2312

by Kim Stanley Robinson

Cover image

Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: 2012
ISBN: 0-316-19280-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 563

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Swan Er Hong is a native of Mercury, granddaughter of one of the most influential women in the solar system. Alex, known as the Lion of Mercury, has just died as the story opens, and Swan is mourning. But she's also discovering that something else has been going on, something that Alex had not confided in her. Something that involves an inspector from the asteroids, a scientist from Titan, and a message Alex left in the event of her death, asking Swan to convey something personally to another scientist on Io. And then Mercury is attacked and the situation becomes much more complicated.

2312 is, like most Robinson novels, built on top of monumental world-building. The date is given away by the title; the setting is a solar system full of terraforming, habitats, and explosive human colonization. There are human settlements on every world that could possibly sustain them, including a terraformed Mars and a vast in-progress terraforming project on Venus. Mercury, Song's home, supports the city known as Terminator, a shielded habitat that travels around the planet on rails, pushed forward by the thermal expansion of metal at sunrise. Humans have scattered across the solar system and changed everything they've touched, even the asteroids. Many of those have been repurposed as long-haul shuttles: self-contained habitats on carefully-designed routes on which people live for months or years until they get to their destinations.

Parts of this book are gorgeous. One of Robinson's strengths is creating images of the vastness of space, science, and human endeavor that feel plausible and inspiring at the same time. The setting of 2312 frees him to go wild with mega construction projects, and he takes full advantage. Parts of the book inspire the same sense of awe as the Hoover Dam or the Great Wall of China, transplanted into space and backed with neat scientific ideas to ponder. (Even if the more skeptical will note certain human habitation hazards, such as prolonged weightlessness and radiation, are mostly hand-waved away.)

Unusually for a Robinson novel, 2312 also features an interesting and vibrant protagonist. Usually I can barely remember Robinson's protagonists five minutes after I finish the book, but Swan is so impulsive, erratic, and emotionally intense that I doubt I'll forget her. Her past is stuffed with outrageous risks and intense creativity: having songbird neurons transplanted into her brain, ingesting extraterrestrial bacteria, designing habitats in the asteroid belt, and creating art on the plains of Mercury. As the story gets underway, she meets the oversized and mellow Wahram; at first, she finds him boring, but then they're thrown together by one of the best set pieces of the book, and both they and the reader discover they work well together. Wahram serves as a straight man and as a stand-in for the reader's opinion, showing Swan all the more clearly in contrast.

All this sounds quite promising. Unfortunately, what makes 2312 an ambitious failure rather than an excellent story is the story part.

Robinson has built an amazing world, but he doesn't seem to know what to do with it. His economy, at least outside of Earth (and more on that in a moment), is essentially post-scarcity. Few of the characters we meet seem to have any concept of fiscal or practical limitation. They head across the solar system on a moment's notice, take vacations in habitats, or head to favorite spots for the view. It felt like Robinson was trying to write a Culture story. Unlike Banks, however, he struggles with generating a plot.

2312 is, in structure, a murder mystery. The characters witness a crime, survive it, and then intend to investigate it, and the crime appears to grow and link to fault lines in their society. This could have worked, but it has two problems: their society is only barely coherent enough for the reader to perceive the potential fault lines, and Robinson seems to have no idea how to construct a mystery plot. There is no sense of coherence to Swan and Wahram's approach, no sense of a gathering of clues, and very little sense of drama. All of the plot revelations are either dropped in Swan's lap by another character at a convenient moment or generated by Swan refusing to take the plot of the book seriously. The characters do essentially no meaningful investigation on-camera and show almost no investment in the outcome of the plot. When the climax comes, it's all weirdly forgettable.

There are also large sections of the book that appear to have nothing to do with the rest of the plot, and that's where the unfortunate interval on Earth comes in. Robinson takes advantage of the scenes on Earth to do a bit of alienation and shows how foreign and strange and stifling Earth feels to someone who grew up outside of its atmosphere. Parts of this work, but he puts the plot on hold to do it. And parts of it do not work at all. The most glaring example is Swan and Wahram's bizarre bit of attempted charity in Africa, which comes across as stunningly high-handed and arrogant. This could be in character, particularly for Swan (who is not long on empathy), but, if so, the book doesn't signal to the reader that it should be read that way. Instead, there are some side (or snide) comments that seem to indicate Robinson knows nothing about the economic arc of Africa from the past twenty years. And when their absurd, botched, condescending charity plan fails for all the obvious reasons, the characters, and apparently the novel, throw up their hands and write Earth off as a stagnant lost cause that can't accept the imposition of a good idea and go back to the plot, never apparently caring about Earth again.

Almost as frustrating is the way that these interludes are tied back into the story, which is usually through Swan getting ridiculously lucky on her random encounter rolls. It felt like whenever Robinson needed to make progress in the plot, Swan would just accidentally run into exactly the right person or situation to bring up the next plot point or to have some investigation make sense. (Not that Swan usually figured this out. Normally, the inspector explains it to her.) The author's finger was planted so firmly on the scales that it destroyed my suspension of disbelief and made a mockery of the idea that the characters were actually investigating anything.

2312 is built around a skeleton of a plot, but the lack of engagement with it, the lack of tension and emotion, the way the next developments are generally narrated to the protagonists and the reader, and the repeated use of random encounters to steer it left me without much reason to care. Robinson tries a few twists, but since the story never felt committed to its plot anyway, those twists feel less like planned complications and more like another random veer in the road. It didn't help that the final outcome was more prosaic and forgettable than the book had been implying it would be.

There is a lot to like here. I'm very pleased to see Robinson finally write a memorable protagonist, and he's very good at both world-building and set pieces. But it needed a plot, and it needed a more coherent and complete cultural backdrop for its characters. Without both, it fell back into the typical Robinson trap: gorgeous moments separated by a whole lot of boring, and an overall impression of a construction tour rather than a story. There are bits of it I loved and still remember, particularly Song and Wahram in the tunnels of Mercury (which is possibly the best extended characterization Robinson has ever written). But the book as a whole is a mess, and I can't recommend wading through it for the good parts.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-10-09

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21