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.



  1. I saw it as a poor man’s Culture. And I am not being dismissive, but the hedonistic parts of the novel and the society reminded me a little bit of the Culture series, but without all the impossible physics and tech. As far as I see it, all of this is perfectly feasible. 

    One thing, Cory, the universe is similar but not quite that of the Mars Trilogy, it’s like an update of it (remember in the Mars Trilogy we still had the Soviet Union), but Robinson keeps leaving hints every now and then about the similarities, for instance, the historian Charlotte Dorsa Brevia, one of the drafters of the constitution of Mars, here becomes Charlotte Shortback. I keep seeing the optimistic part of the novel, and it is inspiring, honestly. Maybe we can make it that far. 

  2. I read it and enjoyed it. Not having read the Culture series, it reminded me a little of the Revelation Space novels (simply from a human modification and fragmentation perspective), although those are far darker, larger in scope, and much softer sci-fi. One thing that struck me about 2312 is how unchanged the main characters felt from people you’d meet today. There are so many different things and you’d expect it to change everyone’s outlook, but it hasn’t really.

    1.  I think that’s one of the key points they’re trying to make, every with All of the crazy body mods the main character has, her actions seem quite understandable and modern.

  3. for me, it was a mystery that turned into a love story.  i wish I’d read it slower, savored it.  I have an irrational fear of radiation poisoning, so those underground scenes on Mercury had me popping kelp pills like mad. I got so entrenched with the characters and the sprawling scenery, I skipped right over a lot of the futuristic SF stuff.

  4. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Cory. Will run out and order now!

    KSR can do no wrong ;)

  5. I thought that it definitely wasn’t as strongly plotted as the Mars books, but Wahram and Swan are two excellently rendered characters. I very much enjoyed this book and it might be a good introduction to Robinson for someone who hasn’t read him before. (In my experience from lending the books out, people find Red Mars hard to get into unless they are already pretty big sci-fi fans or geologists.)

    Curious for the Robinson readers in this thread… what’s your opinion, what’s the best book to give a Robinson newb? I’d vote for A Short Sharp Shock (that one sucks you in and it’s not too dense) or (you guessed it) 40 Signs of Rain, the first book of the Science in the Capital series, which has immediately relatable, very likeable characters. People accustomed to Stephen King pacing will find the books a bit slow but the unfolding story is very, very meaty.

    1. Years of Rice and Salt was fun. Some weaknesses in the last chunk of the book, but a delightful narrative structure likely to be unfamiliar to Westerners.

    2.  I like Antarctica for newbies. For me, the Mars Trilogy was ideal. But Antarctica is even more plausible, and the biotech/GM angles are much less speculative than in his offworld stuff.

      By the way, Robinson is one of the few writers I read who blows my mind with every new book. Kudos to Cory for this review.

      1. Oooh, yeah, Antarctica would be a great starting book (I wish Robinson had revisited those characters!) it’s full of fun stuff. (I especially like the ice slide/hot tub scene)

        Also, second on Robinson being a mind blower. His books are required reading for anyone who likes to think about what the post-capitalist world might look like.

        Also, his approach to sexuality in Martian/spacer culture is really interesting. (and kinda hot ;)

    3. Steven King’s pacing is so slow it often goes backwards. Surely you’re not saying this is slower than The Gunslinger series?

      1. No I’m thinking more “From A Buick 8” – I see your point though… plenty of King stories have glacier-slow pacing. Maybe I should have said Crichton. He gets right to the point doesn’t he?

  6. @signsofrain: This was my first time reading Robinson and I would agree – I was actually expecting a less accessible narrative based on what I’d heard about him.

  7. The mention in passing of Manhattan as the New Venice (“most people thought the flooding had actually improved the city”) rang a chord last night.

  8. I read it about 6 months ago, I thought it was very interesting and exciting throughout the first 2/3s. But the time the I read the last 1/3 I wasn’t as engrossed. Overall though, absolutely ambitious and fascinating. I feel like the characters were not developed as much as they could be, sort of 2-D, except for the two mains. I can see that his writing strength is in his vivid and realistic depictions of the scenery and technology of the future.

  9. His descriptions of the “natural” and geoengineered environments are worthy of Thoreau, filled with an environmental lyricism that is hard to come by.

    Is that what you’d say about Red Mars as well?

    One of several major reasons I did not care much at all for Red Mars was the endless long, tiresome, meandering, and seemingly pointless digressions into descriptions of the minutae of the landscape.

    1. 2312 has a lot more joy and a lot less technician. The reason being that Swan is an environmental designer and the technical details are no longer interesting to her. She likes to “go native” in these engineered environments and live off the land, so the descriptions are a lot more poetic and evocative and a lot less scientific.

  10. I’m reading this right now, being pleasantly suprised to see it on the library shelf last week – and I think it’s pure AWESOMENESS!  KSR is one of my favorite authors, and I’m enjoying this book so much.  He has a great sense for long view perspective (obviously, as Cory mentioned about Years of Rice and Salt).  As usual, it’s the details that make it so great – multiple space elevators on earth, the way Terminator moves across the surface of Mercury using the expansion of its tracks…  all great stuff!

  11. It reminds me of JBS Haldane’s essay on the future of human biology with different genetic variations optimized for the different planets. It’s a fascinating and, at points, pretty chilling essay.

  12. 2312 didn’t have the punch for me that the Mars trilogy did- I suspect that the higher stakes of the First Hundred tickled my amygdala a bit more vigorously. But “less punch” should in no way indicate anything other than “KSR in fabulous form and you should read it right now and then go discuss its wonders with friends. Preferably outdoors.”

    He just gets so many things right. He’s a top notch wordsmith. He manages a sense of there-ness that eludes a lot of SF that’s either action or contemplative ideas in some kind of vacuum- the temperaments of places and the people that fill them aren’t just relevant to the stories- they are the stories. He tells ecological fables without the karmic fatalism of the post apocalypse, and technological fables without the antiseptic triumphalism of Golden Age SF. He can write weirdos and guide you from finding them abrasive to finding them vital. His genetically engineered posthumans like sleeping outdoors and howling at the moon. What more could you need?

    1. Yes he fleshes out so many characters that there is somebody for every reader to identify with. I particularly liked the chapters which focused on Ann Clayborne as she battled the polar bear, the long runout and herself.

      1. Ah, Ann. Obstinate, furious, wonderful Ann. How much she annoyed me…until I loved her. It seems a pretty common refrain that KSR populates his books with “unlikeable” characters that still sit in a protagonist seat, and that this makes for rough reading- but that strikes me as immature  and somewhat missing the the point. All his difficult characters- Ann, Maya, Swan, Galileo, et al.,- are replaying the entire agony of humanity transforming itself -which is always his real story- in microcosm. External foes are easier to shoot without hitting yourself…

  13. I’m just happy to see more fiction on Boingboing that’s intended for adult adults (AA?).  …This isn’t another YA, is it?

  14. Great review, Cory. I loved the book myself. One minor quibble, though: the story isn’t actually set in the future of the Red Mars trilogy. Mars was terraformed in a manner similar to the timeline in RM, but it’s a different sotry. The 2312 scenario, generally speaking, sets the manned exploration of the Solar System considerably later and slower than in RM.

  15. I did not care for it.  Aside from the whole hermaphrodite longevity thing that was inexplicably brought up dozens of times, the concepts lacked novelty.  I do not mind slow paced books (fan of Neal Stephenson), but virtually nothing happened until the last fifth of the book.  When events did occur, I didn’t care.  The characters were all exceedingly unlikable. The cover art is great, but I do not recommend the words inside.  Just terrible.

  16. Haven’t read the book yet, but I do have a copy for my Kindle, and was wondering if anybody can tell me how it compares to Schismatrix, which, for me, is the book that defines what humanity may evolve into across the solar system a few centuries down the road. 

    1.  I thought that was a brilliant, but very hard to read book.  2312 is easier to read and much more brilliant.

      1.  Everyone has their own preferences. I thought it was one of the stupidest stories I’ve ever read. In fact, since that book, Kim Stanley Robinson was transferred to the pile of authors who have to demonstrate they have done something worth reading. I won’t just pick his work up by default any more. Kevin Drum also puts him in the category ” books I finished that I wish I hadn’t.”

        and I have to agree. He hasn’t really done anything interesting since the California trilogy.

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