Fiction Reviews


(2012) Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, pbk, £8.99, 562pp, ISBN 978-1-841-49998-7


2013 sees the first paperback edition of the 2012 hardback. The title of his latest novel, 2312, is the year three hundred years hence in which this novel is set.

In the intervening centuries the Earth has become resource depleted, suffered a major biodiversity crisis, become overpopulated and globally warmed. The seas are several metres higher than now, some of Greenland's ice has gone, and extreme weather events do not help. But science and its resulting technology has advanced. Humanity has spread out to all the planets. These space colonies now in turn nourish the Earth and its masses with metals and food conveyed down via space elevators.

Swan lives on Mercury. She used to walk the slowly rotating planet's surface just ahead of dawn. Now she lives in Mercury's moving city Terminator (shades of Chris Priest's Inverted World) that also travels the surface ahead of sunrise, but on a giant rail system that uses the daylight's thermal expansion to propel the city ever forward. Swan's grandmother has just died and Swan is surprised when she stumbles on a message to her from her deceased relative to convey coded information to others further out in the Solar system. She has in effect been given a mission that will eventually take her on a tour of the Solar system. There is a conspiracy afoot and Swan has inadvertently become embroiled in those who would foil it…

Kim Stanley Robinson is known for his epic stories be they the 'Capitol Hill' (Forty Signs of Rain) trilogy, 'Mars' trilogy or giant The Years of Rice and Salt. Though I do remember a time when he did give us tighter works (such as Icehenge (1984)). However he is hugely popular and in no small part because he attracts the attention of those further away from hard SF as well as hard SF readers. He packs his books with ideas both SFnal as well as social observational and so not surprising this ramps up the word count. His readers accompany him not just for the ride (getting from 'a' to 'b' along an interesting plot) but also the view afforded of the world (or as often as not 'worlds') going by. And this is what we get in 2312: not just a conspiracy terrorist plot, in both senses of the word, but a tour of the Solar system.

In fact with 2312 Kim Stanley Robinson could barely fit it all in and so the book features several small chapters of just two or three pages that are in essence info-dumps. There is so much to delight and intrigue that it may be that some of the ideas may not to be to a reader's individual tastes. Fir instance, I myself found the notion of some interplanetary liners being large cylinders in which the passengers floated in the dark for their duration both odd and a little out of step with the novel's largely mundane SF portrayals: such liners would need artificial gravity control to stop the occupants being squashed with every acceleration, deceleration or course correction. However I could see the artsy attraction of the idea of passengers being kept in the dark as if low-tech citizens while they themselves were transported through the darkness of space using high tech. But even if a minority of Kim Stanley Robinson's ideas for some readers jar a little, not to worry as there will be another along with a couple of turns of the page.

Two that did delight/intrigue me were the novels classification of historic time period and that of biomes both on Earth and in space habitats. He notes that the feudal period was followed by the Renaissance and that this in turn was followed by the Early Modern (17th and 18th centuries), the Modern (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) and the postmodern (twentieth and twenty-first centuries). In 2312 the post-modern becomes extended into the long postmodern which is in turn subdivided. I loved the name for the first sub-division, 2005 – 2060 'The Dithering', the wasted years in which climate change though known was not addressed. (Robinson could have as easily included the Ehrlich-Meadows-Beddington mid-twenty-first century 'perfect storm.) Then came 'The Crisis' (2060-2130) followed by 'The Turnaround' (2130-2160) and 'The Accelerando' (2160-2220); the latter made me think of Charles Stross.  With his biome classification (a biome being an assemblage of ecosystems such as tropical rain forest or boreal tundra) Kim Stanley Robinsin has to come up with a generic term to the mass of hotchpotch mix of species found in many space station habitats that are hybrids of natural Earth biomes. He calls these mixes 'Ascensions'. Now there is in real biology the term 'recombinant ecology' but I had never heard of Ascensions. This, it is explained in 2312 stems from Charles Darwin (followed by others) bringing species to the barren rock of Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic. In fact I might start using this myself and see if it catches on in ecology… (I am being only half serious here, but I am not saying which half.)

And so with 2312 we have a thriller wrapped up in a travelogue that together amounts to a future history all jam-packed to bursting with ideas, concepts and wry observations on our present planetary predicament (as viewed through possible future outcomes). Add in Kim Stanley Robinson's writing track record and it will come as no surprise that 2312 has been nominated for a Hugo and a BSFA awards as well as at the beginning of the year (2013) selected by some of our SF2 Concatenation team as one of the best SF Books of 2012. Indeed it won this year's Nebula. In the face of all of this can I do anything but give 2312 a decided thumbs up.

Jonathan Cowie

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