Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (Orbit 2012)
I picked this fabulous book up from our local street library, and it was a perfect fit for my personal tradition of reading a big SF novel over the end-of-year break.
According to Wikipedia, Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for his Mars trilogy. I read the Red Mars (1992) and Green Mars (1993) decades ago. Though I loved them, was totally absorbed in their world, and felt that I was learning a lot about the practicalities of space travel, the realistic possibilities for terraforming Mars, and the opportunities for new political beginnings provided by leaving the Earth, I somehow didn’t get around to Blue Mars (1996). Now I don’t know if I ever will, because 2312 takes up the story some centuries later.
This novel begins on the surface of Mercury, where the domed city of Terminator moves on rails, staying always in darkness, because the direct heat from the sun would devastate the city and kill any living thing. There are ‘walkers’, who stay outside the city and by walking briskly remain just ahead of the dawn, though they will often turn back to watch the first flames of the sun spread across the eastern horizon, and (most of them, most of the time) tear themselves away from the spectacle before destroying their retinas or worse – much worse.
And so it goes. Mars is long-established. Earth, the sad planet, still recognised as humanity’s home, is as strife-torn and irrational as ever. Venus and some of Saturn’s moons have been settled, and any number of asteroids have been hollowed out to make space ships, known as terraria. Every settlement and every asteroid has its own distinctive qualities and challenges, and the passage of time has meant humans have begun to diverge: there are smalls, and rounds, and talls. Most spacers live for more than a century, and most have had some form of gender modification surgery – because it has been discovered that gender fluidity (not the term they use) increases the human lifespan significantly.
At every moment it feels as if Kim Stanley Robinson has lived in the world of the novel. It’s an amazing feat of imagination. We see how the light falls on the surface of Mercury, we feel the heat on Io, we struggle with the effect of Earth’s gravity after living so lightly on Mercury. We look about with wonder at the stars as we float, marooned in space.
There’s a lot of hard SF. Between the mostly short chapters of story there are numbered sections labelled ‘Extract’, which comprise fragments from texts explaining the science or history behind events: instructions on how to terraform an asteroid, the science of longevity, ‘human enhancement’, and so on.
There’s a romance, about which I’ll say only that it’s unexpected but (to me at lest) completely convincing. There’s a mystery, involving quantum computers (‘qubes’), organised crime and political skulduggery. There are loose threads, whose effect isn’t so much to make us want a sequel as to reassure us that this world will continue after the book ends. There are music, and microscopic alien life forms, and huge explosions.
This future world has cultural tendrils reaching back to our time and beyond. Andy Goldsworthy and Marina Abramović have become lower-case names for art forms. Emily Dickinson is quoted at a climactic moment; Beethoven animates more than one key scene; Philip Glass recurs. There are lovely snippets, like this:
After a while she said, ‘Mozart’s pet starling once revised a phrase he wrote. The bird sang it after he played it on the piano, but changed all the sharps to flats. Mozart described it happening in the margin of the score. “That was beautiful!” he wrote. When the bird died, he sang at its funeral, and read a poem to it. And his next composition, which the publisher called A Musical Joke, had a starling style.’(Page 158)
There are moments that remind us that Kim Stanley Robinson is an environmental activist:
Obviously most in the bar felt they were only helpless observers of a giant drama going on above their heads, a drama that was eventually going to suck them down into its maelstrom, no matter what they said or wanted. Better therefore to drink and talk and sing and dance until they were stupid with exhaustion and ready for a stagger through the early-morning streets(Page 387)
There’s an account of life on Earth, as seen by the Mercurial protagonist, Swan Er Hong, on a visit:
The dead hand of the past, so huge, so heavy. The air seemed a syrup she had to struggle through. Out in the terraria one lived free, like an animal – one could be an animal, make one’s own life one way or another. Live as naked as you wanted. On the God-damned Earth the accumulated traditions and laws and habits made something that was worse than any body bra; it was one’s mind that was held in place, tied in straitjackets, obliged to be like all the others in their ridiculous boxed habits. 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. Walking among them, she saw that it was so. Indeed if they had been people who were interested in the stars they would not have still been here. There overhead stood Orion at his angle, ‘the most beautiful object any of us will ever know in the world, spread out on the sky like a true god, in whom it would only be necessary to believe a little.’ But no one looked.(Page 387)
As far as I know, there is no sequel to 2312. But New York 2140 (2017) and Red Moon (2018) look as if they belong on the same universe. Perhaps the former gives the history behind 2312‘s images of Manhattan as a city of canals as a result of sea-level rises. Maybe it can be my big SF book next December.