First I want to say that this is not a review, but my personal feelings about some aspects of the novel 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m not going to discuss plot points and language and story arc except where they speak to the points I do want to make. And there are spoilers galore. STOP HERE if you want to read the book first.
So here goes.
I really wanted to like this book. I have loved some of what I’ve read of KSR’s work, and I wanted this to be as wonderful an experience for me as others have reported it was for them. And indeed there are some cool things about this book. Unfortunately my enjoyment of them was ruined by certain aspects of the book that I frankly found appalling. But as far as I know, in the general uncritical adulation, hardly anyone has pointed out some of the things that make this a less than stellar work. So I am sticking my neck out in full anticipation of having it chopped off. Because some things need to be said.
In 2312 we have humanity spread through much of the solar system, having made habitations out of moons and planets through terraforming. Humanity has become, through various genetic and cybernetic enhancements, giddily diverse in terms of body types and sexualities — smalls, talls, rounds, hermaphrodites and so on — and many carry personal quantum computers in or outside their bodies. KSR’s sense of place is, as evident from some of his other works, absolutely and wonderfully evocative — the book has among the most beautiful opening paragraphs I’ve read in the genre. I could rave about the gorgeous inventiveness of placing a moving city-on-rails on the planet Mercury, designed to stay on the night side through the motion provided by the expansion of the rails on the sun-side. I could go on about the spacecraft that are hollowed out asteroids (‘terraria’) complete with an animal-and-plant-rich habitat. I could wax ecstatic about the wonderful intellectualizing, the transformation of infodumps into poetic “Extracts.” But others have done that, so I note these only in passing.
One of the main characters is something of an irritant – a stereotypical American teen at age 137 – a mostly-woman of Chinese descent, who is one of the privileged spacers. There’s nothing wrong with having a protagonist like this, except that for the grand task that she chooses to undertake, she doesn’t seem quite believable. She realizes that in order to decrease the probability of terrorist attacks from (as she suspects) Earth, which is a ‘development sink’ with massive ecological issues (global average temperature rise of 5 C) and resulting sociological chaos — there can be no tolerance for continuing poverty and misery due to want and injustice. She talks with the other major character, a far more mature Saturnian called Wahram, about the need for revolution on Earth. And the chapters set on Earth, where Swan Er Hong and Wahram attempt to make things better, are the weakest in the book.
Swan and Wahram are privileged spacers, and as such, unsurprisingly speak and act thus, although Wahram is more sensitive. Yet by not challenging their view in more than a half-hearted way, the author slips into a colonialist rant that threw me right out of the book. So the two spacers land in North Harare, a new country in Africa, and they have this massive machine called a self-rep that goes through abandoned neighborhoods and demolishes them, leaving pre-fab homes in the local style in its wake. The two off-world innocents are then puzzled at the apparently pointless antagonism that breaks out among communities and in other locations, such as the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, where a self-rep is blown up for no apparent reason. In one scene Swan takes control of a sabotaged self-rep and saves it from destroying the settlement, and is arrested by the local government. “We’re trying to help!” Swan says at one point, in utter frustration. The poor are shown to be ungrateful, irrational, and incomprehensible, and it is pounded into us that things are such a mess on Earth, and so complicated, that no wonder nothing really seems to work. At one point Swan Er Hong “abuses” a Harare woman and Wahram is so upset that he might end up disliking Swan that instead of intervening on behalf of the woman, he leaves — not just the scene, but Africa. You might think the author is simply showing us how incapable the two spacers are of getting out of their privileged world-view. But the fact that the spacers simply abandon the whole housing-for-the-poor scheme, thinking maybe their approach was too blunt after all, and merrily carry on to another project, serves to underline any lack of serious engagement with issues of poverty, let alone revolution. Africa in particular has been made such a mess by European powers (not to mention the American slave trade — and forget about what’s happening in Algeria now) — that any first-world headshaking and sorrowfulness at the lack of gratitude because they were ‘only trying to help’ makes one either retch or seethe with fury. Colonialism is not even mentioned, however, as could have been done in one of the book’s many Extracts. Can you imagine running some kind of massive development project without a knowledge of (or respect for) local history, culture and politics? These privileged spacers don’t even have the excuse of not having access to information, considering that one of them carries a particularly encyclopedic quantum computer in her head. The point is, the poor they are trying to help, to raise to revolution so that they – the spacers — can be safe from terrorism, don’t matter. They aren’t people. They are a monolithic mass of misery, beyond help.
Swan Er Hong and Wahram prefer to run away from problems they don’t understand, abandoning the Africa project to the locals (although Swan wants to return to housing at some future point) and they decide completely arbitrarily that the next step is time to return the animals to Earth. Endangered species thriving in various space terraria are sent to Earth to rain down gently in aerogel capsules without (mysteriously enough) any governments detecting this process (let alone being consulted, another example of arrogance), which involves the return of thousands of animals all over Earth. While the scene of wolf and caribou returning to North America is quite moving, I was left rather puzzled. With the 5C warming and the increasing ecological issues, why is this a good time to bring the animals back? And how is it connected to the protagonists’ original goal of brewing revolution on Earth? It turns out that not all natives appreciate the return of the animals — Swan feels the need to lecture to Earthlings about animals being our ‘horizontal brothers and sisters.’ An admirable sentiment, which I share, but again it speaks to a colonialist ‘let me tell you what’s good for you’ spiel that I find I am unable to stomach. And the animals also seem removed from us, despite Swan’s trek with wolves, which has some genuine poetic moments. It seems that spacers recognize their beauty and value, but despite Swan’s protestations, they are not brethren. The spacers in general seem to have no actual emotional bond or interdependence with other species.
In Canada, incidentally, we get to see some of the locals as people, through scenes in a bar, with Swan and Wahram drinking with Canadians. Apparently this is simply not done when the privileged do-gooders go to Africa. Mix with the locals? Figure out what their thoughts and desires and world-views might be? Nah!
(In an earlier part of the book Swan does go to China, the land of her ancestors, but spends most of the time there kidnapped and drugged).
Overall, the book shows a deep disrespect for the poor and disenfranchised. In India alone there are (as counted by an environmentalist friend of mine) at least a thousand local environmental movements, initiated and maintained by the rural poor. In my own experience of the Chipko movement in the Himalayas as a teen, I saw illiterate women speak up, take the lead, and launch a movement that not only protected the local forests but transformed their societies. Just because newspapers owned by giant conglomerations don’t report on them, it does not mean that these movements don’t exist and don’t have an impact. (Check out, for instance, the site of the National Alliance of People’s Movements for a certainly-not-complete longish list). If you want to hear what poverty is really all about, and how to actually speak truth to power, listen to even a few minutes of ‘rural reporter’ P. Sainath’s impassioned expose, “Globalizing Inequality.” In the book, Swan and Wahram approach various agencies working on development issues but they never even attempt to talk to people, or engage with, or study people’s movements, let alone access information readily available on the internet today.
It is worth mentioning also that despite its apparent imaginativeness on the subject of human sexuality, gender and variations thereof, the book seems to idealize heterosexual mating, although between hermaphroditic beings. (Come on!) The romance between the two main characters, even independent of sexuality, does not come across as believable. There’s no fire between them, I suspect because at least one of them rings hollow as a character.
There is another deep problem with the book. It is a philosophical problem and perhaps all of what I’ve pointed out above are symptoms of a common malaise. This is that despite all of the gee-whiz wonderful inventiveness and expansiveness of the book, it ultimately represents to me a colossal failure of the imagination. The philosophical underpinning, the invisible paradigm, is basically the frontier mentality of Old America. True, the non-Earth worlds that are settled by humanity are (with one exception) empty of other life, so that one might argue that there is nothing wrong with terraforming those worlds for human needs (although it is important to point out in this critique of the book by E. Yanarella that there are other views on the subject of terraforming, which, if even partly represented in the book, would have made it deeper and far more interesting). But let us concede that there are no moral issues with terraforming unoccupied worlds. Here’s my problem with it.
The language and attitude of the people doing the terraforming is still colonialist. The way they speak of resources in the context of terraforming: nitrogen from Titan, this from that, rather reminiscent of the post-industrial-revolution view of the world as a list of resources, silks from China, bauxite from here, oil from there is just one case in point. The baldly stated notion that that humans are “meant to inscribe ourselves into the universe” is not that different from the kind of ideology that justified the British plunder of India, or the French and Dutch mangling of Africa — manifest destiny on a solar system scale. Earth is bound by history and nothing gets done, so humanity escapes to space, builds a variety of little utopias free from want (there’s always nitrogen from Titan if you want to fix your atmosphere) – the ultimate escapism. Since the language and philosophy and attitude of these far-future spacers is still the same old same old, I find it hard to believe that capitalism has been shifted to the margins, and that a more just, less exploitative system is possible in that future. A colleague of mine, an environmental philosopher, argues that a people’s underlying philosophy guides how they act, as much as economics does. And if your underlying philosophy is messed up remnant of an unjust system of thinking, you’re going to do something terrible somewhere, sometime. Consider for instance the rather cavalier and barely contested attitude to the presence of indigenous life on the moon Enceladus in the book, presented as an aside.
Overall there is a peculiarly staccato feel to the book. Everything is chunked up and oddly disconnected. Swan Er Hong has lost her home city to terrorism, and mourns the loss, but we don’t actually experience the loss through her eyes in any real way. She’s disconnected from memories, from a social network, and even her travels across the solar system have a jerky quality to them. Wahram is part of a multi-partner family community called a crèche, but we don’t see him emotionally attached to it, or thinking about it, let alone shaped by it. The main characters in the book zip around the solar system without a thought, in fact quite casually, as though it really doesn’t take much energy to move (and move mass) over such enormous distances. The plot, too, is all over the place. First you get a tour of Mercury, the Saturn system, and Venus — then suddenly Earth is seen by the protagonists as the possible source of terrorism – then the Venusians (Chinese-descended Indian-name-adopting) are discovered to be the actual bad guys, at which point Earth is promptly forgotten about, other than warranting a few mentions in meetings.
Speaking also as someone with a scientific background, I need to say this: that the book does not critique the enterprise of science. It seems to posit the untenable view that science and scientists can solve everything. (If only! But life’s more complicated than that). I love science with a passion myself, which is why I am critical of some of the ways it is done, how it is used and misused, that it is filled with the masculinist baggage of its origins, and the contradictions that allow it to be appropriated by power. I also point out the arrogance of the scientific enterprise — its relationship to colonialism and capitalism are not easily dismissed. The book takes a dewy-eyed view of technological advance that is deeply problematic to me.
By the way there is also the strange non-mention of future India. I found it really odd that a country with a huge technological base, space-faring ambitions and the world’s second-largest population only merits mention by absence. So for instance the Mars settlement is dominated by the Chinese but because they have some kind of adolescent issue with their home country, they take Indian names. There’s the random blowing up of a self-rep in Uttar Pradesh, as mentioned. There are several references to an opera about Gandhi called Satyagraha, but any kind of alternative world-view on politics/development, let alone a Gandhian one, is conspicuously absent. There is an Indian character, a young man named Kiran, who is a particularly two-dimensional character, whose main function appears to be to discover something that leads to the discovery of the bad guys. He seems to have no history, or sense of connection to anything or anyone, or anything else that would render him a person. This is a future in which India might as well have not existed. And I say this not out of some kind of misplaced nationalism but because a country of over a billion people that has a space program and a huge amount of scientific talent is a bit hard to ignore in any extrapolation to a realistic future – even a mention would suffice.
To sum up then: some of KSR’s earlier works show a deep sensitivity to how ordinary people, including ordinary scientists live and act. But this sensitivity seems to be limited to white American or European men and women. Despite his critique of power as demonstrated in many books, when it comes to an international or interplanetary stage, he cannot speak truth to it. His vision appears to be mired and limited by the very world-view that the powerful of today and tomorrow strive to perpetuate. The colonialist view of the world is not a thing of the past. There are consequences to ignoring or being ignorant of the humanity of the poor and disenfranchised. There are consequences to having a scientific-technological viewpoint that sees the world in disconnected little (or big) chunks. Imagine this rather terrifying oh purely imaginary scenario:
Somewhere in a corporate boardroom, oil company executives are feeling the pressure to switch to green energy. There are already R&D programs under way in those areas, but surely there are ways to capitalize on the situation and make even more money. Perhaps a graduate of a top US university comes up with this brilliant plan: disinform the public and pay the lawmakers so that any meaningful legislation on global warming is stalled. Continue to find new sources of oil, including mining the Arctic sea-bed, so that even more CO2 goes into the atmosphere. Delay the possibility of change while developing massive geoengineering/ terraforming projects on the side. Suppress world-wide people’s movements such as the ones going on in India against CO2-spewing coal-fired power plants being built by multinationals. Especially suppress news of such movements so that citizens of powerful countries continue to harbor racist and colonialist prejudices about the global poor. Let things get to a point where catastrophic temperature rise seems inevitable, with perhaps a few dramatic disasters that cause a few million deaths, preferably of people in developing countries. (That’s just collateral damage). Get scientists worked up to a point where their ignorance of other alternatives including social movements leads them to say to the public that geoengineering/ terraforming is the only way to save the planet. Never mind that complex systems like global climate are not entirely predictable in the sense that even certain small changes can have wildly disproportionate results. The point is that this way, governments and taxpayers will pay a ton of money to these people to save the earth. Now this might mean that certain other people, such as the millions in the tropics, will have to die, but they were never important to begin with. (Remember the poor are a monolithic, hopeless mass of suffering, they are beyond help, right? as we’ve just read in 2312). So the corporations and their lackeys, the scientists who’ve bought into their propaganda, get to be heroes and save the world! And make a killing in the process, pun intended.
Books like 2312 contribute to such a scenario becoming reality, because they reinforce comfortable prejudices and belief systems instead of challenging them.
(For the record, I do think that geoengineering could be a last, desperate resource, and deserves some R&D independent of vested interests, and I agree that changing lifestyles, let alone mindsets, paradigms and world-views, is remarkably difficult — but I don’t think we should give up even before we’ve begun. Think of how unthinkable some social movements were before they became successful. Where is the science-fictional imagination when it comes to this sort of change?)
I ended 2312 with a feeling of deep betrayal. Not only because KSR has been one of my favorite writers (Pacific Edge is one of my favorite books) but because it was a reminder, a kick in the posterior of my complacency — of a few hard truths. The fact that the SF community in the US and probably elsewhere, despite the presence of a few individuals with mindsets to the contrary, is deeply uncritical of works by writers who have crossed a certain threshold of popularity — that issues that beset much of the rest of the world today are not even on the radar of people who read and write in the genre — that not only do xenophobic books win awards but even works by otherwise deeply thoughtful writers that contain unexamined colonialist or other problematic attitudes do not get called out for it – these are true enough, sadly. But most of all I am shaken by the reminder to us writers that power can corrupt, subtly or otherwise, even that which should be free — the imagination.
Note: My ever-erudite friend Steve points out (as someone innocent of the book who has read my rant above) that the attitudes I describe are more correctly attributed to American Exceptionalism than to old-fashioned colonialism. For instance, he says, “…it does explain why the spacers don’t understand other cultures. They have the US mindset, which is (as Tom Wolfe said) they think an Englishman would talk just like an American, if only you woke him up early enough in the morning. The kinds of people you are talking about are just invisible to them. “Women organized to protect local forests? Interesting. If only they’d had GPS drones and high bandwidth internet think of what they could do. I know, let’s set up some repeater towers across the Himalayas to make that possible. Here’s a good spot. Once we clear the trees we’ll have coverage of the entire region…”