Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune—without the words, And never stops at all.—Emily Dickenson
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, is about awakenings. It is about the awakening of humans to the possibilities of a much longer lifespan. It is about the awakening of some humans to the necessity of taking right action, and the awakening of humans to wondering what right action is. It is about the nature of consciousness, and the awakening of artificial life to consciousness.
2312 is a question as well—a question as to what constitutes a soul, whether or not such an entity exists, and who or what can claim such, and what that claim might mean. It is a question about whether or not humanity, by using the new tools of science, will be able to move beyond our present of injustice to a true state of justice for all. [End Page 199]
There are many levels in 2312. It can be read as a novel about tracking down the source of a strange, deadly attack on Mercury. It can be read as a novel about how our present feudalistic-based capitalistic bent and our attitude toward global warming (one and the same to Robinson) might sicken the Earth beyond cure. It can be read as a love story, a novel about how life might be if most of our big decisions were made by quantum computers, or a novel about the complex process of making the solar system habitable. 2312 encompasses all these threads in a self-aware, intricately constructed novel that is a joy to read, and a joy to think about.
In the space of a single novel, Robinson creates a dynamic near-future that explores politics, ecology, free will, life extension, gender and post-gender, post-humanism, postcapitalism, applied science, and the ethos of the scientific community at its best and worst. Robinson organizes this exploration through the adventures of two wildly different individuals who fall in love, using the contrast between his two lovers to both echo and organize his depiction of Earth as a struggling dystopia and Space culture as a working near-utopia. The growing relationship between the two unlikely lovers mirrors the radical, organic evolution of the relationship between Earth and Space. With its strong template of exquisite yet beautifully submerged literary subtleties, 2312 is poetry in motion, a thing of beauty, a work of art.
The storyline seems simple. Terminator, Mercury’s habitat, moves steadily around the small planet on a track that pushes it along using rails that expand and contract as the planet revolves, keeping it in perpetual shade. Swan Er Hong, “a person more inclined than most to try things just to see,” is a 135-year-old artist living in Terminator, often living dangerously with other “sunwalkers” who circumnavigate Mercury on foot because they are “in love with the sun.” Two events—the death of her beloved grandmother Alex and a subsequent deadly attack on Terminator—change her life.
Swan learns that Alex had important information that she did not share with either the vast informational system of quantum computers that run everything in Space or with her grandchild, who has a quantum computer named Pauline implanted in her brain. This is radical: most people wear “qubes,” as they are called, on their wrists and use them like a portable, infinitely knowledgeable database. Swan can turn Pauline off, which she does at the request of others, but in the end shares everything with Pauline and asks her counsel. One wonders if Pauline can also turn Swan off, without compulsion to share. Swan claims, referring to her augmentations: “It isn’t being post human, it’s being fully human” (p. 99). Significantly, Swan’s desire to be fully human leads her to incorporate a number of other radical technologies into her body, which she considers a work of art as well. One that plays a key role in Robinson’s novel is a birdsong module that Swan sniffs up her...