I’ve been saying for a while now that science fiction doesn’t need improbable spaceships and magic technology in order to generate sense of wonder. There’s plenty of wonder in the universe as we know it, once you accept its vast size and implacable hostility. So the prologue of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 comes as a real pleasure to read. It is set on Mercury, and describes a sunrise as seen from the terminator. The world is in fact inhabited, and most of its inhabitants live in a city, called Terminator, which travels around the world on rails, forever staying within the twilight zone.
Mercury is not the only planet in the Solar System that has been settled. Mars not only has a thriving colony but has also seceded from Earth control. As indeed have the many moons and asteroids which have been colonised – and which now form the Mondragon, named for the Mondragon Corporation, a federation of workers cooperatives in Spain founded in 1956. Venus too has also been settled, and it is the fate of the human settlement of Venus which partly drives the plot of 2312.
Such a near-ish future scenario, with its strict adherence to realistic science, and plausible and clever extrapolation of technology and society, seems guaranteed to appeal to me. So it feels a little churlish to complain that 2312 falls a smidgen short of being a truly great science fiction novel.
Alex, one of the Mondragon movers and shakers, has died (of old age) and it is up to her friends to see that her plan continues. These friends include Swan Er Hong, Fitz Wahram, Inspector Genette, and others. The nature of Alex’s plan is only gradually revealed to Swan, though she is happy to involve herself. This initially requires travelling to Titan with Wahram. As they travel about the Solar System, the two fall in love, despite not seeming to suit each other particularly well. As they travel, Swan learns that Alex’s plan is a response to a secret conspiracy with unknown aims.
2312 is a novel comprising episodes spaced along a timeline in which a mostly-hidden conspiracy gradually reveals itself and its objectives. There is, for example, the destruction of Terminator. There is the discovery of qubes (quantum computers) in human form – rather than surgically-embedded qubes in humans, such as Swan’s companion Pauline. (Qubes are not artificial intelligence per se, though something like it emerges from their complexity.) There is the destruction of a travelling asteroid terrarium (a common means of transport about the Solar System) and the deaths of all those travelling within it. There is the reseeding of Earth with the fauna which had populated the terraria. There is a covert civil war on Venus.
In truth, the conspiracy is the weakest element of 2312, and not every event seems linked to the story it powers. The reseeding of Earth, for example, is clever and exciting, but doesn’t feel like part of the same narrative which sends Swan and Wahram gallivanting about the Solar System. And the resolution of the conspiracy, when it’s revealed in a disappointingly offhand fashion, feels like an after-thought rather than the resolution of a dramatic narrative.
Yet the Solar System of 2312 is a fascinating place. It feels like a valid extrapolation in ways that many nearish-future science fictions – such as James SA Corey’s poor Leviathan Wakes – do not. To some extent, this emphasis on world rather than plot does make the novel feel somewhat like a travelogue. But 2312 is not a plot-driven novel. It is dramatic in discrete moments, and it is sense of wonder, the continuity of the characters’ perceptions and the deepening relationship between Swan and Wahram, which chains those moments into a linear narrative. 2312 is like its terraria, it is a small world put together from elements of the real world, and in which a life unlike those we can experience ourselves can be lived. It’s no surprise then that the conspiracy which opens with the destruction of Terminator feels like a feeble counterpoint to the journey on which Robinson takes the reader.
As a genre novel – ie, a narrative reliant on plot for its backbone – 2312 is somewhat unsuccessful. As a science fiction in a more general sense, a personalised exploration of an invented universe, with its Dos Passos-seque “extracts” and “lists”, 2312 is superb. It may well be Robinson’s strongest work since the Mars trilogy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on a few shortlists next year; and I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t nominated.