2312 is a future history in which new habitats have been created throughout our solar system, on Mercury, Venus, Mars, several of Jupiter’s moons, Saturn and its moons, and inside many asteroids. Much of the plot revolves around the mystery of a series of terrorist attacks in the solar system, but the book has a very meandering pace and spends a lot of time focusing on other things. The book is a slowly developing romance between Swan Er Hong, from Mercury, and Wahram, from Iapetus, one of Saturn’s terraformed moons. (Robinson is having some fun with personality types here, as Swan is a mercurial character and Wahram is, well, saturnine… Swan was a hard character to like at times, but they’re both interesting and I loved reading about them.)
2312 takes a pretty balanced view of the future, and avoids the extremes of apocalyptic pessimism or shiny techno-utopia. The regular chapters are interspersed with various lists (written by Swan) fake nonfiction extracts that describe the colonization of the solar system, and stream of consciousness sections. I loved it; there aren’t a whole lot of writers who can make exposition a pleasure to read, but Kim Stanley Robinson is one of them.
The descriptions of the settlement of the solar system are extremely detailed and clearly well researched. Much of the book takes place in Terminator, a moving city on Mercury. Terminator moves around Mercury on train tracks at the speed of the planet’s rotation, never staying in one place long enough to be scorched by Mercury’s dawn. The opening chapter describes the sunwalkers who come to Mercury to watch the sunrise.
Besides the colonization of space, the book examines body modification, the potential future of AI, and environmental issues. Swan has undergone several modifications of her body and brain, including having parts of animal brains implanted in her head so that she can whistle like a bird, implanting a quantum computer in her head, and modifying her reproductive organs so that she can both mother and father children. She has also ingested alien bacteria discovered in the oceans of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. (The AI developments in this book provide background for the more advanced quantum computer AI in Aurora.)
Earth is almost an ice-free planet but the terraforming techniques used off-planet usually won’t work on the already inhabited Earth:. “no slamming comets into it, for instance. So they bubbled their ship wakes with surfactants to create a higher albedo, and tried various levels of sulfur dioxide injected into the stratosphere, imitating volcanoes; but that had once led to disaster, and now they couldn’t agree on how much sunlight to block… no, Earth was a mess, a sad place. And yet still the center of the story. It had to be dealt with, as Alex had said, or nothing done in space was real.”
I will definitely reread this book (and Aurora) but I want to read some of Kim Stanley Robinson’s other books first, especially The Wild Shore and its sequels The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge.
my favorite quotes:
“… as the sunwalkers stand on their points and watch, it’s not uncommon for devotees to become entranced by something in the sight, some pattern never seen before, something in the pulse and flow that snags the mind; suddenly the sizzle of the fiery cilia becomes audible, a turbulent roaring— that’s your own blood, rushing through your ears, but in those moments it sounds just like the sun burning. And so people stay too long. Some have their retinas burned; some are blinded; others are killed outright, betrayed by an overwhelmed spacesuit. Some are cooked in groups of a dozen or more. Do you imagine they must have been fools? Do you think you would never make such a mistake? Don’t you be so sure. Really you have no idea. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. You may think you are inured, that nothing outside the mind can really interest you anymore, as sophisticated and knowledgeable as you are. But you would be wrong. You are a creature of the sun. The beauty and terror of it seen from so close can empty any mind, thrust anyone into a trance.”
“To simplify history would be to distort reality. By the early twenty-fourth century there was too much going on to be either seen or understood. Assiduous attempts by contemporary historians to achieve an agreed-upon paradigm foundered, and we are no different now, looking back at them. It’s hard to even assemble enough data to make a guess.”
“[The sky] looked like a blue dome flattened at the center, perhaps a few kilometers above the clouds — she reached up for it — although knowing too that it was just a kind of rainbow made it glorious. A rainbow that was blue everywhere and covered everything. The blue itself was complex, narrow in range but infinite within that range. It was an intoxicating sight, and you could breathe it — one was always breathing it, you had to. The wind shoved it into you!”
“Here they were, on the only planetary surface on which you could walk freely, naked to the wind and the sun, and when they had a choice, they sat in boxes and stared at littler boxes…”
“Sometimes I think it’s only post-scarcity that evil exists. Before that, it could always be put down to want or fear. It was possible to believe, as apparently you did, that when fear and want went away, bad deeds would too. Humanity would be revealed as some kind of bonobo, an altruistic cooperator, a lover of all.”
“All landscape art reminds us: we live in a tabula rasa, and must write on it. It is our world, and its beauty is entirely inside our heads.”
“Io, the innermost moon of Jupiter, a big as Luna. They yellow slag world, awesome upchucking of a moon’s guts, regurgitation overland over until everything more volatile than sulfur has long since burned off. Sulfur, sulfur everywhere, and nary a place to stand. Four hundred live volcanoes bursting through the slag like angry boils, geysering sulfur dioxide hundreds of kilometers into the air… The hard crust on its surface, cooled only by contact with the chill vacuum of space, is so thin that in many places it would not support a standing person. Some early explorers found this out the hard way: walking too far away from their lander, they plunged through the sulfurous ground into red-hot lava and disappeared.
We think that because we live on cooler planets and moons, we live on safer ground than that. But it is not so.”