For the past three years, I’ve paid for the privilege of voting in the Hugo Awards. I do this not because I love voting in the Hugo Awards (though that’s cool) but because, for the past few years, they have made available a voter packet containing digital copies of most of the nominated works. All I need do is purchase a supporting membership at the year’s WorldCon, which is always cheaper than if I were to buy the various novels and anthologies in which these works might be found. (Also, all the digital copies are DRM-free, a philosophy I support.)
This year I’ve actually managed to read two of the Hugo-nominated novels—though 2312 is not one of them. I’ve read fairly little of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, but what I have read hasn’t impressed me. He’s a good enough writer to deserve the reputation and fandom he has, but he’s not really my kind of writer. Nevertheless, I settled into 2312 (albeit a password-protected, PDF version of 2312) and tried to keep an open mind.
As the title suggests, 2312 is set in the opening decades of the twenty-fourth century, specifically in the years leading up to 2312. Humanity has spread across the solar system. Mars has been partially terraformed, and Venus isn’t far behind. A city flees the sunrise on Mercury, moving around the planet on a system of rails. Various colonies and outposts exist on asteroids, moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and even as far out as Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Never before has the solar system been so teeming with human life and industry.
But it’s still a fragile time. On Earth, the ecological problems we’re beginning to see now have come to a head. While this has motivated much of the advances in spaceflight and terraforming technology, it’s also created a kind of backlash. The people who live off-Earth are “spacers”, obvious from how they move in Earth’s relatively-heavy gravity. Far from providing a united government to deal with its extraterrestrial children, Earth is more fractured than ever, with over 400 countries vying for resources that grow ever more precious each day. Robinson creates a sense that this is a planet in steep environmental decline—not exactly a catastrophe as much as a long, debilitating illness—and no one has really gotten their act together to try to stop it.
In the rest of the system, humanity flourishes politically, psychologically, technologically. But that sense of fragility remains, as the protagonist Swan er Hong reflects upon one of her many visits to Earth. She remarks that the inhabitants of Earth have no idea how precious it is: the only place where humans can walk on the surface, under a sky, without a suit. Robinson does an amazing job letting us see Earth through her eyes, and with that sight, reawakening a love for our planet and a sense of responsibility.
Humans have begun to adapt to their non-terrestrial homes. Those who live among asteroids are “smalls”, adults of child-like proportions, such as Inspector Jean Genette. At the other end of the scale are those who have become so accustomed to the lighter gravity that their mass would be an issue on Earth, such as Wahram. Advances in medical technology allow people to transcend our binary ideas of gender, leading to all sorts of combinations. Longevity treatments also allow people to live in excess of two hundred years. Finally, quantum computing has become a reality, albeit one still in its infancy. With so-called “strong AI” in quantum boxes (even ones that can fit in someone’s head!), humanity should be on a trajectory towards a golden age.
Except, something fishy is afoot.
With the death of Swan er Hong’s grandmother Alex, she becomes inducted into a loose conspiracy investigating the qubes (quantum computer cubes). Swan’s new associates, including Wahram and Genette, were working with Alex to determine whether some qubes might have self-awareness and an agenda of their own. They are not just paranoid—suspicious incidents have been cropping up for the past few years that seem to point to this conclusion. Their investigations continue, in secrecy, and as Swan becomes drawn deeper into the fold, her experiences during her travels begin to change her, perhaps for the better.
That’s a loose plot summary, but the plot to 2312 is as incidental as it can be. It’s really just an excuse for Robinson to tour the solar system, from Mercury all the way to Pluto. And I can see why: he has done an impressive job building this twenty-fourth century civilization, and he does nearly as impressive a job at telling us about it. Sure, there’s some clunky exposition—but I actually rather liked the “extract” chapters that interrupt the various character-driven chapters. It’s neat to see how Robinson depicts the confluence of different technological breakthroughs and social revolutions and describes the changes that these wrought.
It’s not science fiction’s job or purpose to predict the future, but one thing science fiction can do is offer us possible futures. To me, 2312 is a very believable picture of what the future could be like. If we developed better AI, if we had the right pressures and luck to develop slightly better space travel, if we started spreading into the solar system. Right now, even crewed expeditions to Mars remain mostly a pipe dream. But the way Robinson explains it makes it all seem not just possible but likely. His gentle, uncomplicated explanations combining physics and politics and psychology somehow leave you with the impression that this could all happen in three hundred years.
Robinson provides us with an impressive scope in his setting. It’s almost to the point of giving us too much, of overloading us with the variables involved to the point where the book has become a cacophonous calculation. Great science fiction often relies on simplicity, or at the very least a reductive type of complexity that allows the book to assume a still beautiful and coherent nature. 2312 is a complex, interwoven exploration of how humanity would change after three hundred years of crisis and colonization. Whereas other writers might focus on one or two “Big Ideas” in order to put them under the microscope and examine their consequences, Robinson remains with a bigger-picture approach.
This holistic view works well, because it avoids any kind of tunnel vision that can mar otherwise interesting stories. It’s all well and good to write a book about cloning. But there is never just one technological breakthrough; it’s never just cloning but cloning and AI, or cloning and brain augmentation, or cloning and instant soufflé making. However, this holistic view can also quickly become decoherent, much like the superposition in a quantum computer. It’s hard for the reader to become invested in the characters.
This was my problem with 2312 as a story. Swan is not a very likable protagonist, in my opinion; she is somewhat inscrutable and unknowable. We don’t get a very good sense of her life: despite being over a century old, everyone still refers to her as a “girl”, and despite being the revered designer of several spacefaring terraria, people still seem to look down on her as immature. Though she changes as the story progresses, I never quite feel comfortable around her.
Similarly, the plot moves in fits and jerks, and sometimes it moves without seeming to move at all. There is an extensive section where Swan and Wahram are trapped beneath the surface of Mercury, forced to make a lengthy walk along service tunnels in order to reach safety. It is arguably a moment of intense character development for them, but all the while my inner critic was just screaming, “Get back to the killer quantum computers already!”
The trouble with 2312 is that it draws from two somewhat divergent approaches to pacing. On one hand, it reminds me of Samuel R. Delany’s bigger-picture work, like Triton (a book which, incidentally, deals with a lot of the same themes and issues but to better effect). On the other hand, the underlying mystery and conflicts are more suggestive of a thriller, in the vein of Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon. I desperately love both approaches, but I’m not as fond of slamming them together in the way Robinson has done here.
There’s no doubt in my mind that 2312 is deserving of an award like the Hugo. I’m not at all surprised it won the Nebula. It has the kind of gravitas I expect from an award-winner. Indeed, when I look at the other nominees in this category, I wonder which of them will be the biggest challenger. The rest don’t immediately signal how they approach the big ideas that drive the best science fiction—which is not to say that they are devoid of such reflection. With 2312, despite my complaints about its plot and story, it’s obvious that this is a measured, thoughtful work about humanity’s future. Robinson asks—at times playfully, at times plaintively—who do we want to be?