There are two kinds of science fiction, let’s say, because we’re the kind of people who like to divide things into two kinds: the kind where things happen and the kind where nothing happens.
That’s not how SF is commonly grouped. Very generally, people like to talk about the “hard SF” crowd, who politely but rabidly describe the percentage of light-speed their spaceships’ drives are able to achieve and the hows and whys of atmosphere creation. (Oh, the shielding issues for the life-support habitat, you can’t imagine!) And there are the “soft SF” writers, who are more concerned with human beings than with orbit math and the physics of pulse-detonation engines. Of course, lots go happily between.
The one “soft” SF writer beloved by all is Ursula Le Guin, one of the best living writers, period, the end. What’s far more notable about her is that, although you would not notice it, often next to nothing occurs in her books and stories. It’s a terrific trip if you look through them with that in mind. If you return to The Left Hand of Darkness, two people go on a journey through a cold land; in The Dispossessed, a physicist leaves his stifling post-utopian planet for its neighbor. (This is an exceptional time for rereading that book, in the wake of the tale of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.) And still those books carry more impact than the most lurid gravity-slingshotting shoot-’em-up.
The real opposition in SF is in the writers of these powerful stories about people against those who write the action-packed space operas. Neato books and stories often aren’t imagination; they’re Sudoku, and the machinations of these writers can turn unfun fast. While space opera master Alastair Reynolds is a super-smart man with terrific big SF ideas, his books can turn into heinous slogs, where by Page 250 you easily forget—or stop caring!—who’s who and why’s why.
A very few writers can at length sustain both the nothingness where characters, where lives, happen and also the tech and thrill where adventure occurs. Iain M. Banks, yes, almost always. And then there’s Kim Stanley Robinson, whose new novel, 2312, is his boldest trip into all of the marvelous SF genres—ethnography, future shock, screed against capitalism, road to earth—and all of the ways to thrill and be thrilled. It’s a future history that’s so secure and comprehensive that it reads as an account of the past—a trick of craft that belongs almost exclusively to the supreme SF task force of Le Guin and Margaret Atwood.
Robinson’s best-known work is the Mars trilogy, published in the ‘90s, which is great and sweeping and only rarely irksome, and made him much-loved. (They even took one of the books to Mars, on the Phoenix, on a glass disc that it seems unlikely anyone will ever have the technology to read in the future, so meanwhile the novel is currently sitting there, bored to death, forever watching this.) The near-future of the Mars trilogy reminded us that science fiction and science fact aren’t so far apart. Right now, we have a 1 in 500 chance of being nicked by the small object 2011 AG5 in 2040, when it’ll pass within 0.31 Earth radii of our planet, or, even less likely, in 2048 by 2007 VK184, which totally blew us off on a close-ish pass in the ’80s. Those are the facts, the strange truths, that science fiction is made of: What if this possible thing happened?
In 2312, the possible thing that happens is that what we’ve been taught to fear most about colonizing space—getting sucked into black holes, boiling in vacuum, aliens bursting out of our stomachs—turns out to be far less scary than the probable eventual result: accelerated speciation. (With superb tech and extreme changes in environment and the incorporation of artificial intelligence, how fast might extraterrestrial humans go from—horrible pun incoming—homo sapiens to homo space-ians?) Robinson’s cursory background trip through the near strange future sounds even probable. “The Dithering: 2005 to 2060” is followed by a Crisis (you can imagine) that lasts until 2130. This is followed by a short Turnaround, and then an Accelerando (2160-2220), with a Ritard (2220 to 2270), and then a Balkanization (2270 to 2320): “Mars-Earth tension, aggression, and cold war for control of the solar system” among people becoming different kinds of people.
The year 2312, you’re right to assume, can be seen as the seeds of a new era. We have a grumpy heroine, Swan Er Hong, a 135-year-old artist who lives on the rolling dawn city of Terminator, on Mercury. (The tracks of the city run all around the planet; the heat of the rising sun swells the tracks, pushing Terminator always toward the black side of sunrise.) When her grandmother dies, Swan becomes involved, unhappily, with the political work her grandmother left behind. Space is reckless; some parts of the solar system are not much more than slave camps, while others are utopias. Scattered throughout our solar system are machines that look human, off-kilter creatures trying valiantly to pass Turing tests. Earth is not much improved, except by flooding. To get there, people travel in hollowed-out asteroids, each a different kind of terrarium or aquarium or space-borne orgy; in the space elevators on the way down to Earth, performances of Philip Glass operas are ongoing and participatory.
But Earth, useless and troubled in its eternal way, left behind by ideas and new societies and new forms of being human, still has its magic, as Swan remembers when she arrives. (These people who live in space must come to Earth every once in a while, for the gravity.) It’s yet another place that leaves Robinson room for the all-important nothing to happen. “It was amazing to stand in the light of the sun without dying of it. This was the only place in the solar system where that could happen …. It was an intoxicating sight, and you could breathe it—one was always breathing it, you had to. The wind shoved it into you! Breathe and get drunk, oh my, to be free of all restraint, minimally clothed, lying on the bare surface of a planet, sucking in its atmosphere as if it were an aqua vitae, feeling in your chest how it kept you alive!”
There is a disaster, revealed to be an act of terrorism, or social manipulation by violence. Because our heroine is a not-very-willing participant in politics, the real detective work—the action this book could contain if it were the thriller it could be—takes place largely off-stage. You could ask valid questions about why our hero is our hero at all! She is a privileged spacer, she has nowhere to go, nothing and everything to do: make art, garden, travel—a dangerous luxury, a life that becomes, reasonably, progressively more resented by those who can’t. She is the hero because, why not? All of us are, in some way. All the great machinations of geopolitics and change and capitalism touch all of our lives, and we can also do something, or nothing, with the Earth.
Because there it always is, with its 457 countries, with the canals of New York, and Florida a dirty reef. And how could you save it? How, born in space, could you effect change on poor slobbering Earth? “Wahram”—one of the politicians of space and the person with whom Swan develops, slowly, a romance—“had thought it generally agreed that the whole development-aid model had been demonstrated to be an example of the Jevons Paradox, in which increases in efficiency trigger more consumption rather than less; increased aid had always somehow increased suffering, in some kind of feedback loop, poorly theorized—or else theorized perfectly well, but in such a way that revealed the entire system to be a case of vampiric rich people moving around the Earth performing a complicated kleptoparasitism on the poor.”
What’s not to love about a book with that in it? If that’s not enough, the book contains these magical two words: “her penis.” (And a sex explanation: “The best way to engage there once he was aroused was for the one with the big vagina to slide down onto the big penis most of the way, then lean out but also back in.” Lots of things about the future seem complicated, but that’s change, baby.)
Swan does not find an answer to the problems of space, with the rise of the thinking machines, with acts of interplanetary terrorism—those thriller problems aren’t her problems—but she does find an answer to the problem of Earth. It’s a pretty magical answer, one that lets Robinson rave on in great crazy useless wonderful detail—and one that I won’t ruin.
Robinson’s books don’t feel architected; he glosses over plotty things that a writer would normally hammer out in boring detail, and then he expends all his energy and time on the magical moments. Our real lives as global citizens are made up of a great emptiness of thinking, feeling, sussing, being. After the reading is done, those things are what you remember: bodies alone in space; lovers whistling in an endless, world-long corridor; a wolf in a hole; a planetary wind forcing itself into a space-person, now free and heavy under a big blue endlessness. What you remember most of all are the ever-worsening conditions of people abiding by capitalism and how we now dither. As an account of several past eras, one wishes it were already behind us.
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Orbit.