Every few years I’ll think that I don’t read enough science fiction, and that I should dive into some hard SF opus or other, have my mind expanded by all the intergalactic worldgalaxy-building, quantum-powered futurology, and whatnot. My effort for 2016 was 2012’s 2312. And boy was it an effort.
This well-reviewed, Nebula-award winning novel from Kim Stanley Robinson is stuffed with plausible science and technofantasy. It’s packed with interesting ideas: asteroids terraformed from the inside out; the balkanisation of the settled solar system that forms the plot’s political backdrop; the mercurial gender fluidity that propels (kinda) the love story between the two protagonists.
Top marks for the Science. For the Fiction end of things, ehh, not so much.
The best prose is reserved for phenomena. Sunrise on Mercury is “a perpetual blue snarl of hot and hotter”, the sun’s corona dancing fantastically, “all the magnetized arcs and short circuits, the masses of burning hydrogen pitched out at the night”. These passages are enjoyably poetic, but in the main they merely describe, and seldom advance the plot or reveal character.
Human-scale interactions are clumsy, and at times clichéd.Coffee cups are waved around excitedly. The “heroine”, Swan Er Hong (admittedly a great name), beats her tiny fists in frustration against the oversized chest of the “hero”, Wahram.
Props to Robinson for his prescience in populating his novel with gender-fluid characters, in advance of the gender debate going mainstream. At one point he lists 30-odd different genders, and there is a sex scene wherein each party is both – erm – docker and docked. (An inventive, if completely unsexy scene.)
But this gender fluidity has negligible effect on the plot, and less on the characters. Swan is currently more female than male, Wahram more male than female, and as per the fist-beating scene above, there’s nothing aside from the bare facts of birthing history and gentials to give any sense of what that all might mean for their identity, their personality, their character.
Similarly, by now humans have begun speciation, with “talls” and “smalls” hailing from different areas in the solar system. But does this have much bearing on the narrative? Only once, during a gravity failure on an evacuating spaceship:
Genette stumped about them, cheerfully giving orders, and they dragged Wahram to a wall with a railing. Once there Wahram was able to pull himself along on his knees, red-faced and gasping. He fixed Genette with a bulbous eye.
“Thank you, I can proceed now. Please go help someone who can’t. I’m happy to see how the laws of proportion help you here, my friend.”
The inspector paused briefly to mime a stalwart boxer’s stance. “Every small takes up the call! None never yet died by natural cause!”
The boxer’s stance, the clunky dialogue… yeesh! In fact that whole episode is a nadir, with conversations about whether the ship’s insurance will compensate everyone EVACUATED INTO SPACE, and regular reassurances that everyone is going to/has escaped the vessel unharmed, and merely has to wait around to be collected. OK, so Wahram and Swan float around a while, but on a ship with hundreds (thousands?) of people, there are no casualties?
And here’s the worst fault. THERE ARE NO STAKES. There is a world-remaking event on Earth, which is planned sketchily, executed undramatically, and has absolutely no consequences. There is a flimsy mystery, with distant actors. Swan meets no resistance in her attempts to clear it all up, which she does a good hundred pages (if not more) after the mystery has been clear for even the most oblivious reader. There is danger at the start of the book, which arrives without foreshadowing or warning, and which is followed by MULTIPLE chapters of WALKING, interspersed only with whistling and episodes of diahrrea.
It was vexing at the time, now I spell it out like that, it’s downright baffling. And that’s one of the stronger sections of the book. As it goes on, the writing becomes more uneven. There are sentences so downright baffling that they only make sense as placeholders of a work in progress:
Everything on the water moved at a watery pace, including the water itself.
And it’s a real shame, because – digressions on space economics aside (shades of The Phantom Menace) – the interesting ideas never stop flowing. Interstitial chapters function as brain dumps for a lot of this background, written in snippets as if excavated from found documents, though it left me wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to have incorporated all that world-building in the narrative, saving leftover concepts for another work.
I want to remember this book for this kind of thing:
if you program a purpose into a computer program, does that constitute its will? Does it have free will, if a programmer programmed its purpose? Is that programming any different from the way we are programmed by our genes and brains? Is a programmed will a servile will? Is human will a servile will? And is not the servile will the home and source of all feelings of defilement, infection, transgression, and rage?
But it’s too much to have to wade through all that clunkiness, the cliché and unintentional comedy. I rarely leave a book unfinished, so persisted with this, but redemption never came, and it’ll be another few years before I dare scratch the hard sci-fi itch again.