Recommendation: One thumb up. This novel rewards the patient reader, but the payoff comes late in this 560-page hardback. Robinson targets an audience of mature readers with interests in art and ecology. Those not in the target audience may find the action slow and the main character too self-absorbed to be likable.
Kim Stanley Robinson achieved fame with a trilogy of novels about terraforming Mars. His new novel “2312” takes up the grand story 300 years from now and well after the Mars Trilogy ends. To describe the solar system after human colonization, Robinson builds on his Mars trilogy foundation with his considerable knowledge of ecology and planetary science. Hard SF world-building is the strongest aspect of “2312.”
In Robinson’s vision of humanity 300 years hence, humans live in settlements spanning the solar system from the few asteroids orbiting closer to the sun than Mercury to the moons of Saturn. With Mars completely terraformed, the next big project is terraforming Venus. Myriad asteroids have been hollowed out fitted with inhabitable interiors that approximate biomes on earth. Animals and plants now rare on Earth live in the asteroids. Earth itself continues to suffer disastrous global warming and further climatic change.
The book begins on Mercury, where a city called Terminator escapes the extreme heat of the sun by perpetually moving on rails away from the dawn. Swan Er Hong, the main character, lives in Terminator. She’s an artist who creates environmental and performance works, and her grandmother is the political leader of Mercury.
When her grandmother dies, Swan finds a letter and a message from her grandmother asking her to deliver the letter in person to a man on Jupiter’s moon Io. The letter causes Swan to enter a secret conspiracy and to encounter Wahram, a diplomat from Saturn’s moon Triton. Wahram is Swan’s opposite and intriguing.
The twin emphases on technology and ecology in “2312” mark the novel as hard SF. The solar system of “2312” has no royalty, no crossbows and no faster-than-light travel. Robinson names his heroine Swan in homage to Proust (or out of hubris), and Swan does fall in love. Thus, the story is a planetary romance as well.
Hard SF and planetary romance usually don’t mix. Robinson’s romance is successful, but avoiding the usual fantasy aspects of hard SF prevent him developing his story quickly. For example, space flight between planets takes weeks, even at the enormous speeds available to travelers 300 years from now.
Prospective readers should be aware of some aspects of the book that may put them off:
Overall this very “literary” science fiction novel succeeds as character-driven fiction. The extensive substructure of world-building required to create a character-driven novel set in the distant future sometimes weigh down the story. Readers who have enjoyed both hard SF like Arthur C. Clarke’s novels and character-driven novels like Shirley Hazzard’s “The Great Fire” will like “2312” as well.