I wrote this review from a hotel room in Nowhereville, Colorado, while stranded for 2 days and 3 nights, our transmission having died on our way home from a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. Published in Perihelion Science Fiction, August 2013
Skirting the Edges of Engagement
HARD SCIENCE IS STRANGELY HARD to find in today’s speculative fiction, but Kim Stanley Robinson delivers it like a smashed birthday party piñata in his 17th novel, “2312.” A snow-globe city on rails outruns the sun each day on Mercury. Asteroids, hollowed out and converted into human habitats, convey people to and from colonies throughout the solar system, and the life span is now 200 years. Augmented humans download body apps that range from a talking internal computer to purring vocal cords, songbird implants, and “double lock and key” genitals. The novel is a riveting yet revolting feast of fun ideas, with one missing element: the power of story to engage the reader. Rarely have I worked so hard to slog through 500 pages full of fascinating futuristic concepts and startling images.
The opening scene is vivid and shocking. Robinson’s prose explodes with adjectives to celebrate sunrise on Mercury. Crazed sunwalkers, clad in space suits, walk the rocky surface just to feast their eyes on the fantastic dance of the corona, a perpetual snarl of hot and hotter, a thunderhead of fire burning furiously, with long spicules of flame, and “shifting whirlpools in the storms of burning.” Watchers of the Mercurial dawn sometimes become entranced and watch until their retinas burn; some are blinded, killed, or even “cooked in groups of a dozen or more”—and so we should worry about Swan Er Hong, our heroine, who “skirts the edge of safety” and runs in giant low-g (low gravity) leaps, a “little booted silver ant,” barely making it in time to the city on rails before it outruns the apocalypse of the morning sun.
If this doesn’t convince us Swan is a heroine like no other, she also runs with wolves, howls, hunts, and poaches a rabbit for dinner in one of the traveling terrariums she has designed for human habitat and preservation of Earth’s species. Swan is one of the “spacers” who abandoned poor, dirty Earth to colonize other planets in our solar system. Earth’s masterpieces of art have been copied, the originals sent to museums on other planets for safe keeping. And so feral, outdoorsy, terrarium-designing Swan also appreciates art exhibits and Beethoven concerts on Mercury.
Joining her on Mercury is a big, froggy man she dislikes at first sight, Fitz Wahram from Titan. He shares Swan’s grief over the death of Alex, a beloved leader from upper management, but strives to shield Swan from the danger of “knowing”—i.e., Alex died because she knew something. This gives Swan additional reasons to dislike Wahram, but the toad-man can whistle whole scores of Beethoven, which helps pass time after a terrorist attack leaves Swan and Wahram walking for weeks on end in a tunnel. With “a bit of lark in her brain” she whistles along with him. The end of the long, musical walk through the tunnel spells the end of a newly formed habit, and Wahram delivers pages of interesting, autistic views of habits, or as he describes them, pseudoiteratives. His conflicted feelings for the difficult, reckless, augmented Swan make him an endearing hero, but this is no romance novel. Wahram brings Swan home to meet his family, casually introducing her to his wife—and to his husband, who used to be his wife, but they can’t seem to remember who is who in the multi-sexed “family.” Instead of a romantic come-together scene for Swan and Wahram, what follows is a clinical account of sex between two dimorphic humans.
If the romance angle is clinical, so is the “whodunit” of Alex’s death and the attack on Terminator, the traveling city. It took a hundred pages for this novel to provide a surprising plot twist with the introduction of Kiran, a young man Swan impulsively whisks from Earth, illegally and in secret. It takes another hundred pages for him to show up again. He does serve the plot, ultimately, though the plot is a bit like a wardrobe rod from which Robinson hangs his futuristic ideas and outbursts of purple prose. His love of classical music, literature, art, sex, physics, biology and the universe in general push this story like an overloaded train across the narrative tracks. The novel is freighted with facts, statistics and glorious anecdotes about our little blue planet, third from the sun—and if those words sound familiar, let me credit the group Five-Man Electrical Band. Robinson borrows lines such as “when you’re strange” by The Doors and paraphrases “hope is the thing with feathers,” perhaps trusting that all readers know their Emily Dickinson, as well as variations on Eliot: “the center had not held; things fell apart.”
Robinson and his characters just can’t help but love stupid, selfish humanity with all its feelings, flaws and achievements. Robinson glories in the kind of scientific “what ifs” that this genre is known for. Smartphones were first seen on “Star Trek,” driverless cars in “Blade Runner.” If today’s technology shows the influence of Frank Herbert, Gene Roddenberry, and Philip K. Dick, Asimov, Heinlein, and Verne, then we can only hope some of Robinson’s visions come to life in future generations. A talking computer inside our heads? Sign me up for the app. I’ll pass on the extra genitals, thank you, but yes, yes, yes to Mercury and the domed city that travels like a train around the planet closest to our sun. And if, heaven forbid, alarmist ideas about global warming should come to pass, and a Noah’s Ark of animals must be parachuted down for a “rewilding” of the Earth, you can sell me a ticket to watch.
“2312” is a nominee for the 2013 Hugo Awards. Robinson is a winner when it comes to the science and special effects, but not page-turning suspense and characters a reader can identify with. How does Swan outwit the villains, in the end? Does she ultimately defeat them, or is the door wide open for a sequel? Aside from a box of eyeballs (what the heck!) and a plot involving small pebbles versus high tech (a bit derivative of “Star Wars” and the Ewoks), the answers didn’t interest me. Then I saw a Facebook meme—“Three words for a writer: Make me care”—and understood what had gone wrong in this novel. (“2312,” Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit) — Carol Kean