Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312: a novel that hints at what we might someday have (and lose)

Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 is an insanely ambitious novel of life three hundreds years hence, set in a solar system where the Earth continues to limp along, half-drowned, terrified, precarious -- and only one of many inhabited places, parent to a handful of planetary and lunar societies; grandparent to thousands of hollow, hurtling, spinning asteroids that have been turned into terraria supporting endangered species, vital crops, bizarre cults, sex-crazed pleasure-cruisers, and everything in between.

The solar system -- set in the future of the Red Mars trilogy -- is fractured. Not only are there multiple, warring, irreconcilable political factions but humanity itself has become strangely varied. Swan, one of the novel's protagonists, has replaced part of her gut-flora with alien bacteria and budded off avian brain tissue in her own brain. Others are "smalls" -- miniature humans adapted for high-gravity worlds where the square-cube law works in their favor -- or "talls." Some of these people are still of the same recognizable species, others seem to belong to a new human race, perhaps one with little to say to humanity.

2312 is an epic story of political intrigue among the many worlds. To call it epic is to do it a disservice. It's the kind of book that makes you realize that the ambition of Red Mars was just a warm-up; that books like Years of Rice and Salt, which reimagined millennia of history, were just a kind of mental exercise for Kim Stanley Robinson. 2312 paints an absolutely credible and astonishingly beautiful picture of the centuries to come, of the sort of schism and war, the art and love, the industry and ethics that might emerge from humanity going to space without conquering it and without solving all its problems.

Robinson's future is a weird mix of the pastoral and the futuristic. His descriptions of the "natural" and geoengineered environments are worthy of Thoreau, filled with an environmental lyricism that is hard to come by. Some of these descriptions are worked right into the text, while others appear in fractured interstitial chapters of fragmentary dialogue, lists, and miscellania, these a kind of poesie that are just as moving as any of the main action.

2312 is, in one sense, a detective novel. It opens with the suspicious death of Swan's aunt on Mercury, and with Swan's growing realization that her aunt was at the center of a systemwide secret cabal that had devoted itself to rooting out rogue "qubes" -- quantum computers that have attained some kind of sentience -- who may be behind her aunt's death. Swan has a qube implanted in her brain, which makes her role in the cabal even more fraught, but it's the least of he complications. Swan, after all, is something of a basket-case. Semi-immortal, hybridized with other animals as well as AIs, a gifted artist and a furious misanthrope, she must somehow win the confidence of her aunt's friends.

But though the murder and the qube conspiracy animate the story, they're far from all of it. Robinson's sweeping panorama of his future is at once hopeful and miserable, saying "Look what we might have" and "Look what we might lose" at the same moment.

I took this book slowly, all 565 pages of it, savoring it over a month. It's not a fast read. But it's not one you'll forget, either.