The OF Blog: Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312

Monday, April 08, 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312

In a landscape so rumpled the light can suddenly jump the eastern horizon and leap west to strike some distant prominence.  Everyone walking the land has to attend to this possibility, know when and where the longest sunreaches occur – and where they can run for shade if they happen to be caught out.

Or if they stay on purpose.  Because many of them pause in their walkabouts on certain cliffs and crater rims, at places marked by stupas, cairns, petroglyphs, inuksuit, mirrors, walls, goldsworthies.  The sunwalkers stand by these, facing east, waiting.

The horizon they watch is black space over black rock.  The superthin neon-argon atmosphere, created by sunlight smashing rock, holds only the faintest predawn glow.  But the sunwalkers know the time, so they wait and watch – until – 

   a flick of orange fire dolphins over the horizon

   and their blood leaps inside them.  More brief banners follow, flicking up, arcing in loops, breaking off and floating free in the sky.  Star oh star, about to break on them!  Already their faceplates have darkened and polarized to protect their eyes. (Prologue, p. 3 e-book edition)

Nature, whether it be found on Earth or elsewhere, can be so beautifully enticing precisely because of its perilous qualities.  The loping of a wolf, the grin of a great cat, the tremendous thunder claps that follow in the wake of devastating lightning – yes, nature is something that we humans may try to tame and understand, yet it is the sheer beauty of its ultimately incomprehensible awe-inspiring wonders that suck us in.  Often one might encounter science fiction fans rhapsodize over this "sense of wonder," but too frequently whatever marvels that might be present in those tales are muted by pedestrian prose or tinny PoVs.  So in reading this opening section to Kim Stanley Robinson's 2012 Nebula, Hugo, and Clarke Award-nominated 2312, I was struck by just how well he captures this dual beautiful/perilous quality of an alien landscape (Mercury in this particular case, although similarly evocative prose is used later to describe other solar landscapes).

2312 is an extremely ambitious novel and at times some of its ambitions are thwarted or at least reduced in power due largely to its own complex narrative structure.  It certainly is not a novel that can be summed up with a few pithy sentences.  Some readers may find 2312's core to be its two main human characters, Swan Er Hong (a sort of futuristic renaissance woman who is equally an artist, a biosphere designer, and a quasi-provocateur) and diplomat Fitz Wahram, and their unraveling of a series of terroristic events that threaten the fragile stability of the various human communities spread throughout most of the solar system.  Others may find themselves more fascinated by the snippets of the novel's invented past and the commentaries embedded within them on ecology, human belief systems, gender/sex issues, and political forms of government.  Still others may find themselves most enjoying the descriptions of various terraforming activities that take place throughout the novel.  Yet 2312 aims to be more than the sum of its many fascinating parts but ultimately fails to achieve this, leaving behind a flawed work whose components merely serve as glimmers of greatness, as if they were shards of a large and perfectly cut gem whose shattering has dimmed its interior light.

By themselves, each component part tells a gripping story.  In particular, Swan and Fitz's relationship, which is filled with peaks and valleys of love and frustration with each other, is a perfectly fine story, one that benefits from Robinson's excellent prose.  Yet their story is stretched too thinly in places, as the two move from extraterrestrial locale to terrestrial locale and back again, with the sense that the story's momentum, like a pinball pinging against multiple walls and flippers, is uneven and subject to entropy.  The Extracts and associated lists, which serve to make deeper thematic commentaries on a possible path that humanity may be on here in the early 21st century, are perhaps too interesting, as they had the effect of making me pause to think of issues that Robinson didn't necessarily intend to address, even in passing, in 2312.  Some great stories work because the setting is so realized and predominant that the characters work to reinforce the tensions present within the setting itself.  Other stories succeed because the characterizations are so well-drawn that the setting and local color blend in with the characterizations and the narrative themes to create an excellent work.  2312 suffers at times because the setting, intriguing as it is, and the characterizations, which are gripping in their own right, do not mesh together seamlessly.  At times, there is a dissonance between the two, as though Robinson were dithering between which should be the central focus of the tale, with the result being a narrative that flies (and crashes) like Icarus.

This is not to say that 2312 is a "poor" novel.  It is far from that.  Most of its individual elements (leaving aside questionable extrapolations of human societal evolution that may leave this work feeling dated within a decade) on their own realize their potential.  Certainly 2312 has some thematic "heft" to it, as the questions it raises about our own contemporary socio-economic and political inclinations are thought provoking.  Yet these disparate elements frequently fail to achieve full cohesion; the narrative weld spots are often visible.  The result is a flawed yet ambitious work of literary SF in which the frustrations do not undercut the novel's successes as much as they reveal the limits to the literary scope that Robinson employs.  As a semi-"failure," 2312 still is one of SF/F's better novels of the past year and it is easy to understand why it has made three recent genre (industry, fan, juried) shortlists.  Even its "weaknesses," minor as they may be when considered in isolation, serve to create a spectacle-filled novel whose likes are increasingly rare in SF/F novels these days.  If only more "failures" could "fail" in this fashion.


RFYork said...

I think you may be missing the point when you say that Robinson's views of future societies might soon seem

Robinson's books, from the very beginning, have always been utopian. In the Pacific Rim trilogy he did explore both utopia and dystopia. But, the Mars trilogy, of which this is a clear successor, is wonderfully utopian.

Robinson is a utopian island in a sea of dystopian novels.

What is equally wonderful is that he is an excellent researcher and a fluid, deep and entertaining writer.

Larry Nolen said...


I think you're misinterpreting what I meant about dated societal evolution views. 2312 reads very much like a work of the 2008-12 period in terms of which societies (namely China, but in a more negative light, future Africa) are discussed specifically. I recall all sorts of books from the 1980s that forecast Japan as a predominant world power (sometimes in a negative light, such as works by Crichton and Clancy); KSR's comments on Chinese society extrapolated from current socio-political developments feels strange at best and perhaps lazy. The latter descriptor certainly can be applied to how Swan views African governments, even though there certainly is more ground there to see her views as being unreliable.

The point is that in 10-20 years, there likely will be other pressing concerns that will come to the fore and SF works that discuss the near-to-distant future will focus on different things.

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