…until we reach the future of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, or at least that calendar year. If Robinson’s book follows the trend of other books predicting the state of the world in certain years, then (NSA scandal aside, Orwell fans), probably the world of 299 years from now will not resemble the world in his book. And that’s a shame.
What I think I can say pretty confidently is that even if the world looks nothing like Robinson’s fantastic future of bubble worlds, cities on rails, experimental bodies, planetary ring-surfing, crater-sized art, and ultra-smart AIs, the people will be very much like his people. They will be bold, artistic, introverted, curious, loving, cruel, desperate, longing, confused, compassionate, social, secretive, and in every other way as human as we are, as the people who lived in 1712 were. Robinson has always had a firm grasp on what humans are like, as well as the questions we all repeatedly ask ourselves, and that experience lies at the heart of 2312.
And what a big heart it is. Played out against the canvas of our solar system in a rich, broad palette, the story nominally follows 130-year-old Swan’s attempt to deal with her grief over losing her grandmother Alex, and then her attempt to find out more about her grandmother’s secret project. Other “agents,” friends of her grandmother, contact her, and together they piece together what Alex was trying to keep off the computers while Swan seeks out company and then rejects it, attempting to give voice to the confusion and loneliness she feels (which sometimes, paradoxically, is best soothed by retreating from all other humans).
The plot and world share Robinson’s love of intricate complexity and yet remain highly accessible to the reader. I found “Red Mars” engaging but ultimately too dense and not quite my cup of tea; “2312” is possibly a longer book but it flows more easily, skipping ahead and enticing the reader to follow along with the promise of new delights on the next page. It’s the kind of book that makes me wish I could write it, and at the same time it seems to tell me that it’s okay that I can’t.
I have read a few of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books (“The Wild Shore” was one of my favorite books for several years). I also had the good fortune to meet him briefly a couple years ago, but honestly, I think I know him better from his books than from one evening of conversation in a group. And “2312” is very much his book. It demonstrates a capacity to think and imagine, to follow details and trends, to imagine humans playing in a sandbox the size of the solar system and yet playing the same games we have played for centuries, games of power and romance. And underneath it all is the sense of how much the author cares about people, about our Earth, about our future, and how much he wants it to succeed. It is a very optimistic book, and a joyful one. And although it starts with a death (not an uncommon theme), it celebrates life.
So when I say I wish I could write a book like this, I mean that I am envious of the skill and concentration and imagination on display in its pages. But knowing Robinson through his other works, I know that these are his gifts, not necessarily mine. But what this book urges me to do is to write the best book that is still my book, that embodies the qualities I cherish and highlights the things I do well. And I think that is not just my reading into the story; that message is there on its pages. Each of us can excel at being ourself, and no matter what tools we are given to express that, the job falls to us to use them the best way we can. So I came away from it a bit envious, yes, but also smiling and hopeful.
“2312” is beautiful, touching, sad, and inspirational. It will take you a while to read, even if you read it on several plane flights and then in your hotel room trying to get over jetlag. But you will be glad you did.