Kim Stanley Robinson
What an amazing book.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant examination of humanity’s colonization of space 300 years in the future, was shortlisted for the Hugo and won the Nebula Award.
And deservedly so.
Fans of Robinson’s award winning “Mars” trilogy will recognize this futuristic setting, although Mars plays a small role in the story.
The novel follows Swan, a mercurial artist and former asteroid terraformer from Mercury (Mercury – mercurial – clever, and I felt rather stupid when I didn’t make the connection for ¾ of the book). When Mercury’s leader, Swan’s grandmother and mentor, Alex, dies suddenly, Swan is thrust into a solar system-wide conspiracy.
Following a cryptic message left behind by Alex, Swan travels throughout the solar system with Alex’s colleague Wahram, a fat, froglike diplomat from Titan (saturnine character from Saturn – jeez, how could I not see these immediately!) chasing cryptic messages regarding artificial intelligence in quantum computers. These messages are somehow connected to a terrorist attack on Terminator, Mercury’s sole city, built on a track and constantly circumnavigating the planet to avoid the rising sun.
From there Robinson takes us on a breathtaking tour of his vision of the future. Humanity has colonized all of the planets to varying degrees, travelling between them in hollowed-out asteroids – self-contained ecosystems which act as luxury cruises, zoos or bordellos.
Swan and Wahram are wrapped up in the momentous events of 2312 – trade deals between Mercury and the outer planets, the terraforming of Venus and the attempt to reclaim the Earth from its climate change-damaged ecosystem.
The reclamation of Earth is a beautiful section, starting with Swan visiting New York City, which has sunk under the rising oceans. The city is navigated by canal amidst the peaks of skyscrapers, inspiring Swan, a former asteroid ecosystem designer, to lead a movement to terraform Earth back to normal. As one who grew up where space suits and artificial environments were required for life to exist, Swan was jealous and critical of those still living on Earth.
“Here they were, on the only planetary surface on which you could walk freely, naked to the wind and the sun, and when they had a choice, they sat in boxes and stared at littler boxes, just as if they had no choice-as if they were in a space station-”
So the egalitarian planetary colonies undertake a massive terraforming project to restore the Earth. Continents are raised, glaciers recreated and endangered animals are airdropped onto the planet from the asteroids that are preserving their species.
It is a beautiful, optimistic expression of Robinson’s environmentalism and anarcho-socialism.
But ultimately, the political intrigue and historical events are little more than a McGuffin. Their purpose is twofold, allowing Robinson to show off his jaw-dropping world-building and socio-political theory, but also to create a simple love story.
And that is what the novel is at its core – a beautiful, interplanetary boy-meets-girl romance.
Or make that hermaphrodite-meets-hermaphrodite. In 2312, gender has become fluid, with most characters being pansexual. Robinson expands on the variety of gender roles in one of the novel’s humorous historical “extracts” which lists the many variations of sexuality – a list similar to Facebook’s – that also includes “Ursulines”, a nod to Ursula K. Le Guin’s groundbreaking examination of gender, The Left Hand of Darkness.
And to Robinson’s credit, the romance blindsided me. So wrapped up in the historical events, mysteries and conspiracies, Swan and Wahram’s growing relationship seemed more background noise. But it provided a beautiful coda to the grandiose sweep of this brilliant space opera.
Music is the catalyst that brings the couple together. One of their first excursions is to hear a Beethoven performance on Mercury (the entire planet is dedicated to preserving the arts), and during the interminable struggles to survive the attack on Terminator, their relationship grows as they whistle duets. And that ultimately becomes the metaphor I took away from the book. As Alex’s former spouse Mqaret says of Swan and Wahram:
“Maybe that’s what a marriage is… Whistling together. Some kind of performance. I mean, not just a conversation, but a performance.”