posted Wednesday 23 May 2012 @ 1:39 pm PST
For much of its history, SF has liked to portray itself (in caps) as The Literature of Ideas (sometimes I’ve heard claims that it’s the only literature of ideas, but that’s just too silly to pursue). But, through time and convention, it doesn’t take long for these ideas to get concretized into specific concepts, and not much longer for these concepts to get reduced to effects. For example, space travel has been a central idea of SF from almost the beginning, but pretty soon that got transformed into the concept of the spaceship, in all its myriad varieties, and then that got reduced to pulp illustrations of flaming spaceliners or looming images of improbably large CGI battle cruisers. Or think of the idea of a machine civilization, which Gregory Benford and others have meditated on intelligently at length, and pretty soon you’ve got Transformers stomping down Michigan Avenue. Somewhere there’s an idea beneath all that, but it begins to seem picky to even ask about it.
Kim Stanley Robinson, though, wants you to love ideas. He wants to give you ideas for breakfast, and talk about them until dinner. He wants to make you engage with the fundamental imaginative choreography of SF in ways that you may not have since you began reading it. He’s not at all averse to the cool effects – his ambitious new novel 2312 is full of them, from windsurfing the rings of Saturn to listening to Beethoven on Mercury – but he never lets you stray too far from the fiercely intellectual superstructure of his tale, which flings about provocative notions on everything from artificial intelligence to gender assignments to terraforming, often exploring these in Dos Passos-like multimedia interchapters that have nothing to do with advancing the plot and may frustrate some readers who’ve never heard of Stand on Zanzibar or read Robinson’s earlier Mars trilogy (which doesn’t quite use the Dos Passos collage format, but pauses plenty of times for lengthy consideration of its underlying political, scientific, and ethical ideas). It’s this intellectual passion which makes Robinson, despite his recent forays into Washington science policy or the historical Galileo, one of our purest SF writers, as well as one of the most talented.
2312 isn’t a direct sequel to the Mars trilogy, even though it’s set about a century after that trilogy ends and carries over many of its concepts, such as the Accelerando (yes, Robinson used the term before Stross), the notion of hollowed-out asteroids as habitats or spaceships, and, most significantly, of the establishment of the moving rail-city Terminator on Mercury. That, in fact, is one of the central settings of 2312, which opens with the death of Alex, the ‘‘Lion of Mercury,’’ a near-legendary figure in solar system colonization. Robinson’s protagonist, Swan Er Hong, is Alex’s granddaughter, a risk-taking landscape and performance artist who has made a respectable living as a designer of terraria – those hollowed-out asteroids. Alex has left behind three envelopes, one for Swan, one for her partner, and one which she asked Swan to personally deliver to a scientist and collaborator named Wang, all the way out on Io. That mysterious third envelope, along with an apparent meteor strike that nearly destroys Terminator (and begins to look more and more like an attack) serves as the rather slight plot-fulcrum for more than the first two-thirds of the novel, and it initiates the ‘‘Grand Tour’’ narrative that takes Swan throughout Robinson’s marvelously imagined inhabited solar system – from Mercury to Io to Saturn and Jupiter to a largely Chinese Venus in the midst of terraforming, to a frazzled Earth (trying to recover from the environmental catastrophes that we saw the beginning of in Robinson’s Washington trilogy), even to the Vulcanoids, asteroids inside the orbit of Mercury, and even they are inhabited. Plenitude rules, and even though there’s some discussion of the ethics of this system-wide eminent domain, the novel revels in the traditional Big SF Idea that the solar system is ours for the taking.
2312 pays homage to SF in other ways as well; there are allusions to ansibles, the whorl, sundivers, The Zanzibar Cat, brightside crossings (presumably from Alan E. Nourse’s classic story), and, in the most clever in-joke for SF readers, a note that ‘‘cultures deemphasizing gender are sometimes referred to as ursuline cultures, origin of term unknown, perhaps referring to the difficulty there can be in determining the gender of bears.’’ But Robinson has some fun with other sorts of allusions as well – Swan’s mercurial personality (after all, she’s from Mercury) is contrasted with that of her eventual lover Wahram, whose dour, saturnine attitude reflects his origins in the Saturn system, and of a treacherous character on Venus, Lakshmi, who is ‘‘said to be hermaphroditic, and went through lovers like a black widow.’’ This question of malleable, self-assigned genders is a major continuing theme in the novel – Swan herself has fathered one child and given birth to another – and at one point we’re given a whole catalog of possible gender, crèche, and marriage variations, although Swan is consistently referred to as ‘‘she’’ and Wahram as ‘‘he’’, and that’s essentially the way their budding romance plays out.
But both Swan and Wahram are engaging, conflicted, and complex characters, and the little inspector Jean Genette, sent from an outer solar system alliance to investigate Alex’s death and later the Terminator catastrophe, is only slightly less so. (The secondary character Kiran, who as a favor for rescuing Swan is given an opportunity to work on Venus, seems a bit less compelling to me, as does his espionage subplot.) For all its inventive spectacle (space-traveling terraria with special-interest themes like absolute darkness, or sex, or the return of animals to earth in giant floating bubbles after they’d been rescued from extinction in the terraria), the appeal of the novel as a novel rests with these characters, and with Robinson’s rather bold experiments in form. In place of Dos Passos’s potted mini-biographies and newsclips, he offers interchapters that are sometimes just lists, sometimes fragmentary extracts from unnamed reference sources, sometimes mini-essays, sometimes near stream-of- consciousness ‘‘quantum walks.’’ Robinson has long been a defender of the infodump (and has objected to that demeaning, writing-workshop term), but here he nearly raises it to an art form.
And, in the end, he succeeds. 2312 is as flat-out a celebration of the possibilities of SF as I’ve seen in years, not only in terms of classic space adventure (there are grim setpieces in the tunnels of Mercury and in open space, after the passengers on a doomed spaceship need to abandon it only in spacesuits, waiting for rescue), but in terms of gender evolution, quantum computing and artificial intelligence (Swan’s portable quantum computer Pauline is nearly as engaging as the human protagonists, and her fellow ‘‘qubes’’ play a significant role as the final chapters generate real suspense), and ecological catastrophe (Earth is so ruined that it ironically becomes the only planet not suitable for terraforming). Robinson takes on so much information here, and so many techniques, that the novel sometimes seems on the verge of flying apart from its own imaginative momentum, but it’s something of a wonder to watch Robinson pull in all the kites in the end. Readers who want only the clean narrative arc of the planet-saving space opera that anchors the narrative might find a good two-thirds of the novel a distraction, but for the rest of us it’s a catalog of wonders.