Kim Stanley Robinson – 2312 (2012) Review


The title of this novel doesn’t say “the amazing space adventures of Swan Hong”. The blurb on the back doesn’t even mention any characters at all. And the first chapter is a beautiful mood impression of a social activity on the planet Mercury, in which our main character Swan is only briefly mentioned towards the end. This tells us that Kim Stanley Robinson did not have a plot-driven, character-driven story in his mind at all when he wrote this.

The story that is there can best be described as a slowly budding relationship between a mercurial woman (Swan) from the planet Mercury and a saturnine man (Wahram) from the moons around Saturn. And it is set against the backdrop of a trip around the solar system in which we visit all the well-known planets and moons and we see all sorts of human societies blossoming in new and exciting forms. 2312 the novel is like a snapshot view of the solar system in the year 2312 (exactly 300 years after the novel’s publication date), in which we just follow a couple of random people going about their lives. But it is the time and place that is Robinson’s main objective.

Robinson’s ideas for the solar system aren’t new, but he couches his ideas in a positive humanistic outlook. For example, on Mercury there is a city that constantly moves over railroad tracks to stay always within the twilight zone between the blistering daylight and the space-cold night, and moving cities aren’t new in SF, but he describes Mercury as a place full of passions, with sunwalkers who seek the thrill of a glimpse of the boiling sun and who transform Mercury’s craters into museums and sculpture gardens. He’s excellent at making the future feel human.

But not all is happy and positive. The elation that Swan feels upon returning to Earth is also an opportunity for Robinson to stress how badly humans need the Earth, the real Earth, to feel home, to feel that they are in an environment they belong in. Robinson would later come back to this idea in Aurora (2016) in which efforts of space colonization all fail. And in 2312 our diaspora into the solar system is also reaction to the broken ecosystem of Earth through climate change. Looking at the way we treat the planet now, 2312 may be the most positive vision of the future we could hope for. Robinson would expound on these problems in New York 2140 (2017), so this novel nicely bridges his earlier Mars trilogy to the themes of his later books.

Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore how badly the characters are written. Robinson’s great ideas are muffled under bad character writing. A typical scene happens one third into the novel in which Swan and Wahram take a lengthy walk that deepens their connection. Robinson explores the idea that future humans have genes from animals spliced into their own, so Swan has the anatomy to whistle as a bird and to purr as a cat. Swan and Wahram gain great rapport in whistling to each other. A fascinating idea for the future and for a romantic scene, I think, but while reading this chapter I only felt overwhelmed by how annoying and childish Swan is and how boring and pretentious Wahram comes across. Only while thinking back on it do I realise that some interesting ideas were hidden in the text.

It gets better as the book moves along. There’s an interesting subplot about AIs infiltrating human society, and many individual scenes are beautifully written. A melancholic outlook graces this novel, as some parts of this future are undoubtedly beautiful – the hollow asteroids, the societies on Saturnian moons – while others are depressing – the ravages of climate change and Robinson’s insistence that space makes people long for Earth and that the stars are out of reach. In addition, Robinson has a languid, “literary” style that tends forwards introspection and descriptions of mood, making his novel an act of immersion into a future time.

While that outlook was full of promise, I still didn’t really understand the characters, didn’t understand their connection, and didn’t really understand the lacklustre plots either. Halfway through the novel some side story started about an Indian guy on Venus that left me puzzled why it was added to the book, and Swan and Wahram cook up some scheme to save planet Earth all by themselves after Swan did a preliminary Google about revolutions.

Sounds like a book reluctant to have a plot and reluctant to have characters. It was rapidly sucking the life out of me. Two-thirds into the novel I started skimming; looking for snippets of interesting world building as it was the only tasty ingredient in the novel. I’m not even sure this is a novel. Whatever it is, it is a series of terraforming ideas held together by the most tedious, random, boring connecting tissue of plot and people that I have read in years. This is truly bad. The occasional beautiful description and the melancholic mood didn’t compensate for that, and I can’t recommend it. I don’t know what it is with Robinson but he has the strangest mixture of writing talents and flaws that I’ve ever come across.


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13 Responses to Kim Stanley Robinson – 2312 (2012) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    I read Red Mars and swore to never read another Robinson book again. So far, every review, even from his biggest fans, always leave me cold and never makes me question my decision.

    Bummer that this sucked the life out of you. That always sucks 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  2. terenceblake says:

    I m slogging through RED MARS and I intend to read the whole trilogy, but his style makes it all tough-going.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Redhead says:

    I remember both really enjoying 2312 and be really annoyed by it at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. bormgans says:

    I’m sorry you didn’t like this. It was my first Robinson, and I liked it a lot – 4 out of 5 stars lets say. Your review is interesting though, it could very well be that when I eventually reread this, I might have the same problems. For me ‘2312’ was a feast of ideas, and maybe that bedazzled me so much I did not even see the character and plot problems.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Favorite books of 2018 and year in review | A Sky of Books and Movies

  6. Corey says:

    Upon reading this a second time, I think it’s close to a masterpiece. On my first read, I thought the characters got lost in the massive scenery. On second read, knowing where things go, I see now that it’s all done perfectly. This is ultimately a love story about two 100+ year old non-binary (trans?) people who very slowly become attracted to one another. The way the qubes are handled is also brilliant; this aspect of the story is deliberately kept on the margins, the qubes achieving sentience and autonomy in the background, “finding their hearts” as Swan and Wahram do in the foreground.


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