In a recent interview with the New Statesman, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France’s Front de Gauche, argued that, “There is only one ecosystem compatible with human life. In that, we are all equals.” This intersection of radical politics, environmental concern and human community is the centre of gravity around which Kim Stanley Robinson’s memorable new novel, 2312, revolves.
I use that word ‘memorable’ advisedly. It’s not quite true that 2312,which is set in the year of the title in a solar system fully inhabited but not entirely formalised, is remarkable, or excellent, or fabulous. In many ways, it’s not a novel at all – or, if it is, it’s a disastrous one. There are many sentences, for instance, which make explicit the obvious: “Her combination of Chinese ancestry and Indian name,” we read of one character we meet on Venus, “resembled that of some others he had met; he had been given to understand it marked Venusians who wanted some separation from the old country, with the name being a way of saying they were more Venusian than Chinese.” [pg. 280] Robinson seems unable to believe we may work this out for ourselves, and it’s perhaps this insistence upon reiteration which leads to the novel’s curiously circular plot – time and again, we return to Earth and learn the same things about its surviving late capitalism, or its irreversibly altered climate; the two protagonists, the former designer of asteroid habitants named Swan, and the emissary from Saturn’s moons named Wahram, revolve endlessly around a question first asked in the novel’s opening pages, and, in an at times divertingly transgendered romance, around each other.
In part, this attenuated plot is forced into its flattened shape by the necessary bloat of pages – 2312 is primarily a portrait of a potential future, a form conspicuous by its absence in much modern science fiction, and it finds its finest moments in the gaps between plot tokens. There are descriptions of the environments engineered within hollowed-out asteroids, or dissections of the mechanics of a city which endlessly traverses the surface of Mercury, forever out-running its too-hot sun; there are glimpses of a new kind of politics based on mutualism and shared interest, and of how our planet might first be affected, and then react to, the runaway climate change which now seems our fate. In this 2312 might be Robinson’s most exciting, most relevant, most visionary book. Here he is on the fate of Earth, our own “planet of sadness”:
[…] the new sea level could not be substantially altered. And it was much the same with many of their other problems. The many delicate physical, biological, and legal situations were so tightly knitted together that none of the cosmic engineering they were doing elsewhere in the solar system could be fitted to the needs of the place. […] Human time here was simply wrenched; the centre had not held; things fell apart and recombined to create feelings that did not cohere inside one. Ideas of order became hopelessly bogged down in ancient stories, webs of law, faces on the street.” [pp. 304-6]
In other words, the Earth of 2312 is our own: in dire need of a new means of doing things, but powerless to devise them. It is a planet too entwined in its own past, in the centuries of accretion which have calcified its structures, to rise again. This vision would make 2312 a bleak novel were it not for the wider solar system: as in Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass, also published this year, humans have escaped old earth for the stars; unlike the sumpolloi of that novel, Robinson’s non-Terran humans have broken free of the old systems. “No generally agreed-upon system of governance in space was ever established,” we learn in one of the many ‘extracts’ from fictional textbooks which pepper this narrative (the author acknowledges John Dos Passos’s influence in his notes, making the novel oddly old-fashioned in form for one so interested in futurology); this means that, on Mars and elsewhere, non-aligned worlds give rise to political movements and thought which expresses an ideal almost inexpressible even in our own sluggish culture. “There’s no solution but justice for everyone,” Swan realises. “It’s the only thing that will make us safe.” [pg. 356]
It’s not just Adam Roberts whose work this optimism sets 2312 against. M John Harrison, too, has in this year’s Empty Space more or less thrown up his dextrous hands when it comes to imagining a possible medium-term future for humankind. As I wrote in my review of the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award, much current science fiction seems to be slouching towards Bethlehem – aware that something must soon be born, but not sure what or how. The xenophobia of some of the stories in Rocket Science, a recent fiction collection expressly devised to face up to the realities of current human expansion into the solar system, also emphasises how stuck we are in our own mud. It is exhilarating to read a piece of science fiction which dares not just to engage with our moment – as Harrison and Roberts both do to considerably more polished, affecting and successful literary effect – but also to imagine the space beyond. 2312 offers a thoroughly convincing world, a quite astounding breadth of science fictional vision; from its considerations of terraforming to its understanding of how human genders might shift and change, it is a heterodox and wise work. Robinson deserves unceasing praise for this valuable feat of imagination.
Alas, 2312 is, novelistically, a fairly naive piece of writing. Where in Galileo’s Dream Robinson seemed to approach fusing sensawunda with something approaching ‘traditional’ characterisation, in 2312 he seems entirely to abandon structure and psychology. Plots repeatedly loop back on themselves, spooling like tape run free of the spindle – “Interesting,” muses a police inspector, “I’ll have to think about that”, before taking hundreds of pages to do just that [pg. 228]. Swan, who has grown up in the solar system, has to ask why their might be a minimum detection limit for micro-asteroid sensors – “Usually to keep warnings from going off all the time,” replies her interlocutor, for the benefit not of the person Swan might really be, we suspect, but for 21st-century readers rather slower on the uptake [pg. 220]. Digressions – a trip, for instance, to a chamber music recital – feel slack, whilst adding little to our understanding of the characters. Wahram, for example, loves music, but he never comes clearer into focus as a result, remaining like all the other characters a blank-ish chess piece positioned on a beautiful board. “We live an hour and it is always the same,” he intones at one point [pg. 162], but one would hope this wasn’t meant as an epigram for what becomes a disappointingly recursive novel.
The mystery of the novel – that Swan’s grandmother had set in motion, and for a time before her death led, a secretive movement aiming to reshape the solar system – is established in the opening pages, and takes a clear shape rather quickly. Nevertheless, Robinson spools it ever outwards, into a diffuse conspiracy of the quantum computers many 24th-century humans keep on their person, and towards a repopulation of Earth with species it has long since lost in a series of ecological catastrophes. Increasingly, events are narrated explicitly from a point further on in the timeline than 2312, and cast as a kind of prelude to a new golden age – humans “were stunted by life [… on] their own harsh planet” we are told, implying that the expansive future offers something fuller [pg. 413] – and this optimism becomes the only means of dragging the story, as distinct from the setting, forwards. The reader wants less to know what happens to the characters than what happens to us.
Perhaps this is the point. A theme of 2312 is that the essential nature of humans will stay forever the same: “People hunger for time both ways. Certain things we want to come faster: the terraforming of a new world we have come to love, the arrival of universal justice in human affairs, a good project. Other things we want to go slower: our own lives, the lives of those we love.” [pg. 535] If 2312 aims to teach us perspective, it does so; if it also aims to encourage our patience, it tries more than it succeeds. It is full of bravura imagination, particularly in its first half; as a novel, however, it circles and shimmies over-much, a picture rather less pretty than its frame (or, depending on your emphasis, vice versa). It’s a book worth reading – but, for writers looking to more seamlessly fictionalise their futurology, perhaps an encouragement more than an exemplar.