Orbit (May, 2012), Cover by Kirk Benshoff
Science fiction was always a large part of my ‘golden age’ of reading as Michael Dirda once put it, and I find it’s remained a large part of my adult life, too. I love it for its visions of the future. These prognostications are the essence of science fiction, even when they’re layered with large helpings of action, adventure and romance. They point to what’s possible, where the dangers lie, where human potentials can be fulfilled in ways unseen. They present a kaleidoscope of opportunities and pitfalls that haven’t yet crystalised and may never do so. The crux of it being that we know the possibility exists. Science fiction often charts out the relationships between man, society and the unknown, and that has always been a very powerful impetus.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) is just such a science fiction novel and one that comes close to eliciting the kind of wonder of my ‘golden age’ in this particular stage of my adult life. It’s not the first to have done so and it won’t be the last. It is, however, the most recent and impressive example in quite a long while.
2312 hits the cerebral front, but the effects do percolate down and quickly settle at a more primal level. Robinson is a particularly contemplative writer, keen on exploring the multitude of socio-economic and political nuances of his futures. This might partially explain my previous neglect of his works despite having enjoyed Icehenge and the Green Mars novella during my teens. Reading 2312 now felt like discovering Robinson anew. This time, I was ready to more fully appreciate what Robinson is capable of. And indeed, I find he’s capable of a great deal.
The first thing that strikes the reader is the prose. It’s not florid by any means, but Robinson seems to amalgamate figurative metaphors and scientific language with ease, a combination that consistently extracts a strong, poetic flavour. It’s very impressive, and the images produced fix on the mind with force. The haunting, mythic landscape of Mercury that opens the novel stuns with its dangerous beauty. It’s impossible not to feel in tune with those sun-walkers, insignificant specks as they are under the fierce and merciless gaze of a cosmological god. Robinson beckons the reader to give supplication and join them for a chance to bask in that treacherously effulgent glory. His use of language to describe natural environments strikes directly at the amygdala and engenders truly primal emotions. The impression one gets from the novel is of a mature writer in full command of his descriptive powers, yet also one who imbues his writing with an experienced and graceful sensitivity.
It’s not just the language, of course. Not only does 2312 live up to the ‘hard sf’ label and then some, but it also has an interesting structure. The main narrative is interspersed with various, short interludes. These take the form of historical extracts, gorgeous primers on certain celestial bodies, and two other strange, re-occurring sections: passages labelled “lists” and stream-of-consciousness “quantum walks”. The first extract sets the tone with a ‘quick help’ guide on terraforming asteroids, and the number of concepts this short piece introduces boggles the mind. These terraformed asteroids or “terraria” become taxis, ferrying people to-and-fro between the closest approach to the sun possible (at a scorching 0.1 AU) to the far reaches of the system at unbelievable speeds. The terraria are more than just technological marvels. The methodology and aesthetics utilised in their construction and terraforming opens up whole new avenues of possibilities in the sciences and arts. And this is what Robinson really seems to excel at. That is, introducing quite a comprehensive set of ideas and technological breakthroughs that together illuminate the sum total of man’s achievements. It’s not about concentrating on a few ideas, however clever, that could limit vision. It’s a holistic approach that works especially well via the various historical excerpts, “looking backward” to an earlier time as Bellamy did with his utopian treatise.
It’s the aggregate vision that staggers. The protagonist journeys through the settled system to personally deliver messages in deference to the wishes of her recently deceased relative. This journey allows Robinson to paint stunning vistas of space-faring, nearly post-scarcity societies. These 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 governing bodies and market systems to eugenics, the behavioural psychology of space-faring humans and some truly epic terraforming endeavours. These sketches are not lackadaisical efforts, but serious, more rigorous attempts and 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.
And poor Earth, now the perennial sick man of space. While other societies in the system surge with technological advancement and prosper, Earth wallows in self-pity, mired in a plurality of old tensions, conflicts and suspicions from which it seems unable to extract itself. Now, it suffers from steep environmental decline. It’s a sad scenario for a sad planet that was too myopic to muster itself and plan for the future.
Robinson, though, seems a far-sighted author. As he brings to awareness man’s potential achievements in space, he hones in on the ineluctable ties to the home planet and the need for a solution to the factious nature of communities on Earth. This is of the utmost necessity 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.
In practical terms, Earth is necessary for its all-important soil and gravity-well. In psychological and societal terms, those who leave Earth carry outward from the fons et origo any and all existing disorders. Robinson’s point is that the total consciousness of humanity must find some measure of harmony before new paths can be paved for forward movement. His attempt to look at this problem from comprehensive, multiple angles is admirable in what is a very humane work.
Despite this dizzying scope, some concerns with the novel do become apparent. For one thing, the plot almost feels like an afterthought. It occasionally seems an excuse to tour the system, but it’s cohesive enough to serve its purpose. Still, the story might periodically feel as if it’s moving in fits and starts, a measured docudrama with elements of a mystery-thriller thrown in where Robinson presents what could be the most understated and odd romance one is ever likely to encounter. Then add rogue quantum-computers, an ingenious method to commit mass murder, and stir vigorously. Now, some readers insist on a gripping, rapid pace. There are a couple such moments in 2312, and while Robinson does manage a substantial amount of narrative tension throughout, the pace is measured for the most part.
Robinson’s large-canvas approach can also be problematic for some. Occasionally, it feels too large, as if he’s inundating the reader with more variables than one can possibly cope with in just a single reading. Many genre novels often rely on a reductive type of complexity that allows an easy coherence to shine through. 2312 is truly complex, exploring the effects of multiple crises and colonisation efforts on humanity through the vicissitudes of three centuries. Very impressive, very commendable. Yet, this big-picture approach does tend to mar the aforementioned coherence to some extent, requiring greater enterprise on the reader’s part to consolidate the narrative’s various elements but, ultimately, all the more satisfying for it.
Readers generally spoiled by an over-abundance of sentiment in character depictions might also struggle. The female protagonist is particularly difficult to empathise with. Her ‘mercurial’ nature renders her inscrutable for the most part. Yet, her child-like caprice acts as a good balance for the ‘saturnine’ male lead’s eternal quest for that perfect “pseudoiterative”. Their 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. The whistling and discussion of Beethoven’s various symphonies is a fantastic analogy that showcases the fractured status quo existing between Spacers and Earth yet also pinpoints the strong potential for rapprochement. While Robinson’s handling of characters isn’t highly emotive, it is subtle and even a little contrary, and this works well. There is a great deal to admire in this subdued, spare treatment where appreciation for and bemusement with the protagonists can coexist in a pleasing equilibrium. It’s a skilful writer who can present characters as sympathetic, even romantic, whilst abstaining from unnecessary sentimentality and without needing to delineate every thought-process.
As I’ve already indicated, the multitude of topics Robinson delves into is enormous. There is a gendered revolution rooted in practicalities, an ambitious attempt to express the cognitive processes of AI, immense-scale terraforming techniques, the evolving nature of art and family, and more. Yet, most impressive is his nuanced approach to these various themes and how he intertwines them, illuminating multiple directions where potential solutions to untangle this Gordian Knot that is humanity might lie. One solution that Robinson showcases with regards to an aspect of Earth’s impoverished state is jaw-droppingly audacious, a vision that mesmerises. It’s not surprising that this work won the Nebula Award. It has the requisite gravitas. It presents a range of those opportunities and pitfalls mentioned earlier to ask an essential question that so characterises science fiction: what do we want to be and how might we become it?
In the end, the outlook Robinson paints is one of optimism, despite the cautionary caveats. It’s a plausible future, and some of its more transgressive features oddly render it all the more believable. If asked about an ideal setting, my immediate answer has been consistent for over a decade: Banks’ Culture society. It’s difficult to think of a setting that is more devoid of toil and struggle, especially for the every-man. It outstrips every other wish-fulfilment milieu in existence. But I know that to be the purest fantasy, an exercise in advanced self-gratification that is some sort of approximate, inchoate goal and, at one easily approachable extreme, nothing more than a playground for selfishly indulgent thought experiments. The Culture is grounded upon a relativistic philosophy that, for all the innumerable satisfactions it provides to an unrestrained, voraciously craving id, ultimately leads to a stagnation of the human spirit. It robs the individual of animus and agency in exchange for a lifetime of sensual pleasure and ease. Robinson’s future, which he outlines with such meticulous foresight, is one which inspires a cautious faith. A major attraction is his celebration of the work ethic that ameliorates the lassitude and apathy a nearly post-scarcity society can confer on the individual. Within a context of plausible realism, the wonders presented seem unbelievable, but Robinson wrings that faith out of you as if to say: Yes, this could come to pass in three hundred years. That is, if we get our priorities right, and with a good mixture of luck and initiative so as to avoid the obstacles outlined.
Robinson has written a fiercely contemplative work. It’s an understated thriller that presents its mystery in terms of a big-budget, visual blockbuster whilst also illuminating some of the socio-political and cultural tensions of our own antipodean times. The novel employs well-founded speculations on the state of a space-faring civilisation that is underscored by seemingly cutting-edge scientific knowledge and expertise from a diverse range of other fields. The inspired imaginings and ‘hard sf’ sensibilities really take you on a wild and thought-provoking ride, “there and back again.” Ultimately, 2312 is a journey 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 awe, wonder and a tentative optimism.
© 2015 Nirvan Jain
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Addendum: Wanderers by Erik Wernquist
I originally saw this video a little over a year ago and was immediately struck by how it brought into sharp focus the optimistic futures that Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan envisioned (reminding me of Iain M. Banks, as well). After having read 2312, I now realise that Robinson’s novel must have been a major (if not the major) inspiration for Wernquist, because the beautiful video renders almost perfectly certain scenes from the novel.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.