Friday, 18 December 2015

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those science fiction authors that I have respected but not loved. The two of his books that I've previously read were both well-written, although for my taste, they spent too long without people on the scientific exposition. I am okay with scientific exposition, but in slightly smaller doses. Or mixed with people. For his early books (and the two I've read were early in his career - the first two Mars books), there are just too many data dumps. Still, on the whole, I liked both books.

The other reasons that I haven't loved him is what feels like an underlying pessimism. It's hard to put my finger on, but there's a real sense about these books that there is a limit to whether or not things can get better, a limit to human knowledge and reach. While that's not a bad thing, per se, when it's persistent and pervasive, it makes it hard for me to look forward to his books. I can acknowledge they're interesting and well-written, but this quiet pessimism is just a little much to take.

So then we get to 2312, which actually addresses, if not solves, both these issues in interesting manners. But first, the plot. It is 2312, surprise, surprise. Humanity has spread throughout the solar system, but the stars are still out of reach, and perhaps always will be. Earth has maintained a capitalist economy that sucks its workers dry, as a general rule. Mars is part of a new system that is explained, but I'm not sure I ever got entire hold of it. It's interesting, anyway. It's a controlled exchange society, with free market capitalism played as a game of risk only at the margins. Venus is partially terraformed, Mercury has a travelling city that stays out of the sunlight, the asteroids are heavy with people (and many have been hollowed out as habitats and turned into ships.) The moons of Saturn are resource heavy, and those who live there have to struggle against those that want to break them down for parts.

That's not the plot. That's just the setting. In the midst of this, there are people. Swan, grieving her grandmother, prone to impulsive behaviour and fear of being in any one space for too long. Wahram, from...Titan, I think? Stolid and quiet and slow to act. There is also a "small" - genetically engineered small human police inspector from Mars, because smaller size equals longevity.

They meet after her grandmother's death, and Swan becomes aware how much her grandmother kept off any kind of computer, only slowly. There seems to be a conspiracy on the move. It may have to do with the AIs that are being developed. Or about politics on Earth. Or terraforming plans elsewhere. Without knowing the origin point, it is dangerous. And the system is tilting precariously.

So, back to my initial two points. In 2312, Robinson has utterly solved the first one. He's gotten away from long data dumps in favour of shorter chapters which are made up of short incomplete sentence excerpts that read like they're lifted from textbooks. They give you just as much information as you need, no more, and no need to go step by step through all the science. I appreciate this method - enough science to keep me interested, not so much that I start to zone out.

There are also interesting disjointed stream of consciousness chapters, and it only becomes apparent what those are towards the end of the book. It's more self-consciously literary than I've seen from Robinson before, and it works.

As for the pessimism, yeah, that's still there. But it's leavened now, with some more human connection, some recognition of the beauty of persistence and connection, even in a universe that may not bend to our will. There were a couple of places where his writing about loneliness and connection made me tear up. So, while that distance hasn't been erased, I am much more eager to read another Kim Stanley Robinson book than I would have been. It's an excellent read, a great scope, and although I wanted to strangle Swan every once in a while, she grew on me.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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