I learned a lot of things while reading 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I can’t say for most books I read. Usually, I can walk away from a novel feeling enriched by the characters, or impressed by the imaginative range of the author, but this book greatly improved my understanding in multiple real-world fields. It made me appreciate what a fiction novel can accomplish in its scale, and what information it can pass on to its readers. This story explores engineering, biology and biochemistry, economics, sociology, environmentalism, astronomy (of course), etc. I was so impressed with the scope of the novel, I had to look up Mr. Robinson’s educational background, and I realize that a Ph.D. in English is nothing to scoff at, but it hardly explains the magnitude of this writer’s knowledge. The man must swim in a pool filled with peer-reviewed, scholarly journals from every field.
Swan Er Hong, mercurial Mercury resident, is a landscape artist of galactic proportion (she designs exhibits on the unprotected surface of Mercury and spent her younger years designing the interiors of asteroidal terrariums). She meets frog-like Fitz Warham after the mysterious death of her grandmother and they puzzle together over the strange terrorist-like events that have been happening around the solar system.
What I liked:
1. Obviously, the book covers a lot of ground. It paints a scientifically-based picture of human progress 300 years from now. Having never read a KSR book prior to this, I am new to his view of the future solar system, but I think I’ll pick up his Mars trilogy in the near future. (Update: I did, and you can read about it here.)
2. Despite the hard science setting of this novel, Mr. Robinson’s English degrees shine through in his prose and character building. He writes beautifully. There were often times when I wanted to read passages aloud to random people nearby– which I didn’t, because that would be weird. But it is beautifully written.
3. A lot of contemporary hard science fiction novels tend toward post-apocalyptic, post-modern, dystopian themes, which turn me off. (If I want to see and experience crappy things, I’ll watch the news, or participate in reality.) 2312 avoids this problem by utilizing the progressive future as a backdrop, and balances its successes, failures, and complications, while introducing flawed characters and allowing them to grow and bloom within that backdrop. Some may think the story’s happy ending feels “contrived,” but allowing one’s characters to fade into hopeless, meaningless, post-modern oblivion doesn’t make one’s story less contrived.
4. The author has a love affair with the idea of terrarium-converted asteroids that travel the solar system like cruise ships. Each travel segment offers a glimpse into a different style of terra-asteroid, and I want to try them all. Well, except for the black-liner (completely dark inside), or the sex-liner (self-explanatory).
What I didn’t like:
1. Swan is a bit of a weirdo. She’s one of those avant-garde, experimental, try-anything-and-don’t-ask-questions, self-prescribed moody kind of people. I was kind of hoping that there would be some weird twist at the end that revealed she was actually a quantum android sleeper agent, because, then I could be like, “Ah ha! That’s why I didn’t like her!” But I enjoyed her friend, the uptight, stable Warham.
2. I can’t quite grasp KSR’s economics. The main characters have communal jobs (artist, farmer, political dignitary), yet they jet all over the solar system. There is a passage toward the end that suggests that one particular league makes lots of money off of nitrogen exports, which suggests a capitalistic system, but I still can’t wrap my head around it. Just one descent on an opera-themed space elevator in Quito must cost… hundreds of thousands of dollars? And then, to just take a year’s sabbatical on Earth, to do humanitarian work and drop animals from the sky? An artist and an ambassador can afford that?
A Final Observation: It’s more of a demonstration of my limited scientific imagination, and not a dislike, but I question whether humans can accomplish so much in 300 years. Then, I remind myself that Star Trek portrays galactic travel within the same window of time (something not yet achieved in Robinson’s world), and I have willingly suspended disbelief for that show. Plus, by the end of the novel, I realize that much of the world that 2312 illustrates is an early work in progress, not to be finished for hundreds of years after the titular year.
I enjoyed the novel and I think it’s the top runner for the Hugo out of the three I’ve read so far. Next up, is Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (The Vorkosigan Saga) by another Hugo veteran, Lois McMaster Bujold.