2312, Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2012, 576 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-09812-0

I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half doing things other than reading voraciously, and as a result I’m not as up-to-date on the state of written Science-Fiction as I used to be.  Gone are the days when I could read a just-published book and justifiably call it one of the year’s best: Now I’m not even keeping up with the slate of Hugo-nominated novels.  Years ago, I would have read Robinson’s 2312 within a week of publication: Now, I’m belatedly coming to it after it winning the Nebula and being on the Hugo short-list.  But then again, years ago I would have given it unqualified praise.  Now, with a bit of perspective, I have a few doubts to share.

The good news, without any doubt, is that 2312 showcases Robinson in heavy-duty Science Fiction futurism mode, harkening back (sometimes ironically) to Robinson’s Mars trilogy.  It’s the kind of sweeping mid-future tour of the Solar System that makes up the core of the written SF genre, and yet seems so rare nowadays.  It’s a vision of the future that’s big and grand and optimistic and filled with complexities.  It’s a big fat novel designed to show ideas –there’s a plot somewhere in the novel, but it’s not nearly as important as seeing our protagonists experience life circa 2312.

Our protagonist is Swan, an impulsive artist/ecodesigner who gets involved in a system-wide investigation following the death of her grandmother and an attack on her Mercurian home-city.  She soon comes to spend a lot of time with Fitz Wahram, a cool diplomat who is in many ways opposite to her personality.  This fire-and-ice romance ends up being one of the book’s plot driver, the other being the quest to unearth a conspiracy designed at taking over the various political entities of the Solar System. 

But reading 2312 for the plot (or the strangely off-putting characters) is a bit of a waste when the novel seems to be built around experiential set-pieces.  The novel is structured as a series of episodes as Swan makes her way throughout the Solar System, living life to its fullest by taking advantage of the various opportunities offered to her.  She hears opera on Mercury, surfs Saturn’s ice-rings, drops animals over the Canadian wilderness, and runs with the wolves within traveling asteroids.  There are a lot of big ideas on display along the way (some of them recycled and updated from previous Robinson works, such as the roving city of Terminator), facilitated by the explicit encyclopedic passages that are an essential chunk of the structure of the novel. (Thanks, John Dos Passos!)

For seasoned SF fans and Robinson enthusiasts, it’s hard to read the book without missing the various shout-outs to classic SF works dropped without ceremony in the text itself.  There’s a self-referential bit of plotting in that for a writer best known for his Mars trilogy, Robinson never allows his system-spanning plot to go on Mars except at the very ending of the novel, once the conflicts and contradictions have been resolved.  Anyone familiar with Robinson’s work will also see that the characters’ hobbies (in particular their tendency to go trekking in the wilderness at the slightest opportunity) seems to be a direct extension of the author’s interests.

You can see what kind of reception this core-genre SF book may receive.  Seasoned old-school Science Fiction fans are likely to love this book.  It feels like an updated and beefed-up version of the kind of plot-light futuristic travelogues that Arthur C. Clarke did so well thirty years ago, or the kind of solar-system tour of wonders that John Varley attempted in his heyday.  It’s a kind of SF that feels familiar, comfortable and positively inspiring after the genre’s recent fascination with the apocalypse in all of its forms.  I have no qualms to state that I loved most of 2312 and wish that they would be many more SF novels in the same vein.  Robinson can be a frustratingly uneven writer, but this novel is one of his good ones.

On the other hand…

Reading the online chatter about the book has been both illuminating and exasperating.  For every bad review where the reader approached the book antagonistically, there has been comments reminding me that Robinson’s aims with 2312 are centered at a fairly narrow group of core-SF readers.  Info-dumps are features for the kind of readers Robinson is writing for, but I can see why more casual readers may be put off.  Heck, Robinson’s interests aren’t exactly mine, and when his characters go out of their way to enjoy pastimes typical of wealthy educated left-leaning upper-middle-class Californians, it’s hard not to feel left out or, worse, feel that this shiny view of the future doesn’t necessarily reflect everyone else’s.

This idea ties into the “irrefragable Africa” passage that so rightfully annoyed and enraged some readers.  To sum up the controversy: In the middle of a Solar System bustling with activity, Robinson’s protagonist goes to Earth (where things are usually bad, as the planet staggers under the impact of global climate change and entrenched political/economic systems), and then to Africa where she finds herself stymied by a continent that seemingly refuses help from well-meaning richer people.  She leaves in frustration, concluding that Africa is forever doomed to act against its own self-interest despite the righteous intervention of people who (from the protagonist’s perspective) know much better.

It’s hard to know where to begin in taking down this small piece of the novel.  Perhaps by pointing out the terrible legacy of colonialism and then the neo-colonialism that took its place?  Perhaps by pointing out that this vision of a self-defeating Africa ignores the real and tangible progress being made continent-wide for the past few decades?  Perhaps by reminding first-world readers that their hopes and aspirations should not be imposed on a continent?  Robinson gets half-points for mulling that all of Earth in 2312 is just as self-defeating, but he should understand that he’s writing at a time where SF’s shortcomings in matters of class, inclusiveness, racism and sexism are under intense scrutiny.  Any slip-up is likely to be criticized, let alone a spectacularly dumb passage like this one, which feels like a rich Californian punching down at a less-privileged target. 

This, in turn, easily leads to a contemplation of the current state of the Science Fiction genre.  I have an awful suspicion that 2312 may be one of the last big hurrah of the genre at it used to exist, in particularly the WASP Southern-California school of SF as it shined most brightly in the 1970s and 1980s.  Writers such as Bear, Benford, Brin, Niven and Robinson: save for Robinson, who has earned some general literary renown, most of those writers aren’t the dominant voices they used to be.  Science Fiction is changing profoundly and rapidly, shattering in a million pieces that reflect the increasing diversity of its authorship and audience.  We should be welcoming this change for the better SF it brings, but at the same time it’s becoming obvious that some of the older guard is having trouble keeping up. 

2312 wouldn’t have earned half the disappointed comments it got had it not explicitly positioned itself at the cutting edge.  It’s supposed to be as inclusive a vision of the future as it can be (and for his slip-ups, Robinson has at least presented a joyously polymorphous future when it comes to gender and sexual preferences), meaning that it invites non-inclusiveness criticism by default.  I may think that Robinson has done a pretty good job –but then again I’m pretty close to Robinson’s demographic profile.  It may take another kind of writer to write about a future that acknowledges and celebrates a greater audience.  And as I read less and less SF, it dawns on me that it may take another kind of reader to best appreciate it.

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