In a vision of the future, a critique of our present ills
04/08/2012 9 Comments
Re-posted from this weekend’s Irish Examiner, my review of the latest Kim Stanley Robinson novel. It was great to be able to tackle this book after having attended a discussion between Robinson and Iain M. Banks at the British Library back in June. There, Robinson spoke in some detail about his his thoughts on utopias, the environment, and the future of space exploration, all cornerstones of 2312‘s fictional universe. A really terrific event.
Also, a sidebar which is really of no interest to anyone but me, but I wrote up this article on a train somewhere between Battle Creek, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana, during my recent visit to the States. I finally got to live the journalistic dream of dispatching articles from exotic locales… such as the Amtrak!
Review: Val Nolan
Having picked over an exhausted Realism, literary critics are turning more and more to science fiction for allegorical considerations of social, environmental, and economic ills. Erroneously considered a low art, the best of contemporary SF is to be found in the imaginative richness and intellectual rigour of Californian’s Kim Stanley Robinson, an opponent of capitalism’s exploitation of landscape and community.
Author of the fêted trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars (1993, 1994 and 1996, respectively), as well as 2010’s Galileo’s Dream, Robinson’s latest is a true marriage of the speculative and the historical. It is a credible future history; the story of humanity 300 years from now, a Balkanised race in the midst of accelerated speciation, which has terraformed Mars, the satellites of the outer solar system, and the dense, hellish atmosphere of our tormented neighbour Venus.
While Robinson revels in detailed descriptions of the massive geo-hacking required to accomplish such things, the heart of 2312 is his protagonist, Swan Er Hong, a lapsed terraformer mercurial in personality as well as by birth. As an artist, Swan is a different kind of hero than Robinson’s typical geologists and geneticists. She is impulsive and emotional, engaging in dangerous activities like surfing the gravity waves of Saturn’s rings or circumnavigating her scorched home-world on foot as “Mercury rotates so slowly you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn”.
Such a temperament allows Swan to channel the frustrations of the entire solar system, a human race ashamed of its overheated, overpopulated cradle. Earth, ironically the only planet resistant to terraforming, is a developmental sink flooded by uncontrolled global warming and “decisively under the thumb of late capitalism”. 2312 is the year its future will be decided and, despite the growing spectre of rogue artificial-intelligence, the real villain of this novel is often humanity itself.
In illustrating this, Robinson riffs brilliantly on the multimedia inter-chapters of John Don Passos’s USA Trilogy. Interspersed throughout Swan’s story are glorious lists and fragments from technical documents, popular histories, and geological nomenclature which serve to flesh out the solar system, from the craters of Mercury to an ambitious plan to “stellarise” Neptune by igniting the gassy ice-giant into a second sun. The result is a powerfully realised vision of our potential, as well as a fierce critique of our many flaws.
Swan herself lies between these poles, a fiercely ideological and inventive woman exasperated by the disappointments of bureaucracy, small-mindedness, and petty human jealousy. Her efforts to save Earth’s biosphere are heady stuff, but then Robinson’s great gift has always been depicting big-idea SF in identifiable terms. A case in point is the genuine wonder experienced by the reader at the spectacular return of endangered animals to Earth; another is Swan’s growing awareness that terrorism is as likely to be economic as it is explosive. That point, in particular, distinguishes 2312 as a novel rooted in the concerns of the present and Robinson as an author with his finger on the pulse of history, whatever the century.
This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 4th August 2012, p.17.
Other posts you may enjoy:
- ‘Too Brief a History of a Great Man of our Times‘; my Irish Examiner review of Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work.
- Responding to New Scientist‘s Guide to Humanity’s Next 100,000 years.