure I prefer this to literature but I most definitely like KSR’s approach to the future. He has crafted an artifact that encourages thinking and imagining, considering a lot of parallel constraints and possible solutions, staying a realist but never refusing to dream big. To quote the book one last time: “It isn’t being post human, it’s being fully human.” I would like to see much more of that. A little of, say, Dan Simmons’s character-centered evocativeness would be great, but even a little dry as it is, 2312 is magnificent.