2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

So as I went over my notes on when I was reading this book, I think they can be summarized as “Reasons Why I Hate This Book”. However, since the book has been nominated for the Hugo, the Arthur C Clarke Award and won the Nebula Award for Best Science-Fiction Novel, I feel like I have to justify why it wasn’t a particularly satisfying read for me.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, the date is given by the title and our solar system is a very different place.  Humans have terraformed and colonised every inhabitable planet and moon. Asteroids have been repurposed as long-haul shuttles, self-contained habitats that people live on for years or months till they reach their destination. Mercury supports a city called Terminator, which is a shielded habitat that travels around the planet on rails, pushed forward by the thermal expansion of metal at sunrise.

The protagonist is Swan Er Hong, a native of Terminator, and grand-daughter of Alex, one of the most powerful women in the solar system. Swan is impulsive, erratic and emotionally intense. Her past is full of outrageous risks and extreme creativity: having songbirds neurons implanted into her brain, eating extra-terrestrial bacteria, designing habitats in the asteroid belt and creating art on the plains of Mercury. The story opens with Swan mourning Alex’s death. An inspector from the asteroids and a diplomat from Titan (Fitz Wahram) enter her life, and Swan finds out that Alex’s death may not be due to natural causes. And then Mercury is attacked, making the situation really complicated.

Now, while all of this may sound really promising, why I thought 2312 was nothing more than an ambitious failure was its lack of a coherent storyline. Robinson has imagined a truly amazing world, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The characters don’t seem to have any concept of fiscal or practical limitation. They head across the solar system on a moment’s notice, take vacations on random asteroids and seem to have a free hand in messing with the Earth’s already too-fucked environment, with next to no repercussions.

In structure, 2312 is supposed to be a murder mystery. Swan and Wahram witnessed the attack on Terminator, survived it and then investigate it, which in turn leads them to the pre-existing fault lines their society. The problems with this are that the society hasn’t been described coherently enough for the reader to grasp the potential fault lines and Robinson has no idea about how to construct a mystery plot. Swan and Wahram’s approach is very disjointed, there is no sense of gathering clues and very little sense of drama. All of the plot revelations are dropped in Swan’s lap by another character at a convenient moment. The characters essentially do no meaningful investigation and show no investment in the outcome of the plot. When the climax comes, it is very 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.

At the end, I would like to say that 2312 is not all that bad. The protagonists are memorable, and Robinson was brilliant at world-building and at writing the set pieces. However, the book lacked a plot and the characters needed a more coherent and complete cultural backdrop. Without these, the book just felt like reading about gorgeous moments separated by a whole lot of boring, and gave the overall impression of a construction tour rather than a story. There are bits of it I loved (especially the extended characterisation of Swam and Wahram in the tunnels of Mercury) but the book as a whole is a mess, and I can’t recommend wading through it for the good parts.

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2 thoughts on “2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

  1. I love KSR and I enjoyed 2312, but I get everything you are saying. Interludes are his thing and it does put the plot on hold. KSR also knows a few things about economics, he gives talks on the subject, but I never quite understand the expensive lifestyles of his space worlds. Great review and all good points.

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