By Jeff VanderMeer, Special to the Los Angeles Times
July 8, 2012
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit: 576 pp., $25.99
As the author of the "Mars" trilogy, among other novels, Kim Stanley Robinson has established a superlative reputation for science fictional extrapolation. In his vibrant, often moving new novel, "2312," Robinson's extrapolation is hard-wired to a truly affecting personal love story.
By the year of the book's title, humankind has (just barely) survived global warming, in part because of terra-forming technologies that have made possible the colonization of Mars, Mercury and Venus. Asteroids and moons have been transformed into a bewildering variety of biospheres. Personal artificial intelligences called "qubes" augment reasoning, and humans have gone well beyond traditional family units, with gender a fluid and self-determined part of one's identity. Meanwhile, Earth has become an ever more degraded place in which China is a major power with considerable influence throughout the solar system.
Against this backdrop, Robinson introduces readers to the remarkable Swan Er Hong, a creator of biospheres who enjoys taking risks like experiencing the deadly fringe of Mercury's dawn, a "perpetual blue snarl of hot and hotter" that could easily kill her and her fellow sunwalkers. As the novel opens, Swan is attending the funeral of Alex, her grandmother, "my everything." The death may not have been accidental, given the nature of Alex's research. In fact, Alex may have come too close to uncovering part of a conspiracy to attack and destabilize off-Earth governments and biomes. When Swan discovers secret messages from Alex in a wall mirror, and she realizes Alex was looking into irregularities among the qubes, she is quickly caught up in a deadly conflict against unknown forces.
But the often mind-blowing scope of "2312" is eclipsed by Robinson's genius-level portrait of one of the greatest odd couples in the history of science fiction. For, at the funeral, Swan makes the fateful acquaintance of the Titan diplomat Fitz Wahram, another of Alex's close associates. Wahram is a big, toad-like man — "prognathous, callipygous, steatopygous" — with a "deep gravelly voice." The truly inspired juxtaposition of the mercurial, bird-like Swan with Wahram's steadiness and size is played for both comic and serious effect.
After an attack on a Mercury city, the trust between Swan and Wahram grows when the two must seek safety by traveling for days through an underground tunnel. These prolonged, brilliantly conceived scenes, with Swan often sick because of radiation, skillfully show the awkwardness between the two, their eccentricities, the difficulties in their budding relationship, and yet also their mutual respect and affection.
Indeed later, during an argument, Wahram asks Swan, "Were we in the tunnel together, or not?"— a wise and resonant reminder of the ways in which shared experience forges deep bonds.
Surviving the Mercury attack only hardens their resolve to honor Alex's work by getting to the bottom of things, aided by Inspector Jean Genette from the asteroid league. Swan's suspicions about her own qube amplify the tension, as do encounters with strangely human qubes. The twists and turns that follow — taking the two to Saturn's moons, Venus and Earth — are compelling and mysterious, with Robinson making readers feel the full weight of the stakes.
Adding depth are chapters titled "Lists" and "Extracts," which Robinson scatters throughout "2312" in a virtuoso display of kinetic exposition. By novel's end, the reader has pieced together the entire future leading to this year through these fascinating morsels, which also add depth of character. For example, what appears to be Swan's "done/to do list" consists of items such as "Spending five hours in a spacesuit with only four hours of air."
"2312" also contains moments of utterly jaw-dropping audacity, especially when Wahram and Swan come up with a plan to rejuvenate Earth that involves the off-world biomes tasked with protecting species diversity. Without ruining the surprise, there is a scene in "2312" — "It looked like a dream, but she knew it was real" — in which readers, especially those aware of our current environmental issues, may literally gasp and be moved half to tears.
At one point, as the strands of the plot begin to come together (perhaps just a touch too neatly), Swan and Wahram are floating in space and hoping for rescue. As they wait in that uncertain time and place, Wahram says to Swan three simple words that can be so trite in both literature and life but that "2312" transforms not just into a commitment between beloved characters but a love song to the survival of humanity.
Perhaps Robinson's finest novel, "2312" is a treasured gift to fans of passionate storytelling; readers will be with Swan and Wahram in the tunnel long after reaching the last page.
VanderMeer's latest books are "The Steampunk Bible" and "The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories."
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