Reviewed by Galen Strickland
"There is no alternative to continuing to struggle."
Winner of the 2012 Nebula, this novel is set approximately one hundred years further along the same timeline as Robinson's Mars Trilogy. We are currently about six years away from his fictional first manned landing on Mars (2020), and thirteen from the first terraforming efforts (2027). Even though the trilogy was an attempt at a realistic depiction of how that could happen, it is full of future tech which is hard to imagine being developed within that time frame. It is possible that some of them are right around the corner...or else it was necessary for him to fabricate them to tell the story the way he wanted. 2312 is full of similar hard-to-imagine tech, so much so that it reads almost as a space opera or science fantasy rather than hard SF. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Toward the end of the trilogy (2215), there was mention of proposed extra-solar expeditions. It is possible that a few craft have been launched toward other stars, but the majority of the years between the two stories has been taken up with terraforming other planets and moons of the gas giants, as well as creating a new and unique method of interplanetary travel. Many asteroids of the right size and shape have been hollowed out and set to spin at different velocities to simulate various levels of gravity. The interiors are referred to as terraria, each an attempt to recreate various Earth biomes and populate them with the appropriate flora and fauna, most of which are endangered on the mother planet. Some are almost exclusively aquaria instead, either fresh water or salt, home to fish and aquatic mammals. Others are simply designed for aesthetic reasons and resemble recognizable resort destinations. These asteroids are also the main method of travel between the worlds. A propulsion system is attached to the aft end, with a control center and observation platform on the foreward end. If one wishes to travel from Mercury to Venus, or Earth to Mars, or from Mars to Saturn's moon Titan, there are a multitude of choices in terraria to take, depending on the experience one wishes to have along the way.
The main character in the novel, Swan Er Hong, was a terraria designer in her youth, later an experimental artist in and around her home on Mercury. The city of Terminator perpetually moves along tracks so as to keep on the darkside of the slowly rotating planet. This is yet another of the technological marvels that might be hard for some readers to accept. While I can see the advantage of a scientific base on the first planet out from the sun, it's hard to envision the social structure that has been adopted by the millions who call Mercury home, let alone the feats of engineering necessary to create Terminator in the first place. Even closer to Sol, Robinson postulates the long-rumored Vulcanoids, small, tidal-locked asteroids that inhabit the region within Mercury's orbit. He has scientific bases on their darksides, with mirrored antennas that transmit light and energy from the sun to the other inhabited worlds.
The only thing that makes any of this believable is the inclusion of the AIs and self-replicating manufacturing robots that were introduced in the earlier trilogy. Several times it was stated that all that was necessary was to feed the right information into the AIs and the job would be accomplished in a short period of time. At the same time as these advances in physical/material engineering, there were also great strides in bio-engineering, the first of which was the DNA repair therapies developed by several of the original Mars colonists. Long life spans are a given, although with the variety of dangerous experiences available very few people die of natural causes. Other gene-therapy techniques are causing a distinct speciation of humanity. One can alter their body structure for different planetary conditions, leading some to become "smalls," maturing to only about a third the size of "normal" humans. Many have also chosen to alter their sexual makeup, either switching genders or becoming hermaphroditic. During her lifetime, Swan has been both host-mother and a father to different offspring. These elements reminded me often of things John Varley has done, mostly in his Eight Worlds sequence of novels and stories, and the transformation of the asteroids harks back to several of Greg Bear's books. That's okay though. There are very few writers who don't mine previous work for ideas, it's the way they develop and execute those ideas in their own stories that we must judge.
As well as being a forward-looking visionary, Robinson is also aware that our future is always inextricably tied to our past, so it is appropriate there are several historical references to things that are going on in this book. Mercury, Venus and the Saturn League are united in a business and political arrangement known as the Mondragon Accord, named for the town in the Basque region of Spain which is known for its unique cooperative business philosophy based on humanism (original meaning). This philosophy of cooperation is reinforced several times in the book with reference to Philip Glass' opera Satyagraha, based on ideas expressed by Mohandas Gandhi. The Sanskrit word itself means "insistence on truth." Swan refers to some of her artwork as goldsworthies, which is a reference to current British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Other cultural references indicate an amalgamation of both new and classic elements, including music, literature and the theatrical arts. Robinson's vocabulary is also vast, and even though I normally think the same of myself, there were several times I had to resort to the dictionary for certain terms. I was already familiar with a word he used frequenly in the Mars trilogy. Labile means apt to change depending on conditions, something humanity is experiencing in this imagined future.
I did enjoy this book, and am anxious to see if Robinson continues along this same timeline in future books. However, if I was to criticize anything about this one it would be that he attempted to do too much. There are several different themes that could have been developed separately into satisfactory stories, and yet I'm still unsure about the conclusion, or lack thereof, to a couple of them. The social structures of the various worlds could have been explored further, along with the political options each of them has. He could have made the story mostly about the technology, or delved deeper into how that technology was transforming humanity on a personal level. All of these things are touched on, but never in enough detail, and he kept switching back and forth between characters and the worlds they were on at the moment. There is also a major mystery introduced, and while I think Robinson felt he solved it, we only have the word of one character for that. I don't want to spoil anything about that mystery, but I will say that it involves the next stage in computer science, the creation of quantum computers, or qubes. They are much faster at calculations than the best digital AIs, plus they are small enough for personal use, much as we use smartphones today. Swan's qube is small enough to be embedded in her skull, and she has nicknamed it Pauline. Another thing I'm not sure about; more than once it was mentioned that a certain date in 2312 was a major turning point. But which one? It could be August 5, the events of which were later referred to as the Reanimation of Earth. Or was it October 11? Unfortunately, I can't say anything about that since it involves the previously mentioned mystery.
In spite of these few quibbles, it's a very good book, full of grandiose ideas about how humanity might transform the future. The characters aren't as richly drawn or as easy to identify with as those in the Mars trilogy, but still memorable. At the same time they are changing the physical makeup of their worlds and their own bodies, humans still remain human in regards their mental configuration. Some are loners like Swan, others are energetic activists like her ex-wife Zasha on Earth. Some are naive but hopeful of better things for their future, like Kiran, a young man who rescues Swan from kidnapping on Earth, to be rewarded with a job off-planet. Others, like Fitz Wahram, are selfless ambassadors seeking truth and justice for their people and their world; or the "small," Jean Genette, tireless investigator for the Interplanetary Police. In the end, all of them, even the loner Swan, realize that if humanity is to survive and overcome all obstacles in its path, it is necessary for them to cooperate, as well as accept others for who and what they are. They know they must be labile.
This is not Robinson's best work, although it will take a lot more reading and re-reading before I can determine which one should be so honored. The best case scenario would be to hope that his best is yet to come. It is vastly superior to the Hugo winner, Redshirts, and I was surprised that 2312 didn't get repeat wins last year, although those are the only two of the Hugo nominees I've read so far.
My review of Robinson's Mars Trilogy
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