Science fiction as a genre has never shied away from big ideas. New technologies are invented, analysed and discarded on a whim. Vast distances traversed in the blink of an eye. Civilisations raised and razed with abandon. In 2312 Kim Stanley Robinson takes one of the favourite tropes, the future of humanity itself, and examines it through 300-year binoculars. In doing so he transposes many of our current problems and big questions to a barely-recognisable world but one which remains utterly believable thanks to his extensive knowledge and untiring imagination.
Much as the title suggests, the events of 2312 unfold a few centuries into our future. The worst fears of climate scientists have come to pass and the Earth was rendered all but uninhabitable for some time. After a future-historical period delightfully christened ‘The Dithering’ in which hands were wrung, blame was laid and nothing of much use was achieved the decision was made to begin full-scale colonisation of the solar system. Human settlements have sprung up on Mars, Venus, the asteroids, everywhere they could possibly gain a foothold. However, mankind being mankind things are far from peaceful. The ever-widening diaspora causes friction between factions which threatens to undermine the whole enterprise and bring humanity back to its knees.
The story kicks off on Terminator, the capital city of Mercury. In order to escape the sterilising heat of the Mercurial day, Terminator is mounted on rails and
travels a perpetual circuit around the planet’s equator, always remaining a few steps ahead of sunrise. The inhospitable planet is populated by a variety of humans and post-humans from artists and genetic engineers to sunwalkers, a cultish group whose idea of a good time is following the sun on foot, daring to catch brief glimpses before dashing for cover to escape a most unpleasant fate. Disaster strikes when an apparent meteor collides with the rail system, blocking the city’s movement and causing it to be scoured clean by the sun’s rays. But why was this meteor not flagged by the extensive early warning systems?
Caught up in the disaster are the two protagonists, Warham and Swan. Hailing from Saturn and Mercury respectively, their characters should be polar opposites but they find themselves striving together towards the same goal. Certain anomalies in the event arouse their suspicions that this was no act of nature. Along with a member of an interplanetary Interpol of sorts they must uncover who was behind the attack and hopefully prevent any escalation before further settlements are endangered. Various political groups come into play, from the Chinese-influenced Mondragon Accord to those remaining on Earth who shun their space-faring cousins. Each has plenty to gain but equally a great deal to lose if the discord runs its course.
As far as plots go, 2312 doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the table. In fact when you strip it down it amounts to little more than a political whodunnit with some bells and whistles attached. However, it’s the bells and whistles which transform 2312 from a pedestrian read into a vast, imagination-jarring journey full of the Big Ideas mentioned earlier. Kim Stanley Robinson’s extensive experience and encyclopedic knowledge of the background ideas in the book (environmental disaster from his Science In The Capital trilogy and colonisation from his Mars trilogy) allow him to craft a fantastic world which seems impossibly distant yet remains firmly rooted in contemporary science.
The planetary colonies themselves are wonderful constructions, particularly Terminator, grinding its way around the planet and propelled solely by the heat-expanded rails forcing it along. The citizens of each retain their own unique identities, humourously aligned with their home planets ancient character. In fact the citizens themselves are somewhat different, having taken to genetic experimentation like three-headed ducks to water. Gender-mixing and body augmentation are commonplace and serve both to highlight our inherent differences but also to underline the deep commonalities which bind us together.
The highlight of 2312 for me was the asteroids though. In order to collect raw materials and find space to safeguard biodiversity, Robinson imagines a project on an epic scale. Asteroids are first snared and brought into desirable orbits and then the work begins. Swarms of nanobots set to work coring the rock, hollowing it out and saving the excavated minerals for sale or other use. The shell is then set spinning, creating a workable gravitational force, pulling those inside to the walls. The scene is now set for terraforming and these inverted planetoids become a mixture of Noah’s Ark and work of art. Engineers fill their biomes with all manner of habitats, flora and fauna, resulting in a system containing thousand of self-sustaining zoos which, they hope, will one day help repopulate the Earth.
During 2312‘s descriptive passages detailing the floating terraria I couldn’t read more than a page or two without drifting off into a daydream, contemplating the possibilities the future has to offer. This was a recurring feature of the whole novel, thoroughly capturing my imagination and holding me in thrall to the sheer scope of Robinson’s ambition. While the plot itself is enough to keep you engaged and the characters perfectly likable and sympathetic, for me the lure was the world itself, the sheer level of detail and intricacy, and the sense of wonder it engenders. Definitely a recommendation to anyone partial to flights of fancy.