Kim Stanley Robinson, essentially since the publication of Red Mars in 1984, has been one of science fiction’s most well-known, if not popular writers. Possessing a fertile imagination, yet one grounded in the sciences, his science fiction visions have been as vast as they have been credible. But given the awards and recognition, none seem to have captured readers like his 2013 novel 2312.
Robinson seeming to have premised himself with the concept: what could the solar system be like two hundred years from now?, 2312 is essentially the concept of the Mars trilogy expanded to our solar system, told in the mode of detective/romance (more later). The novel kicks off with the death of a prominent scientist living on Mercury. Mourning her death, a colleague, a woman named Swan, is contacted by a man named Wahram, asking if the scientist left any info for others to follow up on. None to be found, Wahram asks Swan to join him for a visit to one of Jupiter’s moons to inquire further with another scientist named Wang, a man who was equally involved in research on artificial intelligence. A nasty surprise waiting Swan when she returns to Mercury, there is a new twist on life in the solar system, and things may never be the same for mankind.
If Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre can be said to operate around a locus of ideas, then 2312 includes most of them. From terraforming to gerontology, global warming to mankind’s primitive roots, biodiversity to classical music, 2312 seems to have almost all of it. In creating his vision of the solar system 200 years from now, Robinson terraforms Mars (again), Mercury, Venus, the moons of the gas giants, even Earth, and turns the asteroids littering the solar system into interplanetary vehicles. To this vision Robinson adds the fluidity of gender and artificial intelligence (in cyberpunk form) to complete the novel’s idea mix.
And a mix it is, for better or worse. Despite the vast quantities of knowledge and imagination, 2312 is not Robinson’s strongest novel. Lacking in terms of comprehensiveness, the novel can at times feel like a line of vignettes strung together by a thin whodunit/love plot. Many of these vignettes memorable (e.g. the vision of human life inhabiting Mercury is strikingly palpable—the veritable stuff of science fiction) and some scary (e.g. the contrast of life in the terraformed asteroids to poverty stricken, flooded Earth), all occupy different places in the mental map to form a wider view of an inhabited solar system. Ideologically and narratively, however, the view is not as thorough. The environmental message sections, for as important as they may be, can feel more like digressions than valuable contributions to narrative, just as the whodunit mystery can feel like wire and duct tape (not to mention throwback sf) trying to hold the vignettes together. And the romance, well, each reader will have their own say whether Robinson properly motivates it.
I haven’t done the exact research, but I would guess 2312 is Robinson’s most recognized novel in terms of awards; nominations and trophies, there are many. Having now read the novel, and knowing sf awards are largely popularity based, the reason is clear: 2312 is a hard sf detective/romance with the type of sensawunda visions of terraformed planets and asteroids that really speak to the mainstream sf crowd. Another way of saying this is, the novel lacks the coherent story of Shaman, the strong theme of Aurora, and the tight focus of the Orange County books. Robinson has written better, more cohesive novels. But for someone looking for an introduction to the man’s style, imagination, and outlook, 2312 may be the most inclusive thus far.