|Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel is called 2312.
Guess what year the action takes place in?
Earth has been devastated by the ravages of
climate change. However much of the Solar System has been colonised Mars, Venus,
the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and even the planet Mercury all have thriving colonies.
The book opens on Mercury, in the city of Terminator which rolls on rails across the
planet's surface to keep itself, and its inhabitants, out of the glare of the sun that
hangs almost close enough to touch in the sky above. It's a delightful conceit, but I
can't help but wonder at the extent of the catastrophe should the city's propulsion
mechanisms ever break down...
Swan Er Hong is an artist, and a completely self-centred and extraordinarily
unsympathetic and obnoxious character who is living on Mercury when we first meet her. I
simply cannot see how, throughout the course of the novel, so many people prove to be so
fond of her. I kept hoping that someone would throw her out of the airlock and leave her
to the fate she so richly deserved. But nobody did...
Swans grandmother Alex, a redoubtable politician,has died. Alex was occupied with
some secret conspiracy and in her will, she asks Swan to deliver a message to a diplomat
on Titan. The conspiracy is so secret that the message cannot be delivered electronically
for fear of who might be eavesdropping.
And so the stage is set for a vast travelogue around the solar system. Interplanetary
distances are absorbed by captured asteroids which have been hollowed out, to build a
living space inside, and which have a mass driver attached to the back. Not only are there
many quirky societies developing on the planets and moons, the crews and passengers in the
asteroids are also uniquely bizarre.
The solar system is a huge and disparate culture which is literally too large to be
described and absorbed in a conventional narrative. And so Robinson has chosen to revive
the stylistic tricks used by John Dos Passos and John Brunner in their attempts to
describe large, sprawling societies. And here Robinson fails completely to convince. One
reason that Dos Passos and Brunner succeeded so brilliantly was that they interspersed
their narrative with extracts from newspapers, radio programs and television shows (and if
they were writing today, they'd probably show us bits of blog as well). These interstitial
extracts had a bouncy and often dramatic life of their own which entertained as well as
filling in the details of what Brunner referred to as the happening world. But
Robinson has surrounded his narrative with sections he calls Extracts (though
he never tells us what they are extracted from). And these extracts are nothing but
tedious infodumps with no life to them at all. I suspect that they are not extracts at all
they read as if they are literal transcriptions of Robinson's research notes and
speculations. They bring the narrative to a resounding and deadly dull halt whenever they
Not that the narrative is exactly fast moving in its own right. The story meanders
through vast travelogues and long conversations where not much happens. Only when the
conspiracy to regenerate the dying earth comes together towards the end of the book do
things start to pick up. But before you get there, there is an awful lot of turgid
speculation to put up with as Robinson lectures the reader about the politics, economics,
social history and scientific progress of his worldbuilding.
Frankly, if he's that interested in worldbuilding (and he obviously is), he would
probably have done better to write the book as a non-fiction treatise. As it is, it still
comes across as a treatise, albeit with a dull story and an extraordinarily annoying
viewpoint character wrapped around it.