Kim Stanley Robinson – 2312

Though the chief dramatic action of the plot is furnished by the attempted destructions of colonized Mercury and Venus via spontaneous asteroid formations stealthily agglomerated by rogue quantum AIs acting in interplanetary concert, this book feels frustratingly far from Earth-shattering. Though voluntary hermaphroditism by means of genetic self-modification is commonplace in its universe (solar system, at least), the events and the tenor of character interactions are curiously impregnable to the profounder emotions. Though set three hundred years in the future its style feels behind the times. One could continue with the second-rate homespun cornpone punnery, but it does limit the seriousness and the deserved praise of the review.

2312 is impressive for its breadth of scope, not only in its myriad physical locales and environments – all extensively and effectively imaged – but more notably in its inclusion of cultural appreciation and social theory into the foreign landscapes and the personalities of the heroes. The late work of Beethoven is discussed to an extent almost equal to the exhaustive cookbooklike description of biome terraformation of asteroids; characters enjoy themselves in art galleries, on the run in borderline psychedelic encounters with the nearby Sun, and surfing the rings of Saturn in addition to the typical milieux of laboratories and futuristic cities, all of which together lend the story an aromatically potpourri aura highly unusual for sci-fi or any fiction.

One of the book’s highlights are its brief “quantum walk” sections, in which the highly intelligent mind of the story’s quantum computers is simulated – the prose becomes experimental, suggestive of new ways of thought and experience and thereby new ways of receiving a story. But there are only a few of these, sadly, because the lion’s-share-remainder of the writing is often painfully traditional. Exposition is a tricky thing with science fiction, since clearly much more is needed than in other genres to explain the nuances of a vastly different world, but too much of it tends to feel clunky and regressive in that it has to be written in either a very straightforward and didactic manner or a sort of reversion to other genre techniques like the potboiler narrator. Here the author attempts a different form, the interpolation of “fragments” of historical or analytical data around the current action, which does make things a bit more palatable – however, the “regular” text is still riddled with lengthy explanations, and even the diversionary pieces suffer from a profusion of detail at times that leaves little of future technological praxis to the imagination, as if simply to emphasize the “hardness” of the concepts, which unfortunately can kill a good deal of the wonder.

The characters, as diverse and as augmented as they may be, never seem to express themselves in ways that allow the reader to truly enter their space or empathize with them. The two main characters do feel emotions, for they are described as such at different times, yet the writing never really inhabits them directly by altering prose with perspective or allowing for the niggling existential worries of life, and so the audience experiences the shifts on a superficial level, like status updates on a social network. The idea of their distinct personalities meshing is appealing, but these personalities are too shallowly sketched to incite caring one way or the other. The story on the whole is rather weak – a happy ending at a wedding is nearly inexcusable – and seems too transparently to serve as a vehicle for the author’s albeit interesting speculations on what the future might look like. As with the characters, the events are never really allowed to accumulate the weight that attracts readers away from (or better, transcend) their own; there is a pebble-mob in there, one senses, but the author’s qubes don’t quite put it all together.

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