My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Kim Stanley Robinson is known for his science fiction solidly based on earth sciences and the environment. I avidly read his Mars Trilogy, which describes in great clarity the terraforming of the Red Planet. In 2312, the author goes beyond advances in technology, though, to consider how centuries of space exploration and colonization could change the very nature of mankind.
Robinson’s imagination takes a wild tour of the expanded world here. In this vision of the future, mankind is in the process of altering and inhabiting every possible speck of orbiting real estate, from the sizzling surface of Mercury to the frozen seas of Saturn’s moons. Swan is one of the long-lived, genetically altered elite humans of the 24th century who rove among the worlds of near space in amazing luxury and sometimes shocking decadence.
Picture Swan’s home: Terminator, a city on rails, moving slowly and steadily around the planet Mercury, with the sun always rising at its eastern walls, the black of space ever ahead on the west. The rising sunlight itself powers the city and its citizens along the terminator between night and day. Imagine “surfing” over Saturn’s rings. Suited against the vacuum, Swan and other adventurers glide amid the tides of ice and rock that gravity guides around the giant gas planet.
Swan spent years as a designer of “terraria,” hollowed-out asteroids of every size, shape, and habitat that provide homes – and sometimes transportation — for countless humans. Wonderful technologies make it possible to live in space, all controlled by artificial intelligences. Most humans seem to be in denial about the extent to which they have surrendered their autonomy. But a series of unfortunate “accidents” alerts Swan and others to the grave danger now facing the human race.
And what a strange species we have become! Robinson foresees a population practically immortal, transformed by seemingly unlimited genetic enhancements. There are “talls” and “smalls” and those who have ingested alien organisms from other worlds. Gender varies from androgyny to determinate, so mothers have fathered children and fathers have given birth. The effect on social traditions is predictably drastic. While lengthy lifespans make for far-extended families, in many cases the traditional family has given way to group marriages and loosely-organized creches. Some go forth into the world with no family connections at all.
However, it seems only the privileged indulge in this trans-spatial lifestyle. Millions languish on the starving earth ravaged by climate disaster. Drought, floods, all the worst scenarios by this time have played out, and the common people of the earth depend on the elites of space for their survival. The only hope for many is to join the millions of workers who toil on Venus in the terraforming project. Swan discovers that much is controlled by corrupt humans or possibly murderous androids.
The plot of investigating the disasters and the potential danger from AI’s is the weakest aspect of the book. Anyone who has viewed Terminator “knows” the danger of “Skynet gaining awareness and deciding to eliminate or enslave humans. Characterization is somewhat more effective. Swan and the other characters are interesting, and they serve to make us consider the future of mankind. The breadth and depth of Robinson’s imagination is vividly on display in 2312. Throughout the book he entrances the reader with epic descriptions of the other-world landscapes and the habitats carved out of them. It’s a scary future Robinson imagines, but with his skills he makes it seem possible, and possibly wonderful.