attempt to define the best science-fiction writers of this
generation is bound to be contentious, but the fact that one
volume of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy was
included in the payload of the Phoenix Mars Lander is
testimony to his status as a master of the genre.
His latest novel, 2312, is a beautifully realised
future history that combines a sweeping view of humanity's
diaspora into space with an intensely personal love story
that is as good as anything he has written to date.
The setting will be familiar to anyone who has read his other
works; Earth has been ravaged by global warming but
technological advances, including terraforming, have provided
a temporary solution to the crisis, with those who can living
in colonies scattered throughout the solar system or in
hollowed-out asteroids, called terraria, that form entire,
enclosed miniature worlds of their own.
The remaining population on Earth resent these settlements
despite being dependent upon them for food and other
resources, while off-worlders are forced to return regularly
despite it being "so dirty and old, so oppressive, such a
failure", because too long a time living in reduced gravity
greatly decreases life expectancy.
Despite this interdependence, and the often fragile existence
of off-world settlements - only Mars has been fully
terraformed - the proliferation of colonies has also enabled
the establishment of multiple varieties of social and
economic order, ranging from anarcho-capitalism to a managed
co-operative system known as Mondragonism.
The subsequent cultural and interplanetary isolationism
threatens to precipitate a crisis even more serious than that
which forced humans from Earth. Although obvious only in
retrospect, events initiated in the year 2312 ultimately
determined the future direction of humanityThe central
character of the novel, Swan Er Hong, is an artist and former
terrarium designer whose adult life has been spent avoiding
entanglement in political, social or personal affairs. Then
two events in close succession force her to re-evaluate her
First her grandmother dies, entrusting her with posthumous
messages to key individuals in an organisation working to
extend the Mondragon Accord throughout the solar system in an
attempt to promote co-operation between Earth and the
colonies. Then Swan's home, a city that circumnavigates
Mercury at the boundary between night and day, is destroyed
by an attack thought to have originated from Earth, and she
finds herself involved in the hunt both for the perpetrators
and a resolution to the interplanetary tensions that threaten
to spiral out of control.
In the process, she finds herself working closely with some
of her grandmother's former colleagues, and begins to
reconsider whether she wishes to continue to live in
emotional isolation or open herself to the pain and pleasure
of loving and being loved.
Stanley Robinson is a gifted storyteller, but the real genius
of this novel lies in its careful and subtle structure. The
characters are complex and satisfyingly three-dimensional and
their relationships form the central focus of the novel,
while the complex historical and socio-political context is
introduced in a series of excerpts, lists and "random walks"
that intersperse the main narrative.
Although brief and partial, it is easy to piece together the
wider context of events, and the science underlying the story
is as satisfyingly realised as its character-driven core. It
also addresses important contemporary issues without straying
into didacticism, something that cannot be said of some of my
other favourite writers in recent years.
2312 is certainly one of the best novels in any genre
that I have read this year, and a must-read for hard and soft
sci-fi fans alike.
• Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.