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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 situation.
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.