Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Apr 8th, 2020, 12:30 pm

Title: 2312
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Published: 2012
Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction, Hard SF
Rating: ★★★★

Purchase: Amazon
Mobilism: Mobilism

A case of cautious optimism for Homo sapiens in the year 2312.

A recommendation for those of you who enjoy hard science fiction and don't mind a slow narrative. When I say slow, I do mean slow, but that doesn't imply boring; it's a fascinating journey all the way through. In many ways, it reads like a docudrama for portions of the novel, even incorporating interludes that describe the solar system's natural bodies with amazing detail and flourish, and also fictional, historical excerpts highlighting sociopolitical and economic trends leading up to the year 2312. I'd say this is one of the few times I've read a science fiction novel that attempts to chart a really all-encompassing vision of man's status quo in, say, the reasonably far future.

Robinson writes well. He amalgamates figurative metaphors and scientific language with ease, a combination that consistently extracts a strong poetic flavour, and where the images produced fix on the mind with force. The almost haunting and mythic landscape of Mercury with its thrill-seeking trekkers that opens the novel really is vivid and memorable—it’s impossible not to feel in tune with those sun-walkers, insignificant specks as they are under the merciless gaze of a cosmological god. His use of language to describe natural environments strikes a primal chord and transports you directly to those otherworldly locations. The impression you glean is of a mature writer in command of his descriptive powers, and one who imbues his writing with an experienced, even graceful sensitivity. But where Robinson truly excels is in introducing a comprehensive set of ideas, a series of technological and sociological breakthroughs of a speculative nature that illuminate the sum total of man’s achievements. It’s this aggregate vision that staggers. It’s not about concentrating on a few ideas that could limit vision, but a holistic approach that works especially well via the aforementioned historical excerpts, “looking backward” to an earlier time as Edward Bellamy did toward the end of the 19th century with his Utopian treatise.

The story involves the protagonist journeying through the settled solar system to personally deliver messages in deference to the wishes of her recently deceased relative. This Grand Tour allows Robinson to paint broad vistas of space-faring, nearly post-scarcity societies that stretch from a Lagrange point between Sol and Mercury to beyond Saturn, even to isolated settlements as far out as the Kuiper Belt. Robinson outlines the complexities of these societies—from new market systems and governing bodies, changing family structures, art, a sexual revolution rooted in practicalities rather than the mood du jour, to the behavioural psychology of space-faring humans, quantum computing, and some truly epic terraforming endeavours. The sketches of these speculative ventures are a sober attempt rather than something lackadaisical, yet explained gently for the most part. The straightforward journey even reveals a mystery at its heart, the repercussions of which could affect the balance of power between space-faring blocs and Earth.

Robinson isn't concerned with sketching detailed psychological profiles of characters, either, so don't expect extensive characterisation. But, there is a great deal to admire in his subdued, spare treatment where appreciation for and bemusement with the protagonists can coexist in a pleasing equilibrium. These characters appear sympathetic, even romantic, whilst abstaining from unnecessary sentimentalism and without a delineation of every thought-process. Strangely, it's even a love story at its core albeit a very peculiar one built around a literary pun, with at least one character whose capricious nature is ill-suited to engendering empathy. What I really like is how the two principals' polarised personalities seem a metaphorical and rather intricate representation for humanity’s psyche in which they both struggle for optimal self-expression. Robinson illustrates this brilliantly through a recurring musical motif that ends up being one of the highlights of the novel for me. The discussion of Beethoven's symphonies vs. the free-form of birdsong is a fantastic analogy that showcases the fractured status quo existing between Spacers and Earth yet also pinpoints the strong potential for rapprochement.

The primary demerit to the work is a typically Robinsonesque propensity to condescend to Earth societies and structures, and he draws an unreasonably harsh picture of Earth here as the perennial sick man of space, wallowing in self-pity and mired in a plurality of old tensions and suspicions. A sad scenario for a sad planet that was too myopic to muster itself and plan for the future. This is tied in with a recurring and whiny undercurrent of complaints against free markets that cuts through much of Robinson's work in various iterations. Reasonable criticism of all ideologies and systems is welcome, but Robinson's inferences aren't always solid. Given his political worldview, the depiction of extra-Earth societies as economic powerhouses precisely because of their resources is particularly ironic.

But the connections inherent in the mind-set between Earth and her daughter societies are intricately drawn. He hones in on the ineluctable psychological and even physical ties to the home planet and the need for a solution to the factious nature of communities on Earth. This solution is of the utmost necessity for Robinson if whatever cumulative progress that has been achieved is not only to be maintained but to be truly taken to the next level. He leaves no doubt that human society attempting to subsist independently without any interaction with Earth is a fanciful idea, at best.

The few complaints notwithstanding, it's an impressive book that employs seemingly well-founded speculations on the state of an intrastellar, space-faring civilisation, and which is underscored by ostensibly cutting-edge scientific knowledge and expertise from a diverse range of other fields. Some of them are technological stretches albeit not outside the ambit of possibility, e.g. self-replicating factories, while others are ideas that have been taken seriously by the engineering community for at least fifty years, i.e. space elevators. It's also an understated thriller, presenting its mystery within the context of a big-budget, visually impressive future documentary whilst illuminating some of the sociopolitical and cultural tensions of our own antipodean times. Particularly notable is how 2312 seems to be a journey ("there and back again") that aims to conceptualise, potentially, some measure of harmony and closure for the human spirit and succeeds quite admirably in that endeavour, leaving you with an afterglow of wonder and a tentative optimism.
Apr 8th, 2020, 12:30 pm
May 23rd, 2020, 9:04 pm
It is excellent, I will read it
May 23rd, 2020, 9:04 pm